“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson
I'm not writing this to be sensational or to clear my conscience. But the raw nature of this confessional might make for an eye-opening experience.
This is a tale of how not to manage your life and what not to take your biggest risk on. Yes, redemption comes, but it takes a long time to get there.
Fair warning: I might come off as an unredeemable jerk and won't try to convince you I wasn't. I've wanted to talk about this for a long time and Advanced Riskology was the catalyst for finally doing it.
So here's the story of the biggest risk I ever took, why I'm a terrible person for taking it, and how it has made me a much better man.
Let's just be clear on one thing right away: I'm a video game addict.
I'm three years video game sober though and pretty freakin' happy about it.
But back in 2006, I convinced myself that this video game I had heard so much about was something I should pick up. Worse yet, I convinced everyone else around me that it wouldn't suck up too much of my time. I mean, it was just a simple outlet for digital recreation. Duh!
The game: World of Warcraft (a.k.a. WoW).
I took a giant risk picking up WoW knowing my history with video games. I need to quickly walk you through my sordid history with video games so you can understand why.
It's frightening to type some of this stuff but tens of thousands of other people have done the same thing I'm doing right now. Somehow that comforts me and scares the bejesus out of me.
Where the Addiction Began
I've always been a huge video game fan, especially the role playing game (RPG) genre. Ultima and Final Fantasy were a hundred times better than in-person Dungeons and Dragons and I didn't even need anyone else to play them.
The really sad part is I've been a junky going back to 1987; the day I received my very own Nintendo.
From an outside view, my video game addiction looked benign, even when I would rather spend time in my best friend's basement playing NHL 93 for Sega instead of playing with him. With a controller in hand, I was set until dinner or when I had to go home (whichever came later of course).
Did I mention the time I took a hammer to a Super Mario World cartridge in a rage because, in my twisted head, my brother was playing my Super Nintendo too much? If I actually had a coherent thought as the hammer came smashing down on my father's work table it was probably:
“I paid a small fortune for that damn video game system so I should get to play Final Fantasy 2 whenever I want! I don't have to put up with someone using my Super Nintendo when I want to play my game!”
Final Fantasy 2 was that good. I was hooked. I still remember walking into the store to buy it and seeing it in the package.
I… had… to… have… it.
Even in high school my addiction still looked harmless. I would spend Saturday night in the basement playing Final Fantasy 3 from start to finish…for the 5th time. For the 7th time. For the 10th time.
And then the creation of the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) came along with the rise of the Internet and it was all over. My addiction became an uncontrollable problem when Gemstone III came along.
A video game I became addicted to not just once, but twice.
The first time was senior year in high school when I would log on at night and meet one of my best friends in game. My rogue, who hid in the shadows and ambushed unsuspecting enemies, teamed up with his sorcerer to become digital heroes.
Gemstone III was the first of two games that I was madly addicted to. How could I ever put it down when the damn thing had no ending?
There was always something more to do. Always some place new to explore. Always some random person in Germany to join forces with and go hunting for creatures with treasure. There is just something so insidious about creating a game where you never “win”…and I was hooked.
And there weren't even any graphics in this game. It was all text based.
Shortly after leaving for college, I wised up and (temporarily) realized that Gemstone III was a waste of time. Video games in general were still fine but just not Gemstone III.
Between Gemstone III addictions, I did wonderful things like once playing a video game for 10 hours straight without any kind of break. No eating. No getting up to use the restroom.
I don't think I blinked for half a day. Seriously. Ask my college dorm mates.
I think I was playing Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri but it could have easily been Final Fantasy 7. How sad that I can't even remember something I spent so much time doing.
Final Fantasy 7 came out my freshman year of college and I played that from start to finish…multiple times. Oh, and I did all the optional story line stuff and spent endless hours reading online walkthroughs, cheats and tips to prepare to play the game again for the 3rd time. Or maybe it was the 4th time.
Then came first semester of junior year a folklore class report I needed to research. Yes, I took folklore and mythology courses in college. I'm a huge nerd.
The topic I picked was “Modification of Classic Folklore in Video Games” and, wouldn't you know it, research of Gemstone III was involved.
