After going back and forth, trying to quit excessive video gaming over and over for almost 20 years, I’m here to share some thoughts and perspectives on the topic of gaming addiction. For all the people that have struggled like I have or are continuing to struggle today with an addiction to video games, I’m sharing my story because I have something to say about it all that might help others.
Back in the 90’s
When I was young I was fascinated by video games. Some of my first memories, back in the early 90s, were of when my Uncle showed me the great early NES games like Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Zelda, Skate Or Die, and Castlevania; the newest SNES games like Super Mario World, F-Zero, Star Fox, Super Metroid, Street Fighter, and of course Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time… along with so many more. My youth was spent paging through the issues of Nintendo Power magazine to see the walk-throughs, reviews, and commentary; colorful pictures of all the characters and levels that’d come to fill my imagination for years. At my youngest, my very first friends and I would play imaginary games outside in the neighborhood, pretending to be the different game characters on an adventure. We’d sit around and scribble drawings of them or play with their action figures. Our imaginations set ablaze with the fun of it all.
All the while my ‘Gameboy’ portable game system provided an easy distraction on all the car trips and various times out with my parents where I’d have to sit around waiting for things. I’d be on my unending quest to catch them all in Pokemon or floating around in dreamland with Kirby; enjoying the kind of mindless handheld alluring distraction that was only eventually widely common some 20+ years later on our modern smartphones.
As I grew up, so did the game systems and their graphics. I was soon playing the Nintendo 64 I won from a raffle contest our local cable TV station put on. Snowboarding down slopes in 1080 or Snowboard Kids, carrying out secret missions as James Bond in Goldeneye, flipping race cars doing ridiculous stunts on Rush2, or staying over at my neighbor’s house hunting dinosaurs in Turok have become some of my fondest memories. I’d grow up drawing characters in games like these and theorizing on my own, in my own imaginary games that I’d dreamed of being able to design and produce one day.
Online Gaming in the 2000s
Then the internet came and swept me away. Our dial-up 56k-modem’s screeching connection sounds ushering in days and nights spent searching out cheat-codes for my favorite video games and random artwork to download, save on a floppy disk and print out at school to try my best to draw or copy it into my sketchbooks. When we got our first modern computer with a graphics processor in it I got to see my first PC games: Civilization, Diablo, Quake, Doom, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and many others.
After a couple of years, there came a new type of game. Endless in its scope and limitless in it’s potential. An entire world to explore non-linearly, without bound. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Influenced by my computer programmer brother-in-law, who served as one of my main role models growing up, I installed the game ‘Everquest’ on my brand new Emachines T1840 desktop computer sometime near the beginning of 2002. From then on I was engrossed, hooked, and otherwise enraptured. The graphics, although extremely polygonal and crude, were some of the first fully 3D graphics I’d ever seen.
The game was mostly played in the first-person view, giving the experience a very immersive feeling – unlike anything I’d played before. The world was open, free to roam and explore. Unlike other games where you can only move linearly from one place to the next in a set sequence, Everquest was the first game I’d seen that you could go virtually anywhere you wanted to go. The game’s world was huge. You could create your own character, choose how it looked, give it a custom name, and build your character to be stronger and better over time as you adventure in the game world. It was online, so you played the game along-side thousands of other people, exploring the same huge game world with their own characters. You could chat with them, group up with them to tackle difficult challenges, and as time went on you could forge great friendships with these people. It was totally amazing at the time.
Up until then, I’d only really casually played video games. I spent most of my time learning how to skateboard outside with my friends. I’d go on bike rides all day through the desert fields that line my city. I’d been more-or-less against this new internet thing as it was becoming a major pillar in our society. I’d make fun of the internet kids in chatrooms and the ‘nerds’ who didn’t know or couldn’t find the importance of spending most of their time outside in the sun climbing trees and being physically hyper-energetic like I was.
Though, once I started playing Everquest, that began to change. My little 13-year-old brain and it’s extremely limited self-control never stood a chance. As high school got more difficult, both academically and socially, I resolved to buck it all and play gradually more and more games, spending less and less time out in my life developing myself. Online gaming soon consumed my life and many opportunities, potentialities, and relationships I could have had growing up.
