Apr 23, 2017
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I Kept Playing — The Costs Of My Gaming Addiction

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I Kept Playing — The Costs Of My Gaming Addiction

“I hated level 40,” she said with a sigh. It was the first time we’d spoken in eight years, and she had never forgotten the night I spurned her advances in favor of gaining a level in EverQuest.

During the course of my tenure at Kotaku I’ve referenced my days in EverQuest on many occasions, but I’ve never elaborated on what went down back then. Recent events in my life have brought that period to the fore, and I’ve decided to share my experience with our readers.

In November of 2000, my life was going well. I had a lovely girlfriend, a serviceable vehicle, and a job that paid more than enough for me to survive while catering to my increasingly expensive video game habit. Within four months, it would all be gone.

 Good Intentions

At the time I was sharing an apartment with a friend of mine named Dustin. Dustin was a great guy, but he spent his entire downtime sitting in front of his computer, playing a video game called EverQuest. I had encountered the game before, having participated in the beta for Sony Online Entertainment’s massively popular multiplayer game, but once the game went live I lost interest. I just couldn’t see myself paying a monthly fee just to play a computer game. Oh, how things have changed.

Having nothing much else to do at the time, I’d sit and watch Dustin play. He’d explain what his Monk character was doing in the game. I was a spectator as he progressed, learning to feign death, earning new weapons, and taking on greater challenges as he got closer and closer to the level cap.

So when I wasn’t spending time with my girlfriend, Emily, I would watch Dustin play. Or I would tool around on various text-based MUSHes and MOOs online, role-playing with people all over the world. I’d been into science fiction, fantasy, and comic books since I was very young, so slipping into an imaginary world came easy to me. Perhaps a little too easy.

Towards the end of 2000, Emily and I broke up. The reasoning behind this is far too stupid to delve into…let’s just say we were both young and a bit foolish.

I became depressed, and Dustin had just the thing to cheer me up.

The Scars of Velious expansion for EverQuest came out in December of 2000. My roommate, perhaps tired of my moping over my lost love, picked up a copy of the game for me as a Christmas present. I installed it, created a half-elven Bard, and soon our apartment had two guys in the living room at all hours of the day, faces bathed in the glow of monitors.

Within a week, the game that hadn’t affected me at all nearly two years previously had become an important part of my life. Soon, it would become my life.

If I wasn’t asleep or at work, I was playing EverQuest. The former was becoming a rarity. I would go into work, and I would still hear the sounds of EverQuest orcs in my head. All I had to do was close my eyes and I was speeding through the Greater Faydark zone, killing pixies and turning in quest items.

In January of 2001, a man with a tow truck came to my place of employment and took my car away. I had fallen behind on payments without realizing it, and Nissan had decided they wanted my Sentra back. My first thought as I watched the tow truck drive away was how many hours walking to and from work would take from my EverQuest time.

I worked at a company called FranchiseOpportunities.com, maintaining and creating websites, but increasingly my time there was spent either communicating with my EverQuest friends or browsing websites for tips on the best equipment and techniques for grinding experience points and gold. It was impossible for my co-workers not to notice. In February of 2001, Joseph Lunsford, the owner of the company, called me into his office.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Lunsford told me this month when I went to see him and talk to him about the person I used to be. “You were was amazingly bright. I was convinced there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do. You showed so much promise, but your interest in work just fell off. Projects started taking longer to get done, and it was obvious your head wasn’t in it. You left me no choice.”

I was in tears back then. I felt unbelievably pathetic. I had no car. I had no job. Joe had handed me my last paycheck and about $120 he had in his wallet, and sent me on my way. I took a taxi home, broke the news to my roommates (we had moved into a three-bedroom to split the bills three ways), went into my bedroom, started up EverQuest, and forgot about everything.

According to Dr. Hilarie Cash, the executive director of the reSTART internet and gaming addition recovery program and co-author of the book “Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control,” retreating inside a video game to avoid real world problems is a common cause of “video game addiction.”

“I would definitely call it video game addiction, which is a subset of internet addiction. Many of the things [you] described to me are typical of a video game addict, particularly the way that real life shrinks away for the addict, living more and more in the virtual world.”

And that’s exactly what I was doing. I had been a confident and outgoing young man who enjoyed hanging out with my friends, spending hours chatting about absolutely nothing while smoking cigarettes and drinking countless cups of Waffle House Coffee. Now my social dealings involved helping online friends camp a rare monster spawn, or discussing class balance on my guild’s chat channel.

