Greg was an intelligent, affable 17-year-old high school senior. Based on his test scores and achievements, he could have expected to get into a competitive college and become a successful undergraduate. But something was wrong. In the first term of his senior year, Greg’s grades nosedived from As to Ds and Fs. He did no school work and began skipping school. He spent most of his waking hours (usually noon to 4 AM) closeted in his bedroom, wearing a headset and staring intently at a computer screen. He rarely spoke to his parents, or anyone outside of his online friends with whom he played World of Warcraft. Greg seemed to be failing life, but he was “the best holy paladin on his server.” His WoW guild topped the charts on wowjutsu.com, and as a leader in the guild, he was responsible for studying YouTube videos to plan strategy for advanced raids.
Greg’s parents were frightened and appalled. By the time they contacted me, they had canceled his WoW account, turned off the internet, and demanded that Greg get back to school. They were shocked when he became violent, which led them to call the police, which led to a brief psychiatric hospitalization. In order to be discharged from the hospital, Greg promised to keep away from the game, but it wasn’t long after his return home that he was playing again. This left his parents with a terrible dilemma: confront his habit and risk crisis, or tolerate the loss of their son, and seemingly his future, to an online universe that they barely understood.
As a clinical psychologist, I’d heard many tales of “internet addiction” and seen other clients who ran into troubles like Greg’s. I was impressed with their passion for gaming and surprised by the sacrifices they made to sustain it.
As I listened to these clients, I found myself wondering: What is so compelling about these games? How do they end up taking over people’s lives so dramatically? As a middle-aged adult, I had no experience with MMOGs. I had dabbled in more traditional videogames, but these seemed manageable diversions that soon became boring. Clearly, WoW was something of a very different order. Around the same time that I was talking to Greg, a colleague sent me an invite to play for free. For ten days, I would have a chance to gain first-hand experience and insight on the game. Having seen what Greg went through, I should have been more hesitant, but I had no concept of what it would actually feel like to play. I naively thought that I could handle it.
In the beginning, I was a bumbling noob. My colleague and her friends helped me along. I picked up what I could from them, and at the end of ten days, I was having fun and figured it would be harmless to invest the money and play a little longer. A little longer turned out to be a year.
I learned there were websites that showed how to rapidly complete quests and pretty soon I was speed leveling, which meant more hours and nights playing WoW. This period represented a more intense commitment to the game; the higher I rose in level, the more competent and satisfied I felt. I liked the idea of catching up with my mentors, who noticed that I was “hitting the game hard.”
I managed to max out my level without doing a single instance or raid. I needed to be able to quit whenever necessary to help out with my kids or get to bed, so I didn’t want to get wrapped up in something that I couldn’t easily stop. But once I hit the level cap, I had to find something else to do if I wanted to keep playing. I disliked PvP, in part because my reflexes were so slow that I was truly awful at it, but also because I just didn’t enjoy killing other players (or, rather, being dogmeat for them). Many of my WoW friends were into raiding and they convinced me to give it a try. I knew Greg had run into trouble with this particular activity, but it seemed like a real rush, and I didn’t think my experiment would be complete without giving it a go.
This phase of my WoW experience was a real transformation. I went from a recreational to a serious player. I had to figure out how to play my role in a raid party, which meant understanding the game at a much more sophisticated level. I consulted with advanced players to learn how to spec and what gear was best. I scoured the internet for the best macros and addons. I put more time into boring repetitive daily quests in order to get the supplies that I needed for raid potions, elixirs and flasks. I found out what buffs were available and why I needed them. All of this required a level of commitment that totally burst my set limits on time and involvement with the game. I had to be ready when my guild was raiding, and I had to show up regularly in order to be considered a valued and reliable team member. This meant that 8 PM until 1 or 2 AM each night no longer belonged to me or my family. I became a more skilled raider as my guild progressed, and the rewards were a sense of accomplishment and loot that improved my character even further.
At this point, I could see more clearly what had so completely absorbed Greg. It didn’t seem like that great a leap from my six hour per day WoW habit to Greg’s 16 hour one. There were always more preparations to make, better gear and enhancements to craft or acquire, and never-ending nights of more or less successful raiding. I had guild mates who seemed to be playing almost as much as Greg had and I wondered what it was doing to their lives. But I was having fun and didn’t want to stop.
