Grand Theft Auto 5 shifted gears hugely for the series – it offered a first-person perspective you could switch to on the fly. Rather than hovering behind characters like you’re piloting a drone, you can see the world through their eyes. It’s not 1:1 in terms of accuracy, but it’s much smoother and more realistic than third person, and it’s more than just a nice option to have. It is also used to practice driving, giving it real-world application. But for me it was useful for overcoming my fear of driving, not for learning how.
I haven’t always been afraid to get in a car. This is something that happened when I was 14 years old. We were on a typical school run, taking a left onto the country road as we always did. But it was a cold winter morning with black ice covering the narrow one-way road. We quickly lost control of the car, swerving before hitting a tree head-on. I was knocked out and woke up to my brothers screaming behind my back as my mother’s head was practically through the window. It was a healing experience, and made riding in the cars creepy.
Then I found a version in GTA 5. The first person perspective was realistic enough to make me uncomfortable. Driving in-game cars gave me the same emotional reaction as riding in a real car, and it sparked something for me. Often I would drive normally, obeying the rules of the road, doing the usual “I’m bored playing GTA”. It helped me come to terms with just being in a car doing everyday things. I trained with the banal to get used to it again.
At any time, I could switch to another camera perspective or turn it off. I wasn’t stuck in this scenario until it was over – I was completely in charge. It was exposure therapy in its own way. I was confronting a phobia by dealing with it directly on my own terms. For some, it’s sitting in a room with a spider, standing on a balcony, or just going underwater for a few seconds. For me, it was all about booting up GTA 5 and having a spin.
I took it on a slightly morbid level, though. After getting used to being in a car, driving, doing whatever was monotonous, I would start driving frantically, speeding up, taking the wrong lane, or rushing off cliffs. I started deliberately crushing myself to try to desensitize myself from this fear. It was way more extreme than what I had done and it made me incredibly uncomfortable at first. But after a while, these panic attacks became less and less intense until they stopped completely.
Getting used to crashing in GTA 5 meant that any typical ride was a walk in the park. You can’t exactly confront a phobia like that in real life, so the game was a virtual vehicle for confronting an impossible-to-replicate fear. Sure, crashing would still be a horrible thing to experience, but the fear of it happening again has diminished.
Play is the perfect outlet for exposure therapy. Immersive titles can allow you to confront your phobias and defeat them head-on. It’s a little less daunting than going out and doing what you’re afraid of in the real world where control is taken away from you, and now with the increasing realism of VR there’s a whole new level of depth with which to play. Video games are so much more than fun pastimes – they can provide a whole host of real, tangible benefits, and I’m just glad they allowed me to overcome my anxiety about something that’s almost a need.
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