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How gaming helped me find belonging in an invisible world – by Anthony Haigh

Mental Health is such a difficult beast to live with. This is probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to write. Talking about myself has always been difficult. But I truly believe that by understanding other people’s experiences with mental health issues, it may help someone to deal with their own. Or even help to spot it in someone else. 

I’m sure many people will say, “Anthony? No, he’s always happy!” And yes, that can be true to some extent, but certainly I struggle with things. Generally, my childhood was amazing. I didn’t really want for anything. I had a good family who were supportive, although perhaps did not understand me fully. I really enjoyed gaming, from my 48k Spectrum to the Mega Drive and beyond. It was my ‘thing’ and unfortunately, none of my family could see the fascination. 

I would not spend hours playing video games – but it felt that any time I did, I should not be. I felt guilty, naughty, for playing Sonic the Hedgehog, even though I was captivated by it. I dreamed about producing something so amazing one day. I never let this negative attitude stop me playing – but even now, I still have that guilt when I’m gaming.

At about the age of 10, I started to feel more confident in myself and experiment with a new haircut. It wasn’t amazing, but very spiky and very cool at that time (a huge departure from my bowl-cut look!). We had a school photo and when I went to the front of the class to collect mine, the teacher said loudly and in front of everyone: “There, now you can see how stupid you look with your new hair!” The class laughed. I was totally shocked and didn’t know what to say. Now it may sound like a minor comment, but it was really a huge catalyst for everything that followed. 

From that moment, any pride in myself was lost. My hair went back to normal, I went quiet and decided that I no longer wanted to be seen. I constantly thought, “Does everyone think I look stupid?” I was no longer joining in and every comment made was cutting me deeply. I always got good reports from school but this resulted in other kids bullying me more for being a nerd. It was easier to be invisible. My only escape from this – to be cool again – was gaming. Being that one person who was good at games gave me that something I could talk to other kids about. And there were other nerds like me! 

Through school, the bullying continued and got worse but I always tried to keep it from bothering me. I learned to wear a mask as the more you showed it hurt, the more you got bullied. So the mask went on and no one knew. 

As it came to choosing my career, working in games was high on my list. But the industry was very different then, it was harder to get into. Adding to this, my household felt it was a waste of time. So, I went into hospitality. Work went very much like my schooling, with bullying during split shifts and long hours. I lost track of what few friends I had made in school and my only friend became the console sat in my room. 

Throughout my career, I have felt like the invisible man. Opportunities have been overlooked, with people just seeing my ‘happy mask’ – where behind it stands someone crippled with anxiety and doubt. If I did not have that other world of games to jump into, life would have been very lonely. 

Things have got better. With age, I have learned to be happier, force myself to do things and not listen to the wrong people. I have found an amazing wife and have a beautiful daughter who both love gaming. My ‘happy mask’ has actually become ‘happy me’ – well, most of the time. I still feel invisible in my career, resulting in more anxiety and depression. There are good days and bad days, but gaming has always been a constant help. So much so, that I’ve created a gaming community with monthly events. It’s helped me and many others to find that place they fit in, to push away that social anxiety and enjoy being themselves. And that makes me so proud.

I still pine for that games Industry job and maybe one day it will happen. I have trained and learned various ways to deal with anxiety and depression, and can spot a ‘mask’ a mile away. It’s important to spot those signs and offer help if you can. Often, an ear to listen is the best thing. Show that person that they are not invisible.