The Negative Influence of Games: An Autobiographical Essay

I spent 803 days unemployed after I left college. Each day I would start by writing to companies to explain how I am just the right person for their position. I would then set about organizing and cleaning an ever-increasingly out-of-date set of thrift-store purchases. Sometimes, I even went to parties where I tried to make being unemployed sound cool. Most of the time, however, I played a lot of video games.

The time spent organizing my pile of belongings made sense to me – even without a job I feel a need to maintain my life – but the time spent playing video games was always deeply confusing. Inside video games I become a world-famous hero, and yet in the real world I have trouble even getting an interview. Why can’t the willful leader and the inspired artist in me show himself?  Why can’t I reach the next level in the real world?

I am coming to the conclusion that the answer is video games.

At age thirteen I was introduced to the first game I took seriously by a well-meaning teacher who taught at my Jr. High School. He made the whole class a deal each day: if we finished our lessons we could play on the private server he hosted on a small Pentium 3 computer in the corner near his desk. I quickly signed the manilla waiver that said Ultima Online may contain content that was not suitable for kids my age.

More like a game of make-believe than a single fantasy adventure, UO offered me a world in which I could visualize myself completely. My character could spend his days slaying skeletons, mixing potions, or even baking bread. Most exciting of all, however, was that with each click, the worth of my effort was clearly defined by the steady ticking of stats ever upward. When my Musicianship skill jumped 20 points in a single week so that I could tame Dragons my teacher praised me as “one of the smartest students I’ve met.” This when I began to try and take the same approach in my real life; this is when the end goal began to matter more than the journey.

One day when I came to school the gamer circle was talking about a new game: Everquest. Ultima Online was a joke compared to this game, they boasted. Only babies would be playing UO anymore.

To me, UO felt less like a game and more like an extension of my neighborhood; a real world with rules I was just beginning to understand and internalize. I refused to give it up, and was promptly rejected. The gamer group refused my entrance at lunch. This rejection was heartbreaking, but I consoled myself with the idea that I was getting the better end of the deal. What was the point of being on cordial terms  with a group that even on the best days could not be described as friends? I took to spending my lunches reading printouts from various Ultima Online fansites to improve my tick rate; UO, and the resulting praise from my teacher, provided me the edification I had been searching for.

The next year was filled with a series of troubles and anxieties – from professional rejection, to typecasting based on my weight, and finally my mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. These events combined to create a strong sense of fearful pessimism about the future; not so much a hopelessness but a deep and terrible panic. Fortunately, UO provided me with the daily routine and positive reinforcement that I so desperately craved. It became a hiding place where I could pretend that I didn’t feel powerless and incompetent in real life.

When the year came to an end I “graduated” into high school and the server my teacher ran was no longer available to me. At first this did not bother me; I had seen it coming and had planned to join an official server as soon as it happened. My first few hours on the Great Lakes shard felt comfortably familiar, but very quickly I came to see that nothing was the same. On a public server, Ultima Online could be best described as a mixture of Atlas Shrugged and Mad Max in Medieval England. All the uncertainty, tragedy, and betrayal caused by the collision of human begins existed as a pure distillate; unspoiled by by any limits on player conduct.

The empowering isolation of my teacher’s private server now a memory. I found myself at the mercy of people who seemed to take great delight in making me feel powerless. I still have scars on my hands from the time I slammed my fist against the wall in impotent rage as the work of hours of mining was lifted from my corpse by a PK as he recited a list of the different ways he wanted to copulate with my mother.

I lingered for a few more weeks, but reality had moved in. Its cold, cynical, girth was making itself comfortable on my couch when I cancelled my account. “It’s for the best” my family would say, “now you can focus on what is actually important.” My mother was very sick at this point. I agreed with them, using the vehemence of my words as a way to drown out the voice in my head pleading with me to find a new place to feel powerful. I thought I found what I was looking for in my High School’s JROTC program because it gave me an opportunity to follow simple rules inside of a clear worldview and earn straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals.

What I found was a new game that was just as troubling as the one I had just left. The difficulty of dodging player killers was replaced with the grueling work of morning physical training. What seemed so easy for everyone else felt insurmountable to the extremely obese kid I was at the time. Having to face the frustrated visages of my classmates, who had to keep running while they waited for me to finish the lap (as I had already stopped three times to catch my breath) was completely disheartening. The public UO servers had shown me the shittiness of others, but JROTC made me face my own shittiness. It held a mirror up to my own limitations, and I turned away.

I didn’t feel strong or successful standing in formation (being shown by several cadets just how bad I was at standing in formation). I just wanted to find a place where I could recapture the happy confidence of my teacher’s server. Slowly I began to put less and less effort into my duties; I traded shining shoes for searching the web for some new game to play. My mother was too sick to register the downward slide of my JROTC grades. She didn’t live to see me quit the next year.

First my virtual world, and then my real world were shattered. This was probably one of the most hopeless times in my life. One of the people I cared about the most was gone, and I felt like it had been my fault. I know now that guilt is normal, and irrational, but at the time all I could think about was how weak I was. I couldn’t hack it in JROTC, and I couldn’t even be a good enough kid to give my mother the strength to fight for her life. Despite all the hours I had played a hero in Ultima Online, I couldn’t find the strength to be one in real life.

All I could think to do was keep practicing. At this point I began what I now call “The Cycle.” It can be outlined in seven steps.

A. Decide life is too (difficult, troubling, unfair, hopeless, etc.) and choose a game that is easy, repetitive, and comforting which provides a high level of wish fulfillment. The protagonist must normally end up accomplishing things I feel incapable of.

