A Hushed Confession

Gaming has always been the a priori core of my personality. I game, therefore I am. Lately I've been challenged by this credo, or perhaps I've been challenging it. "Why?" queries the little demon on my shoulder, nudging me knowingly. "What does it mean?” As these introspective flights tend to emerge from a moment of striking clarity, I can confidently say that the kick in my caboose was a mundane afternoon of Halo 3.

When my co-op buddy left our quaint little gun-toting party of two, I decided to venture out solo into the tepid sea of pubteams. I had already invested two hours playing, so what harm would another game or two do? I'd shoot some dudes, chug an energy drink, toss the devil horns over to my Phi Beta Zappa brahs, then move on to my regular affairs neatly and without consequence. What followed was an infuriating Sturm und Drang against four opponents who so ridiculously outclassed my team that I cursed Bungie for designing such a sadistic match system. These ubergamer-elect locked my team down completely, decimating us at every turn. Deducing that this was a no-win situation, two of my teammates promptly quit the match, leaving me and another shell-shocked pubber to face the humiliation of being target practice for this clan of Master Chieftains. This was not appealing. This was not fun. The match concluded, I promptly quit the game lobby, shut off my Xbox in disgust, and clomped upstairs to stew in my room.

Later that evening I realized that the match had ruined my day. I had planned to do some reading in a comfy La-Z-Boy. I didn't. Instead I hunched in front of my computer. My girlfriend wanted to go walk around our local mall and get some food. I told her I was tired and didn't feel like going out, a sour grimace dotting my face. It wasn't the loss that upset me, but feeling so impotent when faced with better players was a hard pill to swallow. Why did it have to be so friggin' unfair?

When I sat down in front of my television I had been in chipper spirits. When I left, I was slammed by melancholy. That was in no way a normal, much less healthy, emotional response. And that right there was the moment I realized that I hardly ever had fun playing my games anymore. I had a problem - I had been using games as an emotional crutch.

Some background information:

At the close of last year, I decided to quit my job as an usher at a local indie theater. The accrued hassle of rude, inconsiderate customers had begun to take its toll. The excitement I once felt was replaced by dull monotony. I recognized it was time to move on. By the first week of January I was free. I had recently graduated from college. I had a degree. I had been employed for three whole years and gained high praise from my superiors. Surely that would open some career choices for me that didn't involve filling soda cups and asking people if they wanted to settle for a medium popcorn when the large was a scant 50 cents more.

Hubris, thy name is graduate.

What was supposed to be a small vacation, a respite from the grind of work and a reward for completing University, stretched out into a purgatory of uneventful blah. When I tied up the loose ends of my undergraduate career in 2007, I immediately felt a vacuum of purpose. A fundamental part of my sense of self - student, scholar, essayist – was gone. The identity that I had derived through years of structured routine, finished. Gone. Without the false occupation of employment, what was left of my identity went to hell. Crawling out of bed at noon, eating cereal and then playing video games for five hours might sound like a dream to some, but after a month (much less three) the activity tends to become a downer. Pathetic, if you prefer.

I was using my gaming sessions to fill the void. I was going through the motions of gaming as an emotional release. The drive to play, that fascinating spark that prods me along toward the next boss, the next objective, the next achievement, just wasn't there. I didn't want to break new ground. I wanted something familiar, something safe. I could feel like I had purpose in Halo's campaign. Wave after wave of cannon-fodder fell before me in Dynasty Warriors: Gundam. Call of Duty 4 rewarded my efforts with valuable trinkets. Pretty soon I had worked a general rotation of game experiences I could tap into to give myself the illusion of mattering, if only for an hour or two.

This wasn't exactly new. I've experienced bad days where retreating to my console or PC quelled the unease I felt. A dose of wish-fulfillment here, a dash of fantasy there. It all brewed a nice batch of escapism. But when an infrequent magic bullet became my default method of dealing, it was no good. I wore out the welcome, depleted the charge, turned it from something to treasure into something to tick off in my list of daily gruntwork.

