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Dear Dr. Mark -

I've been playing video games in one form or another virtually all my life. In elementary school, I'd come home and fire up the NES, and in later years it would become the SNES or the PC. Eventually I went off to college with my laptop in hand, and when class assignments were done I'd dive into some Starcraft, GTA, or whatever else I was into at the time. Now here I am, 30 years old, still playing games, partly because it's fun and partly because it feels like I don't really know how to do anything else. My friends and family will sometimes encourage me to participate in more social activities, but I just don't feel at all comfortable, like I'm intruding on some ritual where everyone else knows their parts and I'm just struggling to keep up.

I'd like to "get out there", make friends, and all that good stuff, but it feels like my ship has sailed. These were the kinds of things everyone else was mastering in high school while I was busy blasting those pink demons in DOOM. It just feels like it's too late for me to be anything other than the computer geek I've spent my whole life turning into, and I simply don't know what to do about it!

Many serious videogamers tell me this is how they have spent their time since they were very young and they don't know any other way of life. The current generation grew up with gaming in a way that no previous generation has. For perspective, when I was a teenager, they had just invented an unwieldy device that allowed us to play a primitive version of Pong on our TV screens. And we thought that was really cool.

While we know gaming is huge fun and that is the major draw, you could also think of it as a coping strategy that solves certain problems while exacerbating others. Having so many engrossing and fascinating options gives you something to do all the time, and can certainly provide a rich community, but if you are shy or lack confidence socially, it can also become a handy dodge. As you document so well, years can go by and you have missed out on developmental experiences that allow a person to handle increasingly complex real life social situations and relationships. In your case, it seems to have gotten to the point where you feel more "alien" in real life than you do fighting aliens.

If I think back honestly on my own life, I worry that I might have been prone to the same avoidance process had it been available. (There were others available that I made use of, like TV, but what you have at hand today is obviously so much more sophisticated, intriguing and engrossing.) Frankly, what I would have missed out on was loneliness, pain, embarrassment and repeatedly making an ass of myself, as well as the sheer panic of taking risks with real people in real life situations. There were lots of traumatic moments I wish I could forget, and there were many times when I failed and was hurt and lonely. What's the point in going through all that? Wouldn't I have been better off if I'd just been able to avoid those feelings in the comforts and thrills of a good game?

Looking back on it, I can genuinely say no. Confronting my discomfort and dealing with pain and loneliness made me stronger and more resilient. Failing repeatedly made me unafraid of making a fool of myself and more willing and able to take risks. Gradually, I became less inhibited and more relaxed in my own skin. This whole process happened earlier in my life than it has in yours, but later than for others. Therefore, I don't believe your ship has sailed. You have the insight that you are missing out on something, and the perspective that you don't know your part. You're correct that you are probably behind, but I believe you can catch up. Some of it may occur through challenging yourself to leave your coping strategy (gaming) behind a little more to put yourself in the situations where you are uncomfortable-to tolerate and perhaps even embrace the discomfort-and allow it to make you stronger. If you find that the pain of this is simply too great to tolerate, rather than increasing the gaming, you may find that counseling is helpful. You can learn and practice social skills with the right therapist and get the kind of support that will help you tolerate this process of trial and error.

You don't have to settle for being just a computer geek the rest of your life (well, like many of us, you may end up a partial computer geek which in the grand scheme of things isn't so bad). Thirty is still young and my experience tells me that someone who is determined to make changes and willing to pay the price can widen their horizons. I have known young men and women in your situation who make great progress. There is no sin in being a late bloomer.

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