B. Grow increasingly disillusioned with the experience and stop playing.

C. Find a new game that embodies that is incredibly difficult. Usually this means a complicated flight sim or a competitive online game. Either way it must have an incredibly high bar for success.

D. Slowly realize that I am not that good at the game from part C. Become intensely focused on succeeding, and start playing constantly. Refrain from normal activities and avoid work to spend more time practicing.

E. Come to the conclusion that success is not coming fast enough, and even if it does – which it probably won’t – the reality is I am devoting my time to a fantasy. Decide that if I am going to devote myself to something it should have something more real at the core of it. Quit what I have been playing since step C and attempt to find success in education or professional life.

F. Grow frustrated with my lack of  success and depressed with the indeterminability of my future. (Unlike game universes, the real world has no clear designer’s intent. There is no single walkthrough, and success is not guaranteed.) Begin to long for gaming experience like the one I found in my teacher’s Ultima Online server, where objectives are clear and success is inevitable and imminent.

G. Return to A.

This cycle functions because of one simple character flaw: a need to maintain my self-esteem by continually reliving my successes. I return to certain games (and even within games certain scenarios) that make me feel successful. At the time of writing Medieval 2 Total War, and Mount & Blade: Warband both have 600 hours of playtime; with many of those spent replaying the same victories over and over.

The ease with which games and especially RPGs allow us to feel powerful and to repeat ad infinitum these rituals of self-empowerment are part of what makes them so successful. It also makes them capable of becoming so tightly wired into our perception of reality that they can alter our psyche. The resultant change is very similar to what William Deresiewicz describes as the disadvantages of an elite education:

“…students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure…”

The difference between my own experience, and that of a typical hyper-successful ivy-league-bound student is that my sense of self was built around fabricated success.  Video games present a fictitious sense of trial that produce a baseless sense of accomplishment.  Saving the world feels like it’s worthy of note but it is simply the outcome for every person who plays the game and doesn’t turn off the console.

I chose to define myself by my gaming successes as a way of displacing the definition given to me by my circumstances.  This has brought with it all the consequences Deresiewicz describes, but without any of the benefits gained from the hard work real-world success requires.  I still craved the type of success that Ivy League schools looked for, but the ease with which I could turn on a video game and feel successful without any of the work was (and still is) incredibly difficult to pass up.

When I was applying for college I was right at the part of the cycle where I once again become obsessed with real-world success. My father and teachers encouraged me to study English and Writing in college. Writing had always come naturally to me, and without realizing it I had logged a significant chunk of the 10,000 hours needed to master the craft engaging in collaborative storytelling in various multiplayer games. At the time none of this was clear to me, and I perceived their encouragement as an attempt to get me to accept my limits and simply enjoy mediocrity. Choosing English felt like a conscious choice to replay a game I had already beaten over and over forever. I decided that a true winner would take on a hard game and win. I chose to attempt a degree that teachers had told me repeatedly I had no real talent for: art. I found a school that didn’t require a portfolio to prove my qualification and began a degree in Animation.

Top grades became the new win state, and being the teacher’s most promising pupil became the threshold for winning the game. Each class that found me behind someone else made the tug in my brain to retreat into games even stronger. For two years I toughed it out and through sheer determination (and many all-nighters) made a straight “A” average. But then I met a classmate who seemed capable of accomplishing any animation task (and rising to the top of the class) without any effort. I couldn’t beat him, and the tug became too strong. I retreated hard, and the cycle began again.

During a long winter break, half way into a bottle of rum, I found a gaming group that enticed my compulsion; a pseudo military unit playing Day of Defeat: Source. There were tests to pass, inspections to clear, and medals to win. It was everything I had wanted to find when I quit JROTC; an easier path to feeling like a hero. I thought that maybe if I went through the boot camp (just until break was over) I could return to class refreshed and confident.

Classes resumed, but part of me decided not to return. I was good at this new game, and I wanted to keep feeling good. As my rank rose I spent more and more time inside the “unit” as we called ourselves. My grades slipped accordingly and, though outwardly I expressed bravado, inside I was torn and afraid. I wasn’t willing to say it out loud, but part of me believed that this ‘unit’ was the only place I’d ever feel proud of myself.

My straight “As” turned into rocky “Cs” and I left school with a reputation for being unreliable. At around the same time I “retired” from the unit a Second Lieutenant. A captaincy or executive officer position – what I saw as the end goal of this game – was not something I could achieve. My superiors had decided I was “too intense, too eager” for high command. I was angry. I was ashamed. I had thrown away my college experience for a shot at winning this game. I hated myself.

I spent two years out of college unemployed because I stuck to a routine. Wake, eat, play the same games that make me feel strong, promise myself that tomorrow I will move past this, sleep, do it again.

I’ve read about how video games are shaping culture in positive ways, and heard from countless people on Twitter and in person that games have opened their eyes to new ways of viewing the world. Deep down, I feel none of this. Games have allowed me to hurt myself in ways that I am not sure I will ever recover from. At the same time, they are such a core part of my life that I don’t think I can ever give them up. So instead I pretend to agree. I talk openly and loudly about how games are one of the highest forms of art; I defend the position that games will change the world for the better; I keep writing cover letters telling game companies how excited I am to work for them. I pretend because admitting to myself that I’ve screwed my life for good is worse. I begin the cycle again.


  1. Daniel Jones

    I completely see where you’re coming from. My story is certainly different from yours but I was able to identify with this on numerous levels. Thank you for writing this. I greatly appreciate your candor. I don’t have any advice since I’m stuck in my own similar cycle but I think the fact that you’re able to admit it is a huge step forward. Or as us writers are wont to do, you could just be writing it out to make yourself feel better when really you know it won’t change. Hopefully that’s not the case. Anyway, good luck.

