If you play a computer game for more than 40 hours a week on average, skip classes, and don’t shower for up to two weeks – is that an addiction? That was pretty much me some 15 years ago. At the time I was playing ‘Everquest‘. Total time spent inside that virtual fantasy world of elves and dwarves? More than 3,600 hours. I don’t know the exact number, but that’s what I last remember seeing on the game. I don’t plan on logging back in again just to check.
At one point I quit. In the space of a week, I went from playing 6 hours a day to not at all. What follows is the story of how that came about.
- 1 Why I Considered it an Addiction
- 2 My Reasons for Playing Games Excessively
- 3 Consequences
- 4 How I ended up playing less
- 5 When Gaming is Compensating
- 6 Treatment Options
- 7 My Relationship With Games Today
Why I Considered it an Addiction
Addiction is a compulsive, repetitive behaviour that negatively impacts your life. Looking at the above statement, that seems to be a fit. However, now that I own a company in the online games space, I can safely say that playing online games all night long was the most productive thing I did for my career in high school. Even though I skipped classes and sleep often, my grades didn’t slip; I graduated high school with the German equivalent of an A-. Avoiding showers? No problem. I was quite a dork back then, so showers or not, potential (girl)friends weren’t exactly lining up outside my house.
I remember very well my parents telling me I was addicted – and I disagreed. I genuinely enjoyed playing Everquest more than anything else. I didn’t consider it to be compulsive. I managed to get all my other stuff down, even if it meant skipping a few of the less important classes. I was happy and did not feel like I was compensating for basic psychological needs.
There was a point, though, when I wanted to play less. I wanted to apply for a management trainee program. I wanted to volunteer for Amnesty International. I wanted to become more social and go out with my friends more. I struggled immensely to go through with all of those and in the end I just managed to complete each of them to a bare minimum. That was the point where I crossed from compulsive habit into addiction territory in my eyes.
I would like to point out that in academics at the time of writing, there’s still no clear consensus of whether compulsive video gaming qualifies as an addiction or a disorder. As someone without formal training in the field, I opted to refer to it that way, even if it doesn’t qualify as such by academic standards.
My Reasons for Playing Games Excessively
I always enjoyed games, but when I got into Everquest, my gaming behaviour changed drastically. I went from playing when I had an extra hour or two, to playing non-stop. What caused this change?
Single player games get humans to play the same way that humans get puppies to pee outside: With small rewards for achieving the desired objective. Unlike a dog’s bladder though, the human desire to play games is unlimited. Single player games don’t take advantage of this as game companies gain little from people playing their games repeatedly. With a monthly subscription-based game like Everquest it’s different. Getting people to play forever is the desired result.
This is incorporated into the game’s design, presenting players with objectives that can be repeated endlessly. Players have the chance to receive slight variations of the same reward upon each completion with a small chance of an extraordinary valuable reward. It turns positive rewards into a compulsion loop that is not unlike what gamblers experience at the slot machine. A tough situation to escape from.
In addition, while I was spending insane hours and money – I was on a pay-by-the-hour dial up connection – I always thought I received plenty in return. The perception that I am genuinely getting something out of it made it easy to justify. It didn’t need a net positive impact, the upside just needed to be worth pursuing.
Missing Conceivable Alternatives
The intensity with which I played games was rivalled only by reading an exceptionally amazing book. The fun and suspense made it impossible to put down. My eyes were sparkling with excitement when I talked about particularly exciting moments in Everquest.
If you perceive a game as providing a social environment you otherwise wouldn’t have, if you perceive it to provide a gratification you can’t find anywhere else, if it provides you with an immersion that books, movies and other forms of entertainment don’t offer – why give it up?
A major part of playing a lot of games was that I perceived them as a desirable part of my life. Some people live for the weekend, for a hobby or their kids. I lived for games and I didn’t see a problem with that.
I wanted to be a gamer. Ian M. Banks’ book ‘The Player of Games‘ sums up an aspiration I held at the time: make games a significant part of my life and enjoy their mastery and competitive aspect. I saw them as an outlet for a surplus of ambition rather than a leak through which my ambition drained.
Illusion of Progress
After playing Everquest for 6 hours, there is an obvious, measurable progress within the framework of the game. Unlike practicing an instrument, training a sport, and learning a language, the progress is measurable immediately and clearly marked out for even the smallest improvements. You always feel like you’re moving forward.
For most games, that’s not a major problem. It eventually comes to an end: a standard video game like Mass Effect might hold up to 40 hours of content. A game with a high ‘replay value’ like Civilization V can go into the hundreds of hours.
However, a game based on interpersonal contact – be it competitive like League of Legends or merely social interactions like Second Life – holds an endless amount of content. The challenges and rewards come through interactions with other players which aren’t limited, per se. The forward motion is endless.
