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Videogames and Eating Disorders: Reward Through Repetition

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Player feedback and reward through interaction is central to the very nature of videogames. Weirdly enough, through the twisting of a few key words, the same can be said about eating disorders. Well, eating disorders as in how I’ve experienced them, personally.

I started bingeing food and purging food about three years ago. I was 18 and it was my summer before college. Eat whatever you want and somehow look skinnier after? Yes, sign me up—or so I thought. Three years later and I still struggle with the urge to binge and purge, but through group therapy, nutritionists and a good support system, I have stopped. I think I have found balance, but it is a slippery slope and the opportunity to resort to old patterns is around every corner and behind every pantry door. My health, literally and mentally, has stabilized for the most part, to the point where I can openly talk about how videogames and bulimia (I have finally grown to acknowledge it as such) interact.

Videogames, for the most part, follow a core loop. Take Blizzard’s ARPG hit Diablo 3, for example. You kill a bunch of demons, zombies and everything in between, and left within the fetid and steaming gore they left behind is loot—precious loot. It’s the player’s reward for interacting with a videogame’s systems. Bulimia, for me, followed a similar loop. Instead, I would binge on whatever food I desired, expunge said food as soon as I could after eating it, apply mouth wash, wash the tears from my face, and reapply the veneer of “everything is okay” that I have worn for the past few years. I interacted with my disorder and was given feedback—far different feedback than that of a videogame and immensely less enjoyable.

Yet, at the start of it all, it was oddly rewarding. Expunging food and feeling lighter and better (a lie) was addictive. I couldn’t get enough, and no amount of large Chick-Fil-A fries would ever make their way to my waistline. And like a lot of videogames that follow a core gameplay feedback loop, repetition sets in. And set in, it did. Trust me, I wanted to stop. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted nothing more than to be normal, whatever that word means for and to me. I wanted to enjoy food; I would tell myself that it wasn’t an enemy, that body image is not worth destroying your body over, but, in the end, bulimia won for a while. Its key battle strategy being repetition. Over time, it just became another habit like brushing teeth, feeding the dog and farming for fresh loot in Destiny.

Videogames, if one lets them, also become habitual—game developers know this, and the employment of daily raids, rewards and challenges further hammers home how much one should check in on or play a certain videogame on a near daily basis. It becomes muscle memory. Like so, sticking my hand into the depths of my mouth became as much a product of habit and muscle memory through repetition as clicking on my Xbox to do a daily challenge in Spelunky was. Videogames and eating disorders don’t necessarily cross paths but the habits and routines they foster do. It is usually acts of repetition with immediate feedback that binds these inherently different topics together.

During the most intense phases with my form of bulimia, videogames acted as an escape from my reality and, yet, they also became a problem. They reminded me too much of my disorder. In turn, I missed it more and, when given the chance, I would subconsciously fall back into the instant-results cycle of binge eat, purge and pretending that I was no worse for wear. I stopped playing videogames for months but it did not cure me of my problem. Did it help, though? I don’t know. It is hard to say because I am better in some ways, now, and worse in others. Other hobbies found their way into my life that became my go-to avenues for escape, relaxation and catharsis. Painting miniatures, reading, writing fiction and being social became my outlets for help when I didn’t have the courage to ask for it or reach out to others. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that a lot of my newer hobbies didn’t offer the satisfaction of instant gratification and feedback like videogames do (and my disorder did). Having to work more towards personal fulfillment and gratification has definitely helped me on my road to recovery, but videogames are back in my life now maybe more than ever. Balancing the instant feedback and gratification that comes from interacting with videogames to the slow road to awe in a novel has helped me immensely in finding that instant gratification without over-dwelling in it and finding myself full of food and in the bathroom once more. My health, life and whatever else is just one balancing act.

I think, when I finally picked up the controller again, I was under the illusion that now, due to progress that I’ve made with my disorder, that videogames would bring catharsis. They didn’t, and they still don’t. I don’t purge anymore, and I have learned how to balance videogames with my life in a healthy way, but, in my mind, food is still the enemy, and the mirror is its partner in crime. The road to recovery is long, damn long, and maybe I’ll never reach the finish line. But, if I can find a balanced routine that keeps me stable and healthy, then I’ll call that a win.

It is August, and I haven’t purged since June. It is a small win, but a win nonetheless. Embracing and acknowledging the small victories is key to staying on the road to recovery—for me, at least. A day full of joy, of not being afraid to eat or see my own reflection, is a big win for me, no matter how small it is in the grand scheme of things. Homing in on every moment, every interaction and all of the times that I feel balance, that I feel healthy, has, in a way, allowed me to realize why I love videogames in the first place. They are a case-study in small victories. Most runs in Dead Cells end in loss, defeat at the hands or claws or poisonous teeth of some monster. But every run I find myself getting a little bit farther, or at least getting better at the game’s combat or platforming. What seems like defeat when looked at from afar becomes a litany of small victories when viewed through a microscope.

That is how I am trying to view my struggles with bulimia now. Each day is hard, and the unfixable damage I have done to my body might hint towards a grand defeat of giving myself over to my disorder. Yet, here I am, healthier than I have been in years, and I can find the smallest moments of triumph in the most miniscule things, from cleaning my apartment to getting fiftieth place in a match of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. These moments of fleeting triumph will do, for now. Finding complacency in repetition might not always be a healthy habit but finding joy in even the smallest of victories is more than okay—in fact, for me, it is necessary.



Cole Henry just completed an internship with Paste. He’s on Twitter @colehenry19.

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