From Productive Writer To Cocaine Addict, Just Add Grand Theft Auto

Tom Bissell was a productive, healthy and somewhat disciplined young award-winning author, before his passion for Grand Theft Auto helped transform him into a cocaine-addled gaming addict.

As a travel writer with an eye for politics and history, Tom Bissell has visited Uzbekistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, but it wasn't until his first forays into Vice City that he found himself lost. In his article "Video games: the addiction", published Sunday in The Observer, Bissell discusses at length how his life changed with the introduction of the Grand Theft Auto series.

The article begins with Bissell giving an account of how he used to productively spend his time.

Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down "only" a thousand words. Once upon a time I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than a fortnight between them. Once upon a time I was, more or less, content.

That all began to change in 2002, when a friend convinced him to pick up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Bissell found the freedom offered in the game compelling; almost intoxicating.

Never has a game felt so awesomely gratuitous. Never has a game felt so narcotic. When you stopped playing Vice City, its leash-snapped world somehow seemed to go on without you.

The insight that Bissell lends to each successive game in the series is quite enthralling. It's obvious to the reader that these games were much more to him than simple diversions, and his observations on everything from the simple pleasures of picking up a new set of clothes to darker fare - cop killing, prostitution - definitely bear reading.

It wasn't until Grand Theft Auto IV, however, that things took a turn for the worse.

When I was walking home from my neighbourhood game store with my reserved copy of GTA IV in hand, I called my friend to tell him. He let me know that, to celebrate the occasion, he was bringing over some "extra sweetener". My friend's taste in recreational drug abuse vastly exceeded my own, and this extra sweetener turned out to be an alarming quantity of cocaine, a substance with which I had one prior and unexpectedly amiable experience, though I had not seen a frangible white nugget of the stuff since.

Perhaps it was the combination of the drugs and the increased production values of this new iteration of the series, but something in Grand Theft Auto IV struck a chord in Bissell, travelling with him wherever he went. He moved several times over the course of the three years since GTA IV was released, each time promising himself he would leave the consoles behind; each time failing to live up to that promise. As for the cocaine, it almost seems as if cocaine was his co-pilot... his friend on the sofa next to him, laughing at his exploits and giving them some sort of greater meaning.

Soon I began to wonder why the only thing I seemed to like to do while on cocaine was play video games. And soon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.

There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.

Now Bissell has put the cocaine and Grand Theft Auto both behind him, but the attachment he felt for the game's star, Niko Bellic, will always remain.

Niko was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together.

Video games: the addiction []


    This dude is whacked.
    Grow a pair and get a grip on life. His pathetic stint with substances and a deep gaming immersion doesn't really tell us anything other than if you have zero willpower or self-esteem you too can become a muffin nosed game junkie.
    Get off my internets I can't believe I'm even bothering with a comment.
    Does publishing this story on the AU site really help people from the non gaming community and/or politicians and policy makers see us for the mature and respectable people we want them to see? No way, this is so counter productive. It doesn't even have a moral. Just some dude who did stuff that was brain dead.
    /end rage

      couldnt agree more, blame everything but yourself.

    Sounds like this person may have had an adictive personality that was triggered by GTA IV. Just a theory.

    I am not sure what the point of this article is. If it is a stab at video games because they will turn you in to drug fueled zombies, or if it is the GTA series that is to blame.

    To me it sounds like this writer just wants to sell a story to a paper to get his name out.

    How about the drug being the main focus here instead of video games? Cocaine is being used in the public more then what people would think. People go to work on the stuff, they go out to a restaurant and take it with them... house parties, movies + weddings. It is out of control and it has been for a very long time.

    If the press starts bashing video games because of people starting to loose control of a habit, or starting a habit because of it... then they are going to have to start bashing 50% of the movies out there as well.

    This guy seems to want to blame everyone and everything except himself for his own bad choices... I mean is he seriously blaming GTAIV for his coke addiction? GTAIV wasn't even that great... a definite step down from San Andreas IMHO.

    Sounds like this guy needed some friends who wouldn't try to get him addicted to illegal substances.

    I realise that we in the gaming community tend to get a little freaked out by the threat of another media bashing. I do believe however, that as the market and gamers mature, stories and issues such as this will be something that is discussed and dealt with effectively alongside other modern societal plagues like mental illness and depression.
    We don't need to label the game, or the drug or his personality as the cause and say it shouldn't exist, but rather acknowledge that these events can and do occur and that they need to be managed like any other health concern.
    How do I raise my teenage son and daughter to have an awareness of these things and help make good choices. How can I help them to help their friends who may be making poorer choices.
    As a society we are interdependent and our ability to see the need and help others is crucial to our continuing improvement.
    I believe articles like this help raise awareness of an issue that perhaps we may encounter in the future in some capacity.

    It's only been two years since it came out, not three.

