Joe Donnelly is a journalist, writer, video games enthusiast and mental health advocate. His book Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass, and Save Lives considers the intersections of video games and mental health, and explores his belief that the interactive nature of video games makes them uniquely placed to educate and inform. He spoke to SNACK about the book, and the personal story at its heart.
Checkpoint is a fascinating book. Can you tell us a little about it and why you wanted to write it?
It’s narrative non-fiction, so naturally there is a lot of my story in it. But that’s put in the wider context of both video games and mental health and how the two overlap. I’ve played video games for pretty much my whole life. My first taste was through the Atari ST, and I played all through the console eras of Nintendo, Mega Drive, right through to PlayStation, XBox, and PC.
In my formative years they probably doubled up as companionship, and it was always a means of escape. When I left school I toyed with the idea of getting into video games journalism, but it didn’t feel like a real job at the time so I trained as a plumber and gas fitter.
That was in 2003. In 2008 my uncle took his own life. At the time my girlfriend, my friends, and my family were all great, but I used video games as a coping mechanism – I just threw myself into playing to escape what reality meant at that moment. In the years that followed I struggled with my mental health. At first I didn’t really know what it was as I’d never experienced it. Even once I had identified these feelings I struggled to speak about them and, in the meantime, I was playing a lot of different video games and started to discover some that explored themes such as suicide, depression and anxiety.
A lot of people think of gaming as FIFA, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Football Manager, or similar, and they are essential for the ecosystem of the industry, but there are loads of independent games that tackle interpersonal themes.
Around this time I got a journalism degree and then freelanced for a number of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, and PC Gamer.
I eventually wrote a regular column for VICE about video games and mental health concentrating on those games that explored the themes mentioned, but also speaking to people who told their own stories about how their gaming experiences had helped them cope with similar things as I had been through. VICE was eventually restructured and the column ended, but I felt I still had a lot of things to say about video games and mental health, so I submitted an idea to publishers 404Ink, who were happy to go with it, and here we are. So, the time frame for Checkpoint was really around 12 years all in but, talking about it now, it seems like a longer journey.
What has it been like to write such a personal book?
I’ve really enjoyed the experience. This has been a much bigger undertaking than the columns and it’s caused me to dig a little deeper into my side of things.
I should mention, around the middle of that time frame, I sought professional mental health advice from my GP, saw a counsellor, got cognitive behavioural therapy, and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. I’m now on medication and have been for 6-7 years, so I’m quite in tune with speaking about my experience. However, digging into that past for the book, revisiting things which I had kinda forgotten about, that’s been harder than I thought it would be. But that speaks to the seriousness of the subject matter.
So it’s been good, and cathartic, but also… “Unsettling” is too strong, but it has meant dealing with thoughts and feelings that I thought I was over. I still feel confident enough, but it was a part of the process that I didn’t really see coming.
It’s such an interesting way to approach a conversation about mental health, and one of the theses you’ve got is that games, perhaps over TV, film, or books, is a more immersive experience, one that has benefits other forms of media don’t.
That’s how I feel. I think the interactive and persuasive nature offers something different. I should say, and I make it clear in the book itself, I’m not a mental health professional. I only know mental health through the lense of experience, and that’s the point of the book. I do speak to people who are qualified professionally and who know a lot more than I do, but in terms of exploring how games can relay information about mental health, I hope that’s what Checkpoint does.
I think with more traditional media – like books – you sit down, you read, you consume the information, and then you can go and do with that information what you want. The same with film. It’s not to pit any form of media against another, they’re all crucial for their own reasons, but with video games you have to give more of yourself to keep things going. If you start a computer game then put the control on the floor and walk away, nothing will happen until you go back into it. It means you are always putting a little bit of yourself into the game.
If you’re playing Super Mario, for instance, and Mario dies you would say “you” died, not Mario. You take on the role of the character you’re playing and that means that the power of video games to tell stories, to relay information, is really strong. I want Checkpoint to show just how powerful video games can be in exploring mental health.