Gaming addiction, Part II: Remember, it’s not really real

I’ve written previously about my free-fall into the wild world of gaming. An update and some background context is now required.

I started gaming late in life, considering the average age of the average player (not that I put much stock in “averages”). It came about shortly after the death of my beloved corgi, Paris, in December, 2012. After she passed, my grief was so immense, I lost interest in almost everything that held meaning for me. Our twice-daily walks, mealtimes and cuddles, our hiking excursions in Tahoe and many other activities, had enriched my existence for nearly 13 years; adding to my overwhelming sense of loss was the fact that I’d only been a full-time writer for a year when she died. The challenges of being home-based after so many years of working in a day job that required me to get up every morning at an established time, shower, dress, and be in the office, with a list of things to accomplish in order to earn my paycheck, coupled with her sudden illness and passing, overturned my world. My therapist at the time compared it to the grief of losing a child, as I’d reared Paris since she was six weeks old. Looking back at 2013, the entire year is a dark blur of mourning — with the exception of my discovery of ALIEN: ISOLATION and the realization (though not fully realized at the time) that the game provided me with an artificial yet very effective means of submerging the heartbreak that had sundered me.

Personal challenges also took their toll in the years following Paris’s loss, in the form of marriage complications, painful and recurrent kidney stones, an aging and ailing parent living abroad, and my inevitable disillusionment with my career, as I came to grips with the fact that like everything in life, what you dream about isn’t necessarily as happily-ever-after as you envisioned. Gaming erased these challenges for me. For a few hours every night, I immersed myself in another place full of dangers and risks, yet paradoxically one in which I could never truly fail, fighting hordes of goblins, witches or space monsters, saving cities, falling in lust with sorcerers, and dressing up in fantastical armor. It wasn’t that I ever believed this online world was better or that I yearned for it when not playing. I kept a strict quota on my gaming time, aware it could be addictive, and made certain that my writing and my life continued without fail; it’s simply — or not so simply, as it turns out — that gaming gradually evolved into my go-to escape hatch.

It’s been seven years now. I’ve played countless games. I still love it. But, recently, I’ve begun to question my reasons for doing it. Not in a “I need to quit before I die” way (as I felt when I was a smoker) but in a less definable, harder-to-elucidate sense. Gaming today has evolved into a photo-realistic medium that allows players to spend countless hours in vast alternate worlds (and I haven’t even ventured into the perils and marvels of virtual reality); with the surging popularity of MMORPG — massive multiplayer online role-playing games — tribes of hundreds of players exist, allowing you to join with others dressed in equally fantastical armor and powerful weaponry to take down impossible dragons. I had avoided MMORPG because by nature, I’m a solitary adventurer and didn’t want to spoil my fun by contending with other people in my escape-hatch universe. That changed when I downloaded Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) and The Division, the latter of which, while technically not a MMORPG, has plenty of co-op and team-play opportunities. I started these games solo, as always, until I began to receive invitations to join guilds on ESO and team up with others for large-scale missions in The Division’s post-apocalyptic landscape of New York.

All of a sudden, I was among thousands of other players, who loved gaming as much as I did — and my satisfaction increased. Having survived an apocalypse in real life during the 1980s-90s when I worked in the HIV epidemic that killed over thirty of my friends, I’d become more isolated than I realized. My city had changed. My world had changed. I have my life partner, but so many of those I knew were gone. To find a welcoming community online in worlds where I loved to adventure. . . it was like another erasure of a painful past chapter.

However. A lifetime of steady, if occasionally sporadic therapy, along with my habit toward self-analysis — a requirement of my job, for if I don’t emotionally understand the characters I write and inhabit, my books will reflect it — began to creep into my consciousness. These players I was interacting with, chatting in-game and on forums, feeling as if they were friends I could rely on: none of it is real. Not really. They are real, of course, wherever they are, but concealed behind fancy avatars and online personas. That hot mage roaming Tamriel with me is a cartoon. That dashing Division agent who revived me in the Underground is the mask of a stranger. I don’t know these people at all. They are gamers, like me. And while I’ve been fairly open about my identity — I’ve even registered in some games under my real name because I didn’t know better —few of these other players are. Fantasy prevails in gaming.

Which brings me to my long-winded lesson, for the moment. It’s not easy to grow older with the loss of those you’ve loved, animal and human alike. It’s not easy to achieve your dream in your profession only to realize your troubles don’t magically dissolve in a glamorous explosion of luxury. It’s not easy to contend with family, spouses, and the encroachment of stultifying routine. It’s not easy to live in a world threatened by political chaos, global catastrophe, and unfathomable cruelty. None of it is easy. Very little of it is under our control. And change, the relentless march of time, are constant.

I don’t know yet how I’ll proceed. I won’t give up gaming, as I find so much enjoyment in it. But I want to be conscious of my limitations, of my tendency to trust and believe in the best in people, despite plenty of past experiences to forewarn me. Most of all, I want to always be aware that while gaming serves a purpose for me, it cannot and must not ever replace the reality of life. Life hurts. Life maims. Life forces you to evolve. Gaming doesn’t.

But life is what must be lived.