  2. I think a comparison to drugs is in order. Drugs themselves enable addictions – but the need for an escape surfaces independently. If video games weren’t the preferred mechanism, it might be pot, or alcohol, or cutting, or something more dangerous than any of those. Maybe a combination. One of the advantages of the digital drug is that it does a pretty good job of keeping people alive and coherent.

    But I do agree that right now, we have an gaming ecosystem and community that is too heavily focused around achievements – both the overt systems and the overall concept of “beating the game” and living a power fantasy, and it results in a frustrated, bipolar community with many people who feel like you. I feel some it myself, too, although not in exactly the same ways.

    I also think that there is a solution: games that enable and encourage whole-community dialogue, and have the ambition to be more than a commercial theme park. Mostly absent in your narrative are mentors and friends, the two things that can do the most to keep you focused on goals in difficult times – and that isn’t because they can’t be found during play. It’s just a matter of the makers not building – not even knowing to build – a community structure that can properly support and encourage those things outside of the simplistic rank/status/achieve model. Games can and should enable self-expression and meaningful interaction, but we haven’t achieved nearly as much as is possible in that respect.

    • Matthew Duhamel

      This is very true, James. There are more game developers making attempts at trying to do more than simply create games that sabotage the cycle of effort and reward, but it’s still a movement in its infancy. Creating more games that allow us to draw closer as people and contribute to our lives in meaningful ways is something I actively support.

  3. Masamune

    Have you ever thought that all of your misery might not be entirely your fault? I mean, while the addiction and that “cycle” you described are bad things, you have to remember how reality works. In games, or in most of them (and especially in RPGs), there’s a direct relation between effort and success: keep grinding/fighting/mining/whatever, and you WILL get better at it. There is a level cap, but within the game world, you get really good at that and the game world reflects that. Every effort is rewarded. We like that, and that’s why we feel so miserable in real life: you have to work hard, sometimes too hard, just for the CHANCE of getting something. Effort has no guarantee of reward in real life, and that’s what sucks about it. Besides from that, our own human limits are much “tighter” than our avatars’. Why should it be that way? Why couldn’t the world reward us properly for our hard work? Many people might disagree with me, but yeah, the real world is partly to blame as well. To quote Fight Club: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. ”

    I live in Brazil and studied at what you would call an “elite school” during all my elementary and high school years. From the beginning of my school years until the end of high school I was always among the top three students of my class. I was always competing for the top against another classmate in particular (she was sort of a rival to me), and any random lucky bastard from the rest of the class would get the third place. I was an example to be followed: I studied hard, was a kind, polite, well-behaved kid, and believed that I would have a rich, successful life while all the others that were not taking studies seriously and occasionally making fun of me would get lame jobs and flip burgers for the rest of their lives.

    Then I went to college, and got my first ever low grades. I overestimated my own potential, and learned that I wasn’t as smart as I thought, and met people who are far superior to me in every possible aspect. It made me humbler, but also made me feel quite miserable. My smarts was the only thing I was ever proud of in my life. If I wasn’t on the top anymore, what was left for me in life? What other purpose could I have?

    It came to me the “wonderful” idea of being proud of being a gamer. But even in that I’m far from good. I like games a lot and I play lots of games, but I’m not particularly skilled in any thing. RPGs don’t even count because aside from a little strategy you don’t really need skills to succeed. Sure, I have a vast gaming knowledge, I can discuss gaming with anyone without feeling out of place. But my skills are mostly laughable. Conclusion: I am ridiculously mediocre in every single aspect of my life.

    While I make as much attempts as my willpower still allows me, I’m sort of given up on life. Why work hard if it won’t get recognized? Why push my limits if I won’t really get properly rewarded for that?

    It was such thoughts that showed me that I don’t exactly refuge myself in gaming for the feeling of power. Sure, it’s there, and whenever I get ultimate power, it gets boring quickly. What I look for are realms that are better than real life. Realms that make some sense. And well, any realm is better than real life. All of my efforts while inside of them are rightfully recognized and properly rewarded, and it feels good. It feels right. Unlike real life.

    That cycle of yours, while don’t fully apply to me (mine doesn’t have steps C, D and E), it helped me understand a friend of mine. He has serious depression issues, and he’s constantly taking heavy meds because of that. He was even better than me during his pre-college years, since he didn’t even have to study to stay at the top. He suffered the same impact I did when getting into college, and while I slowly got over it, he entered in a cycle of depression. He excels at many games he plays, especially online games. I always wondered how much patience, persistence and willpower he should have to constantly play those games, since he always gets rich and high-leveled in them. Then I read step A and it all made sense to me: all the repetition and boredom those games give me after few days or weeks playing them is probably comforting to him. He’s doing something that although repetitive, gives him a sense of purpose and fullfilment. We already had some serious talks, and I found out that he’s as lost as me in life, he feels like he has no clear purpose and is just living a day after another, facing whatever life throws at him.

    I currently work in a job that even a trained monkey could do, but pays kind of well. The feeling that I’ve wasted four years in college for such a shitty job drains me and depresses me from time to time. It’s really hard to find a job that pays better where I live and I don’t want to go to metropolitan regions to find work because I absolutely hate big cities and my quality of life would plummet.

  4. This is the first article that lives up this site’s name. Author you delicately display resolve and dedication and we should all be grateful for your timely nakedness.

  5. Jacob Jensen

    It’s a rare thing for me to be so fully captivated by an article online, especially one about video games. Thank you for writing this.

