Part of the role I’m assuming as a ‘gamer’-blogger is as an advocate for the possibility of gaming as a mature adult; of finding a balance between family, career, and enjoying this past-time. Popular culture has not yet come to a consensus about how it regards adult gamers or even gaming in general. Repeatedly gaming finds itself in the cross-hairs for its depiction of violent or sexual content. There are numerous horror stories about the hazards of video games. Politicians and ultra right-wing pundits try to score easy approval points by parroting the latest talking points issued by reactionary figureheads for censorship and fear. They say games are killing people and ruining lives, driving our children to acts of violence or sexual deviance.
Clearly, I oppose every instance of this type of fear-mongering. I don’t oppose it because games are non-violent; sometimes they are very violent, although a violent game is not an impetus to murder. People who murder are to murder before they picked up any game; the game simply serves as the framework these killer base their sick fantasy world upon. I oppose these accusations because it absolves the individual of responsibility. It absolves parents from being attentive parents or bearing any type of responsibility when their children do horrible, monstrous things. As members of a civilized society, we must each bear responsibility for our own actions.
Homicidal rampages are not the only thing games garner blame for. Gaming addiction, where people lose themselves in a game, forsaking family and obligations is another boogeyman that the media loves to discuss. As such, I’m going to tell you now how I became addicted to World of Warcraft and why none of it was the game’s fault. I feel this is important because we always hear about how this person or that person is addicted to a game, but we never take a serious look at the issue. We just chase phantoms and toss out these statement as some sort of cautionary tale. Well, here’s my cautionary tale:
Let me try to summarize. A few years ago I met a woman and we married. We moved two thousand miles away from anything I could consider a home or family. During the course of our marriage she became an alcoholic. She relied on me to support her drinking and smoking habits as well as pay our bills while she wasted anything she earned. She was abusive. Occasionally she would get physical. It is easy to scoff at that, but I was raised to never hurt a woman. How do you stop someone intent on physically hurting you if ever fiber of your being prevents you from meeting violence with even some small measure of a physical response? The cuts and bruises weren’t the worst abuse. Insults were her favorite type of abuse.
I like to think of myself as a relatively confident man, but it’s frightening how quickly a constant diet of insults and degradation can erode even the most self-confident of people. Towards the end, she cheated on me and became pregnant by her lover. I was devastated but felt it was my duty to be a father to the children. That became unnecessary since she had an abortion and ended up attempting suicide due to grief and guilt. Even though I hated the woman at this point, I was still bound by my vows to support her and keep her safe. My life felt so barren, so empty of worth that even this twisted sense of duty had some value to me.
I had remained with her for so long because I believed that I had no other choice: I did not have the money it would take to move from New York back to my home state and a part of me felt that this would be my only chance for a married life. Ultimately, my situation deteriorated to an untenable point. I was the only one of us working and her smoking and drinking habits combined with our living expenses exceeded what I was making; she spent her time drunk, usually at her boyfriend’s house, and never worked. I was utterly alone when I was not at work. I finally came to the decision that I had to do something or I would lose everything. So, I packed up a few things and my dogs and -with the help of family- rented a vehicle and drove back to my true home, leaving behind a lifetime of accumulated possessions and history. In essence, I was starting over. I talk about my ex-wife and my previous life because its important to understand what was the catalyst for my addiction.
During that horrible marriage, the two things that helped me survive were my dogs and World of Warcraft. I might have had no control or true sense of worth in any other part of my life, but my dogs needed me and were loyal to me. Equally so, the guild and friends I had made in WoW were a source of refuge as well. Whereas I felt powerless and adrift in real life, I had great purpose, responsibility, and direction in WoW. I was a leader, I set goals and worked with responsible and friendly people to accomplish them. We shared a common interest and common goals and the community we developed replaced the one that was missing in my hours away from the computer. I was important, needed, respected.
While I liked to play WoW and spend time with my friends, I don’t believe it was just the enjoyment of the game that made me play, but also the fulfillment I felt. I felt worthwhile; I felt complete. My loveless, cuckolded marriage was a black hole in my life that WoW seemed able to fill. Away from the keyboard I felt powerless; sitting at the keyboard I felt I was again the master of my destiny. More than anything, I could forget everything else in my life when I was playing WoW.
