I Kept Playing: The Costs Of My Gaming Addiction

"I hated level 40," she said with a sigh. It was the first time we'd spoken in eight years, and she had never forgotten the night I spurned her advances in favour of gaining a level in EverQuest.

During the course of my tenure at Kotaku I've referenced my days in EverQuest on many occasions, but I've never elaborated on what went down back then. Recent events in my life have brought that period to the fore, and I've decided to share my experience with our readers.

In November of 2000, my life was going well. I had a lovely girlfriend, a serviceable vehicle, and a job that paid more than enough for me to survive while catering to my increasingly expensive video game habit. Within four months, it would all be gone.

At the time I was sharing an apartment with a friend of mine named Dustin. Dustin was a great guy, but he spent his entire downtime sitting in front of his computer, playing a video game called EverQuest. I had encountered the game before, having participated in the beta for Sony Online Entertainment's massively popular multiplayer game, but once the game went live I lost interest. I just couldn't see myself paying a monthly fee just to play a computer game. Oh, how things have changed.

Having nothing much else to do at the time, I'd sit and watch Dustin play. He'd explain what his Monk character was doing in the game. I was a spectator as he progressed, learning to feign death, earning new weapons, and taking on greater challenges as he got closer and closer to the level cap.

So when I wasn't spending time with my girlfriend, Emily, I would watch Dustin play. Or I would tool around on various text-based MUSHes and MOOs online, role-playing with people all over the world. I'd been into science fiction, fantasy, and comic books since I was very young, so slipping into an imaginary world came easy to me. Perhaps a little too easy.

Towards the end of 2000, Emily and I broke up. The reasoning behind this is far too stupid to delve into… let's just say we were both young and a bit foolish.

I became depressed, and Dustin had just the thing to cheer me up.

The Scars of Velious expansion for EverQuest came out in December of 2000. My roommate, perhaps tired of my moping over my lost love, picked up a copy of the game for me as a Christmas present. I installed it, created a half-elven Bard, and soon our apartment had two guys in the living room at all hours of the day, faces bathed in the glow of monitors.

Within a week, the game that hadn't affected me at all nearly two years previously had become an important part of my life. Soon, it would become my life.

If I wasn't asleep or at work, I was playing EverQuest. The former was becoming a rarity. I would go into work, and I would still hear the sounds of EverQuest orcs in my head. All I had to do was close my eyes and I was speeding through the Greater Faydark zone, killing pixies and turning in quest items.

In January of 2001, a man with a tow truck came to my place of employment and took my car away. I had fallen behind on payments without realising it, and Nissan had decided they wanted my Sentra back. My first thought as I watched the tow truck drive away was how many hours walking to and from work would take from my EverQuest time.

I worked at a company called FranchiseOpportunities.com, maintaining and creating websites, but increasingly my time there was spent either communicating with my EverQuest friends or browsing websites for tips on the best equipment and techniques for grinding experience points and gold. It was impossible for my co-workers not to notice. In February of 2001, Joseph Lunsford, the owner of the company, called me into his office.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Lunsford told me this month when I went to see him and talk to him about the person I used to be. "You were was amazingly bright. I was convinced there wasn't anything you couldn't do. You showed so much promise, but your interest in work just fell off. Projects started taking longer to get done, and it was obvious your head wasn't in it. You left me no choice."

I was in tears back then. I felt unbelievably pathetic. I had no car. I had no job. Joe had handed me my last paycheck and about $US120 he had in his wallet, and sent me on my way. I took a taxi home, broke the news to my roommates (we had moved into a three-bedroom to split the bills three ways), went into my bedroom, started up EverQuest, and forgot about everything.

According to Dr. Hilarie Cash, the executive director of the reSTART internet and gaming addition recovery program and co-author of the book "Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control," retreating inside a video game to avoid real world problems is a common cause of "video game addiction."

"I would definitely call it video game addiction, which is a subset of internet addiction. Many of the things [you]described to me are typical of a video game addict, particularly the way that real life shrinks away for the addict, living more and more in the virtual world."

And that's exactly what I was doing. I had been a confident and outgoing young man who enjoyed hanging out with my friends, spending hours chatting about absolutely nothing while smoking cigarettes and drinking countless cups of Waffle House Coffee. Now my social dealings involved helping online friends camp a rare monster spawn, or discussing class balance on my guild's chat channel.

