I had an addiction when I was an adolescent: Videogames.
It started with Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox, and really took off when I got my own Xbox 360 for Christmas the year it came out. I would stay up till 2, 3, 4 in the morning or later each night despite having to get up at six each day for school. I slept in cars (probably giving rise to the carcolepsy I still have to this day) and caught other naps when I could, such as in the hallway after school while waiting to be picked up. Miraculously, I somehow stayed awake in my classes. Except for the one class where I was positioned directly behind a friend of mine named Duncan, who was very tall and broad shouldered. I slumbered quite peaceably in that class (At university I would have the opposite problem: I'd sleep plenty yet somehow still fall asleep during class).
In reality, as I think about it, what I was really addicted to was escape.
My first refuge was books. Then I would daydream. I would create entire universes in my head: space empires or fantasy kingdoms. Or giant Army Men wars when I was younger. Videogames were the next escape. In books, in games, and in my head, I was in control. I could do what I wanted, be who I wanted. I could change and control the outcome. Which, looking back, was what I probably wanted in real life (IRL) as well. Alas, I was a shy, timid, awkward kid. It was easier to retreat inward.
At the same time I was playing these console games, I also played computer games on and off. In particular I played a certain browser-based Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) called Runescape. In Runescape, you started out with a low-level character you created and, as you trained and completed quests, you went up in level. Part of the fun is that you're in a game world with thousands of other players at various levels. You can work together, fight each other, and so on. The genius of the game design behind an MMORPG is in the leveling. You want to see your character become high level so that you can fight really badass monsters and get killer loot. Being high level and having the best equipment evoked the envy of other players. But to do so you had to invest massive amounts of time into training. Now, this training is colloquially called "grinding" among players because it is boring as hell. Imagine fighting the same monsters over and over again for 12 hours straight just to increase 1 skill level, and you had to increase several skill levels before your total level advanced. And so this creates a cycle: the more time you invest in your character, the more skin you have in the game, and the harder it is to stop playing. It's totally a sunk-cost bias. These types of games are so addictive for that reason. Even on the Xbox I found myself engaging in this behavior, meticulously grooming my "Gamerscore", with tens of thousands of "achievement points" farmed from dozens of games. I salivated over the moment when I would accomplish something noteworthy in a game on Xbox 360, and be instantly rewarded by a familiar chime sound and a notification that said, "Achievement Unlocked!" Even now, I think fondly about the simplicity and warmth of my days on the console.
At some point I did, however, get bored of Runescape and quit, focusing completely on amassing a sizeable Xbox 360 game collection. And yet, I kept having an itch to go back and play Runescape. I still have that itch to this day, in fact. Yes, many parts of it were boring. But it was just so rewarding to see my character level up, to get the latest and best gear, to feel the sense of accomplishment as I finished another quest or explored another area. Eventually, after many years, I gave in to this urge and took the game back up. I must have been 16 at the time. We'd just moved to Oklahoma and I had no friends there. In fact, all my old friends on Runescape had long since stopped playing as well, so the game ironically mirrored my loneliness. But I had plenty of free time on my hands and I thrilled at the familiar feeling of accomplishment. Damn, it felt good. In the game I could fight (and win), farm, fish, craft, adventure, travel, build, spellcast, heal, and constantly improve. I could see the fruits of my labor. I can't remember how long I kept playing it. My character was decently high level (97 or so out of 123 possible levels) so it took weeks of work to level up. I buckled down for the grind, burning the midnight oil.
I was in the middle of a massive grind marathon to level up. And suddenly, like that, I was sick of it. I can't remember there being anything in particular that triggered it. I recall having had a mounting feeling of loneliness, uneasiness, and malaise that I hadn't been able to shake. And being on my own so much, I had a lot of time to myself to think and reflect. But I can't look back to any single event that sparked this sudden thought, which seemed to fall out of the sky like a meteor. I'm almost curious to log back on to my account to see exactly where my character was and what it was doing the last time I played. Helas, my memory fails me in this respect. But more importantly, I do remember what I thought.
