Author Elissa Washuta Says Video Games Are Relaxing
For the writer, the perfect creative balance is finding the right amount of stimulation, allowing relaxation, and turning pleasures into projects.
Guilty Pleasures is a monthly interview series featuring a conversation with one artist about their so-called guilty pleasure.
Elissa Washuta is no stranger to obession. As an author, Elissa tackles her obsessions with fervor until they shift or reveal new possibilities—from witchery and magic to Twin Peaks. From her tweets over many years, I’ve known that Elissa plays (video) games as almost a hobby. Last spring, she announced she’s writing her next book, an essay collection about gaming, power, and money. For this month’s Guilty Pleasure interview, I spoke with Elissa Washuta about the world’s most popular guilty pleasure — video games.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and the author of White Magic, Starvation Mode, and My Body Is a Book of Rules. With Theresa Warburton, she co-edited the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. Elissa is an associate professor at the Ohio State University, teaching in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: I have loved your books, especially White Magic, and was so excited to see that you’re writing an essay collection about video games next. I’m curious about when you started playing.
Elissa Washuta: I started with my Nintendo when I was eight. Then I graduated to playing my brother's old systems, as he got new ones after that. It was frustrating to play games back then with no strategy guides. If you got stuck, you were stuck. That was it.
I got really into Zelda Ocarina of Time when I was in high school. And I played a lot of PC sandbox-type games. SimTower and The Oregon Trail were favorites, which I've written about. I stopped playing in college. I was just doing other things, like binge drinking (laughs). Then, in 2017, I played Stardew Valley while I was on the job market and stressed out, and it was very helpful for me. At the end of 2018, early 2019, I was stressed, and all my doctors kept telling me, you have to deal with your stress. It’s causing all these health problems.
One of my doctors asked what I like to do for fun. And I said I work (laughs). She told me to think of something purely enjoyable. I realized video games were always that for me, and I’d been keeping myself from them because I didn't want to get completely sucked in and be unable to do my work. So I started with Red Dead Redemption 2, my only game for a while, and I was shocked and amazed at how effective it was at physically calming me. My Fitbit would register me as being asleep while I was playing. I was just so calm. Anyway, now I'm at the point where I'm writing a book about video games, which I’ve been working on since 2021.
Between just loving playing and incorporating it into my work, I play quite a lot and feel conflicted about it. It's fraught and always has been. I've been told it's pretty sad how much I play (laughs), and I've thought a lot about that. It is something that I'm doing when I could be being social or being active, both of which are things that I'm trying to get back into and am getting back into. But I'm interested in how I keep doing this with my writing—there'll be something pleasurable, like watching Twin Peaks, that’s just fun. But I am really resistant to letting myself just have fun. It has to be a project.
Also, working with them in this way really has changed my relationship with games. Right now, I'm writing about Grand Theft Auto 5, which I've played so many times. I'm sick of it, but I have to keep playing it because I have to be in the world while writing it. It becomes work. So that's some of the fraughtness that's going on in me.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: Do you have any fear or hope that you will work your way through the obsession with gaming by writing this next book
Elissa Washuta: I don't mind if I weren't playing as much, but I feel strongly that I will keep playing. It does serve me so much. I just talked a lot about how conflicted I was, but when I first started playing games again in 2018 and 2019, I needed to withdraw and be alone. They helped me sit with myself and just be happy to be idle.
In 2020, I got sick, maybe with Covid. It was so early in the pandemic that I'll never know. But I was quite sick for a couple of years. Even after people were back to travel, I was on and off unable to travel because air travel would hurt me physically. So, high-definition worlds, like the fake Los Angeles of Grand Theft Auto 5, Los Santos, reminded me so much of the times I’d been to LA. And Red Dead Redemption 2, with its incredible panoramas of the American West and mountains…you know, I'm in Ohio, and we don't have those here (laughs). It let me have experiences of places when I was unable to be in any place but this one and have experiences of people when I felt that I couldn't, and still can't, always, fully give back socially in friendships.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: There’s something that occurs to me about capitalism and how you're playing this game, and you have nothing to show for it. Have you had any success in deconstructing the playing from that lens?
Elissa Washuta: I have yet to get very far in thinking about it, but that question is central to the book I'm working on. One of the things that’s intertwined in the book is about working for money, stock market gambling, and working as a person with chronic illness. There’s a lot to unpack about my relationship with work and productivity.
Right now, I'm writing about entering the job market basically during the Great Recession. I started my first academic job the week that Lehman went under. It was quite a time to be trying to do art shit and academic stuff in the humanities.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: Totally. How do you stop playing each day?
Elissa Washuta: It’s almost like getting the ick (laughs). I don’t always know what I want to do, but at a certain point, I hit a wall, and I'll just be like, I don't want to play this anymore. It has nothing to do with what's going on in the game.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: Do you have a gateway game you’d recommend for people who’ve never really gotten into video games?
Elissa Washuta: I know so many people with varied interests and personalities who found something to love in Red Dead Redemption 2. It's got such a vast, open world. It has a great plot and lots of weird side quests and strange characters. And you can just ride around on your horse, and pick flowers, and go hunting if you want.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: Have you considered why video games relax you so much?
Elissa Washuta: I have, and I'm still trying to figure out the answer. But I think every little task completed or objective met in a video game is rewarding on a neurotransmitter level. That's definitely part of it. Also, I don't like to watch movies or TV, really. It's just not interactive enough for me. I want to be contributing. I want to be playing along and in the scene.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: A lot of people are probably spending a similar amount of time watching shows or movies.
Elissa Washuta: I'm probably playing more than people watch TV, but I don't know how much TV people watch.
Janet Seiden Frishberg: I don't know either, but at some point, I read that the average American is watching three hours of TV a day.
Elissa Washuta: I play more than that (laughs). That's the guilty pleasure part.