My WoW life also met important psychological needs. I’d developed a group of supportive guild mates and we had fun hanging out in-game. There was lots of teasing and silliness, but also very earnest collaboration to improve teamwork and raid success. I’d worked hard to become a contributing member of this well-oiled team, and I found it really satisfying.
When some of my guild mates learned that I was a psychologist, they began to see me as a resource to discuss issues in their lives. These discussions covered problems in relationships, parenting issues, career development, and even interpersonal conflicts within the guild. I was pleased to be trusted in this way, and surprised that this kind of intimacy could develop within an online game.
For me, WoW was also a way to escape some recurring physical aches and pains. I found that I simply didn’t think of my discomfort while I was playing, and so in a sense it was gone, almost as if I inhabited a different body while I played. What else can you escape through WoW? I knew of players who were in the midst of painful relationship setbacks and even divorce, while others were simply stuck, frustrated, and lonely. Some escaped dull, monotonous jobs, or boring periods of unemployment and inactivity. As a psychologist, I was suspicious of avoidance as a coping mechanism, but I came to see what a great solace it can be. Some life problems cannot be solved easily or at all – escaping them for a few hours may be the best we can do. My year of WoW play helped me appreciate the allure of such avoidance and the powerful instantaneous relief it can offer, while my experiences with players like Greg reminded me how lives can truly hang in the balance when people avoid basic life obligations and responsibilities.
I was particularly impressed with the intense excitement and vivid sensory experience of WoW play, which produced strong emotions in me. I seemed to feel what I imagined my character felt, everything from triumphant jubilation to dark despair, and these feelings often lingered long after I was finished playing for the night.
While I appreciated how rich and engaging my WoW life could be, over time it became clear that my habit was out of control. My online avatar was sapping energy and ambition from the rest of my identity. I thought about the game constantly; I played every available free moment, and I was up late almost every night. I began to avoid social events that would interfere with my raiding activity. While on vacation, I played WoW in my car near a WiFi hotspot so I wouldn’t miss out on the night’s raid. When visiting friends, I plugged into their ethernet after everyone was asleep in order to get my nightly thrills. My experiment had become an all-consuming passion, perhaps even an addiction. This shouldn’t have surprised me, because I knew Greg and others like him. I just hadn’t expected that it could happen to a supposedly mature 46-year-old psychologist.
After one protracted evening of play, I was not awarded a piece of gear that I thought I deserved. I felt totally enraged at what seemed a terrible injustice. Suddenly, it hit me that these strong feelings were about an imaginary piece of equipment in a virtual world. I started to feel ashamed of myself for my total immersion and loss of perspective. I knew that it was time for my WoW journey to end.
While it was hard to let go of my character with its elite gear and guild standing, it wasn’t as hard as I thought, and it was nice to get back to a saner sleep cycle and become reacquainted with my wife and children.
I left WoW with a greater appreciation for how gamers like Greg could have gotten hooked. It happened to me, after all. While I’m clear about the risks of online gaming, I have a new understanding of what devoted players get out of it, which feels very different to me than just knowing it can be addictive. This understanding has been critical in treating other patients with gaming habits. Knowing what their world feels like and how they get very real psychological needs met through playing has helped me better understand some of the tremendous trade-offs they make, and made me more patient in helping them to re-evaluate these choices.
Games like WoW allow immersion in alternate social universes where thrilling, complex battles take place, important psychological needs are met, and surprisingly intimate interactions are possible. Some of us recognize that we have gotten lost in these worlds and quit before irreparable damage is done, while others do not. Others find ways to limit and manage their play so that it doesn’t cause an extreme disruption in their lives. For them, WoW may become a relaxing evening diversion or a chance to spend time with real life friends, spouses, and children.
Greg was never able to achieve a healthy integration, nor could he recognize the severity and consequences of his WoW problem, despite persistent efforts to help him. In the end, he was removed from his home to a remote boarding school with no internet access. After a year, I received a note from him. His grades were up, he had a nice girlfriend, and he was headed to a fine college. Greg wanted to thank me for helping his parents extract him from WoW.
In the end, I was glad that both of our stories ended well, and I was grateful for the perspective a year under the influence of WoW provided me in helping others like Greg.
Mark J. Kline, PsyD is Associate Director of the Human Relations Service, a private non-profit community mental health center in Wellesley, MA. He can be reached at [email protected].