Going outside was only necessary when I ran out of smokes or beverages. I lived off $.30 pot pies from Wal-Mart and cheap bags of rice. I was taking care of my most essential needs, but only barely. Often times I would fall asleep in my chair in front of my computer with EverQuest running, waking up hours later to start the cycle all over again.

Even now my memories of the period are a blur of Oasis runs, power leveling, and experience grinding. My mother remembers those days much more vividly.

"Mike was unavailable for most of that period," she recalled recently. "There was no way to contact him, except to do a 'drive by' preferably with a bag of groceries in the back seat. I remember trying to talk to him. Such a fine mind and wild sense of humour; all covered up and hidden deep inside again. He listened half-heartedly and was easy to anger. He was going down fast, even to the point of telling how it really was and not just what you wanted to hear."

Hearing her talk about it now, I can barely believe it had gotten so bad, but I tend to hold on to positive memories more than the negative ones. Like the day Emily came back.

It was three months after I was fired that Emily decided to give us another chance. I wasn't the same man she had been with before. I was relatively skinny, and my hair had grown ridiculously long. As we lay curled up in bed one evening she commented on how my belly had disappeared, which tickled me to no end. It seems perverse to me now. It wasn't as if I had been dieting or exercising; I was taking pride in my own malnourishment.

My existence slowly started gaining some semblance of a real life again. Emily went out one afternoon and brought me a stack of job applications, which motivated me to go out, get my hair cut, and go to my first job interview at a Fast Signs down the street. Looking slightly more human and feeling more alive than I had in months, I got the job on the spot. It was amazing how fast things had turned around. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.

In an odd twist, my EverQuest friends were now worried about me.

I hadn't been around, and they missed my sense of humour and my enthusiasm. My ability to twist four Bard songs at a time didn't hurt either. These people needed me. I was important to them, and I couldn't let them down. Looking back, I can't believe I missed the irony there.

So I started playing EverQuest again. At first it was only on the nights that Emily couldn't make it over, but soon I was back to my regular play schedule – every waking hour. I was regularly late to work, and called in sick at least once every two weeks so I could stay home and play.

Then came that fateful night.

The woman I had once told was the love of my life was sitting undressed in my bed not a foot away from my computer desk, begging me to join her, and I kept putting it off. I was so close to level 40 I could taste it. I was in the Dreadlands, kiting large enemies back and forth, killing them slowly with my Bard songs. I still remember the urgency I felt, along with the annoyance that this woman was trying to keep me from reaching my goal. Couldn't she understand how important this was to me?

She had certainly tried.

"Back then I just figured I was dating a gamer, and that's how it was going to be," she said to me recently. "I hadn't dated many guys at that point, and my older brother was the same way. He worked, came home, and played video games."

Eight years later it became obvious that my lack of attention toward her weighed far more heavily than either of us had suspected.

One morning in late September of 2001, I called my job and quit. Whatever justification I had for this at the time doesn't matter. The reason I quit was because I was tired of making excuses for being late, and I just wanted to play EverQuest.

Emily and I had grown further apart. During my time at Fast Signs I purchased an old car from my sister, only to discover I couldn't get insurance for it due to my driver's licence being suspended over a previous ticket, ironically issued for driving without insurance. Rather than actively working to fix the problem, I slipped deeper into depression. I would let Emily take the car, driving it with a "TAG APPLIED FOR" plate on the back, but wouldn't go anywhere with her for fear of being pulled over and sent to jail. Instead, I would stay home and play EverQuest.

The last time I would see her — until 2009 —was two days after her birthday in early October. I had let her take the car to her party, but refused to go with her. She reacted by keeping my car for two days without contacting me. I responded by telling her to return the car and the keys and get out of my life. She did just that.

And I kept playing.

December rolled around again, one year after I had taken my first steps into EverQuest's world of Norrath, and I had completely changed. I went from being a strong independent person to a gaunt, unshaven, unshowered recluse, completely withdrawn from the outside world.

My roommate, once one of my greatest friends, was threatening to throw me out of the apartment if I didn't find a job. But I had absolutely no motivation. The only time I left my dwelling was to scavenge for food at my parents' house, or to grab a quick shower, as our apartment's hot water had been turned off.

I remember feeling like a ghost, drifting through the waking world unnoticed. Luckily for me, my mother was looking out for me as best she could.

"He didn't look like Mike anymore," she remembers now. "He was scary and pitiful. I was afraid he was suicidal or dying of some mysterious disease. It broke my heart and I knew that coming home and taking the pressure off would be the best medicine for him."

