April 21, 2021

Soapbox: Video Game Injuries Are No Laughing Matter


Dr MarioDr Mario© Nintendo

It’s a little embarrassing to say that I permanently messed up my wrists by playing too many video games, but it’s true. Well, partly true. I don’t imagine having a job that requires this much typing is particularly good for them, either.

My path to chronic tendinitis is like something that my mum would have said after a Saturday eight-hour marathon of Ocarina of Time: if you play too many games, you’ll end up with square eyes, bad posture, and no job. Well, I have a job (even if it is about video games), but the other two came true: I wear glasses, and I look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And now, I also have wrists that go on strike if I play games for too long. Sorry, mum. I should have listened.

My tendinitis – a condition where the tendons get inflamed, causing pain and reduced movement – occurs in my wrists, affecting mainly my fourth and fifth fingers. I’ve never been able to pin down the source exactly, but it tends to happen after long gaming sessions, repeated regularly in a short space of time (which, you know, is my whole job). My usual course of action is to whack on a wrist brace (I own four or five different wrist braces, yay adulthood) and try to take it easy, but it usually takes a few days to be able to move my hand normally again.

But I’m not alone. Recently, a 25-year-old eSports gamer named Thomas ‘ZooMaa’ Paparatto was forced into early retirement after injuring his thumb and wrist, and needing surgery. The surgery evidently couldn’t fix the problem enough for him to fully recover, and so he announced his withdrawal from the scene on Twitter. Paparatto was one of the top Call of Duty players in the scene, starting his career in 2013, but seven years of intense gaming took its toll on his health.

“Playing through the weakness and pain in my hand just isn’t possible anymore,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “It’s not fair to myself or to my team to go through all that again, potentially causing more damage to my hand.” It’s remarkable to see someone Paparatto’s age taking his injury seriously, and not pushing himself to permanent injury by continuing to play, but it seems like a lot of people aren’t taking it seriously at all.

It’s remarkable to see someone Paparatto’s age taking his injury seriously, and not pushing himself to permanent injury by continuing to play, but it seems like a lot of people aren’t taking it seriously at all.

That’s partly down to the name of the condition: “gamer’s thumb” gets about as much sympathy as “texting thumb”, another name for it. According to this Healthline article, some people have even taken to calling it “Nintenditis”, which is probably the most condescending term of them all. It’s clear that even healthcare professionals are rolling their eyes at these conditions, as if the sufferers are just idiots who don’t know when to put down their technology, rather than people just living in the modern era and using devices that were never designed to be ergonomic.

In fact, I had to buy a bunch of ergonomic things myself – a Pro Controller for the Switch, because the Joy-Cons are awful for grip; a weirdly-shaped keyboard; and a vertical mouse. To put it another way, being kind to your body while using tech is both expensive and non-standard. This computer-driven world, despite being designed by humans, is decidedly not human-shaped.

It might sound funny to hurt yourself from playing video games, but it’s a very real occupational hazard for many people working in the industry. Although Paparatto presumably got paid enough to retire comfortably, that’s not the case for most people working in games, and when many of them are forced to “crunch” – working long hours to finish a game, at the cost of their own health – it becomes a real issue. I have had to take weeks off work because I couldn’t move my wrist at all, and I spent a lot of money on seeing a physiotherapist for a while, too. I can’t just decide to change jobs, either – I have almost a decade of experience in this field, and besides, I don’t want to leave. It’s a risk that comes with the job, and while I’m still relatively young, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Like a lot of injuries, hurting yourself once opens the door to hurting yourself again in exactly the same way, kind of like when you bite your lip by accident, and it swells up, so you bite it even more. I’ve messed up my wrists by kneading bread, doing push-ups, and whipping cream. I don’t know if “whipping cream injury” is more or less embarrassing to tell people than “injury I got from playing that one Mario Party game where you have to mash the buttons”, but when people ask, I usually just tell them it was from spending all day typing. We need people to take repetitive strain injuries more seriously, because they’re becoming more and more common – and if we don’t take them seriously, then we don’t take the sufferers seriously, either. Can you imagine trying to take a day off because “Gamer’s Thumb” is making it hard to type? Exactly.

But beyond physical injuries, video games can also affect us all mentally, too. I steer well clear of horror games because they spike my anxiety like mad, and can easily ruin my entire day by pumping me full of excess adrenalin that my body doesn’t know how to handle. I can’t play tricky platformers, because I’m very easily stressed out, and, like many people who should know better, I tend to tie my success to my worth as a person, which I can’t really recommend. Games with online components often come packaged with free harassment courtesy of my whole “being a woman” thing, and anyone who’s ever been harassed in any capacity can hopefully appreciate that it’s not a fantastic experience for your mental wellbeing.

To put it succinctly: video games, and technology in general, can really mess up your health, often while you’re too young to really notice it.

To put it more succinctly: video games, and technology in general, can really mess up your health, often while you’re too young to really notice it. Although physiotherapists and healthcare professionals are beginning to see the real damage that games can do, it’s going to take a long time for regular individuals to realise the long-term effects that phones, controllers, and screens are having on our health. We weren’t built for a world where we sit at desks all day, after all.

Of course, it’s not all negatives. Video games, especially lately, have been a lifeline for both my physical and mental health, between playing Ring Fit Adventure each morning and winding down with a few runs of Hades. It’s easy and a little trite to end this with “everything in moderation”, the battle cry of defensive gamers everywhere (I used it myself in my rebuttal of the NYT’s piece about how kids are gaming too much), but it’s true – we have to figure out our own limits, and be kind to our bodies as well as the dopamine-demanding parts of our brain that want to play games all night.

Trust me, I’d rather be playing games all night, too. But until we all get to put our brains into robot bodies, I guess we’ll just have to try to be sensible.

Do any of you have game-related injuries? Did you experience difficulty trying to explain it to others? Tell me about it in the comments.



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