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 I would then set about organizing and cleaning an ever-increasingly out-of-date set of thrift-store purchases.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.