And so on January 1st, 2002, at the age of 28, I moved back in with my parents. It wasn't an instant cure for my addiction – as soon as I convinced them to let me order DSL I was back online again – but something had changed. I started spending more time hanging out with my parents and less time sitting in my computer chair staring at little computer people doing little computer things. I had responsibilities. I had a support system. I had a stable platform to launch myself from instead of the quicksand I felt I had been standing in before.

Within two months I had found myself a job at a local gas station. Later that year I started speaking with Joe Lunsford again, proving myself through contract work until he decided to hire me on again in 2003. So I once again had a job, a girlfriend, and eventually my own apartment, sans roommates. That's where I was in 2006, when Brian Crecente contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write for Kotaku. That's where I am now.

It would be easy for me to pin my problems on EverQuest, and society in general would accept it without question. I could say I fell prey to an addictive video game that nearly ruined my life, but I would know that wasn't the case.

I hid. I ran from my problems, hiding away in a virtual fantasy world instead of confronting the issues that might have been easily resolved if I had addressed them directly. As far as I am concerned, the only thing Sony Online Entertainment is guilty of is creating a damn good hiding place. It was my responsibility to control how much I played, and the SOE spokesperson I contacted regarding my story agrees.

"EverQuest is a game," the Sony Online rep told me. "The majority of the hundreds of thousands of subscribers play the game in moderation enjoying the gameplay as well as the community interaction the game provides. As with any form of entertainment, it is the responsibility of each individual player to monitor his or her own playing habits and prioritize his or her time as necessary. It is not our place to monitor or limit how individuals spend their free time."

Dr. Hilarie Cash agrees as well, though she suspects that game developers are actively engaged in trying to make their games more addictive.

"Some blame can be laid at the feet of developers, making a conscious effort to make their games more addictive. It's analogous to the tobacco industry, trying to make tobacco more addictive. It works to their benefit. That having been said, it's up to the individual to take responsibility for how they play."

During our conversation, Dr. Cash also likened gaming to gambling. Some people can walk into a casino, lose $US5, and call it quits. You have to know your own limits, and be conscious enough of them to know when you are in danger of going too far.

My own solution to my potential for MMO addiction is rather simple. I've managed to turn a habit that once interrupted my work into something I actively have to do for work. It's no longer escapism if I am doing my job. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but if I am going to be that gullible I might as well take advantage.

As for Emily, she's sitting behind me as I type this, playing Peggle. I'd ask her to come to bed, but I know how important getting to that next level can be.

This story was originally published on October 20, 2009.


Comments

    Wow.

    Thats preety deep to share about yourself with the entire world.

    I have played several MMO's and currently actually subscribe to two MMO's. WoW and WAR. (Man now that sounds bad doesnt it?)

    I do play several nights/days a week. But i am never late for work because of it. I am always of the preference of going out with friends rather then play. And I also play other games, Clock brutal legend, got Metroid Trilogy yesterday.

    I pay for 2 mmo's, but WAR is really throwing my money away, I only play it occaisionally. Often, i wont play it all for a week or 2.

    what stuck me most about this article, is that it could easily be rewritten with "Heroin" or "Meth" instead of "Everquest" and it would still totally make sense.

    I guess I'm lucky that as an enthusiastic gamer, who also has a very addictive personality, that I haven't fallen into this trap of full-on game addiction. I probably play between 10-30 hours/week, including weekends, depending on what's available at the time. I have never let gaming become more important than my life/work/relationships, and hopefully I never will.

    I'm glad that you seem to have mended your relationship with Emily too ;)

      Don't forget "Weed".

    That truly hits home. I can relate to a lot of that piece. Thank you very much for sharing that with us Mike and i'm glad to hear your in a better place now. :)

    Well, that must be one hell of a woman you got there. Thumbs up. Glad everything is better now.

    Thanks for sharing dude. That was one hell of a story. Glad it all worked out for you!

    Ah, the lost hours of Evercrack.

    I too can relate to large portions of that story.

    Bravo for moving on and recognising the addiction for what it is. I still have trouble with that, which is why I refuse to play MMOs any more.

    What a disturbing story. I actually feel deep pity and completely sorry for you, and anyone who suffers with 'video game addiction'. But i cant help but think...Man up and do something with your life.

      Unfortunately it is often not that easy. There can be a variety of reasons for addiction of any type, you need to help with the underlying cause before they can start moving on with life.

