Addiction to online gaming

I’ve been writing a little on Guild Wars lately, and the reason for that is it’s resurged as an enjoyable, even important part of my life. This blog is a very general look at how I started getting sucked into playing as an addictive behaviour, how I realised what was happening, and how I drew myself out of it. I still play Guild Wars most days, but I no longer feel compelled to do so, nor am I particularly fussed if I miss a day. For me now, it exists as a wonderful and fantastic world to experience, and to share with friends (largely from America, where the server is based). But it hasn’t always been so, and it may yet change to addiction again. This is something close to my heart, and I hope that this blog helps others who are suffering from the same thing.

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In 2003, I started playing an MMORPG called RuneScape. In case you’re not familiar, MMORPG stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. This is a game where a large number of people can go online and play together, often in a fantasy/adventure setting. World of Warcraft (WoW) is probably the most famous of them, but there are plenty of other ones out there at the moment.

As I was saying, I played RuneScape quite a bit in 2003 when online gaming was just starting to flourish. I enjoyed it so much that I played it at every spare moment of the day, and often in moments that weren’t spare at all. I’d log on to kill greater demons for 20 minutes after breakfast, or set my alarm for 3am so that I didn’t have to share the computer with my brother. In one instance when one of my friends was having a bad day, I chose to stay home from school and go questing with her to cheer her up. I poured hours and hours of my life into the game, and almost as much into the clan (community of players) I was part of, posting on the forums and trying to maintain dozens of friendships. Eventually I couldn’t keep it up, and I finally realised what I had long suspected: that I was addicted to RuneScape.

There was no single moment where I went “Holy crap, I’m an addict”. Instead there were lots of little signs here and there, signs which you probably would have recognised but I was oblivious to. Addictive behaviour can often seem very appealing for a wide range of reasons – I had friends who wanted me to play with them, I was just a few repetitions away from gaining a new level, I really wanted that rare weapon that had a 1% chance of appearing and so forth. But at the end of the day, I was able to recognise that my life was suffering in exchange for the time and energy that I was investing online. I didn’t have any time for homework, I resented going to social events because it was taking away time I could have spent playing  (not that I had any friends outside of the game anyway), and my sleep patterns were abysmal.  It reached a point where I decided it just wasn’t worth it, and I decided to stop.

From then on, I swore off RuneScape and MMORPG’s in general. I was terrified of falling back into that pit of addiction where I kept playing, even though I knew that the rest of my life was suffering as a consequence. Even so, I still felt the ache of longing as my brother continued to play and my clanmates emailed me from time-to-time. I even agreed to return once or twice to help out with special events, but I made it very clear that I was only playing for the duration of the event and no further. My friends accepted it, I dropped out of contact with many of them, and I moved on to new adventures in my life.

I’ve heard the term “addictive personality” thrown around a lot. It’s a real thing, but I think a lot of people are using it as an excuse. They say, “Oh I can’t help playing six hours a day, I just have an addictive personality.” To me that’s like saying “Oh I can’t help having hypoglycaemia – I have diabetes.” If you know you’re likely to be addicted to something, it means you have to be especially responsible if you start engaging in the behaviour.

Even with the benefit of experience, gaming addiction is something that I am still prone to. Normally my obsessions are only a couple of days at the most where I’ll delve into an incredible world without compromising my other responsibilities (such as work, training etc.). But a few weeks ago I started playing a new MMORPG, and I noticed pretty quickly that I was spending way too much time playing and had lost interest in doing chores, hanging out with friends or spending any time with my girlfriend, Beth. I found myself thinking, “I don’t have to get ready for work until 2:30, so I’ll get up early and play as much as I can before then.”  But after Beth pointed out to me that she had only seen me for an hour or two a day for the entire week, even though we were living together, I realised that I’d once again fallen off the bandwagon.

After that I immediately took measures to limit my time online. I scheduled in other activities, like “Dinner”, “Spend time with Beth”, “Go shopping”. It seems ridiculous to need to lock in these mundane daily activities, but even so, the first few days were a real struggle not to use any excuse to jump back online. But I found that as soon as I did something other than playing, I was able to focus my attention on other things which I enjoyed even more than gaming. Through mindfulness, I could really enjoying cuddling and watching a movie rather than exploring a new part of the map. I could drink tea and read a book rather than crafting new gear. The virtual world, while beautiful and compelling, will still never be as rich or miraculous as the world we live in.

Addictions work by feeding into a biochemical reaction. Stress hormones build up as the desire to play increases. If you give in to that desire, you feel relieved or relaxed as endorphins flood your system. However, this relief is short term, and the moment you stop playing, the stress hormones start to be released again. You may not even enjoy playing any more, but those stress hormones make it seem really compelling to do it, and so the cycle continues. But if you can build up the strength of will to break the cycle, the stress hormones will gradually lower on their own and the compulsion won’t be as strong – it’s short term pain for long term gain. For me it was almost as if my Addiction had its own personality, and when I refused to give it what it wanted, it threw little tantrums, sulked for a while and then gradually faded into the background as I carried on with my day.  It wasn’t easy at first, but it was entirely worth it.

One of the most straightforward ways to tell whether an action is an addiction is if you know it’s causing harm but you can’t stop doing it anyway. If this post reminds you of anyone, yourself included, get them to ask themselves “Is this behaviour having a negative impact on my life?” If they find the answer is Yes, then check out this page here for more information. If you do decide to alter the amount of gaming you’re doing, talk to the people around you about what you’re going through and what you’re trying to do. Changing a lifestyle habit isn’t always easy, and you’ll find that their support makes a world of difference.

All the best,

Xin

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