  6. yoggesothothe

    I have to admit that I am unsure if I should be posting this comment at all. But I want to testify how the very things that can be debilitating about games can also set us free. So many of the things you wrote about, I also experienced. But my end conclusions have been very different—the flip side of the coin, if you will.

    Let me go back to the beginning. I am one of those Ivy Leaguers you mentioned, and the thing you wrote about them having a lack of experience in, and unbearable fear of, failure was true for me. This was true not so much because of some natural aptitude, but because so much of my time was deliberately spent in exceedingly controlled environments.

    The game of entering an Ivy League school is one that I started around the age of seven. It was a very, very long game, and one I approached in the same way as you approached playing Day of Defeat. Orchestras chaired, 4.0s maintained, these were the same things as medals won and inspections cleared—pre-defined, tangible points in a highly structured and purposed game. Pursuing these, however, meant that I spent most of my time alone, or alone among others, in settings that I was able to fully understand, to “game” because I knew all the rules. This eventually became a reluctance, and then an inability, to survive in any other type of setting—to spending time only in the things I felt I could readily master. It’s an experience that is very much an echo of your own.

    Years forward, college admissions letters finally came around. In some ways, “winning” the game is as bad as failing it. The game is over, there are no more rules to follow, nothing more to prove. And given that this game had lasted a decade, I handled the ending very poorly. At school, I fell into the same mistake of seeking purpose in games. The intention had always been to enter the game industry (at least, my college intentions, as ill-defined as they were), so I justified to myself that all those classes skipped playing Diablo 2 were fine. I was learning about games, right? But the more I spent time in games, the more I needed to justify it with even more time in them.

    The truth was that I was losing faith in the ability of games to be meaningful (or that I had an ability to create such games), and thus faith in my own goals in life, and pretty much everything else. That’s the naive dream, right? To change the world through games. I no longer believed that was possible.

    It’s something of a miracle that I wasn’t dropped out of school. My academic advisor counseled me to take a medical leave for depression, for which I was medicated. I came back to school afterwards thinking I was ready to tackle it, but the underlying problem had not been solved. My purpose in life was still impersonal, and I lived purposelessly. I then made the identical mistake of seeking purpose externally yet again, and this time through an all absorbing relationship with a girl I had known since junior high—a relationship so consuming that I ended up taking another leave.

    That relationship inevitably ended in failure, and the deep pain of _that_ insurmountable failure caused a paradigm shift so profound that my reliance on medication disappeared. I realized that nothing makes sense if I don’t have faith in the goals that I myself had set for myself, if I can’t provide my own meaning. If I could communicate or reproduce such experiences with games… In short, I had faith in my life again.

    Fine, you say, but what does this have to do with playing games? The truth is that that paradigm shift was only immediately comprehended because of all the time I had spent in games avoiding everything else, the same way I foolishly, regretfully tried to make that relationship the center of my world. Through the experience of the countless hours of excruciating self doubt and internal questioning of what the hell the point of this compulsive activity, of _any_ activity, was that I had already accumulated, I was finally able to understand that you are never going to draw meaning from the rules themselves, from anything external to oneself. You can never cause something (or someone) to give _you_ meaning.

    So this is what games have taught me: just like any other game, the “game” of life is only worth playing if you define your own rules within the existing ones, and the only achievements worth achieving are those that you yourself, not society, not an external system of valuation, deem valuable to pursue. That you have to struggle and spend the time to define these rules, this internal valuation system, for yourself, as much as the existing rules allow (which is indeed the eternal struggle). And that failure is just another learning experience towards the conceptualization and fulfillment of those personal rules—when you have your own rules, you can’t fail.

    That, for me, is the power of games. They have given me an approach to life that makes nearly everything meaningful.

    (My apologies for such a ridiculously lengthy comment.)

  7. Guest

    It is a devastating cycle, and I’m sorry. I find it worrying how many young people of my generation, now in their early twenties, seem so lost, as if children still and so all-consumingly dependent on empty games for providing a basis for self esteem and identity.

    For me, games have always been an escape: a way to avoid and dissociate from myself and my emotions. I come from a background of childhood neglect, and games provided me a controlled environment in which I could feel safer and more competent. I can no longer draw solace from games, however, as in the playing my brain almost invariably becomes hyper-vigilant against failure, seeks out the meta-strategy, and reduces the gameplay to ‘safe’ repetition. More importantly, my self-awareness has grown too much for me to ignore myself any longer. It has been, and still is, difficult in the extreme coming to terms with the abuse I suffered and the fact that I’m a person in need, rather than one who must by necessity spurn contact with others and survive on his own. Unfortunately, since so much of my life has been seemingly devoured in games, I feel grossly ignorant and incompetent. Social interaction is very painful for me and, looking back, my childhood seems a great, gaping chasm devoid of life or joy. I have little hope or motivation within me to heal, but somehow I must.

    That said, I have had many positive, emotional experiences with games. The best of which were with the great BioWare RPGs of old, when I was still young and open enough for them to inspire me to awe and wonderment. These were not games with empty cycles of effort and reward, and I will always treasure them, even if I can’t bring myself to replay them.

    Thank you for the time and effort you spent writing this. I’m sure it was excruciating.

  8. Way


    I am sorry to hear that video games have had such a negative impact on your life but I think the whole point is not so much that video games have had an impact more that as much as any other thing in your life you need to learn moderation. The ability to choose is always yours. While I am an avid gamer and I no doubt put more time into games than I should, I still am aware that there needs to be a point where you say no more.

