The ninth installment of the Mental Health Series centers around Mariah Qaiser. A breaking news writer, Qaiser’s speciality is the Final Fantasy series, though it’s not uncommon to see her reporting on other news pertaining to JRPGs.
In this installment, Qaiser talks about her history of video games, including her love for Final Fantasy; how video games helped her during her formative years and the pandemic; her thoughts on how to reduce the toxicity in the gaming space; and more.
An edited transcript is below. Each of the responses has been edited for clarity and concision.
HER HISTORY WITH VIDEO GAMES
Jarrod: What is your history with video games?
Mariah: It goes way back. Whenever I used to see my cousins over the summer, we would always play Mario Party on the Nintendo 64. I would see my cousin with his little Game Boy Advance SP. Eventually, I resolved to have my own Game Boy Advance SP and it was the very first handheld I ever had. I still have it.
I have a lot of friends who play League. A lot of my friends are big into gaming, and quite a few of them are into esports. I was already familiar with League and had played a little bit.
Jarrod: You talk about your Game Boy and it being your first handheld and playing League. I was curious: do you have a favorite video game?
Mariah: I really love Final Fantasy 12 out of every Final Fantasy game. I got into Final Fantasy when I was in high school because of Kingdom Hearts. My mom got me a PlayStation Portable with the new Kingdom Hearts game. I didn’t just want to play Kingdom Hearts on there so I ended up getting Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. I also played Dissidia Final Fantasy as well.
Final Fantasy 12 was a full-on console title. The more I watched clips online, the more I looked it up and read about it, like, ‘This is pretty cool.’ In high school, I’m able to play it on the PlayStation 2 and I was like, ‘This is really awesome.’ When I used to play Final Fantasy 12, it would be at really stressful points in my life — it was such a great escape.
Jarrod: Is there something else that sticks out to you that potentially gives you joy, happiness?
Mariah: I would say it’s a combination of both. Whenever I would play that game, it was like a magical corner: I would just be in my own element with these fantastic characters. They’re going through similar things. They’re going through this gigantic crisis and they’re young, too. They have their lives ahead of them but they’re still trying. Being in that space and having characters who are relatable people you can admire; it’s an amalgamation of those things.
HOW VIDEO GAMES AFFECTED HER MENTAL HEALTH AND LIFE
Jarrod: As an overarching question, how did video games affect your mental health and your life as a whole?
Mariah: In high school, going into my freshman year, I was saying goodbye to a lot of my friends from middle school. At the same time, I was also burned out because I used to do science fairs and all these other things. Now I was entering high school where things were starting to get more serious — I really had to start thinking about college and career choice, which I was still iffy about.
In high school, I didn’t have the energy to do a lot of things. I was also in classes with a lot of upperclassmen. I only had a few of my close friends in certain areas and I was thrust into that environment where you have to make friends again.
When my mom bought the PlayStation Portable, I had bursts of joy because it had been a while since I’d come back to the Kingdom Hearts series. It was nice to play (KH) Birth by Sleep and I actually made a friend through that game in my music class. The more I got into the games on the PlayStation Portable, especially Dissidia Final Fantasy, that opened up the entire Final Fantasy-verse for me. I started reading up about character design, story and lore. I found something that gave me a lot of joy.
When you’re burned out, the one thing you feel is the lack of passion for something. Getting that passion back and enjoying video games stories, I think the storytelling and the character design made me enjoy writing again. I had to stop playing games for a while in college. I was only able to beat Final Fantasy 15 on my vacation breaks — it took two breaks for me to beat the game.
I was trying to beat it in a hasty way so I could finish it before going back to NYU to study. When the pandemic struck, I was actually visiting home and I got stuck because there was no way for me to travel back as it was just exploding. My mom was like, ‘Okay, right now you’re between jobs, just stay here for a bit and play it by ear, you can’t go back right now.’
I was also in a slump with the pandemic hitting, making everything a million times harder than it should be. But then, the Final Fantasy VII Remake came out. I was grateful because I was in a bit of a darker place, feeling really down about the employment situation. It felt like people around me were getting on their feet and I was just kind of stagnating. I felt I didn’t really understand which direction to go.
Playing that game again brought me back to where I felt passion towards something. Around that time, I started to apply for gaming writing positions. I know the series like the back of my hand, so I thought, ‘why don’t I go back to that passionate area that I had and work off of that?’
It gave me a thing to look forward to, and I think that’s really necessary when people are feeling down. They say the opposite of depression is purpose. I felt that again, wanting to write and to go back into narrative writing and stuff I used to enjoy.
Jarrod: You mentioned being in a darker place. Are you willing to divulge any information about that?
Mariah: I actually have ADHD and I was never diagnosed as a kid. Looking back, the signs were all there: I was really slow in completing work and daydreamed a lot. It was hard for me to focus in class and I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive, but everything checked.
That dark place is this depression to fulfill expectation and this constant pressure to meet this expectation. When you see all these people around you — your family’s close friends — and they’re meeting those expectations and they’re going down that path that everybody in your community dreams of, you start to feel inadequate. I think that inadequacy just kept catching up to me.
HOW HER VIEW ON VIDEO GAMES CHANGED OVER TIME
Jarrod: How has your view on video games changed and, conversely, when you do play games, what does it make you feel?
Mariah: As a kid, I would play a game [to] play it. Now at my age, I want to get the most out of it; I use walkthroughs to make sure I see everything that I need to, and I say that shamelessly.