And so I stepped back, disengaged. I went to visit my parents for the weekend and in the process dug up the knick-nacks that made up my Classic collection. I unpacked my NES and noticed that the controller was in pretty decent shape. There were far fewer dents, chips, and bitemarks than I remembered. I couldn't help but chuckle as the absurdity of the situation dawned on me. I was often frustrated with the games I played, or by my own lack of skill. As a child I vented this frustration through a tried and true method: I abused the hell out of my controller. Recently though, I had only been getting mad at myself. Not for any game-related shortcomings but for the feeling that I had been spinning my wheels for so long.

The kid who chewed up his controller 20 years ago was young, immature, reflexively lashing out at the exasperation the game was causing. The person that now clomped up stairs and sat dejectedly all day wasn't really angry with the game at all. He was using his games as an excuse, misplacing the anger and helplessness present in his circumstances, substituting one failure for another. What was I doing lying on the couch for hours on end when I could have been looking for employment? I didn't want to bash my expensive controller, I wanted to yell at myself for not having a job, for feeling like a failure, for not being able to do better. I may have been interacting with the game, but I wasn't enjoying what the experience was doing to me. When similar feelings caused me to resent my job, I made sure to remove myself from the environment that was causing me strife. So why in blazes did I even bother with games if they were only helping me feel miserable? Why didn't I just pack it all away and be done with it?

I recognize that I've become defensive about games, even in internal dialog. I need to face the facts: I'm resistant to any negatives falling on my gaming habits. I will write off skipping meals as exuberance or dedication. I can spend a beautiful afternoon sitting in front of a monitor, in a room, razing planetscapes, because there's a social aspect to ganging up on pixels with some friends. I go to bed at frightful hours and justify it as getting too wrapped up in the thrill of advancement. I avoided addressing the question because gaming wasn't an entirely healthy or positive activity at the time. I don't want to think of my hobby as a liability, to think of myself in light of that fact.

But I love games, I really do. Even when they piss me off and I'm not having fun, I'm still interested in them. I love being challenged, forcing myself to think in different ways to deal with obstacles. I love the art direction, the music, the care that goes into making it all fit together, even if it sucks. I love the way Metal Gear Solid 3 can mix equal parts camp and absurdity with a rich story of personal tragedy and patriotic duty. I love that the guys at Bungie employed iambic heptameter for the Gravemind. I game because there's a beauty in the work that entices me beyond simple entertainment value, not just because it's a childhood habit that I've fallen back on. Just because I wasn't having fun, because I was misusing them in a fashion, didn't mean the venture was flawed. Getting rid of them, selling them off or boxing them up would just be avoiding the underlying problem – my own state of mind.

I'm not quite ready to stand before you and say “My name is Spaz, and I'm a gameaholic.” I'd have to get a few MMOs under my belt before I cross that threshold. But I am able to own up to a somewhat embarrassing and personal failing on my part. This may be the part where you're expecting me to say I landed an fantastic job that gives my face a healthy, rosy blush of promise. Sorry, still working on it. I can, however, play a game, get teabagged by a 10 year old as he insults my mother, and not dwell on it bitterly. I don't pretend to have all the answers, nor do I think I ever will, because here's the exciting part for me: Gaming answers aren't set in stone.

In 5 years I might enjoy games because they're breaking new ground in structure, interactivity, or scope. In 15, my children might persuade me to buy them the hot new offering that all their friends have. In 30, they may serve as a way to recapture my youth. Or maybe they'll slowly transition out of my life as greater responsibilities come my way. It's impossible to say. For now, I know exactly what to do the moment those familiar twinges of anger and frustration begin to bubble up.

All I have to do is put the controller down and walk away.