    At one point I was addicted to Runescape, though I was never very good and at later times I could not pay for membership and would simply stay in one spot chatting with friends because I did not like grinding.

    I played 6 hours+ a day and my parents were increasingly concerned, eventually I quit because of the lack of content or friends online. Recently, I've started up again - but against the game rules I've started to use macros instead of wasting my time grinding; although I rarely ground which is why I had such a low level after such a long time.

    After this period I started getting back into mainstream video games and discovered pirating, I had found out about it earlier but instantly backed away after I heard it was illegal. My friend was looking into it though and he didn't care all too much, it was piracy that made me a hardcore game and gave me the opportunity to play these great games. I would later purchase the games I remember playing.

    Around now I'm in a rutt again, I sit infront of the computer 8 hours+ a day and am mostly up in the night while sleeping in the day. I'm not playing games, I'm not playing an MMO, I'm just doing stuff on the computer. I have no money or legal ability to get a job so I can't do much else.

    Childhood is simple, mine has been simpler, I don't go out much or have alot of friends. I never was a very social child but these events probably didn't help.

    I don't see myself as addicted at this time, take it as you will, I just don't have anything else to do sadly.

    I first played a Tom and Jerry game on the GBC in 1998. I moved onto internet gaming with Neopets and Pokemon Crater for a year or so in 2003 and started playing Runescape in late November of 2005.

    Some of these events have probably contributed to my sense of maturity, no matter if it's unwarranted. I'm 13 at the age of writing this and started Runescape when I was 9, with an 18 month hiatus between touching the game again.

    Don't have much more to add, but I'm glad to hear that things have turned out rather nicely for you after your bad experience.

    I am living a very similar story, only realising how badly I've been addicted for the last ~2 years and that there is an alternative way of living yesterday. I am 22. Lost amazing girlfriend. Moved back home. Depressed. Still addicted. Mum supporting. ...Hope it turns out like yours... Cheers.

    How did Brian Crecente get into contact with you; did you have journalism experience previous to your EverQuest days, or was it purely coincidental?

    That was a touching read Mike. Your one of the best writers here at Kotaku. Thanks for sharing.

    I can understand how simple it is to slip into a fantasy world. Its very easy to start with a simple game that's suggested by a friend, and then fall into the routine of gaining more and more addicted to it, in the same way that alcohol an drugs can do the same thing.

    Any group that sells a product, be they a tobbacco, alcohol or even an MMO producer, will be looking at how they can get the consumer to buy more of their product, and to continually buy it. It's a sign of the times I'm afraid to say.

    I was addicted to Quake 1.

    I played it up to 50 hours a week. And dropped out of a Private College course because of it. That course cost AU$20,000..

    Im still paying it off now but not just financially because I could be earning alot more than I do currently if I had focused my energy into something more worth while.

    Now Im addicted to COD4. And Modern Warfare 2 comes out next month....

    Props to you Mike for sharing that with us. I hope that you've well and truly moved past that scenario in your life. Also props to Emily for sticking by you!

    To everyone else who seems to portray MMOs as the tool of the devil, think again please. Like Mike said the only fault developers make is that their game (or aspects of it) is just THAT good people would simply keep playing. As to marketing strategy, of course they would promote the hell out of it as game sales figure/subscription is the thing that keeps the company going. It's up to the players to moderate themselves, not the developers.

    If you are addicted to ANYTHING, the problem lies with YOU and YOU alone. Other people/objects are simply catalyst to it but in order to 'cure' this addiction it has to start with you as a person. Please don't be a complete MMO-phobic just because you've had a bad run with one.

    To those who are addicted to one, please don't waste your life away. Admitting it is the first step towards recovery but dont just sit there and do nothing. Reading some of the above comments make me wanna go to their houses and give em a good kick to go outside :p

      I disagree completely with you laying the blame solely at the feet of the addict. Yes the addict does need to shoulder some of the blame, but as was pointed out by the only expect on gaming addiction cited in the article, developers DO need to share some responsibility as well, as there are plenty who go to great lengths to ensure that their game is as addictive as possible. Much like the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries, MMO developers in particular profit hugely from addicts. As such they should never be seen as harmless bystanders.

      I have some friends in MMO development in China and some of the stories that they tell me genuinely sicken me. A perfect example is how they treat "whales" - a casino-coined term for big spenders. When a user starts to buy up a lot of in-game items, employees of the developer will track them very closely and try to figure out how to get them online as much as possible and spending as much as possible.

