On Overcoming Myself

I can’t write to you about how to overcome behavioral addiction to video games because I haven’t done it yet.

I can, however, tell you a little about how I’ve struggled with it, and am beginning to learn to cope.

At the end of my freshman year of high school, I moved away from the K-through-12 school I’d been at since I was five. As a going-away present, and to stay in touch, my two closest friends bought me an MMO that we’d been looking at. I spent most of my free time for the next three years shut up in my room playing that MMO.

I don’t blame myself. The culture at my new school was radically different, defined by wealth, decorum, and patriarchy. I was spiteful, in a way that was both performative and genuine, towards the school, my family, and the small town that we’d moved to. I was being medicated for a common neurological disorder that I now doubt I ever had in the first place. I was suffering, and needed an escape.

My parents saw their child disappearing. When I felt it appropriate or necessary to come downstairs, they saw me rankling at gentle, genuine displays of familial affection. They saw me continuing to display interest and effort in only the classes I cared about, and often not even managing decent grades in those. My mother saw my computer habit as a source of my troubles, one that she could demonstrate a measure of control over. She tried just about every approach, short of cutting me off entirely. She pleaded, coaxed, and chastised. I only remember her chastisement. I only remember the guilt she piled onto me when her wit’s end was in sight. This guilt persists, makes me particularly sensitive to symptoms of my addiction, and mingles the joy I get from games with an undercurrent of self-loathing, but it has not made it easier to cope. I don’t hold this against her. She had no interest in depriving me of what she might have correctly perceived as a survival mechanism. She was trying, as good parents do, to show me another perspective. She couldn’t predict the lasting impact of her words.

Compared to high school, my most recent period of video game addiction was mild. It lasted for the better part of seven or eight months, during which time I racked up a little over a thousand hours of play time on a new MMO; about six hundred of those hours took place over the first four months. 565 hours in, in a fit of journaling, I totalled up all of the hours I had spent on Steam games (which did not include time spent on my MMO in high school). When I looked at the final tally, I noticed that there was a sharp divide in play time between the video games that had been the most powerful artistic experiences for me and the video games I had played the most. All of the video games that had had a meaningful impact on who I am as a human being were games I’d spent less than fifty hours on, and that included multiple playthroughs for friends or myself. “All this is to say,” I wrote, “I think I have a problem.”

I think video games can be an incredible art form, and an incredible force for good: just look at Extra Life, or the Humble Bundle, or even just the people whose lives and perspectives were changed by playing something like We Know The Devil or No Pineapple Left Behind. But god, grinding shit in MMOs? Doesn’t help anyone […] I should maybe recommit myself to an agreement I made myself a while ago: video games are stories, are art pieces. The minute it’s not about that anymore, it’s no longer improving me.

After I wrote that, I played another couple hundred more hours of my game, then quit for a few months, went back to it, played another few hundred hours, then quit again.

This morning, I woke up, read some of the first volume of Dragonoak, had a cup of tea, started reading a book on the philosophy of game design, and without warning, the urge welled up in me again.

I have set up a couple of barriers for myself to avoid relapse: I asked my housemate to change the password I needed to log in, and I uninstalled the game (which would require upwards of ten hours to reinstall before I could play it again). I’ve thrown myself into my work with BloodLetterPress, into the tabletop RPGs I run a few nights a week, into finding new music and tea and spending time with my friends. I’ve delved more deeply into a scattered myriad of other interest and hobbies (books, by the way, are great; I can’t overhype books). I’ve recomitted to exercise, challenging myself to get stronger and more fit without a gym membership (I told some friends that instead of learning fighting games, they could learn how to actually fight, and I felt like I had to put my money where my mouth was). I’ve begun actively studying self-discipline, knowing that it’s one of my weak spots. I went to work at a summer camp far from reliable internet or my personal computer for three months, and since I’ve returned, other than a night of nostalgia gaming, I’ve barely played anything requiring a screen–not because I’ve been trying not to, but because I’m out of the habit of getting my entertainment digitally, and I have other things I want to do just slightly more.

And yet, the temptation laps at my self-control. Nothing is going to gratify me as quickly and easily as that MMO. Every time I go to YouTube to find a TED talk or some music, even though I’ve unsubscribed from all my video game channels, the algorithms remember me, and suggest gameplay videos. Every time they do, I ponder how much fun it might be to log back in, how much like returning to the comfort of an old haunt.

I’ve contemplated quitting YouTube as well, but no matter how far I delve into ludite fantasy, I cannot ignore the facts that my computer and the internet have become vital tools for creation and connection, and that video games are still an important part of my experience. Video games bolster my courage and remind me that I am not alone. Video games challenge my perceptions and give me new stories from different voices, which broaden my experience. I still believe that video games are art, that they have the power to illuminate, to transform, to heal.

Knowing these things, I’ve tried my hardest to make good on my agreement to myself. I stick to short-form video games, little art games by independent creators or small studios (I just finished Butterfly Soup and I can’t recommend it enough). I’m trying to buy more games through channels other than Steam. I enjoy the perennial couch multiplayer favorites but am content to save money and let my friends dictate what’s available. In the rare instances where I find myself in front of a game that I could sink hours into, I try to remember the physical tolls of binge gaming, the way it makes the whole world bleary and dissociative, and let my other interests get in the way. I frame my addiction as a struggle, as my tearing free from the clutches of an adversary. I’ve even gone so far as to clothe it with a name and a shape and personality that I can rail against.

But at the end of the day, when I save and close the document and linger for a moment on an empty screen, I know that there’s no one to fight against but myself. I struggle with nothing more than my own desire for a life of unbroken enjoyment.

I keep on working on myself, as we all do. I keep moving, and I try not to know that it’s as easy as taking a look at what’s happened since I’ve been gone.