The writing on the screen glared at me. It was a message from a gamer in the United States.
I placed my hands over my face, trying to relive the tension in my eyes. I looked at the clock, and paused trying to find the restraint and self-control I knew I would never manage to summon. I typed my response:
Sure. Why not?
We logged into the game queue and I settled into another gaming session. I had agonised over the decision to play as it meant almost certainly my writing would not get done and I would be extremely tired the next day. But I knew too that whatever disaster would befall me, the thrill of the game would be sufficient to salve any of life’s disappointments.
Everyday millions of people play video games. Many fall behind in their studies, others are taken away from friends and family and many play games addictively. I am one of those people. Gaming addiction, or as psychologist call it is pathological gaming, is not classified as a medical condition. Though several studies have been conducted over the past ten years, and it is clear there is a negative correlation between excessive gaming and an orderly life, psychologists refer more to the ‘interference’ that may result from gaming, rather than the pathological nature of the behaviour.
It is hard to pinpoint where my passion for video games started, where ‘interference’ truly kicked in. All males have some sort of addiction. Many men are addicted to gambling, drinking, smoking or sex. I have always loved playing games, whether it be the games of Monopoly we used to play as children, or the hours spent in the casino, trying out my harebrained Blackjack strategies. With video games, unlike other forms of entertainment, there are no arbitrary limits. You can play for hours, game after game.
I never would have considered gaming an addiction; rather just something fun to do. When I was studying at university, I played Tekken 3 in the evenings, rationalising this pastime as the recreation requisite to expunge the system of lectures about the theories of Foucault and Derrida.
I make myself another drink and I choose my champion. I stretch my legs and drink hastily from the glass, easing my parched throat. League of Legends is one of many Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games, which are free to play and at any given time. It attracts millions of people from around the world. It was the advent of multiplayer games online that opened up the possibility of hours of online gaming, higher excitement levels in competing with people across the world.
I suppose where I really should have seen the warning signs was the year 2003. We owned a PlayStation console and I was introduced to Final Fantasy VIII, which had exquisite graphics and an immersive storyline. One felt as much empathy for the characters and the world of the game, that it was every bit as engaging as reading about Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester. I was moved emotionally, psychologically and spiritually by the characters, the storyline, and the experience. Research into patterns of gaming behaviour suggest that one aspect of addiction is thinking about a game a lot while not playing it. Yet this may also be a sign of engagement. In a game, as opposed to a novel, you feel a certain degree of control over the world of the game. It is a godlike experience – the equivalent of being a protagonist in the narrative as well as the reader (such as in Calvino’s On a winters night a traveller). Your actions can determine your character’s life or death.
I stayed home often, rose late and played Final Fantasy for hours, becoming angry at myself from my sloth and indulgence; my anger manifested itself in hostility to those around me, increasing the tension in the home. This is the idea of interference, where gaming impacts one’s work, social life or study. Gaming can have this negative impact, yet the euphoria experienced in gaming can also have positive benefits. The vocabulary my seven year old nephew has developed from gaming is incredibly mature as he confidently uses words such as: treasure chest, annihilate, installation, upgrade and inventory. His cognitive skills and sensory motor skills are likewise highly developed and his maths and reading at an above average level. Plus, most important of all, he is happy.
Real time strategy (RTS) games have always been one of my favourite forms of game and I have played these games frequently over the years. In RTS games, you move creatures so that they collectively or individually mine for gold, build structures or more typically wage war on an enemy power. I’ve never been so much into first person shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty, which are insanely popular across the world. In 2003 I heard of the first death by video gaming. A man died of a heart attack after playing Diablo II for twelve hours. As a reflection of my then foolishness and a sign of my increasing addiction, I rushed out to buy Diablo, chuckling to myself the game must be good if someone was that passionate about it. How sick I was back then, and have I really improved at all?
I pushed my chair in, turned off the computer and looked at the clock. It was 2 am and I decided to go to bed. Our ‘team’ had lost the game badly and I knew I would not sleep well; images of the little cartoon character I controlled frequently perishing would filter in and out of my mind, not letting me rest. My back was sore. Once a game begins there is very little that will move a gamer from his seat. As one of my students said, ‘teenage boys either have a back problem, or they don’t have a computer’. I made my way to the room. I was filled with guilt for having played so late, a guilt I knew would prevent me sleeping.
About two years ago, I discovered World of Warcraft, the War and Peace of gaming. It is a game that millions of people can play simultaneously online. It is a magical Tolkien-like fantasy-world, where even the most emaciated pimply kid is thrust into the role of the hero, cutting a swathe though a series of adventures in Azeroth, a world rich in colour and breathtaking spectacle. I played for countless hours each evening after work. Incidentally Blizzard, the manufacturers of the game also made StarCraft, an addictive online competitive game where professional gamers (yes there is such a thing as a professional gamer) can earn up to $100 000 and which was responsible for the death of a Singaporean man.
