This is a re-post of an article I wrote over six years ago. After this published in the Dallas Morning News, I received over 50 supportive emails from parents of video gamers, support groups, even counselors who specialize in video game addiction. I’ve never returned to Azeroth.
The man sees the clock on the wall finally crawl around to 5 P.M. and he flies out the door. He’s been Jonesing all day for his fix, and now he can finally have it. Although he has a respectable career, his coworkers don’t know about the secret vice he enjoys at home. After some questionable driving speeds, he runs into his house, once again ignoring his overgrown yard, his neglected dog, and the pile of laundry building up in front of the washer. The man sprints upstairs, anxious to settle into a long night of full-sensory submersion. He closes the door (and shuts out the rest of the world) behind him, sits down at his favorite chair, and logs into World of Warcraft.
Hi, I’m Jeff – I’m a former World of Warcraft addict.
Despite the 40-plus hours a week I put into the game, I was still considered to be a “casual player”. During in-game chatter and through headphone discussions, people would say “Oh, Riddler – He has a family. He’s not committed to a regular raiding schedule.” They said family like it was a bad thing, like “Riddler has alcoholism.” My real life friends and my wife acted the same way about the game: “Jeff plays Warcraft,” with the same tone that one may say “Jeff is a porn fiend.” So I ended up existing in a surreal middle-place where people in my real-world life and in-game life each thought I spent too much with the other side.
It’s hard to explain to muggles what life is like in the WoW Matrix. The world is so expansive, it would take days for your character to walk across the in-game continents. Along with the multitudes of your in-game friends, you live in an obsessive world of continuous collection. It sounds wildly silly to even write this, but there was a time that I’d have given up a toe for the druid hat at the end of Blackrock Spire. You get invested in the progress of your character. In the same way that you’d be miffed if you spent a whole Saturday designing a garden arrangement, only to have the rascally neighborhood kid stomp it to smithereens with a nine iron, you’d crap a brick if an in-game stranger took the reward at the end of a six-hour dungeon.
People who don’t play online games assume that the hard-core Warcraft gamers must be slackers or don’t have personal goals. On the contrary, for people who are goal-driven and motivated by achievements, the game locks in their attention with the lure of continuous successes. Under the surface of the fantasy theme elements, there is a complex world of in-game economy, incremental scaling of powers and abilities, and real people relying on teamwork to complete mutual goals. The same man or woman who might have started a business, invented something useful, or written an insightful book is instead working on his or her Tier 5 gear set. Earning little bits of electronic data for all those hours of strategy and effort.
It is surprising how much you get to know your in-game buds. Through months (or years) of play, you end up spending more time in their virtual companionship than with your real-life friends and family. For example, my wife and I don’t have any inside jokes about the time we spent five hours climbing through a maze of monsters, only to accidentally kill everybody in my group when I fell asleep at the keyboard and didn’t heal anybody. Eventually, I stopped trying to explain how amazing and addictive it was to friends and coworkers. I grew quiet and endured the rituals of real-life – sitting in boredom through work, family birthdays, and obligatory dinners with the wife, all the while glancing impatiently at my watch. And I wondered where I might find a druid-themed watch.
I saw people lose their jobs, fail their marriages, drop out of school, and neglect their kids to fully submerge into their in-game lives. Just like anybody does with geeky hobbies, at first I considered myself a bit too cool for fanaticism, and assumed I’d play a couple or three casual hours a week. Then when my real-life hours started slipping away, I hung onto those stories of the hard-core gamers, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t “as bad as that guy who pees in a thermos.” Before I knew it, I had converted my Date Night with the wife to Raid Night with the guild. I cruised the Ironforge Auction House while I put on my shoes for work in the morning. I made spreadsheets of my goals and marked my progress towards each! Spreadsheets! The whole thing became quite silly, but I was hooked.
When my wife and I started trying for our first baby, I knew that my Life of Warcraft would soon be over. What I didn’t expect, however, is that we’d be successful within eight days (I must have been wearing my Amulet of the Fertile Rabbit, with extra Charisma points). Holy Nefarion – I was suddenly a Dad. I thought about the guys in my guild who, when they spoke into their microphones, you’d hear a baby crying in the background. I quickly uninstalled the game, sold my character for the price of a used car, and broke all my installation disks. I had successfully unplugged from the matrix. No fading out of play – just a quick exit, like quickly pulling off a geeky, life-sucking Bandaid.
The withdrawal was rough at first, but I eventually overcame it. I found myself collecting random things around the house – wine corks, paint cans, Legos, and paperback books. But no more epic adventures – Riddler was dead. It took me about 3 months to get used to a midnight bedtime instead of the normal 3am logoffs. I still hear from in-game buds from time to time, telling me how their Warcrack lives are going – new monsters beaten, new areas unlocked, and sweet, sweet new gear. I write them back and remind them what a sunburn feels like, or what it’s like to go on a date night.
Maybe I’ll log in for just a minute to see how things are going, just a moment for old time’s sake… I can quit anytime…