Saturday, March 25, 2006

"I don't really. I just play it."

"I play a game called city of heroes. Untill recently I haven't been a 'gamer'. I bought coh at the end of December. My playing has gotten out of control. My behavior is unlike me. My friends have stopped calling. I haven't seen them in months. I live alone so my new behavior has progressed without anyone protesting. I don't have a roommate or wife to drag me away. I sleep, work, and play. There isn't time for anything else. I feel horrible. I am at work now and I feel like I just want to crawl into a cave. When I play I feel OK. When I don't play I am a mess. I feel silly talking about this. I have always been a social person untill recently. I want to find a way to modderate my playing. I keep saying that I will but then I put it off. Tomorrow I will modderate, today I am going to play. I just want one more level. etc. I don't know what to do."
-- a post on EQ Daily Grind

  I could not begin to assess all the many films, TV shows, or books that involve people withdrawing from a real to a virtual existence. There is evidently a cultural feeling that has come through these works that some people would find a reason to escape reality into falseness.
  Yet, now it is happening in a way that is hard to ignore. People are dropping out of life to play games. Only a few days ago I talked to an old IRC friend, and he said:
[Me] I am starting to write an essay about WoW [World of Warcraft, an online game about orcs].
[Me] I am concentrating on players reporting that they actually feel unpleasant playing it, i.e. that they are addicted to it, and that it is stopping them from doing other things.
[Demiurge] oh? how it destroys peoples social lives? certainly did mine
[Demiurge] Yeah I get that
[Me] The psychological implications of withdrawal from 'real' life are interesting to consider.
[Me] What happens when you play WoW?
[Demiurge] I dunno, I just sorta do it. Dont really enjoy it much anymore, play more out of a sense of responsibility since I'm the leader of my guild
[Me] How much do you think about RPGs, then?
[Demiurge] well there's oblivion I'm getting tomorrow
[Demiurge] I intend to roleplay a thief/assassin in that game
[Me] Does gaming take over the rest of your life, do you think?
[Demiurge] at the moment? Yes, I havent left the house for 2 months
[Me] Wow. How does that make you feel?
[Demiurge] bad obviously, I want to get a job but I cant summon the willpower to find one
[Me] Do you feel you have removed yourself from 'real life' to play WoW?
[Demiurge] yep
[Me] What reasons can you think of for having done this?
[Demiurge] well I dont dwell on that, I suppose I just "have"
[Me] Is WoW too good, i.e. much better than a real life ever could be, or does life suck for you?
[Me] In general, very wide terms.
[Demiurge] no not as such, but you're getting very philosophic now, I dont think in those patterns about it
[Me] How do you think about it, then?
[Demiurge] I dont really
[Demiurge] I just play it

  At this point he logged off and we didn't talk again, I think my questions were annoying him. Which is understandable.
  Obviously, this encounter shocked me to the core. I don't know this 20 year old man, I only used to talk to him online. At one point in my life I would have happily given up my existence too, such is the pain of unbearable unhappiness. But, thankfully, I found out how to think differently about life. Rather than despair, now I assert that I deserve a place in the world, that I will work my way to some sort of answer, that I will attempt to make a difference. I no longer worry, "well, I'll die, making the whole thing futile". If my existence makes some change, somewhere, death does not get rid of that change. Life is a struggle, yes, and not at all constantly pleasant, but you do your best. That is the point.
  If you do not believe that making a change is possible, or worthwhile, or too much effort, or that it is beyond your capabilities, then you do feel awful. You feel cheated by existence, condemned to some fleshy prison full of self-recrimination. The internalised voice of authority - the super-ego - haunts you, and you want to rebel. I can certainly understand this horrible mix of loathing and failure, causing more loathing, which causes more failure. It is vicious indeed.

  So, people want to escape being alive. And suicide is an option, but it takes either terrible circumstances, terrible problems, or a terrible determination to do it. It is too final, it cuts off any option of improvement, of being wrong. I certainly couldn't do it myself, and, yes, I did think about it an awful lot.
  A less painful way of killing yourself is to pour your life into a computer game and not come back out - if you are ever dragged out, your life is not there anymore! It is a little suicide, a suicide of the personality, of the social existence, killing yourself from the lives and memories of the people you used to know.

  There is an excellent site about EverQuest, which hosts various confessions and statements of problematic online gaming, including the one above. I have emailed the owner of this site, and I wish to post my thoughts here also. In the future I plan to write an article about these problems, commenting on various websites that deal with it, on accounts provided by sufferers and those who know them, and attempting to understand the psychology and philosophy behind this withdrawal from the world. Unless it is too big a project to actually do, in which case, this will be it! The issue of people withdrawing from life to play these games interests me because it touches on so many basic questions about existence. What is the real world, and what do we want from it? What should we do when it doesn't meet our wants and needs? What is being alive, and what are we supposed to do about it? Under which circumstances can our choices be criticised - when we let go of our responsibilities, or hurt others, or ourselves? Or does personal free allow us to destroy ourselves for any reason, in any way, without having to worry about others? There are basic questions of existence, of ethics, or who we are and how best to act that we must confront, and this issue is one of the millions of ways of doing this.

My email to the proprietor of EQ Daily Grind

>Overall, I think that there are many different reasons why the online world
>can become more attractive than the real world... and that every obsessive
>gamer has his / her individualized set of reasons - part of the reason why
>this phenomenon is hard to analyse, and why the obsessiveness / addiction is
>hard to address with just one "generic" solution.