My high school years came and went, all the while I lived a double life
In one life I was a teenaged skateboarding musician that never got good grades. Anti-establishment and consumed with your typical rebellious punk rhetoric. I ditched classes often to either play with the garage band I was in or hang out with my girlfriend. I was certainly pretty decent at what I concentrated on, like skateboarding or playing the electric bass guitar, but I never really found any true success in those areas. Ask anyone that knew me at the time and they might say I was a really good skater and could play bass really well, but I always knew that I could do a lot better. I just didn’t connect the dots enough to understand how. Where it actually mattered, in my school work, I rarely ever did my homework and I would ditch class often. I had a small circle of friends from the hobbies I enjoyed but was never very popular. By 2004 in my last year of high school, my grades were terrible, so I had to finish in a charter home school. That gave me the schedule to be able to pick up my first full-time job, and that was that.
In my other life, I was glued to the computer playing Everquest, the newly released World of Warcraft, or some other equally engrossing game. I would play every day, for many many hours per day. After so many years, I’d gotten really close to my virtual ‘friends’ in these games as we took on harder and harder challenges, gathering as many as 80 people together in the game to complete raids. After investing thousands of hours into the characters I played, they’d become stronger and much better equipped through the many quests, tasks, and achievements that the games offered. At the time this held real-world value because you could sell your character in these games for hundreds, if not thousands, of real-world dollars… if you were so inclined. I’d advanced into the realm of end-game or hardcore gaming, where only the most dedicated and experienced gamer dared to tread. Although it felt like I had been achieving things, the other side of my life knew that really wasn’t the case.
As the years went on, through the end of the 2000s I had a really difficult time adapting to the constraints and expectations of a young adult. I knew my addiction to gaming held me back, so I would do what I could to either play less or quit playing all together. My life would get better for a time and I would make progress in my career or college. Though eventually I would have troubles, like being laid off from a job, dealing with a break-up, or being confronted with some other totally normal upsetting life event. To cope with my troubles I would go right back into gaming and sulking my temperament in the fantasy worlds that I’d come to recognize as the perfect distraction.
Friendships would come and go throughout those years. No one likes being flaked on or stood up when you make plans with them. No one likes having a boyfriend or significant other that’s only half-there most of the time. Family isn’t very close when you only hear from them once in a blue moon, or only see them on holidays. Due to my gaming addiction and the fantasy world distractions it provided, I would be that guy more often than not. I was terrible at nurturing the support structures that would have normally helped me through hard times. In so many cases I was on my own, and for good reason. I was a rather selfish, unreliable, impulsive person.
Getting Better in the 2010s
After ending 2009 with a full year of hardcore gaming almost 24/7, I started to play less and less. Throughout the 2010s I got better about all this but I would still struggle occasionally. I would go for a year or two without gaming and make good progress in my life. Progress toward my career, employment, friendships, family, hobbies, and growing as a person. My skateboarding began to flourish and I started filming video clips. I moved out of my parents house, and all at once one day it struck me. I decided I would become a computer programmer in 2012. That began replacing all my gaming time with much more productive learning and work. Yet still, I would have a span of months or a year, here or there, where I’d devolve into online gaming with all my free-time when life wasn’t working out how I’d hoped it would.
The 2010s brought me a short-lived marriage to a full-time gamer, moving thousands of miles away to explore a new life. It brought me new successes and progress in skateboarding, new friends and acquaintances, and new passions. They brought me huge let downs, run-ins with famous people I’d only read about or seen online, and life-altering experiences that brought me from the highest highs to the lowest rock bottoms… all completely changing how I look at life. Truly, I could write an even longer article about each and every step of the way, describing how silly I was and how much more mature of a person I’ve become because of all of it. All that will have to wait for another day, it’s just important to note that the 2010s was an absolute roller-coaster ride.
After going back and forth, trying to quit gaming over and over for almost 20 years, I’m here to share some thoughts and perspectives on the topic of gaming addiction. For all the people that have struggled like I have or are continuing to struggle today with an addiction to video games, I’m sharing my story because I have something to say about it all.
Picking Up Old Bad Habits
Last year, throughout the first half of 2019, my life had been better than it’d ever been. I got an amazing job in December 2018, the first job I’d ever had that paid above the poverty line. With that, I’d been able to pay off most of the debt I’d accumulated over the last decade of going from one minimum wage dead-end job to the next. I had more liquid money in my bank account than ever before. It felt good. At the end of 2018, I’d restarted college classes and I was getting A’s in every course, so my GPA was getting back up to an acceptable level after suffering for so long. I had my sights set at transferring to an online university to complete my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, something I never thought possible in years past. I was in a nurturing (yet somewhat chaotic) relationship. I had a safe place to sleep and as much food as I could eat. Things were as fantastic as they could realistically be.
So then, why did I fall back into a video game addiction that’d plagued my life for years? What have I done with myself to break away from that habit since then so that I can keep progressing in life? Let me explain.
