I had my first real online gaming experience with Skate 2. This game holds special significance regarding the journey my mental health has taken from middle school to adulthood. Everyone has their comfort depression games. Some turn to the creative outlets afforded by games like Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and Animal Crossing. Little did I know as a child that my love of the extreme sports genre shaped how I cope with loneliness as a twenty-five-year-old.
This story begins with skateboarding–a sport which has seen phases of dwindling and resurgence, but never truly died out. Even at its lowest point, the sport endured because of its communal nature. It’s an iterative sport built on a shared legacy. Every skater leaves an indelible mark depending on the way they push, the way they bone their tricks, the way they land their tricks, what sorts of obstacles they typically skate, etc…The industry began as a tight knit group of outsiders that were ridiculed by those outside of skating, but by pushing each other, they were able to innovate the sport while improving its mainstream appeal
I was obsessed with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as a child. I was never the type of youth that jumped at licensed games like most children. But Tony Hawk was different. From Pro Skater 2 up until Project 8, I asked for the latest Tony Hawk game for Christmas every year. The younger me could’ve told you, “it’s exciting and I like doing crazy tricks”. After years of experience, isolation, and depressive episodes behind me, I realized what childhood David was getting at the root of this fascination with the genre—creative expression. I briefly tried skating in middle school, which didn’t work out, but my love of the culture and its representation in my favorite hobby never waned.
Tony Hawk served this creative itch for a while, but it didn’t fit the bill anymore as a teen. It was too abstract and mechanical. With a more accurate representation of the sport along with a more physicalized control scheme, Skate became my perfect comfort franchise. I’d spend hours on a single rail attempting different tricks on to and off of the rail in addition to different grinds. I’d imagine lines throughout the map as if I was a real skater. Getting a high combo score wasn’t my concern. I just did what I wanted. Skate 2, in particular, put me in one of the most euphoric flow-states of my life.
This high level of engagement influenced my online curiosity. Online free skate? Being placed into a level and just skating with random people? That’s peak comfort. Traditional competitive and co-operative online experiences aren’t conducive to depression. Even when working toward a goal with like-minded players, there’s a sense of pressure online environments never escape. This might be great for some as mental health manifests differently within everyone and individuals develop different coping mechanisms.
Some may need to meet a threshold of pressure to distract them. My brain needs the perfect balance between engagement and detachment. Skate 2’s controls were intricate enough and my mind was racing enough with possibilities that I was always distracted. That engagement merged with its low stakes. It didn’t matter if I messed up. I wasn’t attempting to finish a level with a squad or capture a control point with assailants in the way. It was just me and the spot. I’d simply respawn at the session marker and try again.
It was during one of these daily flow-state moments that I heard some people on the mic. I rushed for my garbage $20 USB headset and spoke. They got ecstatic as soon as they heard my mic. They tried to suss out whether I was friendly or one of the usual crap talkers they had come across during online free-skate sessions. The voices on the other end turned out to be a pair of brothers, John and Anthony, with the same sort of foul-mouthed humor middle-school me embodied. They did visit each other, but online games and PS3 chat rooms were how they kept in contact most reliably. Of all the games they played, Skate 2 was their hangout game. Because the PlayStation 3 didn’t have party chats like the Xbox 360 did, they’d use Skate 2 as their background noise.
After a half-hour session, I added them both. From that point on, for the next year, we’d get in a private game after school and just talk—while skating, that is—until bed. This became the one thing I looked forward to every day. I was that awkward, ugly kid in school with very few friends. I was too shy to approach people. Online interactions through most other means such as chat rooms and social media weren’t any different. Games were, though. The intrinsic bond we formed through our hangout game opened me up. It made me comfortable. I worried less about what to say and anything in the real world ceased to exist. In that moment, all that mattered was Skate 2 and talking to my friends.
I’ve made online and offline friends before and since, but that Skate 2 group was one of the most significant friendships I’ve ever formed. I still talk to them on an almost daily basis. I firmly believe our bond has lasted 12 years precisely because of the circumstances under which we became friends. Had we met in school or some random online shooter instead, the dynamic would be different. Skate 2 was the canvas that allowed us to forget about the outside world and express ourselves freely. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about in 2009, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the time we spent together. Regardless of how insignificant I feel as a person or how stressed I get over every minor daily task, when I get a discord call from either John or Anthony today, I know it’s an opportunity to forget about life for a couple of hours. Skate 2 went beyond escapism for me. It opened the door for a solid support system.