    It is all very well blaming the addictive properties of video games but ultimately the fault lies with the person in the chair. Video games such as WoW, UO and Everquest where the player gets the infinite cycle of gratification (Yay you got to this level now just a few more of ‘x’ and you can do ‘y’) are definitely geared to draw people in but the person cannot blame the game for the bad choices they make. If you commited a crime, murder for example, under the effects of alchohol or drugs then you will still be charged for that crime because you made the choices which led to that final result. Video games are similar, while they do have addictive properties with non-real world rewards they do not prevent you from making the correct choices. Much of the negative I can see in your writing about video games is all about how the game ‘drew’ you into a cycle. While your story is a sad one the video games are not the issue here.

    If you had come here and told us a story of how drugs had ruined your life then you would likely find that many people would come on and say that you made bad choices and would be entirely your fault. As sad as your story is it is more a story of your lack of positive impacts in your life than the negative impacts of games.

    I could write a similar discussion from the entire opposite point of view. When I was in primary school and in high school even I was bullied because I did not fit in very well. I am socially awkward and have great difficulty in social situations a problem that I still have today. It was only through the positive impacts (false they may be) of video games that I made it through school as well as I did. Playing the hero in RPG’s such as Final Fantasy, TES gave me a sense of pride in my abilities and in myself that I didnt have from external sources such as popularity groups or such. These games are like my childhood ‘blanket’ of safety. I occassionally dust one off and play it through because it gives me a sense of nostalgia and lets me look back positively on what was a dark time in my past. These games were a very positive impact on my life because without them I would never have made it to where I am today.

    Video games on a whole cannot be considered a negative impact either. Thats like saying that all movies are a negative impact because you saw a few horror movies as a kid which left you confused and upset. The movies in particular might have had a negative impact but the whole genre cannot be taken as negative due to a few. Some video games (even the ones you mentioned) could be considered by some people to have had a positive impact on their life.

    I’m going to stop now because otherwise I’m going to go on forever.

    I admire your ability to speak openly but I also disagree with your conclusions and premise.

    • Matthew Duhamel

      Thanks for your comments. I have to say, however, that the idea that games are either wholly negative or wholly positive was never the point I was trying to make. Everything, has both positive and negative impacts. Right now there is a lot of people writing about the positive ways games can make the world better. I felt the need to offer my own experience as a counterpoint. Does this mean I am somehow freed of personal responsibility? No, but again, it is a false dichotomy to say it is one or the other.

      Suffice to say, I wasn’t making anything like a statement that games are simply a “negative impact” in abstraction but rather showing the negative impact that they had on me.

      Thanks for outlining your own positive experience. It is always nice to hear other people had happier experiences.

    • Ah, choice, the great Western virtue. It’s also a convenient scapegoat, whether it exists in reality or not. I’m not one to blame movies, games, books, or even drugs for somebody’s conscious decisions but it’s simplistic to say that because somebody “chose” poorly it’s actually “all” their fault. That’s morally and logistically one-sided. The drug dealer that knowingly supplies a junkie with amounts s/he can’t handle but will try bears some culpability for the OD. The makers of bullets bear some responsibility for them landing in somebody’s body. Etc.

      I love books. Love ’em. But literature, more than anything else, has led me down some treacherous roads. (Burroughs, Thompson, Celine.) And it continues to! I like these authors; they’re friends. But that doesn’t always mean they’re good influences.

      It’s a tricky thing, making & consuming culture. And games, more than other mediums, do traffic in a certain dopamine feedback loop that could be seen as both shallow in its meaning and callous in its implementation.

      I guess I just mean to say you’re being hard on the writer. “There but for fortune” and all that.

      • Way

        A very deterministic outlook. There is no definitive proof that there is no such thing as choice.

        Regarding your point relating to culpability. I agree with your example regarding the drug dealer but you couldn’t be any more wrong about the makers of bullets. There are many legitimate reasons for owning bullets not the least of which is hunting or for sport uses. Are makers of bullets to blame for every single bullet fired? Of course not! Again the fault lies with the person who chooses to use the bullet the wrong way. In the case of bullets I do agree that there should be forms of moderation or control of firearms/ammunition BUT you cannot hold makers of bullets or even guns accountable for those who misuse them. Do we hold car manufacturers culpable because a consumer chooses to drive drunk and run their car into someone else on the road and kill them? You cannot hold someone culpable just because you do not agree with their actions whether they are morally good or not. Makers of bullets are no more culpable than makers of cars for the actions of their consumers.

        I may be being hard on the writer but I found it difficult to read the text without pointing out what I thought were some holes in his process. I don’t disagree that games can have a negative impact but as before I need to repeat that ultimately we are responsible for the choices we make (whether you believe we have choice or not).

        Another point I’d like to make is that definitive statements such as “And games, more than other mediums, do traffic in a certain dopamine feedback loop that could be seen as both shallow in its meaning and callous in its implementation.” are so over generalised that they are essentially pointless to even say. Which games? Where are your examples? Do all games do this or just some?

        • I don’t think the point was that people’s choices don’t matter or that the makers need to be held responsible, but rather than that it is more complicated than just “make a better choice” (which I realize is in turn an oversimplification of your point), which is true. Of course choice matters, of course the only thing the cycle relies on Directly is the individual’s decisions, but the fact is causes are important, they matter.

          It’s the old “is addiction a disease” question. And as always, the answer is complicated: yes, the physiology is absolutely real, but also yes, the person is making decisions. It comes down to this: ultimately, the substance or tool or mechanism or whatever is not in and of itself the problem, it is the combination of many factors that cause the misuse of it to become the best option in the mind of the individual, leading them to choose it. Meaning, that the individual is in fact deciding to abuse (or whatever else), but that that decision has many factors, internal (depression, anxiety) and external (rejection, loss), warping the valence and meaning of the choices.

