I think I might have a problem. This holiday season, after more than two years of dabbling in last generation game consoles, my wife and I bought an Xbox 360. Now, this is in no way to promote or dissuade you from buying any particular system. I’m discovering they are all bad news. They say that admitting to a substance addiction is the first step in dealing with it. This is the story of our journey into addiction.
I was a user since 1986 when I got a Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then, 8 bit games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Tetris were enough to give a guy a fix. Back then I forgot to eat, I got snappy with my parents, and sometimes isolated myself in my room for days playing Kid Icarus or Castlevania 3. I wasn’t very pleasant to be around, and back then, I think they wrote it off as teenage angst when really it was just the beginning of a bigger problem.
Games weren’t cheap, so I sometimes found myself doing things a typical teenager wouldn’t do to get the games. Namely working. Mowing lawns was the lowest. Pushing mowers around for the quarters and folded up dollar bills the old ladies they gave out like they were doing you a favor. How could those nice old ladies know they were feeding an addiction? Back when they were kids, the most entrancing thing they had going was hitting a hoop with a stick or tying a bunch of cans to a cat. How could they compete with the brilliance of 32 colors, a repetitive soundtrack that consisted of whistles, blips, and digitized joy? Well, I guess they had cigarettes and bathtub gin in those days.
Since the NES, I’ve had gaming systems that were more sophisticated and expensive. I took it to the next level and bought the N64. Then the Playstation. Then the PS2. For the first time, games were like movies, with cinematic cut screens, better music, and officially certified games such as Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron. The zombie killin’ games were actually scary, and when games got violent, it actually gave parents reason to be concerned. A ratings system sorted out the blood and guts from the rest. Good times, but unlike the old NES, they lacked something. There was no longer that rush. Maybe it was just me. I grew up. I had responsibilities that outweighed the 2D world of Resident Evil and Clayfighter. It just wasn’t there anymore. It was just another thing to waste time. The consoles gathered dust. The systems became antiquated, and nobody was talking about them anymore. I looked at “gamers” like pathetic trolls, too socially awkward to pay their rent, find a girlfriend, or attend to personal hygiene.
Then we upgraded to the next generation of gaming console and began the rapid descent into hell. With wireless controllers! It was a media fueled experience. Rich in realistic backgrounds, smooth play control, photo-realistic environs and complex interactive plot lines. Holy crap, it was the biggest rush! We started off with the kid-friendly entry level games like Kung Fu Panda and Lego Indiana Jones (the sick bastards start ‘em young on this junk). Then we gravitated towards the hard stuff. BioShock, Fable II, and Fallout 3. That Fallout 3 will expand your consciousness, let me tell ya.
Unlike the NES and subsequent systems, the game companies got wise. Kids don’t have jobs. They don’t make money. Adults do. What makes more money at the Box Office? A G or an R-rated movie? Thanks to morally ambiguous characters, extreme violence, sex, and adult language, you bet your ass it’s an R movie. Same here with the latest generation of gaming. Adults don’t mind hearing the characters in their games drop the f-bomb once in awhile. They don’t mind that the digital eye-candy that flirts with you is also available for, erm…you know what I mean. And most of all, when things blow up, adults enjoy the graphic realism of the way the dead guys arc and twist through the air. Ragdoll technology baby! (Actually banned in some European countries).
I work full-time. If I want to skip paying the light bill for a month, they aren’t going to shut us down. They will get their money eventually. In the meantime, we can buy another game. Fitting that a new title is $59 and the electricity is just about the same, you know? It’s not like I’ve missed much work to play either. The kids are old enough to cook their own dinners too. Hunger is a great motivator for self-reliance!
Getting involved in this stuff certainly reveals things about people you never knew. In the world of Fable II, my wife is a bigamist. It’s somewhat disturbing how her character will walk into town, have a quickie with one of her husbands (just to get him to “stop yammering” at her), toss some kind of bauble or trinket at the baby, and disappear once again for an adventure in killing, questing, and making that money. In Fallout 3, she’s especially ruthless with the heavy armament. Her favorite move is vaporizing somebody’s head with a called shot. It’s brilliant to watch her work. And what’s more brilliant is the level of profanity she uses. It is enough to make a dockworker blush.
But it’s not all glamor and extreme thrills. Beyond finding money, using extreme weapons, and guilt-free murder and mayhem, there is a dark side. Dreaming is one part of it. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know what side of the brain is affected by gaming, but whatever happens, it segues seamlessly into the world of dreams. Take a first person POV shooter like Fallout 3 or BioShock. You can turn off the system and expect to dream of your game the entire night. Granted you don’t get a very restful sleep, and sometimes the whole next day (especially if you just skipped sleep to try to level a couple of times), you can expect to find yourself walking around in a haze, perceiving everything exactly as it would happen in the game. In traffic, you find yourself weaving through the slower drivers. At the grocery store, mentally checking your weapons inventory to figure out which item in your cart you can bludgeon the person ahead of you in line with. And sometimes just talking to people, wishing you could hit the “X” button to skip boring parts of their conversation.
Right now I realize I have a problem, a habit really, but I have it under control. I could quit at any time. Do I cry when my character dies? Yes. But I spend a lot of time with that character! Do I wish I didn’t have to stop to make dinner or take out the garbage or walk the dog? Absolutely. And for whatever reason, the government keeps us down by making it illegal to play these games while driving! It’s just a way to control us. It’s oppressive, you know?
And so what if a lot of my friends won’t talk to me anymore. They don’t understand. But how could they? And if they won’t be my friends because I don’t have time to listen to their mundane problems, then so be it! They must not have been very good friends anyway. Besides, I’ve made new friends. Friends that can hook me up with cheats and codes and strategy. It’s like being in an exclusive club. A club where you get to blow people up.
Maybe there is something I should be worried about. But really, is it my fault? Don’t they know that video games are now made to be screening devices for the military, to assess reflexes and moral conditioning to find super soldiers? Sort of like “The Last Starfighter”. Hone their killer instincts and condition them physically (especially with Wii) to become black-ops assassins! The controls are nearly the same as the controls running the latest stealth robotic tank technology, and that Wii hula-hoop game is based on the kata of a forbidden discipline of ninjitsu! I’ve probably said too much. They might be listening. Or maybe it’s just the paranoia talking.
Let’s see, paranoia, alienation, spending insane amounts of money to maintain the habit. If I wasn’t in complete denial, I would say those were most of the classic symptoms of addiction.
I’ve still got everything under control. I’m okay.*
*Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for entertainment purposes only and not meant to diagnose or treat an existing condition. Some of the events in this narrative may have been exaggerated. If you suspect you have an addiction, seek professional help immediately. And no, the guy that works at the game store doesn’t count. Neither do your friends who live on Mac n’ Cheese, and have their apartment wired up to network their World of Warcraft guild, just so they can all hang out and play for days and days. Though obviously talented, and the envy of nerds everywhere, these people are not the professionals you should have in mind to help you with your addiction.
Video game addiction is a serious condition. As with any addiction, not only is your personal health at risk, but so is the well-being of those around you. Plus, you will totally get mocked by the friends you’ve snubbed just to wait in line all night for the newest release of Halo. If you think you might be gaming too much, try to adjust the amount of time you dedicate to gaming to promote a healthy lifestyle, loser.