Counting The Hours
This was my most recent character’s profile in World of Warcraft:
According to that, during ‘Season 2’ which stretched between February to June 2019 (roughly 5 months) I completed 123 advanced group challenges, which usually take about an hour. To complete these groups you gather 4 of the best players you can find in the game and attempt to finish a series of difficult fights in under a certain amount of time, clearing out and conquering the dungeon. That’s not to mention my 37 failed attempts where we took too long to complete the dungeon, along with an untold amount of total failures where everyone simply left the group part-way through, abandoning the mission to try again later.
That’s a lot of hours spent. If you were to divide the total number of completed groups, 160, by the 21 weeks I played the game during the season: you’d realize that I did, on average, 6 groups per week. If you then consider that I also did 660 easier dungeon challenges and completed some 2000 other quests and tasks in the game within this time; having spent a raw total of 700 hours actively logged into the game itself… you can see that I really played a lot over that 5 months. Not including the time I spent reading about strategies for playing the game, watching videos, or just sitting around chatting with people about it.
How long is 700 hours though? A number like that doesn’t make sense immediately, but when I saw this I broke it down into more detail to put some meaning to it. If we divide the 700 hours by the 21 weeks, we’ll see that I spent just over 32 hours per week playing that game last year. That doesn’t include other games I played where it’s harder to judge the amount of time spent.
If I got home from 8 hours of work and 4 hours of college classes, a full day of doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and I felt like I could justify a few hours of gaming to relax… where is the harm? Two or three hours of video games per night didn’t seem obviously bad, they went by faster than I could notice, but they added up to 21 hours for the week. That’s a part-time job worth of time.
Eventually, I realized that if I spend 6 extra hours per day over the weekend playing instead of 3, I could accomplish more and progress further into the game; so soon enough I was playing 32 hours per week. After a while homework starts to take a back seat, studying for advancement at work isn’t even a thought, and months later I was where I was by mid 2019. Those 32 hours every week added up to 700 hours over 5 months.
During that time I got to be ranked #260,836 out of 2,715,116 players in the world. That’s just under the top 10% of all World of Warcraft players during Season 2. I don’t think they hand out awards for that. I don’t think I really achieved anything aside from wasted time.
Not only was I not reaching any level of excellence in my life with that kind of schedule… I wasn’t doing anything to advance to a better one. This started to really get me thinking. So I sat down and started counting the hours.
In 700 hours I could learn a new programming language to further my career and skill-set. I could develop a new business website, and sell it for thousands of dollars on a marketplace like https://www.flippa.com/. I could write thousands of words toward a book or a set of articles that I could publish and begin to build into some sort of career. I could learn the basics of and begin to master virtually any REAL life, productive, admirable, and interesting skill. Make real things, in real life, to give or sell to real people and affect the world in real ways. Instead, I’ve been in a virtual world, doing virtual things, talking to strangers virtually, with so little to show for it that it’s laughable.
Counting The Days
With this new perspective on what I could do with my time spent gaming, I started really looking back at the time I spent gaming in previous years. If the time spent in 2019 gaming added up to be so much over just 5 months, I dreaded looking closer at the hours I spent in the years of the last couple of decades. But if I was going to quit ‘for good’ this time, I knew that seeing it all would help me rationalize it all.
So I started with the last game I spent huge amounts of time on, World of Warcraft. In ‘WoW’, you can see the total number of hours, or days (24 hour blocks of time) you’ve spent playing the game by typing in the command “/played“. I went through all my characters and did this.
Here are my character’s names and the amount of time I spent playing them, rounding off the minute and second increment:
Moosade: 28 days (672 hours)
Schism: 49 days (1176 hours)
Decade: 39 days, 14 hours (950 hours)
Wildz: 37 days, 12 hours (900 hours)
Shredface: 18 days (432 hours)
Interval: 18 days (432 hours)
Willyum: 6 days, 17 hours (161 hours)
Anatomize: 5 days (120 hours)
Hyperbola: 4 days (96 hours)
Spinz 3 days, 21 hours (93 hours)
Spins: 20 hours
Total: 210 days (5512 hours)
Altogether I’ve got 5512 verifiable hours, approx. 210 days, playing World of Warcraft since around 2008, not including other characters from 2006 I can’t access now to check – probably about 500 more hours there. Those numbers are so large that it’s hard to put into perspective the same way as I did earlier in this article. Many thousands of hours over the course of 10 years doesn’t immediately make sense.
That’s not all, though. As I explained earlier, throughout the 2000s, I was in the same boat as I am now with a different game, Everquest. The game I started this excessive habit with. So let’s move backward through time a bit and keep totaling my time spent playing.