And so my second addiction with the game was triggered.
I began to make strategic calculations based on how and when I could play more of it. Thoughts that entered my head include:
- How can I tailor my class schedule to stay up until 3 am playing Gemstone III without impacting my studies?
- Would I rather go out with my friends to have a beer, play some darts and have a good time with real people in the real world or would I rather spend Saturday night as a rogue killing roa'tars? Roa'tars. Definitely need to kill more roa'tars for the 1000th time.
Yes, I still remember the name of all the enemies and characters in a section of the game well over a decade later.
I only gave up Gemstone III again after graduating college and moving home. And that was only because my parents weren't super happy with me tying up the phone lines all the time back when the Internet was accessed with the modem. Oh, and because I didn't seem super motivated to get off my ass and get a job.
But hey, I made over a grand selling my characters on eBay so it was totally an awesome investment of time! If I did the math I probably would have been paid about twenty five cents per hour of game time.
I had to sign a contract before buying WoW. Not an online terms and conditions type contract, but a paper contract drawn up by Melinda (my wife) and me.
And what did the contract state? I'll paraphrase.
I, Joel, make this agreement to one Melinda and Lucia (our dog) about my play and usage of video games in general. At any point in time Melinda and/or Lucia may deem Joel's play of video games to be unacceptable and impose the following punishment or restrictions. These are completely up to the discretion of Melinda and Lucia and are non-negotiable.
<insert various penalties starting with no more playing games for the next hour to never being able to play a specific game ever again>
The terms and conditions of use are as follows:
<insert various items such as not playing after a certain time of night to the time I need to stop playing when critical tasks need to be done>
<Joel's signature here>”
This was my first open act of admitting my video game problems.
I mean, what kind of person needs a contract stating they won't let a video game consume their life?
What kind of a messed up person needs a contract saying he won't forsake his family for an electronic distraction?
And yet I bought WoW anyway.
I was gambling that I could control my addiction enough to not have my world fall apart around me.
My biggest risk ever was assuming I could quit WoW before something permanently terrible happened to me or the people around me.
This biggest risk took various forms such as:
- It would consume all my time at home
- It would consume all my time at work via WoW related websites, game message boards, and online forums. That's right. When I wasn't playing I was spending just as much time, if not more, studying up on the facets of the game so I could be more effective at it.
- I would be a zombie due to sleep deprivation. You would think a person would be tired coming to bed at 4 am after staring at a computer screen for 8 hours. In reality, it was hard to fall asleep most nights after playing WoW because my brain was racing from the high. I was replaying the digital events over and over in my head and analyzing what I could do better next time.
- I would risk hemorrhaging money. Surprisingly, the least I risked was money…if you don't include opportunity costs and forgoing all the other things I could have been doing instead to advance my past, current and future careers.
In the end I was lucky.
I was lucky that the addiction didn't get so bad that things spiraled out of control. But it wasn't due to some masterful balancing act. It was just dumb luck.
My Video Game Life in Screen Shots
I kept screen shots of some of my finest moments during my years playing WoW. I couldn't tell a false achievement from a real achievement and they made me proud.
Now I keep the screen shots as a deterrent against a relapse.
Let's start with this first one.
There is my avatar on a quest to “slay your inner turmoil.” It might be tough to see the middle of the picture but I'm battling an enemy in the game named “Your Inner Turmoil.” The irony is rich here.
I don't want WoW to come across as inherently evil though. For me it was a social game and without the people behind the avatars it wouldn't have been worth playing.
It might sound strange but I made friends in the game. Heka and Grusin and Kandorr. These were people I enjoyed interacting with and who made the game fun. They took something artificial and gave it a human touch.
I also knew them by their real names. Tim and Brendon and Vin. Some of the people in my guild were and are family men and women. They are academics, IT professionals, social workers and other contributors to society. They are good people, most of which know how to draw a boundary between real life and video games.
But me. I was helpless. I might have been a king on a throne in the game but I was a chump in a chair in the real world.
“Nice heals Joel!” was something I loved hearing. My main character in the game was a healer and my job was to keep other people alive long enough to kill the bad guys. The nerd howls of delight when we killed Shade of Aran were recounted in the annals of (guild) history the next day on the guild forums.