I've often felt a similar draw from outside of my now thinning gaming bubble. I remember days long past spent stewing in my own lack of social existence, sat in front of the luminescent monitor. One last dungeon, one last PVP match, one last level, one last gold grind, one last quest. All of these lasts, drawing on me like tentacles of an almighty and powerful addiction-beast, now so weak in grasp that I feel sad.

I'm not sure if it's my need to game, or my need to escape which is attempting to prevail against my life of normality, responsibility and commitment. My job is not dull (no more-so than a host of others) and I have no reason to feel alienated by society or alone, yet my inner-loner is calling me. He's asking me if I want to have some fun. I used to question him regularly, "Is this fun for us?", yet the reply was always clouded over by tearing down another player, or the sight of some 'phat loot'.

Obsession, addiction, realisation. I like to think I'm making my way through the last stages of the latter. I no longer play for hours on end, I no longer have the energy to spend all night running through my favourite MMOs and wake up for work after 3 hours sleep and I can no longer live for myself, without my girlfriend questioning why I need to spend 5 hours gaming instead of relaxing with her.

But that's ok. I feel the loss, the old desires to game, and I still quench the thirst for that pixelated-thrill machine, but it isn't my most important daily task.

More tellingly, it isn't my only task of the day.

Welcome Spaz! Great to have your voice on the front page.

This piece really resonates with me. When I hear that still small voice saying "put the controller down and walk away" I definitely listen to it.

I'm glad it echoed for you.

Beautifully written. I can definitely identify with the self-loathing that comes on during excessive gaming binges. I know I use gaming to avoid having to do "grown up" things, like advance my career, finally get my investments in order or cleaning out the goddamn gutters. A part of me still wants to be that 13 year old kid playing c-64 games for hours on end without any care of consequence or worry about responsibilities. It's a constant tension that still not played out for me.

Good luck finding employment!

I had to walk away from gaming for months recently. There was just too much going on to justify the time I spent on it.

Since returning I've come to the conclusion - I'm BAD at games. Not below average, bad. It's meant I've been able to take gaming a lot less seriously than I used to. I've learnt it's ok to completely relax some of the time and accept defeat graciously (ish).

Thank you games! (I still don't like the way my ass is handed to me so often though...)

Good luck with the job hunt! I know how soul destroying it can get...

Thoughtful, I really like it. I echo Rabbits welcome. I have thought about the same things from time to time. Its hard to get a hold of your favorite hobby/addiction sometimes. As I age I find it easier to prioritize and not try to escape with games.

spaz wrote:

Hubris, thy name is graduate.


Great article.

I'd postulate that as gamers we've all been there at some point.

Every enjoyable hobby or past-time yin has a yang with which to balance: snowboarders have their broken bones; social drinkers have their memories of unseemly conduct; car restorers have the spousal spats; LARP'ers have the laughter to endure...

Sometimes it can be great to endulge to excess, even wallow in the filth you create. As long as it's a conscious decision and you're aware you're doing it, you're able to maintain control of it's effects on you and your life.

It's when the behaviour creeps up and becomes you, without you realising it, you could be in trouble.

"Escaping to..." is great.
"Escaping from..." is dangerous.

If you want to see the flip side of that Halo coin hop on with Goodjers at any night they are playing. Sometimes we are the ones that form those little attack parties that tore your spirits to pieces.

Many a night have the shambled, huddled masses of the pubs been herded and cut down by the combined forces of Gamers with Jobs.

I think the current schedule of friendly matches and/or partying up to go out into the public is every Tuesday. Perhaps a schedule where you are guaranteed stable company would help your gaming.

Playing with strangers all the time would break anyone's spirit.

New title: Confessions of an Addict.

Very interesting article. Clearly shows that gaming can be compared to substance abuse at its extremes and what it does for us. There is an argument to be made somewhere in there about "it's just a game" proposition, but I need to ponder on that a bit longer.

A fine debut. Welcome to the front page, Spaz!

It's an interesting conundrum sometimes.