During 2009, I played Everquest for upwards of 10 hours per day on average. I was relentless. They came out with a new server with new rules, a fresh start to give me the chance to be one of the best in the game. I took it, and I was. I was among the top 20 players on the server, out of many thousands.
It was all for not, though. In the end, I simply have this random profile to show for it. A rare custom title, and some of the best items in the game at the time…
Nothing tangible. Nothing to help me in my life now. Nothing meaningful. Just memories of being attached to the screen like a zombie and everything else in my life fading away into a dissolved nothingness.
Sometime before that, I played endless hours over the course of a few years on a different Everquest character. Two or three years before that, same game, same story, same character. Which brings us back to 2001, when I was 13 years old, sitting with the 3 or 4 Everquest installation discs loading them into my computer’s disc drive, not knowing the on and off again obsession I would have with this and other games like it throughout the rest of the first half of my life.
From 2001 to 2009 I spent approximately 300 days (7200 hours) playing Everquest on and off every few years. Combined with my 2010-2019 time of 250 days (6000 hours), we have a grand total of more than 13,000 hours playing Online Roleplaying games. That’s 550 days … or over 18 months… or ONE AND A HALF YEARS of solid time accumulated at the keyboard, logged in, fighting monsters, leveling up, and killing raid bosses.
Counting the Years
That doesn’t include my time spent playing other MMORPGs – “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games” like TERA, or Secret World. It doesn’t count the hundreds of hours I spent playing “First-Person Shooter” games in recent years like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Call of Duty, Battlefield, Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Borderlands, Bulletstorm, and plenty more. It doesn’t include my countless hours on more traditional Role-Playing games like Skyrim, Morrowind, Fable, Final Fantasy, and more. It doesn’t count the hours and hours I spent as a young child playing the games in the 90s that I described at the beginning of this post. When I really take time to sit and consider it all: The list of games that I’ve excessively played in my life, from Minecraft to Kirby’s Dreamland, would be a ‘whose who’ of all the best and worst games ever made.
In fact, once I started looking back on it; I probably spent as much time (or more) playing games on consoles made by Nintendo, Xbox, Playstation, and hand-held game systems as I did with PC games both online and not. No matter how hard I think about it now, it’s impossible to truly tally all the time I spent playing video games in my life. For the purposes of describing it now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve spent a combined Three Years of my life playing video games. 2,000 days. 26,300 hours.
So how can we make sense of this? That’s too many zeros to easily derive any meaning from, aside from just being ‘a lot’. Three Years of time spread out over the course of 20 years doesn’t sound like very much at first.
Let’s consider that most businesses equate a year of work to being 2080 hours. That’s 52 weeks of working 40 hours per week. So this year, I will be spending at least 2080 hours of my time clocked-in, working my full time job. Now let’s take that 26300 hours I’m estimating that I’ve spent gaming and divide it into this work time: ( 26300 / 2080 )… 12.6 YEARS
That’s over 12 YEARS of ‘work time’ which might have been accumulated through out a professional’s career. Although this includes a lot of time from when I was too young to work, it still applies because we spend most of our childhood going to school for 6 hours per day… and more studious kids spent quite a few hours on their homework every week.
I understand that I couldn’t hold a full-time job when I was 15. Even if I did, I wouldn’t earn very much. Yet, it’s still worth considering that at my current earnings, over that 12.6 years of gaming, I’ve lost out on $850,500 in time. Realizing that this is just an estimation, and I’ve played many other video games I can’t count the play-time for… it’s safe to say that my obsessive gaming hobby has cost nearly $1,000,000 – one million dollars.
Counting Makes It Real
Why am I going through the trouble of counting out and detailing all the hours, days and years I sunk into mindless game play? Well this is what really drove it home for me. It’s easy to say that you play video games too much. It’s a little harder to say that you’re addicted to them. That’s fine, I’m sure that’s a critical step in overcoming an addiction… but it really doesn’t shine any light on the severity of the problem.
Taking the effort to try to tally up all the time I threw away on playing video games made it all incredibly real. Time is the great equalizer. It’s the borderline between the virtual world and the real world. The exchange rate is an equal 1:1 comparison, you give up time in the real world to concentrate on the virtual one. You can begin to digest the impact that a gaming addiction has had to your progress in life. The learning opportunities missed by choosing to game over going back to school. The earning potentials squandered by deciding to log into play over hustling harder to get another job.
