Dissociation Through Gaming


Dear Dr Mark.

I try to engage in deep philosophical thinking, but it ends up going nowhere, as I get lost in gaming, anywhere from 2 minutes of Minecraft to 12 hours of World of Warcraft. I end up losing my sense of time which forces me to rely on external alarms to keep my feet on the ground.

While reading one of your previous articles, I realized I had a serious question. When I look at my life and my interactions, I find that I just don’t seem to care about things in ways that other people do. For example, when my grandpa was nearly killed on the job, my response was ‘oh, is that so?’–I had no deep reaction or feelings. This makes me worry that I am somehow broken. Could this be caused by being abused horribly by peers in school or my lack of an appropriate father figure or even something else? What role does my gaming play in all of this?

It sounds like you want to feel things more deeply and be more engaged in your own life, but there is some significant obstacle. You’re surprised that you don’t react more strongly to upsetting news–almost as if you have lost contact with your soul in some profound way that makes you feel broken or damaged. This is pretty heavy stuff, but I’m encouraged that you’re uncomfortable enough to ask these questions. Without this kind of inner conflict there is no real motivation to address the problem.

You have some insights into what may have contributed to the problem: horrible abuse and the lack of a father figure. Often, people who have experienced intense pain and loss cope through withdrawal and detachment–it’s a safe, reliable way to escape when no other relief is in sight, and it can protect a person from even more extreme psychological deterioration.

You find yourself “lost” in gaming sessions that can go on for many hours and disrupt your thinking. Such lengthy departures can become “dissociative”–a person can lose the feeling of being themselves–even of being in their own body. You note that an external timer is required to bring you back. I think of this kind of dissociation as a more extreme form of detachment. It is also common in cases of trauma and abuse.

I’ve written in other columns that I respect the role of gaming in helping people escape unavoidable physical and emotional pain. In this case, it seems gaming is strengthening a dissociative process that has become its own problem, leading to a sense of emptiness and impoverished affect that may not be in your best interest.

Absorption in gaming may be a way to invest energy in something safe and reliable that can be kept at arm’s length, and may not necessarily challenge your basic position. This isn’t to say that gaming couldn’t provide opportunities for engagement and connection, but it doesn’t seem that you have used it this way.

Gaming can also abduct your mind by filling it with obsessive thinking and strategizing, meaning that your mind can be on gaming even when you are away from it, making you absent even when you try to be present.

Let me emphasize that the problem is not gaming itself, but in this case, your use of gaming to intensify a characteristic kind of coping. While you may have developed this coping style for some good reasons, strengthening it through gaming is a choice worth reassessing.

You should be able to think deeply about philosophical issues and care about important people in your life. You would probably feel more alive, energetic, and authentic if you could achieve these aims, and the people who care about you would certainly benefit. But how can you make this kind of change?

I can’t offer an easy answer. I think less gaming could help, but I think you will find it difficult to give it up if there aren’t compensatory improvements. It’s worth considering a course of psychotherapy to provide a point of contact outside gaming, and to help you look more deeply at the sources of your distress. With the right treatment, you may be able to feel some of the things you’ve been unable to access elsewhere, and come to some reckoning about how you want to live your life going forward. This will be hard work, but you are worth it!

I applaud you for asking such a profound question. It’s easy to continue along in a detached state indefinitely. It looks less and less pretty from the outside the older a person gets. I hope your desire to become a more complete and engaged person leads to success, and a more fulfilling and satisfying way of life.

Dr. Mark Kline doesn’t believe the Mayans could really predict when the world will end, but they may have invented soccer (football for my European readers). Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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