Beat Saber Has Changed My Life For The Better
Or: How playing a video game for three months has made me a healthier, happier person
This is the first time in my life I've actually looked forward to exercise.
I've never been physically fit. I'm generally in good health, sure, but I've been overweight most of my life, and exercise has always been a scary, difficult thing for me. Pretty much all of my hobbies and interests involve sitting indoors — video games, movies, TV, writing, reading — and I've never been able to find a way of exercising that I can keep up with or get motivated to do long-term. Team sports, martial arts, biking, running, swimming, treadmills and ellipticals, weight lifting — I've tried them all and none of them have stuck.
It also doesn't help that I have GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), and that being out-of-shape has been a major source anxiety for my whole life. I’ve been told many times by many different people — doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, friends, relatives, probably somebody’s dog — that exercise has enormous health benefits, including for mental health. Feeling anxious or depressed? Exercise. The problem is, especially as an overweight person, exercising is usually the last thing I feel like doing when I’m anxious or depressed. Plus, most forms of exercise don’t engage my brain very much, and my mind is left to wander, keep latching onto negative thoughts and continue spiraling. I’ve tried podcasts while working out, but it’s hard for me to just ignore my negative train of thought and shift into thought about OTHER things. I’ve tried music, but that’s usually not engaging enough. I’ve tried Netflix on a treadmill, but it’s too hard to concentrate on both the show and not falling down. Also, I hate jogging. Basically, every part of staying fit has been difficult for me - finding the motivation to exercise, finding something I might enjoy, working up the courage to exercise, actually doing it, and then continuing to do it on a regular basis.
A couple years ago I got an Oculus Rift, which, if you don’t know, is a virtual reality headset — basically a screen and a couple of lenses that you strap to your face, full of sensors that can detect where your head is in three-dimensional space, where you’re looking, and so on. It creates the illusion that you’re standing in another world, and it’s honestly pretty incredible. The experiences available range from virtual tours of real places to action-focused video games to weird, artsy experiments. Technology like this has existed for decades, but it wasn’t until the mid-2010s that the tech got advanced enough and cheap enough that virtual reality became a truly quality experience, and one able to be manufactured en masse. So of course, me being a complete nerd for this kind of stuff, I wanted a VR headset really bad.
The summer after I graduated college, I finally got my hands (and face) on one. I played it for like a week before deciding it was just too painful to play for more than ten minutes, my big glasses barely fitting in the headset and digging into my nose constantly. I later ended up getting new glasses that were too large to fit in the headset at all. I didn't want to get contacts, so my Oculus Rift just kind of collected dust for a while. Once the coronavirus hit the US and quarantine started, though, I figured it was as good a time as any to finally order some prescription lens inserts (yes, they make those) and get into VR for real. If I can’t leave the house for real, virtual reality is probably the next best thing, right?
When the lenses finally arrived (they had to come all the way from Germany!), I also ended up buying a game called Beat Saber, just because I was in the mood for a rhythm game and my PlayStation 2 had gotten too old and slow to run Guitar Hero. And man, never have I felt more grateful for an impulse purchase.
Beat Saber is a VR rhythm game where the player uses a pair of handheld wireless motion controllers to slice floating cubes with lightsabers to the beat of music. Since its debut in 2018, the game has been often touted as a sort of “killer app” for VR — an experience so novel and near-universally beloved that it becomes many people’s reason for buying a VR headset in the first place. Personally, I thought it looked like fun, but it wasn’t super compelling an idea. The VR experiences that were more interesting to me were ones with a good story and that let you feel immersed in another world — Beat Saber seemed more like an arcade game experience. The only reason I bought the game was because I happened to have an itch for playing a rhythm game around the same time my prescription lenses arrived. And you know, what, I’m incredibly glad I did — I couldn't believe what I had been missing this whole time.
It's so fun. It’s incredibly satisfying to chop the blocks on-beat, even more so when you get into a rhythm on a particularly difficult song. Playing Beat Saber combines the feeling of dancing alone in your room to a great song with being a sci-fi action hero — like a Jedi battle by way of West Side Story. Not only that, but I was actually getting my heart rate way up and sweating without even realizing it.
A few days later, I was having some pretty bad anxiety that kept getting worse as the day went on. Whenever I get like this, I usually either escalate into an actual anxiety attack, or go to bed and try to sleep it off. Neither is particularly healthy, obviously, and I was tired of just succumbing to it. I thought maybe I needed something to distract myself from all the anxious thoughts spiraling in my head. It also occurred to me that exercise was supposed to have some pretty amazing benefits when it comes to relieving anxiety. That's, of course, when it hit me.
I proceeded to play Beat Saber for over an hour, and when I was done, despite being really tired, I was shocked at how good I felt. I think it was the combination of getting my heart rate up and having something genuinely engaging to zone out to at the same time — somehow the combination of physical exertion, mental concentration, and musical accompaniment just clears my head and makes everything else melt away for a while. It’s an incredibly effective stress-reliever, and the whole rest of that day I didn’t feel anxious any more. It kinda blew my mind.
(Note: learning to deal with my anxiety has been a long and difficult process, involving medication, therapy, doctor visits, journaling, etc... I don't intend to suggest that Beat Saber is a cure for anxiety. But I've personally found it to be an astonishingly helpful tool in combating it.)
I also started wearing my Fitbit while in VR, and it began automatically tracking my workouts. Per its suggestion, I've tried exercising (almost always in Beat Saber) for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. That started thirteen weeks ago, and I've hit my goal every week. Sometimes I exercise more than an hour, while other times I barely hit thirty minutes, but I always get at least the minimum. And really, you have no idea how unprecedented that is for me. I don't think I've ever exercised this much, this consistently. Ever. And I've genuinely felt the benefits, too - I just feel physically better, I have a bit more energy, my anxiety acts up less frequently, and I've even lost a little weight. All this from something I actually look forward to doing. It’s taken a really long time, but I’ve finally found an exercise routine that works for me.
I wanted to share my love of this game and how much it has positively impacted my life. For the first time in a long time — maybe ever — I actually feel optimistic about getting into shape, and I feel like I have more control over my anxiety, rather than it controlling me. Especially during this time of social isolation and constant stress, it’s a godsend to have this outlet for relieving stress and staying healthy. So thank you, Beat Games. And also thank you to all the community members that put effort into making so many quality custom maps - you've brightened my life in a really tough, dark time.
Video games are cool, man.