Online gamers are apt to forget their lives outside the realm
Online gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, and growing. An estimated 220 million people around the world regularly tap in through their computer consoles to slay mythical villains and save towards the virtual castle of their dreams.
But why do so many men find it easy to get lost inside virtual worlds? And how do you know when it’s time to pull the plug?
By age 27, Jay (name has been changed) says he was working two full-time jobs. By day he was a friendly and slightly introverted technology teacher. But when he got back home, and settled down in front of the computer screen, he transformed into a paladin, imbued with the magical ability to heal his fellow guildsmen in the heat of battle.
“Online gaming is the information age’s answer to escapism,” Jay says, “except on a grander scale than books, radio or television could have ever fathomed.”
He explains that massive multiplayer online games (MMO), like World of Warcraft (WoW), are “a microcosm of real world society with roles the player needs to fulfill.”
“When you live in a culture like ours that lionizes people for a strong work ethic, it’s easy to see how being able to do two fulltime jobs can become a mark of honour,” he adds, “even if your second ‘job’ is throwing fireballs up the rear of an ogre.”
But since getting engaged, Jay has realized the love of his life is “not enamoured” with his game playing. “She doesn’t understand the appeal,” he says, “but there’s never been an instance of, ‘I’d love to honey, but I have to plumb the Blackfathom Deeps for loot and glory tonight.’”
While computer gaming often starts out as child’s play, a growing number of adults are taking the pastime with them into adulthood. A recent report from the American Center for Disease Control found that the average online gamer is now 35 years old. Most have been playing since they were in their late teens or early 20s.
The majority of online games are designed for adults—and they are designed to be addictive, says Wendy Kays, author of the book Game Widow.
Within days of marrying her game-developer husband, Kays says she felt abandoned by his constant online gaming. Wanting to understand her husband’s alternative world, she started skulking around video game conferences, sitting in on panels and eavesdropping on conversations in the hallway.
“I basically just wandered around undercover and wrote copious notes,”she says. “Then I applied it to what I had learned at church of how to show respect and gentleness to someone while sorting out a problem.”
She says there are six things which game producers call the “glue” that keep people playing MMOs.
“You have a unique persona,” she says, “and create a character to represent yourself exactly as you want. There’s a sense of achievement, with goals that become harder to reach as the game progresses. There’s how deeply one can get immersed in a game, and how dynamic the game is.
“Then there’s ownership—which basically means all the stuff you can collect, like horses or piles of gold or pies. You can have all this ‘stuff’ you’d never have in real life. [Gamers] don’t want to just walk away and drop it.
“And finally relationships. You are with other people online, in real time. So people make friendships, have flirtations and even cheat with people online. You feel like you need to show up because there are people waiting for you online.”
For Nat, a doctorate student, it was the relationships he developed through WoW which kept him playing several hours a day.
“You need large numbers of people to band together to take on more difficult dungeons,” he says, “and you have to coordinate your schedules in advance. It’s like a team sport—only instead of trying to throw balls in a hoop, the challenge is to kill a gigantic dragon before she incinerates you and your friends.”
Nat says that what non-gamers don’t often realize, is the sense of loyalty and camaraderie that develops in online guilds.
“Everyone will depend on you to be there that night,” Nat says. “If you’re not there, they will all suffer. So, let’s say a friend calls me up to see if I wanted to do something else. If I say yes, I’m letting 24 other people down.
“Also, after each raid only a small percentage of people will get loot. So you owe it to those who helped you get your cool, shiny sword of awesomeness get their own sparkly wand of butt-kicking.”
While Nat cut back on gaming due to school pressures, he says, leaving was hard. “I was effectively saying goodbye to people I would never see again. People with whom I’d shared a common experience.”
Kays says the danger comes when people pour all their time and energy into sustaining this virtual world, instead of the people around them.
“Because online you’re only seeing the most interesting and glamorous sides to people,” she says, “and it’s all hyped up by the emotions of the game. When you’re living on that high suddenly your own spouse and kids just don’t seem that interesting anymore.”
Escaping real life
When Janice’s fiancé lost his job, they decided to postpone the marriage until he got a new one. Six months later, no new job was in sight, but an online gaming obsession was.
“He gamed all day and into the night,” she says. “I’d find empty pop cans and dishes all around his desk. I had the dress, the bridesmaids’ dresses, the invitations, the hall—everything. I often had the feeling like he was choosing the game over me. He was basically a dry alcoholic.”
For some, online gaming can provide an unhealthy escape from very real-world problems. “It’s partly about how these games are designed, but also what we bring to the game,” says Brad Dorrance, founder of the Canadian chapter of On-Line Gamers Anonymous (OLGA). “Some people just should not play online games.”
A recovering “obsessive gamer,” Dorrance once played up to 80 hours a week. For years, he balanced gaming with a family and a career in social work. But after losing his job, he started playing up to 12 hours a day.
“Though my life was really out of control,” he says, “I was compensating with the power and control that I felt in the game. In real life, I’m 5’5” and a little overweight, but in that world I was tall and thin. I wasn’t unemployed. I was powerful.
I was a person of influence. I was respected in a shallow way by my gaming peers who knew they could count on my character to help them through dangerous situations.
“It almost becomes idolatrous when we’re more interested in this avatar of ourselves than we are in our wives or kids. I think it has really profound implications when we abandon our real lives in favour of a virtual self.
“We are asking a game to do something it was never designed to do. It was never designed to save us from loneliness, or to make us feel better when our relationships are on the rocks.”
Kays adds, “I think the biggest thing that I learned is that there were needs that my husband was having met in the video game that were not being met in real life. Once I was able to help him meet those in real life, he didn’t really need the video games anymore.”
A place for online games
When Todd’s wife started commuting for university, he played online games almost every night. When she came back home again, Todd found it hard to give up the habit.
“I felt ‘the need’ to continue playing,” Todd says. “The big issue for me was that in the evening we had nothing doing besides sitting on the couch and watching television. I figured I could play beside her and achieve the same thing. She felt that sharing the couch should be a bit more interactive.
“I would see empty time as a chance to play, instead of seeing it as a chance to be together. I realized it was a pretty selfish view of free time since we were a couple, not room mates.”
Todd gave up gaming for about a year after that, and the couple began spending more time outdoors. Now they have a toddler, and Todd plays in moderation.
“I like games and feel there’s more good than bad to the medium,” Todd says. “There are a lot of amazing things you can do artistically and creatively with a game that you can’t do anywhere else.
“I know a lot of people who see gaming as a waste of time, but gamers feel their time is well spent, and I think that it shouldn’t be discounted. But if one partner sees games as frivolous or pointless, that shouldn’t be ignored either. People’s feelings are valid, and dismissing a feeling just because you see it as silly is rude and just causes more problems.
“I think Krista understands I play because I find it a chance to have some ‘me time’ which is very important for me. So long as both sides can be honest about their needs and desires around games, common ground should be pretty easy to find.”
Are you an obsessive gamer?
On-Line Gamers Anonymous has a questionnaire that examines your relationship with online gaming. If you answer yes to the following questions, you may have a problem.
- Are the majority of your friends those with whom you play games?
- Are you unable to predict time spent gaming?
- Do you find yourself flirting with those of the opposite sex in the game?
- Do you experience stronger emotions while in your online game than you do in real life?
- Have you withdrawn from real life hobbies?
- Have your sleep patterns changed or do you lose sleep due to late-night raids?
- Do you spend real money on the purchase of in-game items?
- Do you feel the need to “stand up for gamers”?
- Do you prefer the excitement of gaming to intimacy with your partner?