‘Speaking to passionate people about something they enjoy is one of the best feelings as a writer.’
Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives
By Joe Donnelly
Published by 404 Ink
Your new book Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives has a speedily added foreword that brings us right up to date, placing you and the reader within the current COVID-19 crisis. Though you have had your own stresses during the last few months, did you feel, as a gaming enthusiast, a little more prepared for having to stay indoors?
I’m not sure if I was more prepared for staying indoors as such, but I was perhaps more aware of the rich and engrossing virtual worlds video games can transport us to. At a time when freely exploring the real world became impossible, almost overnight, I found the sprawling digital landscapes of the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), The Witcher 3 (2015) and Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) to be especially important while escaping our increasingly terrifying reality. The thriving social platforms of Fortnite (2017) and Grand Theft Auto Online (2013) also helped offset the physical and mental isolation brought by lockdown.
Having submitted the final manuscript for Checkpoint just as the global pandemic took hold of this side of the world, my publisher 404 Ink and I decided to add the foreword to reflect the situation, and underscore the importance of video games and escapism during lockdown.
Gaming, especially for those who don’t take part, can be seen as an isolating and therefore troubling pastime. (It’s funny how the same isn’t said for reading!) Your book sets out to tell another story about gaming culture. How did you come to write it?
One of Checkpoint’s overarching aims is to deconstruct and dispel that very stereotype. As a narrative non-fiction book about video games, mental health and how the two overlap, I sought to explore my own journey and how I used games to support me through some tough moments in my early adult life onwards. My uncle killed himself in 2008, which impacted my own mental health – to the point where I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder, sent to see a counsellor and put on a course of medication which I’m still on today. Throughout, I used video games as a coping mechanism, a learning tool and an outlet for escapism. Books, TV and film are great resources for learning about mental health, but video games are too! All of which is detailed in Checkpoint alongside insights from mental health professionals, video game players and video game developers.
You tell the reader some personal stories about your family and your own experiences with your mental health. How did you prepare to write with such intimacy?
While coming to terms with my own depression and anxiety, I switched careers from plumbing and gas fitting to journalism – studying at university and graduating into video games journalism. Whenever I could, I wrote about video games and mental health, at one stage doing so in a monthly column for VICE. While doing that, I wrote a wee bit about my own experiences, but with Checkpoint, I sought to go deeper. I generally find writing cathartic, so when I started digging into some of the more personal stories which feature in the book, it felt good to get them out of my head and onto the page. Still, the process as a whole was pretty exhausting!
When did you make the connection between your love of gaming and its positive effects on mental health?
At first, my personal connection between video games and mental health was simply the fact that I used games to escape reality. I still do so today, as do loads of players, but once I moved into writing about the medium, I discovered a whole host of games which explore sensitive and interpersonal themes, such as depression, social anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and suicide, to name but a few. Speaking to the developers of these games, and the players playing them, helped me further appreciate the positive effects gaming can have on mental health. To be clear: I’m not a mental health professional, which is why having voices better qualified than me in Checkpoint was so important.
In the book, you speak to many others in the gaming industry about mental health. Was it a challenge to get others on board with what you wanted to achieve in writing the book?
Not at all – everyone I approached was happy to share their insights with me, which definitely made the process easier. I think the reason for this is two-fold: one, once I explained the project and the desired message, it aligned with their point of view; and two, the gaming and mental health experts I spoke to are so, so passionate about what they do. Speaking to passionate people about something they enjoy is one of the best feelings as a writer, and I *think and hope* I’ve done everyone I spoke to justice in conveying that message through Checkpoint.
Do you remember when you first fell in love with gaming? What was your favourite game as a child?
I attribute the now defunct Dundee-based DMA Design’s Lemmings (1991) as being the first video game I ever properly got into. At five years old, I fell in love with the puzzle platformer game’s cutesy blue-robbed/green-haired sprites, each of who I was tasked with guiding to safety (or not!), and the fact that each level had multiple routes for success blew my wee mind. I loved the family Atari ST computer we had back then, upon which Lemmings was easily my favourite game. As an aside, while DMA Design no longer exists, the company did move to Edinburgh in the late 90s/early 2000s, rebrand as Rockstar North, and is responsible for a pretty popular video games series named Grand Theft Auto.
Readers may prefer crime fiction, biographies or poetry. As a gamer do you have a preferred genre?
As with reading, for me it really depends on the mood I’m in. If I want something light, I might pick up football simulator FIFA, or jump into something familiar like Sonic Mania. If I want something which requires more brain power, I might resume my career in the digital dugout of Football Manager 2020, wage war in a grand strategy sim like Crusader Kings 2 (2012), or fight hordes of undead demons in action role-playing game Dark Souls (2011). With a young daughter (and another on the way), I’ve increasingly found myself playing games on the couch – courtesy of my Nintendo Switch – and have recently spent a load of time frolicking in Hollow Knight (2017) and Luigi’s Mansion 3 (2019).
What are you playing just now?
I recently replayed horror game The Last of Us (2013) in preparation for its sequel, and it was great to revisit what is surely one of the best video games all of time several years since its release. I’m now only a few hours into The Last of Us 2 (2020), and I’ve fallen in love all over again. Developer Naughty Dog’s latest venture is gorgeous, thrilling and brutal all at once, and I can’t put it down. That is, when I’m not hiding behind the couch, cowering from its cast of zombie baddies!
There are some brilliant game recommendations in the book. Are there any you’d recommend just now as we head into the summer holidays with travel restrictions still in place?
When it comes to virtual exploration in the midst of real-world travel restrictions, sandbox open-world games are my go-to. Modern classic Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), available for the Nintendo Switch and Wii U, is chalk-full of stunning mountain ranges, leafy forests and beautiful vistas, and is a joy to explore. Going back a little further, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) is a fantasy realm still well worth getting lost in today. And I’m sucker for a city break in Grand Theft Auto V’s (2013) pseudo LA cityscape, Los Santos.
What are your next writing plans?
I’d love to break into fiction. At present, I’m working on a whodunnit thriller about an agoraphobic, housebound teen-turned-viral star who uses online vlogging as her sole means of outside contact. When she discovers there’s more to her sister’s suicide than first thought, she goes missing overnight. Watch this space 🙂
Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives by Joe Donnelly is published by 404 Ink, priced £9.99.