When I returned home, I found a decent job and started my new life, yet continued to play World of Warcraft. While I was with my family and friends and all of the unhappiness was largely behind me (I was still married, though separated), I still found I needed WoW. I had invested a majority of myself into the game and still needed the validation and sense of worth it conveyed upon me. I had built a network of friends and a guild that looked to me for leadership. I felt responsible for them and could not believe that were I to miss a single night of playing that the guild could function without me.
I was addicted and my addiction led me to believe I was pivotal to everyone else’s happiness and ability to function in the game. I’d went from a man who was powerless to manage his own sad, pathetic life to a man upon whom others depended for their enjoyment of the game. That delusion fed my bruised ego and fueled my need to play. Even then, I already knew that the game had stopped being fun. I knew the game had become something more.. and less.. than a game. It took me a long time though to take action concerning that realization.
I stopped playing WoW in July of 2011. There was a number of contributing factors, but the primary reason was that I no longer needed to play the game. In early 2009, I reconnected with an old girlfriend of mine, someone I’d dated almost two decades earlier. Our meeting was by pure happenstance. We resumed our friendship at first, but eventually rekindled our lost romance. I’m pleased to say that I married this magnificent woman and we are celebrating our first anniversary this coming week. She is intelligent, caring, and funny and a perfect counterpart for me. She did not fill that old emptiness inside, but rather gave me the tools over the past three years to exorcise it myself. She has shown me that I’m deserving of a good life and of love.
Falling back in love with her, having her show me what true joy, true happiness and fulfillment felt like, I began to admit to myself exactly what World of Warcraft had become for me. I saw how I had twisted it to take a role in my life it never should have. I know it saved me from the insanity I faced every day, but it also prevented me from ultimately dealing with that insanity and fighting it on my own terms. It was an escape and a surrender. That is hardly the failing of the game though; it’s my failing as a man and as an adult.
World of Warcraft was purely a conduit that I channeled my heart and soul through in order to find some happiness in the bleakest time I’ve ever experienced in my life. I allowed it to become more important than it should have been. I used it as an escape from my problems, instead of confronting them. The game was just.. a game. Does that mean that what it represented to me was not dangerous? Yes, it was dangerous, but only because I allowed it to become dangerous. It was easier to focus my energy into an activity that was ultimately ‘not real’ and carried no lasting consequences. Mistakes in the game hurt, but were not devastating; in real life, mistakes could leave you homeless, could rob you of everything you had. I chose not to face those choices in favor of an easy escape.
I have talked to others about this issue. Most have said that games are not addictive and I would agree with them. A few have shared other stories about gaming, stories that sound very familiar to mine: that the game had become a job, that they found themselves losing track of time or sacrificing other pursuits in order to play their favorite game. One shared with me a story about a woman he had known who forgot to pick her children up because she was too absorbed in playing a video game. All of these stories talk to me of people who place too much importance, too much devotion to their game. Some plainly are escaping a life they are not mature enough to handle.
I do not believe games are addictive by themselves. They can enlighten and embolden us. They can provide a window into other worlds and even into ourselves. They can bridge generations and creeds. However, too often the power and the escape they provide us, the emptiness they can fill and the joy they bring can become addictive. It is important to look hard at yourself, ask why you play games. Be critical but fair. If you do play video games to the exclusion of other things in your life, ask yourself ‘why?’. Finding that answer is the first step on resolving a bigger issue than being addicted to some game. Furthermore, it addresses an issue from within the community that it affects and gives an unbiased voice to a discussion so far dominated by bigots and idiots. The gaming community needs to address these issues, recognize instances where we might be falling short and face them head-on. We need to take ownership of our foibles and failures or someone else will. As adults, that is our responsibility.
Dedication: While I regret the importance I placed on WoW in my life, I do not regret the friends I made. You truly made one of the most hellish and trying of times survivable and I’d like to thank you. Bobby, Zeb, Ed, Patch, Martha and Mike: while we have went our separate ways and found new paths in life, I will always remember you as true friends and confidantes. Safe journeys. To my lovely wife: our marriage and loving you is greatest adventure I could have ever embarked on; I look forward to taking every step along the way with you.