I do think games have gotten a little bit easier today. I absolutely love how beautiful games have become: one of the things I love about the Final Fantasy series is just seeing how much more detailed and beautiful the graphics have become and how much more interactive and really specialized the battle systems and gameplay has become.
I’m also seeing video games become a greater platform for art — I love this new focus on indie gaming. I appreciate the UI and the greater attention to gameplay.
I love how storytelling is now becoming a bit more valued versus gameplay. Playing them now, I actually feel really good; being an adult, it’s nice to sit down and get some time to play. Whenever I go back to a Final Fantasy title, I feel the music, atmosphere, artwork, just everything about it takes me back.
It’s a great reminder to enjoy and dream a bit. We might be adults, but you can still fantasize and get caught up in daydreaming the little fantasy whims of your head.
THOUGHTS ON THE GAMING SPACE’S TOXICITY/SOLUTIONS
Jarrod: How can we, as journalists, writers, gamers, mitigate toxicity so that other people’s mental health isn’t as degraded?
Mariah: We all saw “GamerGate.” I do feel like we’re moving ahead in certain areas with the stigma against women in gaming, particularly in mental health. I’m seeing far more female streamers, more women participating in esports, and it’s a really great thing. I feel the more girls get into the gaming sphere, the greater the acceptance and atmosphere becomes for women.
I think we need female journalists to keep reporting. We need to keep interviewing female esports players and we need to get a woman’s input on all these things. We have to zero in on all women who contribute to the gaming industry in general. I think it’s important to zero in on the things that are underrepresented so they get the representation they deserve.
Jarrod: An interesting thing: when people spot a toxic player, they will try and have a conversation with them to see why they’re acting the way they do.
Mariah: I do think it’s very important to have healthy conversations with people. I also think that if an environment is particularly toxic, sometimes you have to take a step back. Even more so, it is very important to educate people. It’s important to understand why people think the way they do and why people are speaking a certain way. If we find grounds to try and understand one another, it creates an environment where we can solve problems a bit more easily rather than continuously fighting.
There’s one thing I think we need to start doing in order to mitigate the toxicity: making it irrelevant. If someone is being toxic and outwardly trying to cause trouble, they’re looking to elicit a response from you. They’re looking to elicit responses and get a reaction. I think what would be really beneficial is to ignore them.
In those areas, it’s good to make them less relevant. By making something irrelevant, you’re taking away their platform and you’re taking away any influence that they have. I think that’s really a better way to punish someone and show them what they’re doing is wrong.
THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES ON MENTAL HEALTH
Jarrod: How can video games help someone’s mental health?
Mariah: When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s kind of exhilarating — you really do feel like you’re not yourself at that point. It’s even better when you have such immersive environments and such great music to go along with it.
I do think that’s very beneficial for your mental health. It’s like you’re giving yourself space and time to rest from all the craziness. Reality can be tough sometimes so it’s nice to fantasize. We all got caught in this terrible pandemic and a lot of people were isolated for so long that a game like Among Us is a great way to interact with other people. It’s a great way to do stuff together: it’s engaging, it’s very active and it’s stimulating.
It’s also the fact you’re playing with other people and you’re in an environment where you might not physically be together, but you can still be together. That’s a tunnel of hope for some people. Mental-health wise, you really can learn so much from games. It’s an art form.
A lot of people with depression, sometimes they don’t feel like they’re good at anything. Being good at games is something; it’s actually a talent — look at esports. Being able to play a game, strategize, pick things; it’s a skill.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: In your opinion, what can be done to change the stigma of mental health in society?
Mariah: I’ve seen that the older generation tends to understand when a fellow member of the older generation talks about mental health and mental stigma. Sometimes when we try to tell them a certain thing, it sounds as if we’re discrediting them or undervaluing their beliefs. As hard as it is, communication is key. I think communication is really important.
You’re not making an excuse with your mental health issues. That’s a huge thing that people tend to see: by citing a mental health issue, you’re making an excuse for something. It needs to be asserted that no, it’s not an excuse. It’s a very real problem.
I was once told by a therapist that I needed to approach depression as a real physical illness, because it is. Mental health is not all in your head. It’s a legit problem. I think the more you communicate these aspects to the older generation, a little bit more understanding can be cleared up. It’s going to take time.
That’s why I think communication is really key.
CHANGING THE STIGMA OF VIDEO GAMES IN SOCIETY
Jarrod: What can we do to change the stigma of video games in society?
Mariah: It’d be nice if the media would stop reporting on violent attacks as being a direct result of violent video games because, as we all know, it’s not causation — it’s correlation. Violent video games show some correlation to violent behavior, but there’s no causation; there’s no solid evidence to prove that that’s the direct cause.
Video games have been portrayed in society as just mindless things where people are sitting indoors and looking at a screen. Yeah, that sounds undesirable at first, but if you put it into the better context of Space Invaders, I don’t think it looks mindless. You have to have pretty good reflexes and be able to pinpoint things. That takes some serious mental work.
People aren’t seeing that. I think society needs to portray the more beneficial side of what they do for people and show that it’s not just some mindless button-mashing sequences. It’s storytelling, it’s an art form, it’s interactivity.
Mariah: The more people acknowledge how grand and big the gaming-verse is, I think the better outlook people have on games. We’re in the age of zeroing in on mental health and actually exacerbating its importance. We’re headed in that direction by seeing how games are actually really vital to ways we live.
You can check out the other entries in the series here.