With all these factors contributing to playing a lot and staying committed to playing a lot, how did this affect my daily life?
Playing a game for 6 hours a day means that effectively you spend 8 hours and more either playing the game, looking up information for it online, or chatting about it with your friends. That’s effectively a full-time job – and kind of hard to maintain if you already have an occupation. Time playing the game has to come from somewhere.
In my case it was sleep. I liberally skipped sleep to the point where I fell asleep at random times throughout the day. I clearly remember falling asleep in a chemistry class with my teacher standing right in front of me while she was looking at me. She couldn’t believe her eyes and made that fact loudly known. I assume I was supposed to be embarrassed; the reality was more along the lines of ‘proud’.
At the time I was just a high school student so the consequences of sleeping ‘on the job’ were pretty much non-existent. The extent to which I skipped classes or slept through them would probably have gotten me fired had I held an actual job.
While school wasn’t much of a challenge, there were definitely some missed economic opportunities. In spite of graduating with excellent grades, I ended up barely getting into university. I simply missed most of the application deadlines because I was too immersed in Everquest.
I completed activities that I had no choice but to complete, like holding a part-time job to pay for my dial up connection or going to important classes. Anything that required an extra-curricular effort proved almost impossible for me to handle. I stopped playing water polo, officially to focus on my finals. However, water polo training wasn’t cutting into my study schedule, it was cutting into my gaming schedule and thus had to go.
My life did not fall apart, but I missed out on a lot of opportunities that passed me by while a significant chunk of my life was sacrificed to made-up progress in a virtual world.
One little mentioned downside of having your mind monopolised by a single activity is that this constant preoccupation with the topic crowds out other thoughts and considerations. Whereas we usually ponder major decisions subconsciously, in the shower or on the train, my whole ‘spare mental processing power’ was taken up thinking about how to advance my virtual character.
It brought my life to a stand-still. I completed ‘operational tasks’ to an expected minimum, be it studying for an exam or going to job interviews. However, I did not proactively develop myself further in any way. I did not take up new hobbies, did not learn any soft or hard skills beyond the ones I was forced to and did not travel or meet new people.
It’s exactly this mental stand-still that makes former long-time gamers refer to their gaming past as life years lost. Year after year passed without them growing or changing themselves in any significant, positive way outside of the game.
How did I get from this compulsive gaming life to a new one, where playing games is an occasional endeavour rather than all encompassing addiction?
How I ended up playing less
In total, I played Everquest non-stop for roughly 2 years before I succeeded in changing my own behaviour. This was possible due to a combination of factors best described in a model invented by Dr. BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University. While not specifically geared towards compulsive behaviour, I consider it a great analytical approach to changing an addictive behaviour pattern. In essence, it comes down to this:
Behaviour = Ability * Motivation * Trigger
Take a look at ‘Facebook usage’ to see how this works: You might be spending more time on Facebook than you actually want. Using Facebook too much is the behaviour you want to change. Ability is your phone that allows you to check Facebook on the go. Motivation would be your being curious about your friends’ lives. Triggers are the notification pop-ups and LEDs on your phone.
In the case of my gaming addiction, changing all three factors – ability, motivation, and triggers – was necessary to accomplish the behaviour goal of playing less.
This is something people (and parents) often try first: Remove or reduce physical access, e.g. by deinstalling the game, locking away the hardware, or restricting access in some other form.
Ability aims at interrupting a compulsive pattern, but even more so at preventing re-establishment of it at a later point. In case of a game that might mean deinstalling the game. This will require not only reinstallation, but also extensive updates that have to be downloaded again. It gives you a waiting period during which you can rethink if you really want to head down that road again.
A more thorough approach than just deinstalling a game would be to replace hardware essential to gaming but unnecessary beyond that. Most games require high-end graphics cards; removing them and using the graphics card that comes with the motherboard adds an additional barrier of re-entry.
While removing the ability to play a game certainly helps, on its own it can be difficult to maintain. Unless there is a motivation to quit (or to do something else), it’s hard to keep up. This is especially the case if the ability is only temporary. If you want to avoid playing again once the ability gets reinstated, then you need to work on motivation.
At first I felt good about making games a significant part of my life: it fit my self image. Over time, though, I came to see its negative impacts. I realised games were an obstacle on the path of becoming the person I want to be, rather than a necessary milestone on it. Similar to a fellow gaming-addict, I didn’t like the person playing games made me. This insight not only dampened my motivation to play, it made quitting possible in the first place. This wasn’t enough, it’s hard to forget the desire to play without a suitable replacement activity.
A suitable replacement for an ‘endless’ multiplayer game based on social interactions could be a single player game that offers a time-limited experience. In a way you’re replacing an endless addictive behaviour with another addictive behaviour that has a time limit.