I find if I'm not having fun I quit playing. Games are my escapism and the closest thing I have to a drug. I don't even drink that often!

I love COD4 multiplayer, but I've learned to avoid it on Fridays and Saturdays. There are just too many kids out of school, most of them college age, who lack even the most basic of social graces or feel far to uninhibited when they no longer have the usual social constraints to bound them. Even the best of nights the servers are filled with foul-mouthed cretins who lack even the most basic understanding of tactics (If the whole team is sniping we're never going to win Headquarters!). Fridays and Saturdays are the nights when the servers are flooded with the socially retarded.

That's not just multi-player though. When I caught myself grinding away in a single-player game like it's an MMORPG I trade it in. I can forgive that gameplay aspect in, say, World of Warcraft because at least you can justify it through the on-line social experiences. Essentially, I don't need another job and I'm certainly not going to "work" for a single-player experience that will only be appreciated by no one.

The essence of this is that I want to sculpt and mould my gaming experiences into enjoyable time that I will not look back on with regret. Between all of my real world commitments the last thing I need is to feel disappointed with my hobby. Sure, I spend a lot of time pointing out the bad in the games industry these days, but mostly because I see a lot that shouldn't be there. Even so, I actually do enjoy myself when I'm not grumbling like a crotchety old codger on an internet message forum.

Surely that would open some career choices for me that didn't involve filling soda cups and asking people if they wanted to settle for a medium popcorn when the large was a scant 50 cents more.

*shudder* Memories of my time spent peddling overpriced popcorn, candy, and soda to the general public came flooding back.

Impressive article. I know the source of your article. I feel like I have almost been there, but never totally got there. This is probably because I have never been without purpose in my life. I always had school, and after I was done with my studies I immediately got a job. So those long days of gaming have never been part of my life style. Not that I did not game for hours on end when I was still in school, but it was never the main 'responsibility' for that day. It was always the fun part of the day.

I did have my month long WoW addiction which, looking back, was pretty silly. I learned a lot from that, and I feel that there is no game that can ever get me so worked up again. For now, I just pour as much time into gaming while I still can. In a few months my house will be finished, and my life will change drastically, and there will be a huge cut into my gaming time. So let me indulge while I can.

This was a little too close to home for me. I'm amazed not at your 'objective' perspective (oo that rhymes), but that you were able to externalize it. Excellent article, excellent responses. Keep writing for GWJ please!

Very nice honesty in that piece. Walking the tightrope between healthy diversion and frustrating obsession, I can certainly identify.

In middle school and high school I had an on-again-off-again relationship with Everquest. I really enjoyed the world and submitted to the grinding and grouping.

Looking back on it though I do regret the amount of time that I spent on it (days or weeks in game time, I don't know) given that it was usually quite repetitive and there were other things that I could've done instead. Whenever I’d be pulled out of the experience by other responsibilities (school, chores, etc.) I was at least internally resentful of the obligations, and even worse occasionally externally as well.

I don’t like that feeling and after dabbling in WoW and just finding a lot of the same gameplay elements and resentment towards obligations I try to stick to games that can at the very least be put down in 20 minutes (I have to get to that save point or finish the match after all) without any sense of longing or missing out on something.

So, I doubt there will ever be another MMORPG that I actually find intriguing enough to overcome the bad after taste of EQ and WoW, though EVE was the most-recent contender.

That being said, I do see games as a hobby and hope to avoid it being an emotional or social crutch.

Loved it. Great piece!! Struck a couple of nerves and why I yell at my monitor as if it was anyone elses' fault buy my own that I stay up until 2.00am (ok, 3.30) and still get shot in the head...

Btw, --Hubris, thy name is graduate. --is one of the best lines I've read at GWJs.

Congrats for the awsome debut as a frontpager!!

All I have to say is

Gosh what a Spaz!

To ignore the main thrust of the article...

