GTAIV, WoW, and cocaine

The Observer published a crushingly personal account of addiction to GTAIV combined with an equally crippling cocaine habit.

It’s a depressing and hard core world the author portrays – gaming day-in day-out, whilst keeping a cocaine habit going, and pretty much losing any connection to the world outside. There’s been many stories of WoW addiction, but the combination of an actual drug with a virtual one is the real killer.

Coke is to acid what jazz is to rock. You have to appreciate it. It does not come to you… And soon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.

There’s a same-but-different story on wow.com interviewing a player who is two dings away from ‘beating’ WoW: completing every in game achievement. He managed that by having a /played time of 491 days. That’s a staggering figure. In some ways this seems a parallel to the Observer tale, except there seems no equivalent story of a life gone off the rails. Perhaps there should be.

Both have that common gaming description of being in the zone, reaching an almost zen state of playing and the exultant state of emotional well being that brings:

Some achievements are a bit stressful and took some time, but at the end of the day when the [WoW] achievement frame is popping up, my heart is filled with peace and love.

I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser; Grand Theft Auto IV was ready to go. My friend and I played it for the next 30 hours straight.

These are feelings I’m sure all gamers have experienced, though (hopefully) not with the same intensity, or the same consequences. There’s a joy to being so focussed in the moment and when everything comes together just so.

At the same time, there’s the danger of overdoing it. The WoW interviewee has some eerie parallels to the “first taste is free” tactic of the drug dealing fraternity:

We started with some easy stuff like LEEEEERRRRROOOOOOOYYYY!!!!!111 for warmup but went early to the battleground stuff. It was so much fun; I think we did that eight hours in a row before we felt asleep. =D The next day, we explored some zones, fished in some schools and stuff before we queued for battlegrounds again. The beginning time was absolutely amazing.

Games are an escape, a release valve, a way to zone out and forget the pressure of the day to day. The parallels to drugs are made strikingly clear by both these stories.

Adult taste can be demanding work – so hard, in fact, that some of us, when we become adults, selectively take up a few childish things, as though in defeated acknowledgment that adult taste, with its many bewilderments, is frequently more trouble than it is worth. Few games have more to tell us about this adult retreat into childishness than the Grand Theft Auto series.

I’m utterly unqualified to talk about drugs of any description, but the notion of retreat and escapism, be it via music or gardening or gaming or drugs, appears almost universal. Everyone seeks it in some way, just some methods are healthier than others. And of course it’s only when it’s taken to these kind of obsessive lengths that even healthy pursuits become ugly.

The point that hit home hardest for me was when the GTAIV player started talking about how he stopped seeking out books and stopped writing, two experiences which had previously been his lifeblood.

When the minds of the reader and writer perfectly and inimitably connect, objects, events and emotions become doubly vivid – more real, somehow, than real things. I have spent most of my life seeking out these connections and attempting to create my own. Today, however, the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar.

I’ve had a very similar experience since starting WoW. I’ve barely read a novel in two years, staying up late to immerse myself in the game world instead of the worlds created by words. The closest I’ve come is reading graphic novels, which don’t demand the same immersion and concentration (but can be just as rewarding).

Mind you he doesn’t necessarily resent this change  – not the games anyway (the cocaine is a different story) – believing that gaming has given him “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories”, and that “today the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games.”

Perhaps the most terrifying element of his story is that even though he’s off the coke, gaming still has a iron grip on his soul:

These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction – excepting those I was also reviewing – in the last year. These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon and spend my evenings playing video games…

…For instance, I woke up this morning at 8am fully intending to write this article. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5pm.

This is someone who’s recovered from something far worse. It just doesn’t seem like much of a recovery, and that’s a scary thought.

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4 Responses to GTAIV, WoW, and cocaine

  1. Damien says:

    I wonder if other writers have similar problems with games – and WoW in particular? Just reminds me of another writer I knew.

    It is amazing to think what you could “achieve” in RL with 491 days of effort applied to anything.

    • Bane says:

      491 days /played is 2.5 years of 12 hour days playing, or 4 years of 8 hour days. The game has been out 5 years. Ouch.

      Of course there’s nothing to say that time would have been spent any more productively if not playing WoW. Still.

      As for our dopey friend, he always used to say it turned his brain off, or at least stopped the churn. I think WoW did the same: let him live in someone else’s world for a while, instead of the ones he was creating.

      The combo of both probably was like the GTA guy, unbeatable for escaping. And like that guy, he hated the drug but loved the game.

  2. kraak says:

    One of my students is about to finish his PhD – its taken about 5 years part time. He’s a gamer but swore himself off Wow as he knew he’d never complete. Lucky.

    • Bane says:

      5 years sounds not too bad! But totally right, I can’t imagine being at uni and knowing WoW was just sitting there waiting in the background… talk about the perfect procrastination device.

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