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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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Dear Dr. Mark –

When I first got into the internet, I lived in a middle-of-nowhere town. My folks and I had just moved there, and I was out of high school already. I attended the local community college, but I only made a couple friends. But in my spare time, I got my first real taste of reliable high-speed internet and found what my little corner of the real world couldn’t give me: People. Lots of people. I made instant friends with people over several forums and a free-to-play browser MMORPG.

But my parents never seemed to quite grasp that I was interacting with real people on the other side of that computer screen, they just saw me sitting alone in front of a computer screen – comparable with the “internet addict” horror stories of the time. I’ve since moved out to a larger town and have made “IRL” friends now that I’m in an area with a considerable amount of people, but I still remain close with many of my first internet friends, and I take my laptop with me to stay in touch when I visit my folks. But to my parents, my close friends are just names on a screen, not quite comparable with real people. Even with my dad’s experience with online gaming and my mom’s exposure to social networking though her work, I still don’t think they quite get it. My dad only ever played an MMO the way you would play a solo game, and my mom only really reaches people online that she already knows in-person. I never really got much grief from them about it aside from the occasional “Why don’t you go out and find some real friends?” comment, but is there a good way to help them understand that I do have “real friends”?

This is a nice statement about the tremendous benefits the internet and gaming can offer to people who find themselves isolated socially or geographically. You can find people elsewhere on this planet with whom you might have something in common and you can build meaningful and significant relationships with some of them. I know many young adults who seem to have developed a healthy internet social IQ that allows them to make reasonably sound judgments about whom to connect with and whom to avoid while on the internet, and as a result, they end up with some terrific friends. When I think about my year playing WoW, the thing I miss the most is the fun, spirit and camaraderie of my WoW guild and the sense of real closeness I had with many of my guildmates.

I think you’re absolutely right that people of your parents’ generation (of whom am I probably one) have an instinctive discomfort with this. It seems inadequate and alien to us. How could you really know or trust someone who lives hundreds of miles away that you may have never met in person or in some cases never even laid eyes on? We are also constantly regaled with horror stories about pedophiles and murderers who find their victims through the internet. While these risks are real, and I certainly advise caution in developing online relationships with people you don’t really know, I think they are highly over-emphasized by a media hungry for sensational lurid stories that attract a lot of eyeballs.

You are also correct that people of my generation are suspicious of the amount of time you spend seemingly alone in front of the computer screen. How can that be anything but withdrawal and isolation? Often it serves a conscious or unconscious function of creating distance between family members, so your parents may feel deprived and a bit jealous of what you are doing there.

So how can you bring your folks along? First, make sure they see that you have healthy relationships and a good life outside of gaming and the internet. I hear from many parents who are quite worried when their kids’ lives seem to have been swallowed entirely by activity on the internet. I think it’s easier for the older generation to accept this as part of a healthy social life, rather than all of it. Second, look for opportunities to help them get to know your online friends. This might involve telling them some details about their lives or the things you do together, or actually getting your folks involved in a meet-up or two. That way your online friends will seem less mysterious and cryptic to your parents. Finally, when you do go to visit your folks, make sure you aren’t using your laptop and gaming as a way to avoid them. This may mean making sure you reserve ample time for meaningful interaction with your parents so they don’t feel cheated because you have come home to see them, but really aren’t seeing much of them. If you get the ratio right, they will likely be more accepting of the time you spend gaming and socializing on your laptop when you are with them.

It may take some time and attention, but I think your parents can increase their understanding and appreciation of this part of your life, or at least accept it for what it is and let go of the badgering.

Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.

Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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