The Average Gamer

Learning Through Games Addiction

I was interviewed by the BBC World Service about 6 weeks ago as part of a program about Internet addiction called Caught in the Web. They interviewed me, Danny O’Dwyer of Triple D Games and Tamoor Hussain of Citizen Game and CVG for 90 minutes. None of my pearls of wisdom made it into the final edit but it was a 28 minute program that included addiction experts and Facebook addicts so I’m sure it was a hard decision to drop me O:). Anyway, here’s the part of my story that I didn’t discuss with the interviewers:

In 1989, my family ‘got on the Internet’, as they say. Dialing up local Singaporean BBSs on our 2400 MNP modem, I discovered TradeWars 2002 and learned about capitalising on market forces; buying low, selling high and blowing the shit out of the competition. TradeWars 2002 was a turn-limited space game launched in 1984 that you played with and against other players. You were aware of their actions in-game but never really spoke with other people directly. Sometimes I laugh when I hear these exact mechanics described as “social games” just because they’re now on Facebook.

Moving on to 1996, I discovered the Discworld MUD and changed my life.

The MUDding years

Up until then I was a painfully shy child and teenager. Sure, I had friends but for one reason or another, I had terrible trouble talking to people I didn’t already know. Couldn’t stand it, would get very embarrassed if asked a direct question. As I kid I would go red and hide behind my parents. As a teen, I would probably give you a monosyllabic answer. The Discworld MUD helped me break through an awful lot of that. It was a place where lateral thinking and logic were rewarded, not seen as traits that makes you a bit weird. It was a place where you could train together with people and work towards a common goal or choose to run around by yourself solving puzzlers and nobody would bat an eyelid. Most of all, it was a place where an awkward teenager could try on personalities and see how other people react.

I was playing for maybe 6 hours a day, more on the weekends. When you’re on dial-up and have to pay for your phone calls, that is a hell of a lot of time. This was during high school and somehow I managed to juggle my GCSEs, the International Baccalaureate, a couple of boyfriends (sequentially, btw) and being in a band. I still managed to rack up 73 days of my life in-game. Yes, over 1750 hours logged into a single text-based game, across 3 alts. Luckily, I’m really good at classroom learning because the sum total of my GCSE studying was considerably less – 20 minutes and only because the teachers broke up our pre-exam card game. (5As, 4Bs, tyvm). Does being naturally good at classroom learning and tests give me a greater leeway for vice? I was clearly not living up to my full potential.

But even as I neglected my studies, I learned to be social in other ways. I made friends across Asia, Australia and a few night owls in the UK. I got ‘married’ to another player just for the hell of it and still have the pointless wedding gifts in my character’s vault; a crystal ladle, a nicely-painted picture and pink toy hippo. My ‘husband’ then spent the next few weeks trying to consummate the marriage and we soon got ‘divorced’.

I lost friends, too. One of the guys I frequently joked around with committed suicide during those years, a student at the Australian Defense Force Academy. Sometimes I wonder if I should have known, if there was something I could have done. I guess the Discworld MUD was his escape too.

Another guy, I visited in Sydney. When I moved over to London for university we emailed frequently. I’d known him so long, it was good to share the culture shock of moving from expatriate Singapore to the UK with someone who wasn’t struggling with the same thing. We’re still friends – he’s in London as well now and I went to his 31st birthday party back in December. In true Internet-friend style, we live 3 miles apart and still only see each other twice a year.

Those 73 days on the Discworld MUD played a huge part in developing my self-confidence. As an ungainly teenager who was no good at sports and uninterested in gossip or shopping or the other things that 16-year-old girls talk about, it was a place where I could discuss things that mattered to me and not get laughed at or shunned for being nerdy. I think a lot of people got the same things out of IRC but without the shared sense of purpose, IRC has always felt a little thin to me.

I moved on from MUDding a long time ago. The Discworld MUD is still running and continually being expanded. I simply don’t have the time, nor the inclination to catch up on everything that’s changed in the past 11 years. Sometimes I’ll pop in just to keep my character alive, though given that the deletion criterion is being idle for 60 times your character age, I can go a good 7 years without logging in. When I do stop by, it amuses me no end to meet people I helped out as newbies who no longer remember my name but take one look at my character and go “Ooo, I remember that description. I met you on my first day here. Thanks for your help :)” It’s happened more than once.

In Real Life

One of the experts on the BBC World Service show was Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University. He’s talked about games addiction quite a bit and on the show today he shared some disturbing anecdotes of children getting violent when their Internet access was taken away. Recently in The Guardian:

“I’ve got very strict criteria that I use for video-game addiction: it has to be the most important thing in that person’s life. They have to use it as a way of consistently and reliably shifting their mood.” An addict, he says, is unable to stop playing even when they know they ought to, with knock-on effects on their work and their relationships. “If you’re unemployed with no partner and no kids and from the moment you wake up you play video games, and you play all day, that’s not an addiction. Addiction has nothing to do with the amount of time you spend on something. If an addict is unable to play they’ll get withdrawal symptoms.”
– Mark Griffiths as quoted by Tom Meltzer, I was a games addict, The Guardian

I quit my NHS project management job in July to set up a food and nutrition website. Instead, I found myself spending more and more time writing about games even though I know the food website could be more profitable. 90% of my socialising in the past few months has been with gamers and games journalists. I talk about games on a daily basis through Twitter. When I’m sad, angry or bored, playing games makes me happy.

When I do play games, I’d much rather play for a 6 hour stretch than pick up a controller for 20 minutes. I am chronically late to social engagements because of that infernal “just 5 more minutes”. You all know what I’m talking about.

When I don’t play any games for more than a week I get headaches that are cured by playing games. True story; it’s happened twice this year already. This is the only part of my hobby that worries me slightly but I’m not sure what I can do about it. I also get listless and grumpy. The world seems flat and is a depressing and difficult place to be – you only need to crack open a newspaper or flip on the TV to see that truth. The games I play remind me that there are people out there who believe we can change things for the better. Have a look at Jane McGonigal’s work – gamers have been conditioned to be eternal optimists and that’s no bad thing.

I would be a games addict but I’m saved by this line from the article:

“So long as you can stop when you have to for school, work, meals, friends and family, intense game playing is just like any other hobby.”

I may have successfully redefined work and friends to be centred around gaming, but it’s all okay :) Here’s another take on games addiction by Aoife of Ginx TV.

Caught In The Web is a programme by Vera Frankl, investigating Internet Addiction Disorder. You can download it as a podcast from the Discovery series page (23rd March 2011) or through this direct link.