I’ve always been a gamer. I was given an Atari
2600 at the age of 2 in order to placate my desire for the Nintendo Entertainment System that was released then. By the time I was 3 and a half, I was playing Super Mario
Brothers and Duck Hunt with my father. I loved it, and my hobby-for-life was discovered. Since then, I’ve owned almost every video game system that has had a mass release, and some that didn’t. I’ve found over the years that the games that keep my attention the most are the ones that provide me with a sweeping narrative that tells a tale with which I can interact – roleplaying games.
I’ve been a fan of Final Fantasy since I was young. Square, Enix, Bioware, Bethesda and the other “big boys of RPGs” have been house-hold names with me as far back as I can remember. I’ve played and replayed through a myriad of games that take 20, 30, 40 and more hours to master and complete. I’ve loved almost every minute of it. So when one of my best friends in the world told me almost a decade ago that there were new online games like this, I was instantly sucked right in. The big decision at the time was which game to play, Ultima Online or EverQuest. My circle of friends chose Ultima Online, and we played together as a cohesive group for 6 years, through high school and our first couple of collegiate years.
During the early years, when we were 15 and 16, there didn’t seem anything wrong with the amount that we played these games. They were online, allowing us a social outlet, as well as providing us with hours of entertainment on a budget that was far less than our console game purchases had ever allowed. It was the best of both worlds. The problems began, however, when we introduced the opposite sex into the mix. As a rule, girlfriends and MMORPGs do not mix. It’s like tossing a lit match into a can of gasoline in a house made of paper. You are simply asking for a bad outcome.
We stuck through it, though, and stayed with our games. We were teenagers, afterall, so a couple arguments over the hours we played a video game wasn’t a big deal. We could either work through it or the relationships would end. Luckily for all of us, the relationships ended for different reasons than our gaming habits.
As college continued and UO became dated and changed with patches, we eBayed our accounts and moved to the greener pastures of EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and now World of Warcraft. We tried almost every MMO that came out, but we stuck to a mere handful to spend the majority of our time on. Our gaming habits have since relegated themselves to being almost entirely MMO based. If it’s not online and requires the attention of 20-40 other people, we were simply not interested. This is where our downfall started.
As we moved through college, our interest in the opposite sex peaked and with classes being so dreadful (aren’t they always until you’ve graduated, and then you yearn for them. But that’s another essay for another time.), we were having to divy up our times. And to this day, we have to put our real lives on hold if we are “raiding” on a particular night. This isn’t a big deal when you think about it. Lots of guys have poker nights or guy nights or any kind of scheduled fun night to spend with “just the boys.” But these are common, and often, one can take these kinds of schedules too seriously, as I did.
I’ve been a less than stellar half of my latest relationship because of an MMORPG. If my girlfriends schedule didn’t match up with my guild’s raiding schedule, then it was “Sorry, baby, let’s do that on Tuesday. We’re not raiding then.” That’s no way to be. I realized that I was avoiding my friends and parties they would have so that I could spend my time chatting and “healing” people who lived entire time zones (and sometimes continents) away. I was becoming so immersed in this game that my real life was suffering because of it.
So I took a step back. I looked at what I was doing. I was treating my position as a healer in this guild in this video game as a job with full real life consequences and responsibilities. That should never happen. I was realizing that I was getting irritated during everyday conversations with my friends if they would bring up squabbles with guild members, which is all politics and, in my opinion, has no place in a video game I use to relax. My game was becoming more than a way for me to relax. It was becomiing a way for me to escape reality and not worry about the things that actually mattered, and sometimes that’s the only way some people can stay sane. We escape into a book, a movie, a television show, or a video game so we don’t have to deal with certain issues when we can’t or don’t want to. It becomes a problem when one begins to shun those issues and stressors completely to progress in one’s virtual life within an online roleplaying game.
Now, I’m not saying MMORPGs are evil. Far from it. I find the genre to be exciting, and I can’t wait for what the next generation of the technology can bring to gamers. I find them wonderful for keeping in touch with friends who have moved off when we graduated college, and I think that the subscription fee can help alleviate stress placed on one’s wallet by single player, single play-though games. The ability to “live” in a world with others and have your actions account for something is a thought that’s been the heart of games like this since Gary Gygax created Dungeons and Dragons on the 1970’s. We want to adventure with our friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes in when one has a problem separating these virtual worlds our avatars live in and the real world where our priorities have to lie. That’s where the line blurred for me, and I realized I was very close to becoming an addict.
So I’ve taken some time off. I’ve evaluated myself. I’ve realized that I was very close to becoming one of those “MMO Addicts” that I’ve made fun of for years. It had finally become more than a game, and I had to force myself to realize that. The time off has now helped me. I no longer blow off my wonderful girlfriend, I am finishing games that were released on consoles (that I can pause/save when something actually important comes up), and I’m finally writing again and preparing myself for the real world consequences of graduate school which starts in less than a month.
These are the important things (well, maybe not finishing the games I’ve put off) that playing an MMORPG obsessively can take away. If one doesn’t strictly regulate play-time, then the game can quickly become more than a relaxation technique and metamorphose into something as harmful to one’s life and family/friend atmosphere as any illegal drug. The potential is out there. I never thought I would let a game so completely take over my life, but as my girlfriend pointed out, I was scheduling my life around playing a game. And that’s simply not healthy.
There are ways to avoid this kind of thing, though. Simply set alarms for certain times when things need to be done. This will remind you that there are more important things than making that 45 minute Baron run. You can avoid things such as “end game guilds” when you play MMORPGs. These kinds of guilds do the long hours multiple days a week. This is what quickly got out of hand for me; earning my DKP (a point system used as currency within a guild) each week was like getting a virtual paycheck. Find a guild of people with similar play-times as you, with as many, if not more, responsibilities, and it’s hard to get overwhelmed with activity if people aren’t online. And the best thing to do, though, takes the most willpower – remember it’s a game. You pay for it each month to have fun, for entertainment. If you lose the idea that it’s a game and it becomes a job for you, giving you as much or more stress than your real life, then you should re-evaluate the way you play and why. That’s what helped me realize that I was walking a razor’s edge over the depths of addiction.
I’m happier now. I’m doing things that make me happy like writing more often (like this!), moving into a new house with my childhood buddy, and I am not worried about my girlfriend’s schedule no longer working with my raid schedule on World of Warcraft. I’ve put things in perspective. A little self-inspection can be a good thing every now and again. When playing games, especially games that masquerade as social outlets, it’s easy to become immersed in the content. The real challenge isn’t anything the game’s developer coded in. It’s the end user realizing the line between reality and fantasy, allowing him or herself to fully enjoy gaming without losing life’s priorities.