          So in other words, you don’t have to give up on believing in the existence of choice to recognize that there are other problems besides it, and vice versa.

          edit: now feel kind of a fool, Matthew responded and explained what i think i was getting at much better than i could have, but only just now saw.

          • Way

            I mostly was discussing the importance of choice because Nicholas was making reference to it. I know there are other problems but the main factor which influences us on an individual scale is our choice.

            Regarding the culpability again I bring back the makers of ammunition or cars. Both of these things have a possibility to have negative impacts on the world around us but we CANNOT hold the makers accountable for how we choose to use them. If I bought a car and then ran it into another car killing the other driver do I get to say that the car manufacturer is at least partially at fault? There needs to be personal accountability.

            I agree with everything you have said about addiction and even that addiction can cause choices to be skewed. My main issue is that todays society is one which removes personal accountability through various measures not the least of which is this sort of argument. “Oh it wasn’t their fault that they did ‘x’ it was caused by ‘y'” At the end of the day all we have is our personal choices in life. By what are we measured but by the choices we make? I am tired of hearing that Person A doesnt deserve Result B because of Excuse C. This is especially bad when Result B is a clear and obvious result of Excuse C. ‘Oh I ruined my life because I chose to use drugs’, ‘I failed at uni because I didn’t study’, etc etc. There is NO excuse for these things! If it happens to you you know why it happened. You made a bad choice. Today’s society is removing personal accountability and that is leading to a world where noone is held accountable for their actions because of ‘x’.

      • Geust

        When someone chooses poorly, it is their fault, though. It isn’t the job of the game company to sit there and babysit people to make sure “they’re OK”. You may call what Way said “morally and logistically one-sided”, but what you’re saying here is just as loaded as what he was saying. You can make the argument that drug dealers bear some culpability, but that is still not in the same realm as being discussed. But bullet manufacturers? The makers of bullets bear no responsibility on how they are used whatsoever. That idea is beyond ludicrous. Should car manufacturers also be held responsible for someone speeding? Should the companies that produce alcohol be held responsible for people getting alcohol poisoning? Should fast food be held responsible for some customers being unhealthy and overweight?

        No. Yet by your “logic”, they would be.

        Here’s the thing: If you’re unable to escape a dark loop yourself, you need to seek help from someone who can help you. You either choose to get help, or you choose to stay in the same cycle. It may not be a choice to just stop right now on your own, but seeking help from others is a choice. The sooner someone accepts they need help for a problem, the sooner they’re willing to seek help.

        I know I’m being hard on the author, and he probably hates reading the two things I’ve wrote on this article so far, but I’ve had drug addicts in my family (2 cousins). I’ve never found kindness and warmth to be of any help for people who need to be convinced they should seek help. OP, if you’re reading this, I’m not saying you’re crazy or anything like that.

        Your article comes across very heavily with signs of depression or anxiety, and video games are your escape. You need to find someone that can help you deal with the underlying issues. Video game addiction is the symptom. Anxiety or depression is the problem.

  9. jimmi ununger

    The ease of gratification and escapism together with what gaming excels in. Engrossing the player faster and better compared to other forms of cultural media and what consequences that might bring is a thing that’s extremely important to talk about.
    I feel that I have similar habits to what you describe. But as of yet lack (comparatively) basic high school grades. But as with everything there’s two (three if you consider that nothing is flat enough to be truly two sided) sides of the coin and where for others the joy that games have brought, might have a debilitating backside. For others the backside might be facilitated or actually is preferable. Giving them a life more filling (and longer) than it would otherwise be.
    For my part what I struggle with are the place somewhere between these two.
    As games have given me a shield against the thoughts that may plague our minds. Problem is. Not a sword to fight them.

    (on another note) I wonder if this is a symptom on the principle some people hold that “games should be fun”

  10. Cale Barnett

    Fantastic article! I feel (some of) your pain.
    As a hopeful game developer, I’ve found that the biggest hurdle to productivity has been games themselves.
    I had to decide recently, do I desire to create games, or play them? Creation won out in my mind, but is a constant struggle to stay vigilant against time-wasting.
    One technique I am using more and more is to play shorter, more experimental games. Not only do they inspire my desire to create, but they’re over quickly and not repetitive. I tend to stay away from bigger games like MMO’s, and borrow games like Skyrim from friends, so I know I have limited time with it.

  11. Rikky Cohn

    I really enjoyed this article – you’ve presented a bunch of well-considered points without straining them for self-pity

    There’s one thing I want to highlight:
    “The difference between my own experience, and that of a typical hyper-successful ivy-league-bound student is that my sense of self was built around fabricated success. Video games present a fictitious sense of trial that produce a baseless sense of accomplishment. Saving the world feels like it’s worthy of note but it is simply the outcome for every person who plays the game and doesn’t turn off the console.”

