I’ve always had a tendency to get addicted to computer games. Not all kinds of games (I never really got into driving games, for example), but mostly games where you accumulate points - strategy games, role playing games, etc. My first “big” addiction was MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons… a kind of text-based equivalent of the recent crop of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft). I broke it off the first time, with a super-human effort, when I visited Oxford University and decided that I wanted to go there - and that I would clearly not get there while I was playing MUDs 6 hours a day (outside of school time!). It took all my will-power, back then, to quit cold-turkey.
Later on, my next big addiction was Diablo 2. I spent insane amounts of time playing that game, levelling up a variety of characters to level 80 or thereabouts, playing through the game countless times to accumulate precious items, experience, skill points, etc. One summer, after finishing my degree, I went through a phase where I burned myself out of Diablo 2 - by playing it so much, from dusk till dawn, that even I grew tired of it. That was another way of breaking off the addiction… it was easier, but costlier in wasted time.
So, when World of Warcraft came out, I knew that it was very important that I avoid playing it, because it clearly was a game that I would get instantly addicted to. Blizzard have a bad habit of making excellent games that got better with each version, and clearly WoW was the pinnacle of that progression.
To be fair, I lasted a good long time. It took until September 2008 before I finally gave in (on the excuse that I would only be playing with a friend, so that we would moderate each other’s gaming). The truth is, like an alcoholic having just one sip of beer, I was instantly addicted, even if I was more in control of that addiction than with any other game before.
I am not 16, or even 20, anymore. I am almost 29. Since the Diablo days, I have worked as a consultant in a large investment bank (not so trendy anymore these days, I know), managed teams, started two start-ups… I’ve achieved a few things that I’m proud of. One of the side-effects of those experiences has been a greatly improved degree of self-control. Ten years ago, WoW would have destroyed me, much like Diablo 2 did. I would have turned into one of those zombies with level 80 characters who spend every spare minute playing.
In comparison to how bad it would have been 10 years ago, I came out of this bout of addiction almost unscathed. The highest level I reached was a paltry 49. I flitted in and out of WoW, occasionally spending a few solid days on it (such as around the New Year). but mostly managing to keep it down to a few hours here or there. After all, I have responsibilities now - to my start-up, first and foremost, but more importantly to myself. I have no intention of devolving back to who I was 10 years ago. So, in all appearances, it was relatively harmless.
And yet, although the addiction was not as visible as before, it was still there, eating away at less obvious things. Of course, I wasn’t going to take time away from my start-up to play WoW, but that time had to come from somewhere. So I played in those spare hours where I didn’t feel like writing code. Sometimes, those spilled over into other activities. Often, they sneakily turned “I don’t feel like writing code but I could be doing something productive, like writing a blog post” into “I don’t feel like writing code, so it’s time to play WoW”.
“Extra-curricular activities”, like running a blog, learning chinese, or reading some fiction, help make us more rounded, more interesting - not just to others, but also to ourselves. For six months now, WoW has been eating away at those activities. I feel more hollow than before I started playing it. The progression towards being a better me was reversed for those six months, in all sorts of subtle ways. I was aware of this all the way through, but did nothing to stop it.
It was terribly easy to convince myself that I was overreacting in this analysis, that WoW could not be so harmful, that it was just a game, that I was in control, that I had taken breaks from it through that period and so therefore that I could just do that again. Yet each break came to an end, and was topped off by another day-long session, another set of “let’s play a little bit every day” compromises. So I did avoid the issue. Once, I raised it to my cofounder… “do you think it’s affecting my work?” He didn’t think so (and he was right, it wasn’t my main work that was being affected). Phew. I could play some more without feeling bad about it.
But though it was not affecting my work, it was affecting all those other things that make me who I am.
Bang! you’re dead!
Yesterday, as I lay in bed, tossing and turning for the umpteenth time, pondering this problem, I asked myself, once again “Can you just stop playing?” And I felt that I could not. I could not live with the idea that I would not be able to continue the progression of all those characters that I’d grown to think of as extensions to myself. That I would not be able to find out the end of this story that was unfolding on the computer but also in my imagination. That I would never explore that world, find out all about it, get to the top of it.
To me, not playing anymore was an impossible proposition. I lay wide awake, struggling with this as I would if I was about to make the biggest decision in my life - and yet fully aware that World of Warcraft is just a game!
It may sound trivial to those who have not been addicted to computer games before, but believe me, it is not. I struggled with this decision harder than I ever did about any business decision. It took more willpower to do this than anything else in my life (except, perhaps, the last time I did this, over 10 years ago).
And so yesterday, like I did when I broke off my MUD addiction, I did the impossible. I got out of bed, logged in to World of Warcraft, deleted every character, and then cancelled my account. I went to bed with feeling of immense relief. I won’t have to think about this topic again (well, apart from writing this blog post). And yet the relief was mixed with another feeling - something akin to mourning. I will never continue those stories. I murdered a handful of virtual characters who were a part of me. They are gone forever.
This is a good thing. I knew there would be negative after-effects to that decision, but here I am writing my first blog post in six months when instead I might have spent half the day pretending I was a paladin. This is a good thing.
Let’s put the house in order
I am not writing this post to point the blame at anyone, least of all Blizzard, who have created a fantastic game (though I could argue whether it is really ethical to create games that edge closer and closer to Red Dwarf’s BTL game). I am writing this post to put my thoughts and this blog in order.
First of all, I owe my readers a sincere apology for leaving the Hyperbrain series unfinished. It was not the right thing to do, and I will remedy this in the next week.
Secondly, I have, in those times when I wasn’t playing World of Warcraft, been thinking about the future of this blog, and decided that it was time to transition to a different format. Over the next few months, I will progressively start posting my new writings to some new sub-blogs (some of which are already semi-active), move the best posts from this blog to the new one, and eventually close down this blog. Inter-sections will stay up for some time, until I finish moving its more interesting posts to a new home.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by thanking all those who have emailed me and commented on this blog throughout this period to ask when the rest of the hyperbrain series was coming - you helped make it more obvious to me what impact my gaming addiction was having.
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