One reason video games are not as addictive as they could be is because of something called ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ ̶ the disconnect between what a game’s story and its gameplay are about. For example in World of Warcraft, after you have dispatched one of the evil beings as per your quest, they ‘respawn’ (resurrect) almost immediately, ostensibly so that another player can kill them. And there are many things of this nature in video games where the storyline does not match the gameplay. Likewise, because so many games are about your character killing the other characters, it is just beyond credulity that you can mow down so many opponents and still be standing. These sorts of contradictions wear down even the most avid player.
Similarly, because video games are repetitive, every game, no matter how great, can become tiresome, allowing the gamer respite until the next addictive high. Game designers even manage to get around the ‘obstacle’ of a player’s avatar dying by allowing all characters to respawn, which defies logic and one needs to suspend ones disbelief to enjoy any game. Respawning only fuels the gamer’s addiction, as the game can essentially be an endless progression of killing, dying, respawning, and dying. You get the drift.
IPhone technology must also be held to account, not only in my own gaming patterns but in hooking millions of others. Like many others, I played Chaos Rings and the phenomenon, Angry Birds on my iPhone, so I essentially had hours of gaming at all times of the day and night.
All this was nothing compared to the juggernaut that awaited me. It was only a month or two after downloading World of Warcraft that a student alerted me to League of Legends, which according to some statistics is the world’s most widely played game.
I woke up the next morning, and as often was the case I was late for work. I pulled my car into the car park and made my way up the steps of the college. I had only three classes today. On occasions such as this I regretted being a gamer, though there are much worse habits I suppose. I reflect also that on occasion, having something to look forward to enhance my productivity. I would reward myself with a game after completing a round of marking, or after working on an essay.
My life for one whole year revolved around League of Legends, which, as I indicated is set in an online battle arena, where individuals are placed in teams of five to destroy the members of the other team as well as their base. It sounds so simple, but the mechanics are such that thousands of websites and thousands of YouTube clips are dedicated to advising players to improve their game. Some even play this game professionally in tournaments established by the game’s software designers, Riot games. Last year I tried to do a calculation of the time I spent playing the game and I worked it out to be 84 days out of 365, or 2016 hours in total. That was a conservative estimate. Either my gaming has become an Achilles heel or it is like the pebbles in a jar, the important part of my day that inspires productively in all the other areas.
Over the past year, I have been promoted, I have earned more money than ever before in my life, I scored distinctions on my university coursework and my students scored higher than expected on their VCE and NAPLAN tests. I read Hemmingway, Melville, and Marquez among others. All of this was peripheral. I kept fit and I remained active. Through all this the gaming was not what I lived for. It was to me like Hemmingway’s bullfights, my central theme and focus, around which all other passions, pursuits and desires revolved. Julia Cameron once said words to the effect that artists must spend time on the things they are passionate about. They are not to spend time on reading books or work alone. It is when we live according to the passions of our heart that our desire to create emerges. Likewise I think it was Goethe who said the man who has not lived should not write.
I took my coffee, my third for the day at around 11 am. The bitter feelings of the loss had subsided but were still strong in my mind. I had given competitive cycling to pursue my obsession with League. If we fail to follow our passion, our passions were not strong enough in the first place as la Rochefoucauld wrote. Gaming may not be an addition, but it is a passion and a strong one at that.
Whilst Hugh Mackay laments that we spend on average twelve minutes a day talking to our partner, and hours in front of the television or social media, how much time can you really spend talking to someone? Men need to be doing things, that’s the way we are. According to research findings published in Journal of Psychiatric Research (Ferguson, Coulson & Barnett Griffiths, 2011), experts cannot agree that such a thing as video game addiction exists. Experts refuse to declare it either a mental illness or a disorder. Likewise, studies have revealed that time spent playing games does not negatively affect academic achievement, yet engagement therein may lead to enhanced educational outcomes. The jury is still out, but when I see a happy, intelligent child like my godson it makes me happy.
I left work that evening and as I started the car, the feeling gripped me again, that familiar sensation of burning desire, the same sort of desire that saw Paris steal Helen away, that sees politicians cling to power despite broken promises, a path of lies and deception. I wanted nothing more than to return home to forget the day, to remember the night, to be in the game. To be in the game is to be in life. When I no longer play, I no longer live.
Mackay, H 2005 ‘Is TV violence all that bad for kids’, The Age, 3 April, retrieved 6 May 2013, http://www.theage.com.au/news/Hugh-Mackay/Is-TV-violence-all-that-bad-for-kids/2005/03/04/1109700674787.html
Ferguson, C.J, M. Coulson, J. Barnett Griffiths 2011. ‘A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems’ Journal of Psychiatric Research 45 (12): 1573–1576 retrieved 15 May 2013, http://www.tamiu.edu/~cferguson/Video%20Game%20Addiction.pd