    That paragraph (the last line in particular) felt like it was ringing a different bell to the rest of the article –

    You were stoked when your teacher positively acknowledged your application of research and practice to Ultima Online
    Then on the pub server, you became frustrated and quit when someone who had done the same thing (but perhaps more) was able to best you

    You can see that same pattern re-emerge in the text (JROTC, animation class, Day of Defeat) and it’s essentially what the “cycle” hinges on

    The issue I have with your dissatisfaction towards “saving the world” is that when you were in junior high, a sufficient enough reward structure was to have your teacher simply acknowledge your efforts. Your growth was safe and steady – you could clearly witness the progress you were making
    Conversely, when you reach a breaking point it seems to be when you’ve found yourself inside a perceived social hierarchy and other people have made you feel like you’ve hit a ceiling (whether through anxiety or being directly told by those “superior” to you)
    You’ve put 600 hours into single-player games without quitting because you can spend “infinite hours replaying the same victories over and over” without fear of some bigger dude coming along and stripping you of your progress (and talking shit about your mother)

    Ultimately, I feel like you’re failing to acknowledge the importance of competitive pressure and the fear of having insufficient potential as a factor
    By blaming it on a “baseless sense of accomplishment”, you’ve applied the single-player power fantasy model of “saving the world is the only option” to complex social environments where everyone is their own main character
    Your personal satisfaction doesn’t have to be affected by the successes of others, or even motivated by the notions of supreme control and power

    Minecraft is an example of a game that has no win condition, but still presents a “fictitious sense of trial” in its RPG-like crafting and building systems. You literally can’t “save the world”, but because it’s networked you easily *could* play with your old junior high teacher. He could compliment you on your sweet pickaxe that took research and practice to acquire. You guys could build a barn together, and maybe you’d be satisfied again without feeling that persistent, lingering fear that sharing a space with strangers has caused you in the past

  12. phenom_x8

    Nice Story! It’s certainly made me remember my own self! I merely grown up as an avid console gamer at the time, I own my Nintendo (or it’s chinese knock off I guess) when I was 9 yrs old, bought by my great and very supportive late parents (I miss them both T_T) that always think that games are good for their children brain growth (an opposite with the common thinking on my society that game will make their children dumb) . They never forbid my gaming habit as long as I never forget my everyday compulsory task at home (mop the floor, praying, study, etc). I also said thanks to God because I always able to control myself not to play with my console when exam arrived. They sometimes also play with me a few casual games like tetris and snooker (side pocket everyone??)
    Somehow, I’m still grow as an obese teens, my mother also got a breast cancer (that make one of hers lifted, but she died not because of that) , but I play games not because I want to feel great in it (or run from my problem), but because I love games, I love how its takes me to another world, how it bring my fantasy that is different than any books ( Love hitchcock and their detective), etc.
    In the end, all of us will always have our own problems, it’s not a matter of a bad situation or who is right or wrong, It’s just how we gonna face our own problem and solved it, I’ve been taught by my parents no matter how bad our situation is, there will always be something beyond our rational and logical thinking that take care of us and I need not to be afraid even when I’m all alone.
    Today I’m not an obese person anymore (although I wouldnt call myself thin) , I’m a healthy and fit man with jobs but without parents anymore, I still love playing games almost everyday after work and before sleep. Game (PC now) have been the parts of my life just like books or television and I’m proud of it, proud to be part of a great and thriving community called gamer.

  13. Brendan

    idk man ultima online was p dope

  14. Leslie

    Have you considered that you were (and still may be) depressed, and had you ever sought help or counselling? Especially considering you lost your mom (I’m so sorry) at such a young age. My husband lost his mom when he was 18 and it’s had much further reaching effects than you might think, he spends a lot of time worrying that she’d be ashamed of him and pushes himself much too hard to try and live up to someone’s standards who can’t be measured against anymore… and it’s heartbreaking because he is one of the most accomplished and good people I know, and I also know she’d be incredibly proud of him, just as I know yours would be of you.

    We’re both game developers and have been for many years. If you want to get in touch I’d be happy to help if I can, I may know some people in your area.

  15. Wanting to Help

    While I sympathize with your difficulties, especially in light of your traumatic childhood, the truth is your cycle is driven by a lack of sense of responsibility. If someone is dependent on you, you cannot afford to waste your time and life like that. If you continue to run away from reality you are, unfortunately, a coward, and need to change yourself.

    Go cold turkey, join a rehab center or something. You can get help. It’s possible to cure any addiction.

  16. Neonie

    Not a single time during this article did I see you mention what it is you actually want to do with your life. You keep chasing success, but success will always be short lived and pointless if you aren’t actually doing what you want with your life. Peoples praise is absolutely meaningless if you really boil it down. Success and praise are like collectibles in the game of life. Sure you can climb that wall, accomplish that task, but what your left with after doesn’t matter if it never amounts to anything you actually want.

  17. UO Europa

    Hahahahaha I played UO aswell man, started when I was 10 years old, I know that feel. Turned into a social retard and to be quite honest, it made me an apathetic moron with no will to achieve and no care about anything but you know what? UO was fucking awesome man and I met some awesome people from it and had great times, wouldn’t change a thing.

  18. Maybe even to a larger extent, all media and “real” history bombard young children (especially boys) with tall tales of “Great White Men” that we are expected to live up to. Video games provide a safe, virtual world to “feel” like a hero, but have NONE of the responsibility. I believe that is problematic.

    I don’t think kids should be raised like me, but there were some benefits to being impoverished and responsible for younger siblings. I didn’t have much time for TV and video games until I had already learned the hard lessons of life and being responsible. I was able to see commercial heroism for what is was: a power fantasy, played out over and again — and not about true strength.

    I really empathize with your last remarks, on going with the status quo and not wanting to disagree that video games are ‘good’ and are an art form. I sometimes find my personal greed for gaming disappointing. I tend to pity myself for not being able to afford EVERY game I want, but I (above most people) should know the heartbreak and fear of a hungry child. Yet I waste my money on video games instead of donating it to a shelter. I disgust myself, but I still want to play games.

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  21. Flopc

    That was beautiful Matthew.

  22. AdaLovelace

    Don’t blame games for your frustration..

    In my opinion, you tried to make an good impression to your teacher when you were young. And you just need attention now (of in game friends).

