It All Started With An Innocent Game
My latest dance with addiction began when my wife showed me a game she was playing on her iPhone. I had never installed any games on my phone, but this little diversion piqued my interest. The object of the game was to move different-colored balls from one transparent tube to another until each tube was filled with balls of a single color. A fireworks display would then erupt on the screen, followed by an invitation to play again. The next round would be a little harder—more tubes, more balls.
In the weeks that followed, that game became my default recreational activity. I played while standing in line at Starbucks. I played in the kitchen while waiting on the toaster and in the yard while waiting for the dog to pee. Winning made me feel competent and smart. No wonder I kept playing.
Humiliation And Late-Night Binges
A few days ago, however, my affair with gaming took a darker turn when an ad for a different game dared me to prove my intelligence. In this game, you are presented with an 8-by-8 grid—a basic chessboard—and clusters of wooden tiles in random configurations. The game ends when you can no longer fit the newest batch of tiles into open spaces on the board.
The first time I played, I scored 402 points. The game’s sudden end was a little frustrating, but my score seemed respectable—until I noticed my ranking. According to the scoreboard, more than 2,000 other players in my state had scored better, and the highest score was 29,000! Humiliated, I restarted the game.
With each failure to improve on my score, I grew more determined to master the game. I kept experimenting, trying to outwit the game by anticipating the next round of tiles. Every time I maneuvered my way out of a tight spot, I felt a surge of satisfaction. Occasionally the game would compliment me by flashing “Clever!” on the screen. Inevitably, however, I would wind up stymied. Then, feeling stupid, I would start another game. I kept playing for hours. When I finally stopped, sometime after midnight, I had managed to score 1,000 points and had risen slightly in the rankings.
I awoke the next morning tired, groggy, and thinking about the game. I played over breakfast and continued playing on and off throughout the day. Whenever I reached a frustrating point in my work, I would take a break and play. I played in the evening, continuing past bedtime. I finally managed to stop in the early hours of the morning after scoring more than 2,000 points and climbing to the mid-400’s in the rankings.
Attempt At Moderation
By Day Three, I was exhausted and falling behind in my work. Still, I kept reaching for the game. At bedtime, I promised myself that I would not play. I chose a book instead and fell asleep almost immediately.
I awoke on Day Four refreshed and determined to resist the game. At 9:30 that evening, I settled into bed and, confident in my ability to exercise restraint, decided to play for 30 minutes. But at 10:00, when I had not yet cracked 1,000 points, I decided to play one more time. That game led to another, and then another. The next thing I knew, it was 12:30 in the morning.
The Dangers of Gaming
That’s when I made the connection. This obsessive behavior was nothing new. I had behaved exactly the same way during my years of active porn addiction when internet porn had dominated my life. The lost daytime hours, the late-night binges, the countless failed attempts at moderation—I had sacrificed almost everything to that pointless pursuit. Now this game was leading me down the same path. And the funny thing was, this obsession wasn’t at all about sex. Something else was driving my behavior — confirming what I already suspected: my porn addiction hadn’t really been about sex either.
Something else was driving my behavior — confirming what I already suspected: my porn addiction hadn’t really been about sex either.
What are the similarities between internet porn and gaming? The stimulus for both activities is endless novelty. Both tease with pleasure and prod with shame. Both provide intermittent reward and ultimate disappointment. Both activities are isolating. Both leave the user in a state of discomfort that can be relieved, although only temporarily, by repeating the behavior.
There are differences between porn and gaming, to be sure, but I think their similarities go a long way in explaining their addictive nature. For those of us who are especially vulnerable to addiction due to trauma or neglect, porn and gaming can be incredibly destructive. I see their effects every day in the men who come to the Samson Society for help. And that’s why I have permanently deleted all games from my phone.