We were a proud bunch and needed to pat ourselves on the back. We retold our version of the event like a proud papa boasting about their kid who did something the other kids can't do.
And after some time on the guild forums, it was time to check out another WoW website called Arena Junkies.
Ahhh, the irony once again. A video game addict going to a website named after drug addicts.
If you know me and I hurt you because of my addiction, I'm sorry.
Some of you who are reading this have already received apologies and a request for understanding or forgiveness. Those of you who haven't should know I have more remorse about what I didn't do for you than what I did do to you.
Maybe I wasn't as good of a friend as I could have been. Maybe I turned down your request for help to play video games instead. Maybe I prioritized spending time with a video game over spending time with you.
You have my promise this addiction never strikes me again.
My Biggest Risk Takeaways
“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.” – Theodore Roosevelt
In the end it didn't take some catastrophic event to get me to quit playing. The decent man in me finally admitted I couldn't fulfill my responsibilities as a man, as a husband, as a family member, as an employee, and as a soon-to-be father without giving up WoW. I was scared as hell what my parenting (or lack thereof) would look like if I was still playing WoW.
Having a child, especially one as perfect as Grant, was the best thing that ever happened to me. Preparing to bring him into the world got me to start having the right priorities in life again. It got me to quit a three year addiction that would have threatened everything that was good in my life. It got me to start my personal renaissance which is still in full bloom.
It's amazing what you can do with your life when you eliminate something that viciously consumed so much of your time, your thoughts, and your attention. Something that bled you dry without being sorry for it.
Short of never purchasing WoW, the next best thing would have been quitting much earlier. The same could be said for Final Fantasy 1, 2, 3, and 7, Gemstone III and every role playing game I ever played. If I ever need motivation in life I can just think:
“Where would you be if you didn't quit WoW? What depths would you have sunk to if you were still addicted?”
How far in my life's goals could I be if I had started three years earlier?
The only thing stopping me was a video game. A virtual reality of highs and lows that pulled me back to complete one more quest, to kill one more beast, to gain one more meaningless achievement.
If this teaches you anything it should be this:
Never put yourself in a position where you have to think or say, “If only I hadn't wasted all that time. If only I spent my energy on things that actually matter.”
Beating an addiction doesn't mean the end of saying “If only….” But it sure as hell reduces the number of times you'll have to think it.
I could have ended up like my avatar in this screen shot.
Taking refuge in the barren company of animals who can't pass judgment on a person who deserves pity and scorn.
You would think I hate myself with all this self-loathing I'm doing. Actually it's quite the opposite.
I'm sure I would eventually have had a personal renaissance but who knows how deep and transformative it would have been without hitting rock bottom. The distance I've traveled in the past year is something I'm truly proud of. I continue to evolve. My sense of direction is now pointing me in better places every day.
But I'm lucky. My wife never divorced me. My employer never fired me. My mortgage company never foreclosed on my house. And Carpal Tunnel Syndrome never crippled me…or worse. Yes, people die from video game addiction.
But I may have future trouble with my right arm, shoulder and hand because of video games. There were times where – holding my right arm out over the mouse for hours on end, right and left clicking furiously – I would have to stop playing because my arm/shoulder/hand hurt so much.
Remember when I admitted to playing a video game in college for 10 hours straight without any kind of break? The only reason I stopped was the pain in my arm got too intense to continue.
And speaking of pain, reading stories from websites dedicated to video game addict confessionals can literally make you cry.
If you have a video game addiction, admit it.
Admit it on your blog, to your most trusted friend, to a random stranger on the street. Acknowledge it and let the people who love you help guide you to restore purpose and balance to your life.
If you don't know the signs of video game addiction, study up so you know if you or someone you know suffers from it.
We all have demons to slay.
I'm happy to say I've conquered my worst one.
“Without uncertainty and the unknown, life is just the stale repetition of outworn memories. You become the victim of the past, and your tormentor today is yourself left over from yesterday…When you experience uncertainty you are on the right path.” – Deepak Chopra
What do you think of this sad story with a (now) happy ending? Did anything here resonate with you or sound familiar?