      In some cases this would mean employees of the company would create accounts specifically to befriend the user to achieve this. Employees could access all of the latest and greatest cash items for nothing, creating the false impression for this big-spending player of having lots of friends who spend equally large amounts of money in-game on everything new (and the peer pressure that comes along with it).

      The rest of the user-base won't notice anything, but any new items or updates will then also feature things that they believe their big-spending users will want to pay for (e.g.: if they love raids then that's what the next update will focus on).

      My friends don't feel happy about doing this, but they insist that all MMO developers use similar tactics, generally under the guise of "enhancing the user experience" or some other marketing-friendly spin, and that taking the high road would see their company go under and themselves unemployed.

      If a company makes their greatest profit from addicts, and thus have financial incentive to make their product as addictive as possible, then they absolutely need to be held accountable for addiction to their game. Suggesting otherwise is incredibly naive at best or deliberately misleading at worst.

    Biggest dumb move in that story: Taking out a car loan.

    Seriously, why would anyone do this?

    All you addicts need to learn a bit of self control. It's not very difficult. Probably a result of upbringing

      A guy offers up that much of himself, and all you can say is addicts should learn control and it's probably a result of his upbringing? GTFO.

      Aah. The wisdom of a man who has no fucking idea what he's talking about. Congratulations on your lofty perfection, good sir. How kind of you to grace us mere mortals with your presence.

      Try being in their shoes before pronouncing judgement.

    That took some guts to say all that. Thank you for sharing a personal story on the topic of gaming addiction.

    There's a reason I've never, ever installed an MMO on my computer. Digital crack? Not in my house!

    I after many years of avoiding MMO's for this very reason, being a Blizzard fanboy installed WoW the day it was released. I'd made a pact with myself a resolution in fact, if I ever questioned attending a real world event to play WoW I would quit on the spot.

    Soon it was 6 hours sleep, 8 hours work and 8 hours WoW, with the other 2 hours being travel time to and from work, then all weekend. This occurred for about 4 months of my 6 month subscription. I would only venture form my screen to attend work or the various social events in my life.

    I to this day remember the night where I was about to skip a party to go on a raid I had been waiting for and been stuffed around on several times. I sat and thought for a moment knowing my resolution. Canceled my account and the game was uninstalling as I left for the party.

    I've never looked back. The collectors edition sits dusty in my bookshelf. It took a lot of my mates longer to come around but we've now all broken the curse.

    Amazing story. Thanks for sharing that.

    Small lump in my throat at the end there. I've sworn off of MMO's, even a star wars MMO is not going to sway me. I was already living at home on the dole (austrailan welfare) so I went the other way and got fat. I feel that if you have a competitive streak, or a very competitive personality like me you'll get suckered in eventually.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    wow dude that must have taken some real guts to come out with that story I'm glad life is better now but truly I understand completly I've had my own problems with drugs and gambling addiction,good on ya mate.

    You guys at Kotaku actually helped me kick my WoW addiction.

    I loved gaming as a kid and played SNES, PS1, N64, GBC, XBox and PC. Loved it all. But when WoW came along my interest in anything bar WoW faded.

    Stumbling across this site while tracking down some WoW info opened my eyes to a wonderfully diverse, vibrant world from which I had separated myself.

    Following the gaming scene, reading reviews, and trying to write a few of my own has reignited my interest in gaming, and while I still play WoW it's no longer an addiction. Thanks :)

    Gee this rings true for a few people I know.

    I say I'm a reformed addict as I was like many others who've commented (and probably many that haven't) addicted to Blizzard's mmo. Still got to work on time (but usually pretty tired) and living with my GF (still with me too :) ) but would play 5-8 hrs a night.

    It was really hard to actually beat the habit because of the community aspect in the game, as you mentioned, the people you played with needed you.

    I was part of a late game raiding guild before the first expansion came out.

    I only managed to kick the habit, when the expansion came out, the guild disbanded not long before hand so that sense of community had mostly gone for me. So I played for a while longer on my own or with pickup groups for instances but it wasn't the same after that so slowly started to play less and less. and haven't played it since

    In a way that was one of the best things that could have happened. Though I still game a whole lot atm I don't let that get in the way of life itself.

    Thanks heaps for sharing too :)

    Truly inspiring writing. Thank you for sharing this.

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