Going outside was only necessary when I ran out of smokes or beverages. I lived off $.30 pot pies from Wal-Mart and cheap bags of rice. I was taking care of my most essential needs, but only barely. Often times I would fall asleep in my chair in front of my computer with EverQuest running, waking up hours later to start the cycle all over again.

Even now my memories of the period are a blur of Oasis runs, power leveling, and experience grinding. My mother remembers those days much more vividly.

“Mike was unavailable for most of that period,” she recalled recently. “There was no way to contact him, except to do a ‘drive by’ preferably with a bag of groceries in the back seat. I remember trying to talk to him. Such a fine mind and wild sense of humor; all covered up and hidden deep inside again. He listened half-heartedly and was easy to anger. He was going down fast, even to the point of telling how it really was and not just what you wanted to hear.”

Hearing her talk about it now, I can barely believe it had gotten so bad, but I tend to hold on to positive memories more than the negative ones. Like the day Emily came back.

Brief Hope

It was three months after I was fired that Emily decided to give us another chance. I wasn’t the same man she had been with before. I was relatively skinny, and my hair had grown ridiculously long. As we lay curled up in bed one evening she commented on how my belly had disappeared, which tickled me to no end. It seems perverse to me now. It wasn’t as if I had been dieting or exercising; I was taking pride in my own malnourishment.

My existence slowly started gaining some semblance of a real life again. Emily went out one afternoon and brought me a stack of job applications, which motivated me to go out, get my hair cut, and go to my first job interview at a Fast Signs down the street. Looking slightly more human and feeling more alive than I had in months, I got the job on the spot. It was amazing how fast things had turned around. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.

In an odd twist, my EverQuest friends were now worried about me.

I hadn’t been around, and they missed my sense of humor and my enthusiasm. My ability to twist four Bard songs at a time didn’t hurt either. These people needed me. I was important to them, and I couldn’t let them down. Looking back, I can’t believe I missed the irony there.

So I started playing EverQuest again. At first it was only on the nights that Emily couldn’t make it over, but soon I was back to my regular play schedule – every waking hour. I was regularly late to work, and called in sick at least once every two weeks so I could stay home and play.

Then came that fateful night.

The woman I had once told was the love of my life was sitting undressed in my bed not a foot away from my computer desk, begging me to join her, and I kept putting it off. I was so close to level 40 I could taste it. I was in the Dreadlands, kiting large enemies back and forth, killing them slowly with my Bard songs. I still remember the urgency I felt, along with the annoyance that this woman was trying to keep me from reaching my goal. Couldn’t she understand how important this was to me?

She had certainly tried.

“Back then I just figured I was dating a gamer, and that’s how it was going to be,” she said to me recently. “I hadn’t dated many guys at that point, and my older brother was the same way. He worked, came home, and played video games.”

Eight years later it became obvious that my lack of attention toward her weighed far more heavily than either of us had suspected.

One morning in late September of 2001, I called my job and quit. Whatever justification I had for this at the time doesn’t matter. The reason I quit was because I was tired of making excuses for being late, and I just wanted to play EverQuest.

Emily and I had grown further apart. During my time at Fast Signs I purchased an old car from my sister, only to discover I couldn’t get insurance for it due to my driver’s license being suspended over a previous ticket, ironically issued for driving without insurance. Rather than actively working to fix the problem, I slipped deeper into depression. I would let Emily take the car, driving it with a “TAG APPLIED FOR” plate on the back, but wouldn’t go anywhere with her for fear of being pulled over and sent to jail. Instead, I would stay home and play EverQuest.

The last time I would see her — until 2009 —was two days after her birthday in early October. I had let her take the car to her party, but refused to go with her. She reacted by keeping my car for two days without contacting me. I responded by telling her to return the car and the keys and get out of my life. She did just that.

And I kept playing.

A New Beginning

December rolled around again, one year after I had taken my first steps into EverQuest’s world of Norrath, and I had completely changed. I went from being a strong independent person to a gaunt, unshaven, unshowered recluse, completely withdrawn from the outside world.

My roommate, once one of my greatest friends, was threatening to throw me out of the apartment if I didn’t find a job. But I had absolutely no motivation. The only time I left my dwelling was to scavenge for food at my parents’ house, or to grab a quick shower, as our apartment’s hot water had been turned off.

I remember feeling like a ghost, drifting through the waking world unnoticed. Luckily for me, my mother was looking out for me as best she could.

“He didn’t look like Mike anymore,” she remembers now. “He was scary and pitiful. I was afraid he was suicidal or dying of some mysterious disease. It broke my heart and I knew that coming home and taking the pressure off would be the best medicine for him.”