    As you said yourself:
    “When my Musicianship skill jumped 20 points in a single week so that I could tame Dragons my teacher praised me as “one of the smartest students I’ve met.” This when I began to try and take the same approach in my real life; this is when the end goal began to matter more than the journey.” –> You wanted praise from your teacher.

    “I took to spending my lunches reading printouts from various Ultima Online fansites to improve my tick rate; UO, and the resulting praise from my teacher, provided me the edification I had been searching for.” –> Again, you wanted praise from your teacher.

    “I just wanted to find a place where I could recapture the happy confidence of my teacher’s server. Slowly I began to put less and less effort into my duties; I traded shining shoes for searching the web for some new game to play.”–> New game and new people who can praise you.

    MMO games doesn’t addict people.. Most of people just need attention and the way to get it is being on the top of the rankings/ grow fast/ being strong or talented … People who need attention will spend a lot of time to archive medals or honors to be on spotlights.

    People, who decide their goals to get praise from others, will be frustrated because they won’t please themselves. Things usually don’t frustrate people. People frustrate people!! It’s a lesson I had in my life..

    Finally, successful people do what they like and put all effort on it. See great people’s biography, they were passionate and they didn’t give up of their goals.

  23. Eli Brudnick

    Great essay.

    You did a wonderful job verbalizing what video game addiction is like and it’s important that people understand how video games can become emotional crutches and ruin your life.

    This is the story of my unhealthy relationship with MMOs:

    I played MMOs almost my entire life. My first game was Dark Age of Camelot, which I played and fantasized throughout my childhood; my guild was like a surrogate family and my character’s growth and experiences were a parallel to my own. Everything was mysterious and enticing about the virtual world I spent my time in. However I wasn’t dangerously attached or addicted to it and my young imagination wasn’t stifled by its influence.

    Eventually DAoC’s population left and I found World of Warcraft at the most emotionally unstable time of my life; after moving to a new city and starting high school. WoW was much easier, success came much quicker, and my victories dulled any impulse to make friends or leave the house. I didn’t know anyone in my new city and put no value on human relationships, I found school alienating and never tried to succeed, I resented my parents and every attempt made to challenge my routine. Every time someone asked me to hang out with them I balked- the virtual carrot was always in the back of my mind and I was powerless to resist it. Why see a stupid movie with boring kids when I can slay noobs, explore, hang out with guildies, and become more powerful and renowned?

    From the time I got home from school to the time I went to bed I roamed around Azeroth raiding or defending towns and playing in battlegrounds to earn ranks and better gear. When I wasn’t playing I frequented the forums. Arenas were introduced by the first expansion and added further gravity to my perception that I was actually accomplishing something. It also made the pinnacles of success somewhat more tangible and the carrot even more enticing.

    I didn’t have the same family tragedy or weight struggles that you did and I’m positive I suffered less. However I was lonely, vulnerable, and fell into my own cycle. I played, often succeeded by virtue of how much I played, then dedicated my time to maintaining my inevitably fragile success. I was burdened with the imaginary responsibilities associated with propitiating members of my arena teams and guildmates. Sometimes I did quit, but the ensuing confrontation with real life overwhelmed me and I always retreated. I found temporary respite from the cycle when I started dating a girl, but I treated her terribly because I didn’t know how to interact with people. When we broke up I just withdrew again.

    Somewhere during sophomore year my parents realized what was happening and tried to persuade me to break the habit, refocus on school, do something other than “spending all your fucking time in that fucking forest”, and I would halfheartedly direct my efforts elsewhere. Soon after, though, I’d come to the same conclusion you did in describing step F: get overwhelmed by the fact that I didn’t know how to function in the real world, the hostile world without macros, the world that made me feel like I was the noob.

    Luckily, I was exiled from the only video game genre I was at risk of abusing. WoW and the MMO industry in general, dumbed down after being inundated with capital, eventually stopped appealing to me and I was forced to move on. I know that if that hadn’t happened my life would still be splintered between reality: difficult, full of suffering and vulnerability, but intrinsically rewarding – and the addicting virtual simulacra of MMOs which are like transitory and meaningless carnival mirror representations of work, struggle, skill, knowledge, achievement, success, and failure.

    Thanks for sharing your story and I hope you find a way to free yourself from your pattern of addiction. None of this is your fault. There aren’t any warnings or intuitive indications that something like this can happen if you play video games and the only way people can understand this kind of addiction is through personal accounts like yours.

    • Geust

      I’m going to be mean here, but what you said is completely insane. It *IS* his fault. All of it. Not “none of this”. ALL of it. If it wasn’t games, he would have been addicted to something else to escape reality. That is the core problem here. Throughout the article, he is frequently attacking himself, and then he’ll use video games as an out. He follows that up with video games, then he feels guilty for playing games, and he goes back to using games as an escape. This is the core of the issue. It isn’t games. It isn’t games at all. It is the escape for reality. There are psychotherapists, rehab clinics for addiction, etc., but blaming games is misleading. There are other factors at play, and until he is able to accept that he needs help to fight it, he’s going to be the guy who spends the rest of his life blaming others for his lack of initiative.

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  25. rosedragon

    The anger of hopelessness could be your fuel to success. This kind of thing, your story, while not exactly similar, happens to me. Drop from school for a game, have the world pulled me down, preventing me to even sought a college, feeling of helplessness. I don’t quit there though. After some blame game I realize whoever fault is, it is me who can change the situation. Now, I work on game industry, and happily also still playing game. I kinda think that real life is a hardcore mmo, the %success of making stuffs is low, the grind to get the required skills are slow, and you have permadeath. I have made peace with real life with acknowledging that the journey is as important as the goal and even that I’m still far from my goals, I enjoy the journey.