Instant gratification – something that many games seemingly aspire to invoke – is a dangerous demon to chase. It warped my definition of the word ‘achievement’ and transformed otherwise fruitful, honorable pursuits into what then appeared to be a time wasting Chocobo-chase. Learning inevitably leads to failure, and failure, to feelings of inadequacy – I wanted to accomplish something that, should I fail, invited few tangible consequences. Enter video games.
In almost any massively multiplayer online role-playing game, a ‘level up’ is only hours away. Mastery of the violin, for example, is not. Obtaining a qualification – arguably the real-life equivalent of a ‘level up’ – is not. And it was this way of thinking that, from my perspective, helped fuel my year-long bout of depression, anxiety and school withdrawal. Although some might be quick to judge, video games were not the cause of my mental illness. It’s not relevant to the point of this article, either. They perpetuated it – that’s my point.
It was easy, too. I didn’t have to fret about how people perceived me, only how they perceived my changeable, erasable avatar. I didn’t have to worry about inescapable social pressures, or pesky parents. And I certainly didn’t have to agonize over the emotional turmoil of my teenage years. These worries were soon overwhelmed (but not completely dismantled) just seconds after the world materialized. My time online soon outweighed my time offline. It consumed me, completely.
A hobby that was once a sporadic escape from the pressures of adolescent life quickly revealed itself to be a permanent place of residence. The rewards, such as social prestige, gold, and much-coveted armor, were – at least by real-world standards – easily had. Moreover, I didn’t have to quest beyond the confines of my small, dimly lit corner of the world.
Sometimes, though, things would go awry. Arguments with guild members could often sour a prosperous quest, or a questionable tactical decision could hamper hours of “progress”. But these ‘bad’ things could be avoided. And this was the hook of my virtual life – anything that I deemed to be even remotely problematic, I could switch-off.
Besides warping my sense of achievement, the experience began to warp my sense of reality. My inability to obtain a specific piece of armor soon overlapped with the concerns of real-life; such an inability soon evolved into a full-blown obsession. An obsession, which if not kept in-check, would consume almost every spare-second that my grey matter had to offer.
A meal became a necessity, not a pleasure. Sleep became a nuisance – it forced me to spend more time in reality, if only unconscious. Socializing with, you know, actual people, became trivial. There seemed to be little gained outside the pixels and polygons of my computer’s monitor. What was the point of grouping ‘irl’ (in real life) if there wasn’t a monster to slay or a quest to complete?
It was this imbalance – the ability to summon the feeling evoked by the completion of a challenge – which made life off the server far less appealing than life on the server. So, if you know somebody, whether they are 13 or 30, who frequently retreats to the delusional reality of a video game, talk to them. Many, like I did, may feel inadequately equipped to deal with the demands of day-to-day life. All they need is reassurance; they need somebody to believe in them.