And so on January 1st, 2002, at the age of 28, I moved back in with my parents. It wasn’t an instant cure for my addiction – as soon as I convinced them to let me order DSL I was back online again – but something had changed. I started spending more time hanging out with my parents and less time sitting in my computer chair staring at little computer people doing little computer things. I had responsibilities. I had a support system. I had a stable platform to launch myself from instead of the quicksand I felt I had been standing in before.

Within two months I had found myself a job at a local gas station. Later that year I started speaking with Joe Lunsford again, proving myself through contract work until he decided to hire me on again in 2003. So I once again had a job, a girlfriend, and eventually my own apartment, sans roommates. That’s where I was in 2006, when Brian Crecente contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write for Kotaku. That’s where I am now.

It would be easy for me to pin my problems on EverQuest, and society in general would accept it without question. I could say I fell prey to an addictive video game that nearly ruined my life, but I would know that wasn’t the case.

I hid. I ran from my problems, hiding away in a virtual fantasy world instead of confronting the issues that might have been easily resolved if I had addressed them directly. As far as I am concerned, the only thing Sony Online Entertainment is guilty of is creating a damn good hiding place. It was my responsibility to control how much I played, and the SOE spokesperson I contacted regarding my story agrees.

“EverQuest is a game,” the Sony Online rep told me. “The majority of the hundreds of thousands of subscribers play the game in moderation enjoying the gameplay as well as the community interaction the game provides. As with any form of entertainment, it is the responsibility of each individual player to monitor his or her own playing habits and prioritize his or her time as necessary. It is not our place to monitor or limit how individuals spend their free time.”

Dr. Hilarie Cash agrees as well, though she suspects that game developers are actively engaged in trying to make their games more addictive.

“Some blame can be laid at the feet of developers, making a conscious effort to make their games more addictive. It’s analogous to the tobacco industry, trying to make tobacco more addictive. It works to their benefit. That having been said, it’s up to the individual to take responsibility for how they play.”

During our conversation, Dr. Cash also likened gaming to gambling. Some people can walk into a casino, lose $5, and call it quits. You have to know your own limits, and be conscious enough of them to know when you are in danger of going too far.

My own solution to my potential for MMO addiction is rather simple. I’ve managed to turn a habit that once interrupted my work into something I actively have to do for work. It’s no longer escapism if I am doing my job. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but if I am going to be that gullible I might as well take advantage.

As for Emily, she’s sitting behind me as I type this, playing Peggle. I’d ask her to come to bed, but I know how important getting to that next level can be.

 Great story, however it does not relate at all to me. Granted, I am addicted to MMOs and video games in general. However, I have always been a social outcast. I have never had a girl friend. I am not confident or outgoing. I have always been “a ghost, drifting through the waking world unnoticed.”
So, ya you had a great life, let it get ruined by MMOs and got it back. I, however, have never had a life. I never had a life to lose to MMOs. Four months ago my employer was offering voluntary layoffs with a good pay out. I hated my job and I hated wakeing up every single fucking day and doing the same stupid pointless thing. I took the layoff in an instant.I have been surviving on the money I got payed out and the money I saved up. I go out to the food store once a week and I’ll go to Best Buy once in a while when I want a new game. This is the life of freedom I have wanted my whole life. I wake up when I want to, I go to bed when I want to. I eat what and when I want to. I leave my phones off so I am not interrupted by family calling.

I realize that this lifestyle is not sustainable, however I really dont care. I just dont see the point in getting a job I hate. I dont see the point in forming relationships with people who can never truly understand me. I dont see the point of living for 60 more years just to see the same patterns repeat themselves more times.

 In September of 1998, my first year of junior high, I was walking to school with 2 of my girlfriends. I was really excited, as I had been accepted into the Volleyball team, and my first practice was going to be that day after school. I’d never been on a real team before, so it was new to me. I had a lot of friends, and junior high was looking to be very promising for my social life.

We reached the top of the hill where the crosswalk was, and I looked both ways, and we crossed. Or we began to, at least. When we got a little ways out, I looked both ways again, a habit from being a school patrol in Elementary. That was when I saw it, a car speeding up the hill. That’s all I remember.

According to eye witness reports, I shoved my friend out of the way and took the full impact, she sustained a nasty bruise on her leg from being clipped by the front bumper. I was dragged a few feet, and then the driver slammed on the brakes and I was thrown another 50 feet.

I woke up on the pavement confused and disoriented. My stepdad was standing over me, damn near in tears, and he kept saying to me “It’s gonna be okay.”

