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Dear Dr Mark.

I wonder if I have a problem. I find myself playing WoW for long stretches with no significant breaks. These marathons can go from thirty to fifty hours of constant play, foregoing all sleep and eating in hurried bites. When I’m not raiding, running instances, or farming, I level alts–I now have six 85s. Sometimes I help other players in my guild, sometimes I work on organizing the guild better. After one of these marathons, I might sleep for ten hours or so and then I’m at it again. Though I sometimes get a bored feeling when I’ve been on for a long time, I mostly feel good while I’m playing and want to keep it up. I don’t have the feeling I can’t stop, I just don’t want to. What’s going on here?

It’s very impressive and interesting that you play for such long periods. Some will wonder if you are addicted or engaged in obsessive-compulsive behavior while others may see this as a familiar experience. What would lead you to spend vast stretches of time in a game world, forsaking almost all other priorities and activities? While it’s easy for others to pass judgment, how would you decide whether it’s a problem or not?

Intensive, prolonged gaming allows us to dwell in a magical world that seems richer, more appealing, and more interesting than reality. While achieving goals within a game can be satisfying, there is a strangely relaxing but also stimulating sensation that accompanies game play, almost as if the gamer has entered a kind of trance state that goes well beyond simple preference and enjoyment. You may want to be in this world as much as you can to extend this feeling, which can have neurobiological correlates that we are only beginning to understand.

In a Boston Globe editorial on 5/14/11, Jesse Singal writes about “Game Transfer Phenomena,” an experience that a group of European researchers (Griffiths, et al) have investigated and will discuss in an upcoming article in the Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology, and Learning. This has to do with the way videogame experiences worm their way into our real life existences, in the form of thought intrusions, sensations, and repeated mental rehearsal of game situations and imagery. Singal interestingly speculates that his own experience made him wonder if the “neurons that had been tasked” with game play were continuing to do so even though he wasn’t playing anymore.

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The science of all this is in its infancy but fascinating nonetheless. If videogame play can be such a powerful experience that it creates a brain state that persists, for some of us, beyond actual play, it may have even more potent effects during continuous play. Not being a neuroscientist myself, I think of these potent effects as a kind of enchantment. It feels good to be enchanted and you want to do it as much as you can. If you have a flexible work schedule and few family obligations, it can be even harder to resist.

Why would we want to spend our limited hours on earth in an enchanted state? The answer to this probably goes beyond what I often hear from gamers–that it’s fun or it feels good when they are playing. The attractions of this enchanted state are very powerful–gamers often report feeling irritated when they are torn away from it by some real life obligation. Some note that they only really feel good while playing. By contrast, real life can acquire a kind of humdrum dullness that can feel quite deadening–it seems replete with boring activities and tasks don’t hold your attention and seem empty and disappointing.

Living in an enchanted world can help us escape pains and anxieties in real life, and it can also make us feel we are doing something special, important and magical. You seem to have found like-minded others to share this experience with, and these relationships may become significant and important as well as providing a kind of consensual validation for the habit.

When you spend thirty or more consecutive hours in this ensorcelled trance state, it’s hard to imagine that you don’t become deeply engrossed in it, entertained, stimulated, and relaxed all at the same time. Many serious gamers would sympathize with the attraction of such lengthy immersions, but you wonder if there is something wrong with this behavior. Do these long periods detract from other activities, priorities, and relationships? Are you able to enjoy life outside of the gaming world or does it provide your only satisfaction? Something is troubling you about these long stretches of gaming, and it’s a good sign that you would take the time to reflect on it. If you can’t determine for yourself whether there is a problem, talk to someone you trust, or perhaps even a professional. Getting this sorted out may help you arrive at a more balanced distribution of gaming, sleep, and other life activities, or you may end up feeling better about what you are doing and continue with it.

Dr. Mark Kline’s spring allergies have been particularly intense. Luckily, Zyrtec has prevented him from sneezing all over his laptop. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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