"Addiction is possibly the most ephemeral quality that a game can have, yet it is also one of the most important."
That quote was taken from Matt Thrower's latest article. For the longest time, I would have agreed with him. It's fairly common to talk about a game's ability to interfere with your day-to-day relationships and responsibilities as a reliable measure of its quality. It's also easy to regard the concept of gaming addiction as a real, crippling dependency with a sort of detached bemusement. After all, you'd have to be pretty screwed up in the first place if you'd lose your job over a game, alienate your friends and family, or go so far as to play until you dropped dead from exhaustion, right? Those things just don't happen to normal people.
It's easy to say all of that until it happens to you; until you watch someone slowly drift away from the world around them, escaping farther and farther into a fantasy world until there is no coming back. Eventually, you lose someone, in the true sense of the word, to a game. Have that happen to you, and you might no longer think addictiveness is all it's cracked up to be.
She and I started living together almost 7 years ago, when I was still 21. Long story short, I was out of a job at the time, and she was between college semesters. We'd jettisoned most of our things in our respective moves, and had little outside basic personal items except my dwindling savings. She wasn't what you'd call a "gamer" then, and aside from my regular Monday board game nights, niether was I. What was the point? We were happy to spend the majority of our time together just being together; taking long walks around town, drawing and painting, or just sitting together for hours not saying anything. Our life was simple, but we were loving it. We figured there was plenty of time for her to go back to school to pursue a career as an artist, and me to start working while I figured out just what I wanted to do.
Eventually, I picked up a steady, full-time job. She didn't, nor did she go back to school. It didn't matter to me at the time; I was bringing home a decent paycheck, so there was at least enough money to get a real life started for us. The job was a back-breaker, though, and coming home dead tired with only 11 hours until my next shift so often left us with a lot less time together. She was quite upset about it, and I noticed she started dealing with being alone by playing video games. Even then, I knew it wasn't a particularly constructive way to deal with things, but I was wrangling for a tidy little 9-5 position at work, and I assumed things would get back to normal once my schedule did. Besides, I would be making enough money to buy us a house if we stayed with my mom for a few years, and we were planning on getting married. I was 23, having a blast at work, and looking at a solid future with the woman I loved. As far as I was concerned, we were winning like Charlie sheen. Then, I watched it all go straight to hell for the next 5 years.
Although we had plenty of time together now, we started taking advantage of it less and less. She quit drawing and painting, now filling the sketchbooks we spent so many hours looking through with cryptic, 12-digit friend codes. Her pencils collected dust, while her Nintendo DS stylus was in her hand on a near constant basis. Though she was never exceedingly social, her recent withdrawal from close friends and family was conspicuous. She had no interest in going out anywhere, and on the rare occasions I managed to coax her out of the house, the DS was always in tow. She struggled to converse with people about anything except her Animal Crossing town. She'd found whatever friends she thought she needed online, through these games. I knew it wasn't normal, healthy behavior, and I tried to confront her about it from time to time to no avail. It was starting to damage our relationship, but I was able to rationalize it as something she'd eventually get bored with and give up. I remember watching her sit up at 2 a.m., explaining the story to the new Zelda game to some kid in Brazil, and thinking she'd be a great mother. It had to get better.
Once she took to the Xbox, things went irretrievably out of control. Gears of War 2 began to consume 12, even 18 hours of her day. It was impossible to explain to her how much time had elapsed while the played; she'd lost any real perception of time, even having to ask what month of the year it was on a several occasions. Getting her to do anything to help out around the house usually necessitated a long, exhausting argument. She went days on end without showering, let alone grooming, and changed her clothes even less frequently. I wish I could count the number of days I came home to find her sitting in front of the TV, in a pile of spilled ashtrays and coffee cups, pale, languid, and unkempt. It seemed like she never stopped losing weight. This was unreal; I've seen people look better after month-long drug binges. On the very infrequent occasions that I tried to play a game myself, she would yank the wireless adapter off of the console and refuse to give it back to me. This wasn't the person I knew, and no effort I made to put a stop to it did any good. When I asked what it was she was trying to hide from me, she insisted that I was paranoid, and that I needed psychiatric help. No matter how many times she played from sunrise to sunset, she insisted her use was moderate. I stopped paying for the Xbox live subscription, thinking that being cut off from her buddy list might pull her back to reality. They simply payed for it for her. When I told her I wanted to get all the games out of our lives, she threatened to leave, and I gave in. This situation just continued to degenerate for for 3 years.
I can't say it all did wonders for my sense of self worth. I took to drinking with frequency and abandon. We barely spoke outside of the times I came home drunk, and then, we mostly replayed the same bitter argument time and again. I started an almost nightly regimen of booze and sleeping pills just to get to sleep. More times than I'd like to admit, I thought about whether or not I'd wake up if I took all of both bottles, and if that would be what it took to finally make her see the damage she was doing to her relationships. As time went on, I had to wonder if I never went through with it because I didn't have the nerve, or because it didn't seem like she would care all that much. Whatever the reason, I was still planning on buying our house this fall, miserably resigning myself to living out my committment to her as a drunken, festering pile of resentment. I was tired of trying to salvage our relationship, and after a while, just stopped talking to her. As much as I knew I needed to end things and move on, I never let go of the ever-diminishing possibility that she might change, that things might get better. They certainly couldn't get much worse.
I came home Thursday night to find a note: "I'm not coming back. This relationship needs to end, and it's in both of our best interests. You will be a much happier person like you used to be." That's it. Those are the last words I will likely ever hear from the woman with whom I shared the last 7 years of my life. She's gone now, and nobody I've contacted has heard anything from her. Hell, most of her friends and family have heard anything from her in years. She didn't take anything but her driver's license, and the Xbox's hard drive. Apparently, that's all she found important enough to take. I've since found out that, 6 months ago, my sister caught her calling a cab to the airport. She was planning on stealing my debit card and charging her way to... wherever she is now, presumably. Everything else from the time we shared together is still here, as if she simply vanished from existence.
Are the games themselves really to blame? I defy you to go through what I have and not feel that way while it's happening, to read papers detailing the intentional design choices game makers use to get users compusively playing without imagining your hands around some programmer's throat, or to laugh at the next reviewer who quips about how much marital disharmony this new, kick-ass game caused him. But really, she had no capacity for, or interest in, dealing with reality. The games simply provided her an avenue of escape into a world where nothing was hard, nothing was expected of her, and her actions never carried any real consequences. I had never stopped to think about what a powerful attraction that can be for people; never considered the very real impact that games can have on people's lives. I self-applied the term "gamer" without much thought as to what it really means to define yourself, in even a small way, by diddling away a good portion of your life on a completely frivolous activity.
Games aren't all fun, all the time. People die over them. Otherwise bright, loving, funny people shrink away and disappear. I brought them into our lives, when we were just fine without them, without giving any of that a moment's serious thought. I've always given lip service to just how unimportant games really are in life, but I never really lived that way. I was always willing to lose a few hours' sleep to a particularly engrossing game, to skip out on some social engagement I wasn't particularly interested in to sit around home with a joystick, or to wake up on a Saturday morning and start playing, only to pass the entire day without stopping to pay attention to the world around me. I never thought any of it was a big deal, and now, I no longer have the luxury of lying to myself that things will get better. Now, I'll never see her again. For days, I held out hope every time the phone rang, thinking that maybe she was calling to let me know that wherever she is, she's OK, or at least say "goodbye." That was until I realized that, Jesus, she probably doesn't even remember our phone number.
All things considered, I don't think I can be blamed for not being too fucking excited about Gears of War 3.