Emily Munro, former Features Editor, shares her personal story of gaming addiction and the dramatic and destructive impact it had on her life, her health and her relationships.
Most gamers have been there: ‘just one more quest then I’ll go to bed/eat/shower’. I always jokingly referred to it as one-more-quest syndrome, not really an issue, I’m just enjoying myself, and that’s what videogames are for. Realistically, for most people that never becomes a problem - but is there a line where that comforting feeling of immersion and interaction stops being fun, and becomes a real problem? For me, there was, and I more than just crossed that line - I jumped head first over it.
A large percentage of the games people attribute their addiction to are MMOs, such as World of Warcraft. Part of the reason for this is the amount of dedication these games require to succeed at a high level – the story never really ends, plus there are constant additions and endless grinds for the best gear and items. This means there’s a constant loop of rewards and gratification every time you play.
In addition to this, gaming allows us to escape and immerse ourselves in other worlds. MMOs particularly give us the opportunity to be someone else; we name our characters and give them backstories, we forge them into the ultimate representation of who we want to be.
I’ve always found slipping into imaginary worlds exceptionally easy, immersing myself in books and videogames since a young age. I believe this stems from my nature as an introvert; I always did (and still do, to an extent) struggle with social interaction. Shielding myself in those other worlds was a comfort to me, because while I was there I could be someone else. I suppose that inherent ability to lose myself in fictional realms lends itself well to modern games – people like me are the very ones that MMOs rely (I want to say ‘prey’, but that’s just deflection on my part) upon to make their money. And thus, when I discovered Neverwinter, I began one of the most difficult periods in my life.
In all honesty, my first foray into Neverwinter never left that much of an impression upon me. This was when the game first came to consoles, on Xbox One. I played it briefly, but the novelty wore off, and I never touched it again until its release on PS4. This was the beginning of a spiral I’m only now, nearly two years later, coming out of.
I immersed myself in my characters. When I played, I wasn’t the shy and socially awkward Emily, I was fierce and outgoing, friendly and popular. In a matter of months, I’d gone from being a casual player to running a relatively successful guild. What started as a bit of fun suddenly became like my job – when I wasn’t online playing the game I was organising guild events, creating spreadsheets of guild members to track activity, or smoothing over the inevitable online clashes between people. I felt important – people wanted to speak to me, I was liked.
These were things I craved, not realising I already had them, and Neverwinter gave them to me.
These were things I craved, not realising I already had them, and Neverwinter gave them to me. At the time I wasn’t working, so I’d drop my kids off at school, come home and log straight into the game, playing it until I had to pick them up again. When I eventually dragged myself away from it at night I’d lay in bed thinking about it instead of sleeping, strategy and ideas swimming through my head until I couldn’t physically keep myself awake any longer. I’d sleep for a few hours, then get up and the cycle would repeat, over and over.
My online persona’s progression became more important than my own; I didn’t shower often enough (I know, gross), and I think I was probably personally responsible for 50% of the sales of dry shampoo because it was quicker than washing my hair. I was a mess, and I couldn’t see it. Yes, my hair needed washing, but there was an event ending that day on Neverwinter and I had to get online. In my head that made perfect sense.
For a time, I don’t think even the people close to me realised how deep I’d fallen into my addiction. Inevitably, eventually my real-life relationships began to suffer. I developed friendships through Neverwinter that were bordering on inappropriate, I turned down social invitations with real-life friends in favour of the game, I stopped going to bed when my partner did and spent time in chats with online people from all over the world instead. And in my head, it wasn’t an issue. This was my escape, and I was entitled to it; if people couldn’t accept that then they were in the wrong, not me.
After 14 months immersed in my online world, a tipping point came. One statement: ‘I’d ask you to choose between me and the game, but at this point I honestly don’t know what your answer would be’. It’s then it hit me – I had neglected my family, my friends and myself because all I could think about was the game and the people within it. It’s true what they say about addiction – in any of its many forms, you can’t tackle it until you realise you have a problem. On that night I faced that realisation, and it was like being hit by a metaphorical bus.
I slowly began to tear myself away from the game. Cutting down on my time gradually, spending more quality time with the people close to me in the evenings instead of logging on. It was difficult – people would message me, asking where I was, would I come online and run dungeons with them. In some weird ironic twist, my online friends were worried by my absence and concerned for me. Dragging yourself away from something you’ve been so completely immersed in for so long is hard – the only thing I can compare it to is that it honestly felt like ending a relationship. That’s how involved I was with this other world. With perseverance, I whittled my time down to logging in once a day to collect daily bonuses. As I did it, I slowly began to notice that I wasn’t missing it at all any more. The compulsion and desire to play it just wasn’t there.
Two weeks ago, I finally removed Neverwinter from my console. I gave away all my gear and items to deter me from going back, I logged out and I uninstalled the game. I immediately felt like a weight had been lifted. It would be the easiest thing to blame videogames for what I did, I could deflect all responsibility onto Neverwinter and the games industry, but the fact is I just used it as a tool to hide from my problems. I still play games frequently – they’re a big part of my life and I enjoy them – but I’m also able to recognise that they should be an addition to my life, not the reason for it. I have a job that I enjoy, I’m studying to further my career, I have a renewed relationship and I’ve started writing again.
I’m still in contact with a couple of people I played Neverwinter with, but I’ll never go back to it, and I do believe that highly immersive games like MMOs should come with some sort of warning much like the ‘gamble aware’ system for gambling websites. Recognising the danger of gaming addiction is a step in the right direction, and as acceptance of it as a very real issue grows I hope more people find it easier to access the help and support they need.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of gaming addiction, there are many organisations you can go to for help and advice, like the charity Action on Addiction.