    Going from this article alone, all I see is a guy with prior run ins with drugs being a complete idiot about life. Oh hey, I bought GTAIV, lets do some crack cocaine to celebrate....that isn't how you're supposed to celebrate anything, period.

    This is guy directly correlating the game to his drug addiction not because of the gameplay itself but because his brain is doing something that all of our brains do. Your brain may relate say a song to an important event in your life (like a song played at your wedding). Whenever you hear that song, you remember this event. This guy is having the same reaction but this time with drugs thrown in the mix.

    The fact that he is so passionate and attached to the game's world is a disturbing personality quirk. People who do drugs or get lost in other mediums tend to have a deeper psychological issue. There may be problems at home or their life just isn't fulfilling enough. Yes, he may be a successful writer but that doesn't mean you can't have issues.

    I don't think he is trying to blame the game on his drug addiction but it can sure as hell look that way. Unfortunately, the way the article is written, people who are reading into the article the wrong way are going to blame the game for his coke addiction and not his stupid choices in life.

    How come gamers are so fucking thick sometimes?

    This article is not a stab at videogames, nor trying to link them to drug use.

    From the article: Any regrets? Absolutely none.

    This article is a story about somebody's life, not an indictment about videogames.

    It's akin to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's a story about drugs and friends and gaming.

    It's about how games are now intrinsically linked to our lives in the same way television, movies, music and other arts are.

    It's about how games are a valuable part of life's experience.

    You people are so passionate about games you forget to see the bigger picture. You're blinded by anything even remotely negative attached to games.

      so is your mum

    Sigh. I am still disheartened when I see a knee-jerk reaction to any story involving game addiction. I'm not talking about the press, I'm talking about gamers.
    Sure, the press has multiple times blown a vaguely game-related incident way, way out of proportion. They do it with just about anything. But gamers need to stop writing off *all* negative press to do with gaming. Games aren't a perfect and problem free medium. They are designed to be as addictive as possible, it is part of what makes a good game. If we can't discuss the problems that causes without calling people weak, or stupid or idiots then we will end up with a serious problem.

    Gamers are often so defensive and judgemental when their pastime comes under scrutiny, and they blame the person entirely and get very adamant that games have nothing at all to do with it.

    When someone close to you suffers from addiction, you might change your view. It happens to intelligent, independent and strong people. It also happens to people with emotional or mental health issues. It can happen to just about anyone. Try not to be so black and white about it, you will probably encounter addiction in some way in someone you care about at some point in your life.

    Oh, and read the full article before jumping in, I know some people do, but in some comments it is obvious that people haven't.


      And much more elegantly said than I Pete.

      Do we not have a reason to get passionate about these things when we have people like Michael Atkinson and Jack Thompson polluting the media and the populations minds about gaming? I don't think its unreasonable of us to feel threatened by an article like this.

      And no matter what you think, this article is comparing gaming addiction to coke addiction... thats not my interpretation, thats fact. Its written in black and white.

    You guys (incl gals) are right in that this is just a story about some bad choices. Drug addition has been around long before gaming, this was just 'his' thing. There are countless other examples (us for example) who for the most part play heaps of games and dont do drugs... Interesting read though, in the same way that it is interesting to read about a murderer or violent criminal. It is just an insight to a world/brain that is unlike our own which makes it interesting.

    cant remember the last time i played a game straight. nothing better than running around battlefield stoned out of your brain. nothing beats a rocket coming right at your head and you catch that last frame before it zooms past (or blows the crap out of you), all the time ducking all over the place in real life.

    always getting shot by my own team for hiding in an attic while i roll another. so next time you see someone hiding in an attic, not even looking through the damn window, chances are they are not scared sh!tless cowering in the corner, they are busy and should be good to go in a minute or 2. take it easy on them (me).

    'From Productive Writer To Cocaine Addict, Just Add Grand Theft Auto'

    That's the title of the article. How is that not a negative portrayal of video games? Sure, if people actually take the time to read the article, the game and his problems were parallel; not necessarily related at all, just seeming to coincide in time. Like it was said, he was a productive author, and now it looks like he's trying to find the easy way back with this article.

    And GTA IV was definitely a step back for the franchise. Hopefully the next one will be better.

      That was the sensationalist title of Kotaku's post, which linked to the article. The newspaper article (which is actually an excerpt from a forthcoming book) didn't have a much better headline, but as anyone who has written for a newspaper or a magazine knows, writers don't do the headlines. So we have only the text of his piece to judge the guy by, and he in no way makes a causal link between videogames and drug abuse--he's merely writing about a dark time in his life and how GTA and his drug use were entwined.

      As the gentlemen above said, the defensiveness of gamers about any potential downsides to videogame playing is far more telling than the occasional story that describes people who can't put the controller down. If you want people to take the power of the medium seriously, you should start taking it seriously yourselves.

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