I tried the Halo 3 online multiplayer. I couldn't believe how bad the experience was.

I'm a bad player. I admit it. I'm a detriment to any team. But I like to play, like to get the occassional kill, like to try to be a supportive player. In the original Halo, was expert at flag-running in Blood Gulch, which simply requried determination and single-mindedness and willingness to be killed twenty times in a row. I don't mind dying, I don't mind a little verbal abuse.

But my experience on the 360 mutliplayer was awful. Not only the players, who had the usual assortment of homophobic, misogynistic, stupid wankers, but the game experience was specifically tuned to punish inferior players, not reward them.

Even the best players will lose a significant fraction of the time. Losing should be FUN, if not as fun as winning. Team Fortress 2 does a much better job of this, for example.

It's a pity, since I really love Bungie games. But ever since they joined the dark side (microsloth) they've been slipping in the 'fun' department.

Slippery Jim diGriz wrote:
Surely that would open some career choices for me that didn't involve filling soda cups and asking people if they wanted to settle for a medium popcorn when the large was a scant 50 cents more.

*shudder* Memories of my time spent peddling overpriced popcorn, candy, and soda to the general public came flooding back.

So they DO mark it up! I knew it! And at my place they won't buy back the unpopped kernels, even at cost.

Great debut, Spaz. Don't walk too far away from the controller, OK?

When I graduated from college, I almost gave up all gaming as I struggled with finding a job. Thanks largely to my father never caring much for my game playing, I couldn't help but feel guilty every time I sat down. If i wasn't working or looking for a way to move up, I felt like I was wasting my time. Even when I'd come home from work, I still couldn't play without feeling guilty about it. It was a horrible feeling. But now I think I've found a balance and I'm glad I have.

Well done Spaz. Thanks for a great piece. I look forward to more.

A beautifully written piece, and very emotionally challenging. I get addicted to some things very easily, but perhaps because I'm aware of that I've managed to keep my gaming more-or-less under control.

I did find some of what you've written quite concerning, though.

Spaz wrote:

I had only been getting mad at myself...I wanted to yell at myself for not having a job, for feeling like a failure, for not being able to do better...I recognize that I've become defensive about games, even in internal dialog. I need to face the facts: I'm resistant to any negatives falling on my gaming habits. I will write off skipping meals as exuberance or dedication.

If someone wrote things like that about their drinking habit as opposed to their gaming habit, I think most people would classify it as addiction, or at least dependence. This is speaking as someone who's come a little too that close to that particular black hole myself.

Spaz wrote:

I'm not quite ready to stand before you and say “My name is Spaz, and I'm a gameaholic.” I'd have to get a few MMOs under my belt before I cross that threshold.

I have to say, this made me smile a little. It seems like someone saying "It doesn't matter how much beer and wine I drink, I'd have to switch to spirits before I'd be an alcoholic".

I apologise if any of this sounds preachy or judgmental - it's certainly not intended that way. If it comes across that way, it's just due to my poor writing. It was a great article, and I'm glad it sounds like things are getting better!

I've been a gamer for a very long time, loading my first games via cassette onto an Amstrad with 64K of RAM. If I wanted to stretch a point, I'd say that I've been gaming since my mum got me a game console that played Pong back in the Eighties. In all that time, I've loved gaming at a level that was almost fundamental; it has occupied my conversation with friends, filled my thoughts when relaxing, and has provided many, many hours of immersive entertainment. I love gaming not for the challenges, but for the experiences. To walk through the flooded dystopia of Bioshock, to command vast space fleets in Sins, to laugh with tears in my eyes at the comments of my fellow gamers over voice-chat, and to sit back in an almost reverential silence at the conclusion of Portal--these are the moments I've treasured.

