How Red Dead Online Got Me Through a Depression

Near the end of the terrible year that was 2020, my company asked everyone to use their paid time off since in 2021 we’re switching to a different way of holding them. Because of this, I have had almost two weeks of vacation at the end of a year where I can’t go and visit anyone. It is also winter and I have been mostly trapped indoors for the past several months. I wasn’t the most outdoorsy person in the Before Times, but now I’m lucky to get the mail every three days. I also, like many people, suffer from depression.

Almost three years ago I was diagnosed with moderate recurring depression. What this means is that I have depressive episodes that affect my day-to-day function, but are not completely disabling. When I’m in the midst of a depression I very rarely find myself unable to get out of bed. I can mostly care for myself, if eating too much counts as caring for yourself. The dishes and laundry will pile up though.

What I lack more than anything while depressed is energy. I’m restless enough to mope around, but have no energy to actually do anything. This provided ample opportunity for all of those mean, anxious, and intrusive depression thoughts to worm their way into my brain. If you suffer from depression, I’m sure you’ll know what I am talking about.

While I find the energy to do anything traditionally productive (which is a toxic idea anyway), I can entertain myself. Most days this means watching movies that I like. In the past, I’ve tried games with mixed results. Some games that I love become far too difficult as my ability to be patient or form cohesive plans is greatly diminished. This means games like Hitman and Frost Punk aren’t ideal as they both require careful planning. Story-driven games tend to be too heavy or moody. I’m not one to even listen to sad music while I am depressed, so games like The Last of Us or Dishonored aren’t a good choice.

I need a game that provides distraction and activity. There are a few I have tried over the years. Completely average games like Warhammer 40k: Space Marine did really well, for all few of its relatively short campaign. I thought I found a good candidate in Sea of Thieves. Nothing of consequence happens in that game. All achievement is in the service of acquiring cosmetic items. There is always something to do. I really thought I had found a game that worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t really click in the way I needed.

The game loop in Sea of Thieves is big. You your ship around, completing deliveries, digging up treasures, and collecting bounty skulls. You might get in a shoot-out with other players, you may not. At the end of the loop, you return to port and sell your goods. This is a great loop for those little drops of dopamine that games can provide.

The problem for me was simply that I had to choose what to do. Sea of Thieves is so relaxed it doesn’t pressure the player into doing anything. There rarely are clear directions. That freedom, and the long minutes of open waters between tasks, left me with entirely too much time with my thoughts. Consequently, I had to leave the Sea of Thieves for calmer waters. My ship crashed on the shores of Red Dead Online.

Friends, Red Dead Online is amazing for someone struggling with depression. There is always something happening. When you first start in Red Dead Online there is a lovely set of story missions that introduce you to the world and provide you with gear. There are side missions to help you earn more money and once you’re ready, roles that provided endless tasks and opportunities for wild west action.

When first launched, Red Dead Online was a devoid wasteland. Players were more or less on their own for finding enjoyment. The game is presently blooming. With a $5 PC stand-alone at the time of writing and the newly released Moonshiner role. There could not be a better time to get into this game. My current play loop involves hunting for pelts to sell via my trader role, capturing bounties for quick cash, and then dashing across the map in a frantic race to sell the pelts once they have completed tanning. I am constantly engaged, I’m wearing cool outfits firing cool guns. Red Dead Online works for me and I feel absolutely blessed having found it.

At the start of this post, I mentioned that I had some time off of work. Due to the lockdown in my area caused by the COVID-19 crisis I’ve been at home. I think I’ve spent as much time playing Red Dead Online as I would have worked. Some people may choose to shame me because of this. Don’t. I spent earnestly enjoying myself rather than barely being able to do anything other than watch TV.

My enjoyment of Red Dead Online is tempered by the fact I have two amazing friends to play the game with. If you’re not in that position, I am on PC and maybe we can hang out in the world of Red Dead Online. For the emotional safety of myself and you, I will say this offer is not a guarantee. Playing games with other people involves a lot of important personality matches. I am willing to give anything a shot though, time allowing.

If you’re like me and struggle with depression, and you find that games help with this, I would recommend trying Red Dead Redemption Online. I can absolutely respect it if it doesn’t work for you. It did for me. If playing a cowboy shooter can help someone else, who am I not to share this knowledge?

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