Gaming, I jokingly tell my friends, cost me a decade of my life. But there’s a touch of melancholy to this joke: I have lost something to videogames.
The explanation is actually quite trivial: I was too busy playing games to meet my responsibilities, and the damage took time to repair. But this begs an explanation: Did I not know what I was doing? Was I simply irresponsible? I could have stopped at just about any moment along my self-destructive arc, yet I didn’t.
Without casting blame or shunning accountability, I readily admit that I was addicted to games. What is addiction if not the unhealthy and unreasonable enjoyment of something to the degree that one’s life suffers as a result? But I was not a passive victim in this relationship – games did not waylay me and force me to play them. My story is fundamentally no different than those of the addicts of any other substance. It is a mixture of irresponsibility, self-denial and personal issues that initially had little to do with videogames.
Many of my peers went through a similar ordeal, to one degree or another – men (mostly) who “lost” a semester or flunked out of school by overindulging in their hobby. They went through something similar to the fabled “larval” stage of a programmer: barely bothering to eat or sleep, sucked into the abstract world that they have entered so suddenly. Perhaps it’s partly because gaming grew up with my generation. To us, gaming wasn’t just one of several modern pastimes; rather, it offered an abrupt and dramatic shift in our surroundings. We went from playing on consoles with a few friends (if we played at all) to games with the fundamental framework of modern gaming – including online multiplayer.
Before college most of us had, at best, a 56k modem that connected to the internet via a dialup service like AOL. From this primitive state we suddenly jumped into a world with broadband internet. It was like going from steam to nuclear fission by the simple expedient of changing location. Furthermore, many of us received our first PC when we went off to college. Every month, it seemed, someone would save enough money to buy a modern graphics card, among our first “adult” purchases involving $100 to $200 for an allegedly childish pastime.
College is a minefield for many ambitious, young, (mostly) middle class individuals; the first flowering of independence and the responsibility that entails is often more than they can handle. Combine this with full access to the distractions of adulthood, and it’s not surprising that many do not make it. When I arrived, however, gaming in the modern sense was still somewhat new.
My drug of choice was Quake II Capture the Flag (CTF) online, then in its golden age. CTF was a perfect blend of strategy and tactics, order and chaos, teamwork and mayhem. The free-for-all deathmatch didn’t appeal to me – it was meaningless violence, devoid of any satisfaction. CTF, on the other hand, had goals, rules and roles for each player. It was, to a geek like me, the first sport I was ever any good at.
Needless to say, Quake II was a great deal more fascinating than my schoolwork. I started playing it a few weeks into my first semester at college, and with frightening rapidity, simply stopped going to class – or doing much of anything, really, other than eating, sleeping and playing Quake. I would stay up until sunrise, absorbed in the continual, shifting madness of the battlefield, until finally I collapsed from exhaustion. Then I would wake up, run out to get something to eat and start playing all over again.
The rest, like I said, was trivial. I was academically disqualified.
There is a particular genre of literature referred to as “after the end” stories, which deal with how people survive not during a disaster of biblical proportions, but afterward, when the chips have fallen. Quotidian lives take on a certain degree of drama in these settings, and they allow storytellers to say something about both our capacity for self-destruction and our ability to adapt and survive.
In a some ways, my story, and stories like it, follow a similar arc. I didn’t touch a game again for awhile, and instead focused on repairing my life. I got a job and attempted to heal the broken trust my actions had caused among my loved ones. It was slow, tedious and entirely unromantic.
There is a school of thought that requires you to go cold turkey from a substance you have abused and never approach it again, as though it were radioactive. This formulation always struck me as limiting: You treat yourself like a child, incapable of using something responsibly. You don’t allow yourself to make something a normal part of your life – it must either be conquered or shunned.
There was also a more mundane problem than my perceived superiority over what had previously wrecked my life. The truth was that rebuilding my life was frustrating and, to a certain extent, boring. This, of course, is also normal; no one should expect life to be an unending cavalcade of excitement. The fact that my job was a soul-dulling bleak void in my day is not even particularly unusual among people my age. Thus, we as human beings have what we refer to as “leisure” time, where we relax and explore our true selves.
A brief glance around the internet will reveal that just about any activity or substance that helps people escape from the drudgery of their daily routines has some sort of group dedicated to those individuals who abuse it. Each and every one of these things can enrich your life if used in moderation. To not be able to healthily enjoy these things, then, is to not be able to live fully.
Getting my life back on track took me longer than I expected. I turn 30 in May and have not yet received a bachelor’s degree. Nonetheless, by now I’ve mostly repaired the damage wrought by my addiction. I can never have those years back, but to write them off as “lost” would be unfair. I had those years to think and discuss what had happened to me, and I learned from difficulties I would not otherwise have faced.
Cynics will tell you the consolation that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a mirage. And to a certain degree, they’re right. Sometimes things in life are merely difficult – there is no larger meaning, no glory, no heroism in your sacrifice. Still, it’s human nature to extract meaning from your experiences – and I’ve certainly done this with mine.
So, what have I learned from my brush with game addiction?
I’ve learned that videogames, like anything else, can make your life both better and worse – and a lot depends on how you manage the transition between gaming as a childish pastime and gaming as an adult hobby. You need to accept the very real fact that games can swallow your attention whole and realize that you will have responsibilities and demands on your time that may not always allow for this kind of intense diversion. But if you’re able to balance your hobby with your obligations, it can be incredibly rewarding. Think of it as that core gameplay staple: resource management.
Jorge Garcia is a (soon to be) 30-year-old gamer who’s been learning resource management for about 20 of those years. He lives in Boston with his wife, and is otherwise a person of very little consequence.