I must confess, however, to growing feeling of malaise over the last couple of years. I game for a while and, upon leaving my computer desk, feel...down. It's some strange combination of feeling that I've wasted precious hours of my life staring at a screen (and yet no such guilt with a book!), frustration at losing a game or at some "hard is fun!" section of a single-player game, and something more undefinable. My personal beliefs are heavily influenced by Buddhism, which emphasises being present. Gaming is very much escapism for me sometimes, when life is difficult.

My present circumstances are such that I essentially will have little or no time to game for quite a long time and--here is my own hushed confession--there's a part of me that's looking forward to it. Looking forward to being consumed by something that will have meaning beyond my own pleasure, that will provide an intellectual challenge with real-world consequences, and concrete achievements (albeit without a pleasing pop-up).

I'm not defensive about gaming, and I'll put the gaming community up against any other community in terms of friendliness, passion, and cultural identity. I love you guys (in a very heterosexual way, you understand) and I'll miss the hell out of running my mouth to people over Steam and Vent. I don't intend to give up on gaming forever, and I fully intend to jump in a game now and again if I'm able, but I'm very curious to find out what it's like to not be a gamer for a while. I'll report back.

This hits really close to home. Great piece Spaz, looking forward to more!

When I tied up the loose ends of my undergraduate career in 2007, I immediately felt a vacuum of purpose. A fundamental part of my sense of self - student, scholar, essayist – was gone. The identity that I had derived through years of structured routine, finished. Gone. Without the false occupation of employment, what was left of my identity went to hell.

Been there. Not fun.

Eventually, things got a lot better for me. I hope they work out for you.

Awesome article! Being a graduate of a games design degree here in England, there was a long period of time post-graduation where I was questioning my choices in life and wondering if my commitment to games as a whole was worth while. I moved to Manchester about a year and half ago and struggled my way through some really crappy jobs that left me unfulfilled and bewildered. But my resolve to make use of my degree and my pursuit of happiness have lead me on a great journey of self discovery. This new year I had a significant change in attitude to life in general, its been quite an amazing shift, I've got a great new job where I have creative freedom and I am making games for a living.

I think having the negative and frustrating parts of life for me was a necessary evil, It was one hell of a slog but I finally feel like I am getting some stability in my life and ... most importantly, I'm happy!.

'maybe they'll slowly transition out of my life as greater responsibilities come my way': I hoped this would happen to me but I need the escape more now than ever.

I manage to avoid the self loathing by switching off at a decent hour- 11pm at the latest for me. I have kids and a job and that means I can't usually play during the day. The time I do get to play I enjoy much more than when I'd play into the wee hours with that guilty feeling growing inside. I think it's that simple: a bit of self, or even forced, restraint will clear that malaise right up.

I'm awful at the online stuff. You can throw me about a map anytime.

That 10 year old is bloody good- he teabags me for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Good luck in the job hunting.

I'll just echo the above and say what a great debut. I think it hit home for a lot of people.

Personally, I've found myself overindulging in game time once or twice (with that glorified spreadsheet- football manager) and while it does fulfil that visceral hunger for "one more turn..." it is inevitably self defeating as you come away drained and with a sense loss. What you could have done with the time had you spend it productively?

This is only really an issue if you feel the rest of your time isn't spent properly. If you're fulfilled most of the time then taking some time off for a gaming break probably won't feel so bad. I can't offer personal insight to this as I'm always critical of how I spend my time, maybe someone else?

Really nice first piece (and this is my first post ), it certainly struck a cord.

Just a couple thoughts that I think are fresh. My short gaming sessions are really just a replacement for TV. I want to take a break and have some fun. Not to say I don't avoid life maintenance tasks by gaming but that is more of an editorial on my laziness than anything else. In my mind taking a hour or two to blow off some steam gaming is no more of a waist of time then watching The Bachelor if that is what you enjoy doing.

In my longer gaming sessions I have also asked that question, "what else I could have been doing" as I'm walking away from the PC or console. That thought only comes to me if I've been playing solo though. I think the social aspect gaming affords makes any time gaming with friends is time well spent.