Above all else, framing my gaming addiction in terms of time spent and the money not earned doing something more productive was the number one way for me to come to grips with my bad habits and stop gaming so much. Not only that but it caught my focus enough to begin to want to try harder to make my life better. It’s not enough to just stop gaming, you need to fill that void with enjoyable good habits and put yourself to task to be the best that you can at it.
The Realization Of What I Was Missing
With all this in mind, I should never stop to wonder why I didn’t do well in high school. Why I never made it into or through college in a reasonable time. Not often working for very much pay. Not having much of a social life or consistent friendships. Going through 15 unsuccessful serious relationships of various duration. My life’s been spent with one eye on a video game. Ready to escape, under the guise of a fun hobby.
I never sniffed cocaine, smoked meth or shot up heroin. I rarely drank alcohol and I haven’t ever gambled. Of all the bad habits and addictions I could have let into my life, gaming is one of the cheapest and least destructive. It’s with that sentiment that I could justify continuing on for years, wasting my time.
It’s like the ‘harmless’ candy we eat and the energy drinks we drink. Oily, calorie-packed, carbohydrate laced food topped with cheese and salted into oblivion isn’t a problem until you begin to eat it every day and it becomes your norm. It’s not that this food is that immediately unhealthy or destructive. You won’t get cancer, high blood pressure or put on extra weight right away, so it’s easier to overlook. The immediate benefits far outweigh the obvious immediate failings. But those ignorable long term negatives are not the worst or most troubling part of the equation. It’s the continued missed opportunity for good.
Not only do unhealthy or bad habits gradually lead to large problems; but they very clearly replace the good habits, and work to nullify their effects if not completely replace them.
How much different of a person would you be if you never drank soda? How much more clearly would you be able to think if you’d never felt the extreme highs and lows of the sugar rush cycle? Your moods and depressive states, all those anger fits and frustrated moments might be chalked up to the bad diet you ignore in blissful unawareness, enjoying instant temporary relief in trade for the risk of gradual long-term unhealthy states of being. Just the same as my gaming problem.
By gaming so much, I wasn’t reaching for any level of excellence in my current life because I was just barely keeping up with my short-term immediate responsibilities. I might think that this isn’t bad, because I’m still keeping up with what I absolutely have to do. The thing is, I wasn’t giving myself the chance to ever advance to a better life altogether. By not putting extra effort into my life and starting or sticking to any long-term goals I was trading the easy instant entertainment, escapism, and relaxation of gaming for the opportunity to get ahead in life.
Streaming Fame and Professional Gaming
While we’re considering the tangible benefits that can be lost from gaming. What about the tangible earnings that can be gained from it? I’m sure this is on your mind. I’d like to take a second to touch on the concept of making a career from gaming. I understand that this might not be a popular view but I don’t want to avoid this topic.
If you’ve been playing video games for years as a full-time hardcore gamer, you may be convinced that you have a viable future as a professional. Filling the top ranks of competitive gaming or getting millions of followers as a famous streamer. If you feel it’s truly your life path to play video games with all your spare time, then starting to stream video of yourself online at https://twitch.tv/ like these famous individuals seems like an awesome idea. Is it possible to achieve success this way? Yes. Is it probable? Absolutely not.
So much like the hopes and dreams of previous generations toward getting into the movies, becoming television stars, world-renowned musicians, or famed professional athletes. For every famous streamer/gamer/internet-celebrity, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of wannabes. Up-comers destined to never come up. Countless video game dudes like me who want to have their cake and eat it too. Play their favorite online adventure and make money off of it.
Ask any 8-year-old gamer what they want to be when they grow up and there’s a high chance that they’ll respond with something equating to “Famous Youtuber”, or “Twitch Streamer”. Websites like Youtube and Twitch are the modern replacement for Television, Sports, and Movies. The top vloggers and streamers on these platforms can make tens of thousands of dollars per month, and millions of dollars per year. There are gigantic national events of professional gamers battling against each other. Held in stadiums, broadcasted to millions. E-Sports. Tournaments like these for games like Fortnite can fetch thousands, if not millions of dollars. So the allure of following the dreams of professional gaming can be overwhelming.
That allure can be so overwhelming that it may make you lose sight of your incredibly low chances of you, anyone you know, anyone that would read this article, and anyone they know of actually being able to make a good living as a professional gamer. Now keep in mind that I don’t know everything and I’m really not here to crush your dreams. It’s just the nature of the situation. Pro gamers and streamers make their money BECAUSE everyone else wishes they could do it. There is a very real balance that must be struck between the money they make and the difficulty of making it.