In the case of my Everquest-addiction, the suitable replacement came in the form of another multiplayer game called Jumpgate. Like Everquest it offered an endless world based in social interactions. However, the games’ flaws quickly made it peter out – leaving me with nothing to do in the game less than a week in. Its time limit had been reached.
This one week break made all the different when it came to giving me some distance from the game of Everquest and its inhabitants. Now I had to make sure that I wasn’t going to be drawn in again.
Playing a game often triggers more playing of the same game. Every time you play, there’s an unfinished task or a next step. Each gaming session ended up triggering the next one. Taking up a different activity – like playing a different game – interrupts this trigger feedback-loop.
Most of the time these triggers occur outside the game as well. It might be friends who play the same game messaging you on Facebook. It might be e-mail newsletters advertising game expansions or special events. It might be your daily habits making you plop down in front of the computer the moment you return home.
Removing these triggers is an essential part of disconnecting yourself from the activity and helps you stay away once you interrupted the initial feedback loop. Reducing triggers on its own wouldn’t have helped. But reducing motivation and removing the ability added up to interrupting the behaviour pattern permanently.
It wasn’t a conscious effort that got me to play less. I never had a lot of self-discipline and don’t think pure willpower would have sufficed. I did, however, realise when there was an opportunity and seized it to get out of the gaming loop.
When Gaming is Compensating
In my ‘gaming career’ there were phases when gaming was not just about playing a lot, but also about consciously forgetting other parts of my life.
When I was 17 years old, a school friend of mine was killed while walking home on railway tracks at night. I spent the next two days very withdrawn and playing every free minute of my time. It was a form of escape, but only a temporary one. Once that phase had passed, I returned to my usual behaviour.
A similar phase occurred during the time I did my civilian service, during which I was severely depressed. Playing non-stop in my free time was, again, a way to escape the drudgery of my daily existence. It was thanks to a good friend of mine that I gradually changed from that behaviour and became a bit more social again. I still played a lot, but I wasn’t a full shut-in anymore.
A lot of people really get into gaming in the presence of factors that strongly reinforce the desire to spend time in a virtual world. Whether it’s depression, a physical illness that binds you to the house, or social anxiety, it’s immensely hard to quit if gaming is a crutch that allows you to deal with your circumstances.
In cases like these, I’d probably recommend to seek out help from friends, family and maybe even professionals. Acknowledging that there are underlying causes and addressing them might be something that needs to happen before you are able to quit.
After I originally published this article, I received several inquiries for people looking for additional advice and options. I’m no therapist and can’t endorse or evaluate therapeutic programs. I did however reach out to see if I can find some resources that can be of assistance to people seeking professional help.
Gwen Dewar, Ph.D, author of Parenting Science recommends to look for local therapists or child behavior specialists to discuss your concerns. Regardless of whether a licensed therapist would use the label “addiction,” he or she will be trained in techniques for handling compulsive behavior and other problems. According to Gwen, the whole notion that this as an “addiction” is a somewhat new and controversial idea, which also explains the possible lack of organizations or groups that specialize in treating it.
Joseph Hilgard, author of a study Individual differences in motives, preferences, and pathology in video games: the gaming attitudes, motives, and experiences scales (GAMES), informed me that there’s a modest amount of research trying to understand the how and why, but so far, no research for interventions or treatment. Like Gwen he pointed out that academics still argue over whether it’s really “an addiction” or “a disorder”. For lack of a specialist, he recommends seeking out a standard therapist. He imagines it could be frustrating trying to get therapy from somebody who hardly knows what video games are, though. Joseph once did a radio spot with Brett Merrill, a clinician with a special interest in pathological gaming. He suggests him as a possible point of contact.
My Relationship With Games Today
At the height of my gaming addiction, I played 6 hours on average every single day. Nowadays, I consider myself a ‘highly functional, occasionally compulsive, binge gamer’. I can still get engrossed in a video game and play it for 16 hours straight; the difference is it happens twice a year instead of twice a week.
As much as I received criticism for my excessive playing of games, the irony is that my addiction to Everquest was the single most important building block in my own business. It provided me with the knowledge, the connections and eventually the money to launch my own company. However, while it resulted in a positive outcome, I can’t help but wonder what the alternative might have been.
This probably gives me a rather ambiguous view of my own compulsive gaming past. It probably worked out a lot better than it has for others. While I don’t regret having played games this much, I’m very happy that I was able to stop. I consider my days of gaming addiction be over, but I still tread cautiously around games like Everquest.
Nowadays I try to channel my ‘surplus ambition’ into slightly healthier hobbies like getting into shape. Maybe there’s something to be said about being too competitive and intense about one’s pursuits, but in the meantime, having one that adds to work/life balance rather than detracts from it seems to be a workable solution.
Do you have any compulsive behaviours you’d like to change? Feel free to send me a message in case you’d like to talk about it.