  At the moment I reckon that there may well be general reasons why people play problematically.
  I call it 'problematic' because I do not want to use the word obsession, it comes with too much theoretical baggage. And I do not call it addiction as I do not think that using an analogy or metaphor of drugs helps anyone understand the problem. It may be similar to obsessions, compulsion, drug or alcohol addiction, or gambling addiction / compulsion, and in fact I see many similarities, but in ways that would not be seen if it were labelled as an obsession or addiction.

  So, problematic gaming. Having grown up (being 23) in a computerised world, I am entirely used to computers, and am in fact quite sick of them. They're not as good as they are supposed to be, not as world changing - but then again I did not live in a pre-computer world! I have always played games, and always been aware that they can overshadow other parts of life, albeit for me only ever temporarily. They can cause happiness, anger, frustration etc. in a child, and I remember these feelings. I have always known people, my parents, my friends, etc. who were thinking, talking, primarily involved in the computer game they wanted to be playing. But, in the past, I have never seen exactly the same problematic quality. Games have taken presidence, both in my life and in others that I have seen, but they have never replaced life. Always people would get bored and do something else, and feel slightly silly. For example, when I was in college Final Fantasy VII was an extremely popular game, along with collectible cards and so on. People would spend an inordinate amount of time with these, but they never replaced life, there were just a main focus. A focus that could be questioned and challenged (I hated both and would frequently point out how dull they were).
Nowadays, online games are, as it is said, more 'immersive'. Due to the choices involved, the actual element of working ('grinding'), the social network, relationships, even economies, they can seriously begin to replace life.
  We have always played games, and we have always had people too interested in games. Chessmasters like chess too much, and it can obviously damage them. People can get too wrapped up in their weekly low-stakes poker. And so on and so on. What we have now, though, is people not just making gaming the focus of their life but their entire life. They will actually not want to move from being in the game.

  I understand that this kind of problematic gaming is actually a giving up of one life and trying to take another, although it is impossible as it is not real. People actually want to let their past life die so they cannot go back. There is something self-destructive about it.
This is not entirely psychological, there is no switch to make people want to commit this kind of personality suicide. There are general reasons, different in different cultures I would say, that contribute to a need to entirely surrender a real life and form a fake one.

  Compared to real life, MMORPGs allow:
  Much more personal control to talk to or ignore people, to change who 'you' are by creating new characters, to act heroically or barbarically, to fight, kill, slaughter and insult
  To have a lot less responsibility or tricky choice or 'unpleasant freedoms'

  I believe that playing these games gives you a certain self control over a vastly more limited set of options. The world is simple, rules constrain to a much greater extent in terms of interacting with environment, others, and your professiong and skills. There is a lot less to think about but, in a way, more you can just do.
  In real life you cannot wander around clicking on stuff and shouting 'LOL'. Gratification is not so instant, boredom sets in, you must think and be active and fit in to the world. In an MMORPG, the world is so simple that you just exist almost thoughtlessly. Having attempted to talk to people as they play, I would not be surprised to find that, neurologically, the demands on their brain are much smaller. But I am not so interested in the science - philosophically, you have freedom to do, and much less to worry about in order to do it. Less thought, more action. It is absorbing simply because its repetitive nature is easy.

  People are withdrawing from a world they do not understand and control and slipping into something easy, constant, warm, and comforting, the mental slippers of an online game. We have always done this, and always will, it is the extent which is a problem. There is so much to distract you in these games - new areas, new levels, new people and relationships - that they seem to be a viable replacement for real life.

  The problem is life itself - people are not equipped to deal with it, and the world is too hostile to them. This withdrawal from the world reminds me of the famous 'rat park' studies. Drug-addict rats will remain drug-addicts and die in cages. Put them in a lovely environment, a ra park, and they will overwhelmingly choose water over sweetened morphine. Their natural drives and instincts, uncaged, supply all the happiness they need, and they do not want drugs!
Addiction is complex: it is biological, psychological, and social/environmental. It is your body reacting to an agent that changes your psychological state that necessitates changing depending on where you are in the real and also human world. I would imagine that happy, fulfilled people play MMORPGs in an entirely different way, enjoying them, forming friendships, playing it as a game, but existing fully in the real world as well, stopping their virtual fun when necessary. The phenomenon of absolute withdrawal - 'catassing', 'hikikomori' - must be, I believe, to do with some perceived lack.

  So, what I am saying is that these people, whether consciously or without knowing, do not want to live here and now because they do not like it. Many are intelligent, many could evidently 'do something with their lives', but they are tired and sick and do not see the point. I have talked to many problematic gamers online, and they report that they do not want to go to school, see family, be bothered. They freely admit they play to 'fill in the time'. I have learned to be a happy and fulfilled person for much of the time, and my desire is to use time properly to do something important in the world. These people have no such desire, often if one puts it to them it seems implausible that life can be so pleasant.

  Psychologically and socially we should deal with this problem - people want to drop out. They exist in an environment which, not surprisingly, makes them want to escape. And there are worlds out there, acessible through mice and keyboards, that allow for interaction on your terms, but in a simple world. You know who you are and where you are going. There is no uncertainty.
  They capitulate in the face of troublesome freedom, which entails responsibilities, work, and some sort of social or personal striving for success. Whereas virtual responsibilities are easier to meet, virtual freedom is a lot less constrained, virtual work takes less time, and virtual stress can be measured for you in experience.
  I see why they do this; but not for a moment do I envy them. In the most important way, they no longer exist.


Blogger J said...

Hey there, great post... I haven't checked my email yet but will as soon as I send off this comment :) I was planning to link to this post anyways, hope that's ok!

4:33 AM  
Blogger J said...

Doh - it's you, Tom :) well, I linked to your post and if you want to write an article for eqdailygrind, be my guest. You know what I am planning on doing right now, so if you need more info, just email me. Cheers!

4:41 AM  
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10:02 AM  

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