Just like becoming a pro-athlete or a movie star: Even if you are one of the BEST gamers in the world or one of THE MOST entertaining people to watch play video games; there is still a huge ‘luck’ factor involved with “making it”. The stars have to align just right, and you have to put in so much more extra effort than you can realize.
Keep in mind that I will never say it’s impossible, nothing is impossible. If that’s the path you’ve decided for yourself, there is very little I or anyone else could say to you to keep you from following those dreams. Yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t make it painfully clear that there are easier and more enjoyable ways to make just as much money as you would as a Pro Gamer/Streamer/Youtuber that doesn’t have to so heavily rely on the luck of the draw.
Creating YouTube videos and maintaining an audience is insanely hard work. Keeping up a regular streaming schedule and maintaining an entertaining on-screen presence can be endlessly taxing, to say the least. Being a professional competitive gamer requires playing dozens of hours per day, every day, for months on end. We’re talking about 60 hour work weeks, no paid health benefits, and the ever-present risk of having your video or stream taken down to DCMA legal issues or having the funding for your gaming team being revoked.
But regardless of who you are and how amazing you are at video games, if you aren’t close to making at least $5000 per month, my advice here and now is to start spending more time looking into a new career path. Then you’ll at least have something to fall back on when your streaming or tournament career begins to dry up.
At the end of the day, the desire to become a career gamer is often just another way to rationalize it all and argue for diving deeper into the addiction. Rationalization is a powerfully convincing mechanism and every time your addiction wins that argument, it can be harder to break away from it … even in the worst times.
Discovering What It Takes To Get Ahead In Life
Thinking back to my most recent gaming habit in 2019, playing for 3 hours per day didn’t sound like very much. To defend it I might look to more hardcore gamers that spend 12 hours per day gaming, making my 3 hours look really minor in comparison. That was my own rationalization. “Hey man, I’m not playing all day… its not that big of a deal!”
Thinking about spending those 3 hours on something else doesn’t really demonstrate anything terribly useful at first glance, either. You can only do so much work in a 3 hour time period and the immediate results aren’t usually amazing. You can spend 3 hours with someone hanging out or watching a movie, which might provide a good memory… but it’s such a small increment of time that it doesn’t feel very consequential.
The truth is the truly life-changing accomplishments that vastly improve your circumstances and help you achieve amazing things come in the form of many very small gradual, almost invisible, improvements. A little bit at a time. In video games, we’re shown this through point systems. Like an Experience Point bar or some other score count metric. Those point systems promise us that if we keep spending time playing the game, then we will eventually fill that bar and level up. We will eventually gain those points, and with enough time we’ll reach those higher levels. We can keep checking the points every day as we work, and as they increase so does our attachment to add to them.
It’s not so obvious for all the other areas of our lives. As of yet, we don’t have a visible overall “life score” that promises to increase steadily as we invest effort in the same way. If anything, even if we did, the uncertain nature of reality promises that this ‘life score’ is always at risk to decrease and back-slide in hard times. People might use the total money in their bank account to serve these ends, but it just takes one major crisis in your own life or in society to decimate your bank account. In fact, there are many metrics we can use to judge our progress through life – be they our possessions, our education, our number of friends, our places traveled, our happy memories, the heaviness of weight lifted at the gym, or some combination of all of it. The idea of putting exact meaning and measure on such an abstract concept as “Life Progression” is opaque and vague, to say the least.
In the Role Playing games I played, when you perform an action you had a chance at increasing your level in the skill attached to that action. If you attack enemies with a sword, you eventually increase your skill level with swords. If you cast magic spells, you increase your Conflagration or Conjuration skills. It’s clear and guaranteed. Spend the time and you’ll get the reward. Yet in life, just because you practice and practice skills like sewing or guitar playing, painting or sculpting, writing or speaking, and all the countless other things you can gain abilities in… there usually isn’t a clearly defined number system that ‘rewards’ you in obviously measurable ways for your smallest of efforts to keep you going.
Fooled By False Rewards
It’s the concept of these ‘rewards’ and ‘achievements’ that we get in video games that keep us coming back for more. It’s my opinion that a huge part of becoming addicted to a video game is getting tricked into thinking you’re really accomplishing something tangible. You put in the effort by playing them, then you receive immediate feedback for those efforts. It’s satisfying. You feel like you’ve succeeded, even if it’s something small like a small point increase. In a small way, it feels like you’ve won. The more challenging the game, the sweeter the feelings, the better the rewards. But how challenging are they really?
Many games feel incredibly challenging, forcing you to creatively strategize fast solutions, actively engaging you in cognitive problem-solving tasks, and pushing you to improve your instant reaction or fine motor skills. It feels rewarding to “achieve” something difficult in a game that’s known to be difficult, or win against another player online in a competitive scenario. I would know, I’ve played very difficult games.