I thought, Why am I willing to spend dozens of hours "grinding", which is insanely boring and soul-sucking, all to level up a fictional avatar that had no actual value IRL? But when it came to my real life, I wasn't willing to make the slightest effort to change, improve, or even take an active role in navigating through life?
Suddenly, the thought of playing the game any more sickened me. I tried to a few more times, saddened by the thought of abandoning something I'd put so many countless hours of my life into. What is interesting is that this sudden boredom and unease didn't just stop at this MMORPG. I stopped playing pretty much any kind of game, only hopping on my Xbox once in a while for nostalgia's sake. In the next several years I bought perhaps one new game, again for memory's sake- Halo: The Fall of Reach, what was then the latest game in the series that had started me on that leg of my life years before (and the campaign was absolute shit, completely rewriting a crucial part of Halo canon. Even worse, the rewrite didn't make any goddamn sense. It still pisses me off).
And with the epiphany received from too much Runescape, an entire epoch of my life came to an end. And another one started.
I started to think of myself as a character and my own life as the ultimate game. Why shouldn't I level myself up rather than some avatar that's just a collection of 1s and 0s in some server somewhere? Why couldn't I go on my own quests and adventures?
This is an interesting thought in part because so many other gamers and former gamers are thinking the same way. A blogger named Steve Kamb has a whole website and book dedicated to the idea- "Level Up Your Life". It's a fun read, and takes the idea even further. Goals suddenly become quests with certain amounts of experience points attached. When you complete a quest, you gain experience and level up, even unlocking treasure chests (rewards) that give you loot to help you on your journey. For example, if you work out for 3 months straight, perhaps your treasure is a new piece of workout equipment. I love the idea because it gamifies life. The same principles that made Runescape and Achievement Points addictive can be applied to applied to life goals: a sense of progress, rewards, scaling difficulty levels. A big, ambiguous goal is broken down into smaller ones so that you still have a sense of progress.
Funny enough, the idea of treating life like a game isn't new to my generation. Famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton said in the early decades of the 20th Century:
"Some people say it is wrong to regard life as a game; I don't think so. Life to me means the greatest of all games. The danger lies in treating it as a trivial game, a game to be taken lightly, and a game in which the rules don't matter much. The rules matter a great deal. The game has to be played fairly, or it is no game at all. And even to win the game is not the chief end. The chief end is to win life honorably and splendidly." And to win splendidly- or to conquer splendidly- begins with asking splendid questions.
Now, don't get it twisted. I don't view all the time I spent playing videogames as a waste. They taught me a lot of things I wasn't ready to learn anywhere else at that time. Community, teamwork, dedication, commitment, experimentation, unattachment to outcomes. They got me through the worst of my awkward years- and I'll let you know when I'm completely out of them. And would I have the drive and motivation I have today to pursue my goals and dreams IRL without first having spent so many years escaping said real life? I don't know. I don't think so, but then I am also biased to say that, again because of the sunk cost fallacy. I spent so many years playing videogames I want them to have a meaning. But then, I also spent many years playing baseball, but I don't ever really think of my time playing baseball (or band, or any of my school classes, etc.) as having been formative.
One final insight I got from a recent conversation. I am a very melancholy person, and it takes a hell of a lot of effort sometimes to even just get out of bed or to get out of a nasty malaise. When I succumb I can sleep for twelve to sixteen hours a day. The insight came as I was discussing this with a friend, and I realized that I only began having this problem after I stopped playing videogames. I realized that videogames got me through a time when I perhaps was not strong enough to work past this melancholia on my own. They were the stimulation I needed to keep my energy up, something for which I'm very grateful for having had. So instead of sleeping all day, I would stay up till the early hours of the morning playing videogames. How I survived on so little sleep for so long and still did well in school is beyond me. I got six hours of sleep today and felt like Death.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Exit 1F, I-235, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S. of A.
...sees much and knows much