20 July, 2007

Welcome to the World of Warcrack

A topic that has been close to my heart for the last year or so revolves around the issue of gaming addiction. This is a very real phenomenon, and sadly, I see too many examples of it even in my immediate circle of friends. I could say a lot about it, but for starters, I should tell my story.

I'll make it as short as possible.

In November of 2005, after much resistance, I agreed to check out WoW because friends had told me it was "the greatest thing ever". They'd been doing beta for months prior. So I tried, and of course, I liked the game since there is so much to do and it is such an engrossing world.

But the importance of WoW progressively increased in my life, and I soon began to design my life and behaviors around playing and would feel practically out of control if playing were not possible. I got a better computer to improve performance. I got a better internet connection. I spent hours reading online about strategy and debating in newsgroups about the best way to play the game. Even got involved in massive "flame wars" on game and non-game related issues, as I tried to "police" the WoW community of racists, sexists, homophobics, and generally juvenile people. It was becoming an all-encompassing world for me.

I was a graduate student, and grew progressively less productive in the lab, since I was a) losing lots of sleep (playing late nights), and b) thinking more about WoW during the day than my actual work. It was an easy escape.

It impacted my friendships. It impacted my relationship significantly. If something was wrong with the server, or the internet, or my computer, I would become REALLY mad and emotional, and maybe even have a fit, or get in an argument with my girlfriend. It was pretty bad, and yet I didn't see it objectively at all. For awhile, she got into WoW too, and we tried playing together, but I was pretty self-absorbed in-game (and I guess, in-world as well) and I wasn't patient with her. Didn't want to wait for her to collect her herbs, or explore. Just wanted to do my own thing... in a way the game became a nasty exaggerated microcosm of the conflicts in the relationship. So that was bad.

Had a group of friends with whom I pretty much only discussed WoW and those friends became the preferred group since I could indulge in the fantasy world. And we talked about little else. I didn't realize that my non-gaming friends were worried and withdrawing from me.

Finally after about 10 months, including a few weeks of super-marathon playing (all nighters and all), I had a bizarre repercussion... I started getting really severe cramp in one of my calf muscles. It would cramp up so tight that I could barely walk until I stretched it out. I have always been into fitness, and running, and weight-training, and health, so this was odd to me. A friend who was a medical student at school told me to have it checked out, and I found out that I had a DVT - deep vein thrombosis. A blood clot in my calf muscle! Usually this happens from from people either being obese, or from taking long transcontinental flights. When they asked me these questions about air travel, a bell went off in my head, and I knew what it was. I had sat for SO LONG day after day playing computer games, that I had caused myself to develop a medical condition!

This was a bit scary and required some simple, but drastic medical adjustments to resolve it. But it was also embarrassing and a bit humiliating. It sort of served as a wake-up call, but it was only gradual. The bigger wake-up call was when my girlfriend gave me an ultimatum - "limit yourself to an hour a day. or leave".

That had an interesting impact. If you can only play an hour a day, you can't really do most of the things that people in WoW do - long quests and missions, or exploring far away places that require travel time. Or making commitments to play with a group. So my whole gaming behavior changed. I became a total solo player who just camped out towns and killed other players. It was kind of pathetic, but kept me to the 1 hour time limit. The interesting thing was that this limit on playing time caused me to gradually become less interested in playing. I started to realize how lame it was to sit there and click a button and watch the pixels on my screen change color. Started to realize that the auction house in WoW is not a real business. Started to realize that we're all just sitting there avoiding life.

Another contributing factor to getting out of the game, strangely enough, for me, was using Ventrilo - an audio tool for conversing with players. Many people I had only ever played with by typing. When I tried out the audio thing and could suddenly hear these people - I somehow started to feel how pathetic I was being. Not sure why - but I just felt like suddenly this "warrior" I've been playing with is actually a neglectful 36 year old mother of 3 from Texas who doesn't seem all that enlightened, and I realize consciously that she should maybe be parenting or setting some type of example for her kids rather than playing WoW 16 hours a day... it's easy for me to be righteous though, since I was doing the same - I realize the hypocrisy.

When I finally stopped playing, I really stopped. And for a long time, I was dreaming in WoW - both before stopping and after stopping - I had become so engrossed that I would often DREAM in my character. How odd is that?

Whenever life got difficult, or challenging, or lonely, I would always have the urge to play again, just like a drug. But so far I have resisted. One time I played for a half-hour at a friend's house a couple of months ago. I am happy to say that it did not make me want to play again. I gave my character away to an acquaintance, which made me feel "safer".

People always say the only thing worse than an addict is a self-righteous recovering addict. I guess that's me. But my life is better KNOWING that I won't turn to escapism (at least in that variety) as a means of coping. I feel that things have been much better for me.

I see a few of my friends who are in deep pits of gaming addiction, and I try to talk to them about it but they aren't yet ready to alter their behavior either because they cannot, or because they don't see it as something requiring addressing. But it makes me sad to watch potentially creative and productive individuals (including myself) piss away their lives feeding a virtual world that doesn't contain any *real* experiences that you can hold in your hand.

That's how the story starts.

I guess it wasn't so short of a story. Happy to provide any more detail if people care to ask about it.

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