But I’ve never seen a game, in my 28 years of gaming, that challenges, engages, or puts you to task enough to actually improve your ability to accomplish comparable activities in real-life effectively. Never once. They may help increase your self-confidence in solving problems, or your persistence with making countless attempts at something, and I’m sure your cognitive reaction time will probably improve at that one activity…
That’s the thing… by doing that, you’re wiring your brain to be incredibly efficient and to develop massive problem-solving skills at that one set of simulated activities, in a game (or games) made of concrete rules that are designed to be fair and consistent. Real-life is not fair and generally isn’t as consistent. It’s not made so that you’ll win or figure it out the same way games are, either. So you’re building your ability to play games well, and your brain is being rewarded consistently at accomplishing things that don’t actually matter, and you’re convinced that it’s good for you because other people couldn’t solve the same puzzle or react as quickly as you did.
It almost goes without saying, but if you pitted a lifetime gamer against someone who spent all their time actually learning the same activity that the gamer has been simulating… I’m willing to bet the gamer wouldn’t even stand a chance. Consider the best Call of Duty player in a real-life gun duel with a career weapons expert, the greatest Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater gamer against an actual professional skateboarder, etc. Although that’d probably make a hilarious TV show.
You Can’t Win
These online games I played for so many years are made so that you’d succeed. No one wants to play a game where you’re destined for failure no matter how hard you try. You may need to spend many hours and put in countless attempts to gain success in these games. It may feel like work. However, it’s all constructed in a virtual world where the main goal is to hold your interest, give you rewards a little bit at a time, and inch you toward an ever-moving goal post. A trophy only ever out of reach. Play more and you’ll eventually win it. You must. You bought the game and/or you’re paying a subscription fee for it. You’re the customer, and the customer wins.
The illusion of accomplishment can feel just as temporarily rewarding as the real thing. Eventually, it rewires your brain to have trouble knowing the difference. You spend hours working toward anything and finally accomplishing it will feel good for a time. The problem is that when this is done in a game, it doesn’t move you forward. It doesn’t bring you any more prosperity or progress in your life than if you’d just sat there in your room counting the dimples on the wall. You might count them faster and faster each day, recognize and categorize every crease and shadow, but soon it’s obvious that you’re just staring at a wall. When you play a game, you’re staring at a screen. It glows and the lights feel good on your brain. Beyond that all meaning and purpose are negligible.
In this life, we are not set up for success in the same way as we are in video games. We have every temptation, pitfall, mistake, and bad luck situation swirling around us overhead at all times. Just waiting to swoop down and enact a painful series of unfortunate events that will run its course, outside of our control and in spite of all our best intentions. Life isn’t easy. It’s not a game and it’s not built to be fair. It doesn’t make sense, people aren’t rational, and our society isn’t a safe place. This is not a game, no matter how much you try to play it like one. You can’t win.
Winning is subjective. In life, you’ll have to decide what “winning” means. Once you reach that state, the goal post moves. You may have won this stage in life, but the next level is coming and it’s only natural for you to then set your sights toward a new way to ‘win’. The better you are, then so too is the better you can become.
What Could Have Been
In the time I spent playing video games, as easy to justify it as it may have been, as potentially useful as I might be able to spin it or defend it; It was just a waste of valuable time. No amount of rationalization can overcome that hard truth.
In that amount of time, I could have focused intently on throughout grade school, then High School, then College. By 23 I could have had my Bachelor’s degree. For the last 8 years since then, I could have been working regularly in much higher paid jobs doing more interesting and challenging things than stacking boxes and stocking shelves. In 8 years, saving between $500 and $1000 per month like what I do now, I could have built up a savings of between $48,000 and $96,000 in the bank.
According to the statistics, the average net worth for someone my age is exactly that.
I could have used that money on a down-payment for a house, or put it toward investments, or into a retirement fund, or other ventures which would have actually enriched my life. I could have traveled to other countries, or treated my family to a better life. I could have afforded to start my own family and have kids.
I would have had the free time, some 32 hours per week over the course of 13 years to consistently keep up with social contacts, friendships, business partners, and lovers to have made real lasting and meaningful memories with people. Memories whose insights, good and bad, might have driven me to a higher state of being. Practice toward habits that contribute to a longer, happier, healthier, and more interesting life.
If only life was so idyllic.