My feet are cold – where are my shoes? Is my lunch okay? Please let my lunch be okay, I had mom’s cookies and a carton of chocolate milk, it was such a good lunch. Am I late for school? Is my homework okay? The things that run through your head when you’re in shock, they usually make no sense.

I vaguely remember the bumpy and excruciatingly painful ambulance ride to the Alberta Children’s Hospital, and I remember a doctor prodding my face, and I saw my big sister, mom, stepdad, and dad all around me… and then nothing.

I was later to find out that my left leg had been broken in three places, and my left shoulder was completely shattered. I went back to school in a wheelchair, and nobody would talk to me anymore. I went from having a huge social network of friends, to three. Three friends left. My teachers talked slowly to me, as if I had brain damage, and the kids were either uncomfortably silent, or downright mean.

One kid grabbed the back of my wheelchair when I was trying to get to my social studies class. She ran me down the hallway while I yelled for her to stop, and then she stopped me… by ramming me broken leg first into a row of lockers. I screamed and started crying, and kids started laughing.

To go from being on top of the world, so to speak, to having such awful injuries and three friends left… it was a hard blow for me. I watched all the kids outside doing track and baseball, everyone running and jumping and playing, and I knew I could never be with them again. I sank into a deep depression. This was when I started playing my first MMO, Ultima Online.

I escaped into it. Rather than dwelling on the looks of pity or amusement on my teachers and peers’ faces, I threw myself, heart and soul, into the world of Britannia. I felt like the only time I could be free was when I was taming animals, decorating my tower near Yew, or PKing with my group of friends. People knew me, people liked me, nobody cared that I was crippled, nobody treated me like some sort of dirty secret.

I learned to walk again, whilst being told by my surgeon that I could never do the things I loved to do before again. I couldn’t ski or snowboard, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t ride a bike, my left arm was never going to be able to go over my head, and I was always going to have to take breaks when walking because my knee would be weak.

In grade 9 I had my right leg surgically broken to stop the growth of it, so I wouldn’t end up some lop-sided monstrosity. If you can believe it, I sank even further into depression. I tried to keep up in Phys Ed, I really did, but when fitness week came along and it was time for us to weigh each other, I felt my first pangs of body image issues. My gym teacher, who was a real bitch, looked over my chart and gave me the once over with her eyes, then brought me to the front of class. Apparently being 145lbs when you’re 14 is disgusting, and she told the class while holding me by the arm, “This is what happens when you eat junk food and don’t exercise enough.” And I snapped.

I stopped going to school, I started spending every waking moment on UO, and I shirked all of my responsibilities. PVPing was far more glamorous than my own life. I hated myself, I hated my school, I hated my life… and the guilt and shame of everything, plus playing the game and lying to my parents, it built up to a boiling point.

I went back to school for the finals and provincial exams, aced them, and was moved forward to grade 10 instead of being failed. My principal, and incredibly kind old man by the name of Mr Geoffrey, pulled a lot of strings so I wouldn’t be held back.

I had sunk too far at this point, though, and I played UO right until the end of grade 10. I skipped school to play it, I didn’t want to associate with other people. I became reclusive and bitter, which I still am to this day, but I kicked my MMO habits.

I’d like to say I feel bad about how I let the game consume my life, but the alternative was frightening, and I’m pretty sure it kept me from doing anything really stupid. #gamingaddiction

That story is a bit of a slap in the face to me.

I played Final Fantasy XI from its US PC release until February last year, or from 8th grade until I dropped out of high school during what should have been my senior year.

My grades were non-existent, never turned in homework and I slept through class since I was awake from after school (2:30PM) until it started the next day (6:00AM) playing FFXI or browsing the internet.

Eventually the school implemented rules and policies I just couldn’t keep up with – wearing IDs I could never keep track of, being to class on time or be kicked out for the period, which ultimately lead to suspensions. After a while of that I finally convinced my parents to sign me out of school for good. This whole time I did nothing with my friends outside of school, and after dropping out lost contact with ’em all completely.

Six months later I had my GED, which I attribute to tests even a monkey could pass, and no MMO subscriptions.

Fast forward to Oct 2009 and I’m about to turn 20 this December, I have no license, the only work I’ve ever had was one day at my dad’s printing company folding CD covers so they could be shipped out easily, and I see no signs of it getting better soon.

I look at applications and realize I have no experience or skills, a GED, no license or car (although I could easily get the former if driving didn’t make me so damn nervous) and no clue about what direction I’d like my life to head in.

It’s a bit of a downer, and I can’t help but wonder what I’d be doing right now if I had never started playing an MMO.

Of course, don’t mistake that last line as me blaming the game. I definitely accept full responsibility for all of the above.

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