Hear the words “video game addiction,” and your imagination will most likely conjure up images of a lonely young man, sitting alone in front of his console with bloodshot eyes and empty cans of soda on his desk. His only friends are those with whom he plays his games; members of his clan, or party, and his only contact with them is through a microphone or keyboard.
But addiction, as with most things, has varying degrees of meaning, and most of them transcend our stereotypes and perceptions.
Medically, addictions are characterized by dependency. And there are two different kinds of addictions, too: substance addictions, and process addictions. Most people are familiar with substance addictions; after all, drugs and alcohol are prevalent enough in American culture for that to be assured. But a process addiction is related to behavior, such as gambling, sexual activity, or maybe even playing video games.
The problem is that, although we all might understand what the word “addiction” means, are we able to recognize it when it insinuates itself in our lives? We are often blinded by our own vices, to the extent that even realizing that we have a problem is difficult.
Before I get too far into my own experience, though, let me say something. My own story is not very dramatic. I never reached a point where my life had been ruined by a dependency on playing video games. Fortunately for me, my own story is one of a young husband becoming swamped with commitments, and failing to keep up with them because he spent entirely too much time gaming. Less dramatic, perhaps, but only because it is also all too common a story for young men.
So, for the purpose of this article, I will apply a much looser definition, but one that functions more intimately within the context of most people’s own experiences than a dictionary could ever achieve, or for that matter, the the stereotypical image of a “video game addict” either. I hope that, in doing so, I won’t offend anyone who has suffered or is suffering through an extreme l addiction to video games, but since the DSM-IV TR has yet to include “video game addiction” as a diagnosis, I feel comfortable working within my own definition in this case.
To me, video game addiction is more effectively recognized by what it does. That is, by the ways in which it impacts our work, our free time, and most importantly, our relationships. These things are far more easily recognizable than dependency, and looking at it this way can help us recognize a problem before it becomes an addiction.
I first realized that my love of video games was becoming a problem this past winter. I had spent the summer of 2011 away from gaming, attending the United States Army Drill Sergeant School in Fort Jackson, South Carolina (I’m in the Army Reserves). Upon graduation, I returned home to Michigan to get ready for the upcoming academic year.
As you might imagine, I was fit and lean when I came home. I even ran a half-marathon in September without even training specifically for it, and finished in under 2 hours. I proposed to my girlfriend in October (we’re married, now) and got the school year off to a good start with my classes.
But something significant happened within the gaming community in November of 2011. As, no doubt, some readers might remember, Bethesda Game Studios released their hit title, “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” perhaps the largest and most ambitions title to ever be released.
It didn’t take long for me to become immersed in that game. I played it for hours at a time, all winter, exploring every nook and cranny that I could find within the massive environment of the game, and playing every side-quest possible. The game is much too large for me to claim to have done literally everything, but I sure tried.
By the end of the winter, I’d packed 15 lbs of fat around my belly, my grades had slipped, and my wife was not at all happy with having to compete with a video game for my time and attention.
To be fair to myself, I was busy with a lot of things besides playing Skyrim. I was taking a full load of classes, planning a wedding, and working three jobs. But when I was doing those things, what I really wanted to be doing was playing games. A lot of my free time was spent in front of a console, rather than spending time with my fiance, reading, or working out. My grades slipped because classes stressed me out, and I escaped from the stresses of life by immersing myself in another, false reality. I didn’t have enough time to do everything I’d committed myself to and relax in front of the TV to play games, so I chose a temporary escape from my commitments, rather than working nonstop to keep up with things.
But my grades were the least of my problems, especially since I could always get caught up with schoolwork and pass my classes. What was even more important was my relationship with my fiance. Eventually things got to the point that she would get upset at the mere mention of my playing video games. We might have spent the last few hours doing something together, and if I went to turn on the TV, she’d get upset. I know that sounds unreasonable to some people, but please understand: in her mind, she had to compete with a machine for my attention. If I was playing, I might as well have been in another dimension. She could ask me a question, and I’d never hear it unless she yelled to get my attention, and then she felt like the bad guy. She was faced with a lose/lose situation: she could either let me do my thing and feel ignored, or she could bother me and be the nagging wife. What’s more, she knew I was behind on a number of different things, and that I was ignoring the problem by distracting myself with games.
Fortunately, though, things settled down a bit. The wedding came and went, which eased the burden on the two of us, and things at work calmed down too. I also realized that if I didn’t get my priorities straight, I would be perpetually behind in work, school, and most importantly, my marriage. So I put the controller down more often, and did what I knew I had to: I disciplined myself to do what I needed to do, first, and play second.
In short, I grew up a little. It was an excellent decision.