What Has Been Instead
Instead, I spent my high school years ditching class, rebelling, and encountering countless frustrations at the expectations all the adults in my life had for me. I embraced heavy extreme music and skateboarding, spent all the time I wasn’t gaming on learning to play music, hanging out with the bands I was in, and popping around on my skateboard. Going to local shows/concerts, and throwing myself around at the skatepark. I lived the same kind of escapism in my real life that my virtual life reinforced. As the years went by, everything in my life crumbled to my avoidance. I quit anything when it got to be too difficult or there were no obvious solutions to my problems. Well into my twenties I had issues meeting the challenges of adult life, working with or interacting with people to solve issues, and having patience with the flow of life. Halfway through my twenties, I started pushing myself to be better and do greater things, but still, I’d inevitably relapse or fall back while I learned to live through life’s lessons.
Life On The Losing Team
So I sit now, in my 30’s looking at a less-than-idyllic world. Panicked at the thought of a life spent wasted, absent, and avoided. Escape brought me questing for a deeper hole of virtual relief for so long that the world caught up with me and we’re all now scrolling on our smartphones endlessly searching the internet for time wasted in temporary entertainment. A generation of people who flake on social plans more readily, binge on Netflix more fervently, and shutter in a terrified stupor over picking up a call and using our voices to speak a conversation. Our interactions are text-based messages of 3 or 4 syllables, only traded enough to meet the minimum requirements for meaning; no nuance or flavor, insight or feeling. Only short abbreviations and single frame memes lined with slang words and terms to turn the phrase enough to chuckle to ourselves as we go about our lives drenched in a veil of uncertainty about everything around us.
For people like me that threw our younger years away to bad habits and procrastination, life is complex and it’s difficult to keep our heads above water. On the whole, our minds are wrapped in depressive, anxious morbidity and dark humor to distract us from its irony. Our attention deficiencies and hyperactive tendencies only move us enough to show us what we lack or can’t have. What we aren’t. What we can’t easily be. The mental disorders listed as most prevalent among my generation hold us back and typify us. They put us in a box, and they put pills in our bottles. They limit us to feel like we can’t achieve anything better than the minimum viable possibilities in our lives. Minimum wages and self-destructive habits are the invisible prison walls of someone so convinced they’ve got a Major Depressive Post Traumatic Anxiety of Borderline Schizo-Repressive Syndrome Disorder that they’ll never be the impressive successful type of person that they and everyone that’s loved them always hoped they’d be. They’ll never be a millionaire, hell they may never make enough money to move out of their parent’s house. They’ll never ever be a stable person with normalized moods and the ability to focus on a topic for long enough to learn something new.
This mild hyperbola is the new average life in the circles I grew up in. This is what many of us face in our own second guessings.
So when life feels impossible because we’re too poor, misguided, mentally unable, and stunted; video games and other escapist behaviors feel like the only rational path to walk for many. Our college degrees cost so much and the outlook of our jobs pay so little. The nightly news brings us fear and the daytime talk shows numb our senses. There are dangerous chemicals in everything, the economy is constantly in unpredictable flux and everything is more expensive than it ever was. A house to cover our family with and food to cram into their faces can take multiple jobs from multiple earners and we still might need some public assistance.
I’m here to tell you loud and clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. At the core of everything you’re troubled with and everything holding you back, keeping you addicted, keeping you from pursuing exactly what you want in life, is a fuel. Ready to burn and ignite your passion toward something greater.
My continued bout against gaming addiction, a silly fight when compared to other addictions, has still brought me to realize that we all face drastic uphill battles. Each of us has our own flavor and mix of the assortment. The sooner we find them and begin to resist them, the sooner we can start to try where we weren’t able to try before.
If we don’t spend all our time forcing ourselves to try, then at the end of our lives we’ll only have an endless list of things we’d wished we’d been able to do and dreams we left unfulfilled. If life isn’t structured in a way that promises success, I feel like we need to rewrite the definitions for ‘Life’, ‘Success’, and ‘Promise’ for ourselves. Then better refine those definitions with each passing day. For me, it’s the only hope I have because this is the only life I have. This is the last July 12th, 2020 that I’ll ever have.
You can’t win, but you can certainly find more and more ways to lose every day if you don’t give it everything you have.
You and I are no different. This is the only life you have. There are no re-tries, re-dos, re-sets, or second chances. What’s done is in the past and that time can’t be given back. You can only try harder tomorrow. So it’s with that earlier thought of an idyllic life with which I frame my outlook now.
How can I catch up to the life I would have if I never slacked off?
How can I start picking up the good habits I need?
How can I regain the fulfilling life experiences that I’ve been missing out on?
I’ll try and see.