Last week a woman I know mentioned in an email that her wedding anniversary had just passed. She and her husband had not really celebrated it (they’ve been married over 15 years), in fact, they’d barely talked that evening, because, as I gather is fairly standard procedure, he came home and spent the evening gaming until very late.
In a later email, when another woman asked if gaming was something they could perhaps do together (which raises another set of sticky issues about gender roles and expectations…), she mentioned that she has done her best to respect gaming as an interest he has, and has asked about the game, his guild’s success, etc.. His guild’s success. I read that sentence and it was like a switch was flipped in my brain. One word: guild, and I knew what she was dealing with like the back of my hand. I later confirmed it. He plays World of Warcraft.
You see, I have never played the game, but I know enough about it to have “passed” with fairly dedicated players, who expressed considerable surprise when I’ve told them I don’t play. Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, epic loot, Alliance, Horde. I know all about it. I should know, I’ve been listening to Andrew talk about it for over two years. There’s been a solid chunk of time when his relationship with WoW has been considerably more involved than his relationship with me. Hell, one of his main alts looks like me. It’s how the hardcore spend quality time, y’see.
I suspect one of the reasons Andrew talks about WoW with me, despite the fact that I don’t play, is because I’ll know what he’s talking about. And with the exception of those he actually games with, I don’t know that he has all that many other people to tell. Plus, talking about it to me is habitual. He freely admits his addiction. He is self-deprecating about it from time to time, and makes fun of people he knows with even larger monkeys on their virtual backs and even more sparse social lives. One of the heads of his guild has fallen asleep at the keyboard. More than once.
But the addiction isn’t really the point in this case. Neither is the specific game. There are lots of games. The addiction is… handy. The reason reading my friend’s words upset me so much is that I immediately identified with what she said, and knew why her husband was doing it. Avoidance. Avoiding her and communicating with her. Avoiding demanding children. Avoiding family life. Disappearing into the game is… easier, than dealing with life. Andrew did it, too. Boy, did he ever.
For the most part, Andrew and I have made our peace with each other. But there remain some unhealed wounds. The gaming is one of the deepest. Andrew’s not good at communication. He seems to find it damned near impossible to have Serious Conversations in person. I’m not damning him for this. I do, too. And there were a lot of things I never said, either. Some of the most important hashing out we did happened online. Kinda only made sense, given the origins and course of our relationship. (And I’ve had enough Important Conversations with enough people online not to give a shit about ideas of etiquette and opinions that it’s a cop-out or an avoidance tactic in itself. Some people communicate better in writing: I’m one of them. The same can be said for communicating behind the guise of an avatar.)
Gaming gave Andrew, and my friend’s husband, and, I’m sure, thousands of other people (the game’s population is somewhere around six million globally), an escape. A virtual reality that’s interesting and exciting and full of cameraderie, and devoid of arguments about why the dishwasher hasn’t been emptied or time spent with the kids or the dog walked. In fact, what just about made me lose it was coming home from work this evening and being needled the third time, by reading this: One Lesson from a Night Elf.
Oh, Rands… Normally I really enjoy reading your stuff, and as a student of human nature myself, I very much enjoy how you get people and business and the culture therein. And I know that you and I view that piece from very different perspectives. But when I read this line: “Ridicule is spoken fear fueled by ignorance.” I nearly started to cry. Because from where I am, you’re wrong. From where I am, and where I’ve been, ridicule is a desperate cry. An attempt to get your point across without nagging (again). An attempt to make the other person understand that you’re there, in person, and you need him/her, too. An attempt not to feel like garbage for feeling so lame and so needy. An attempt to not go to bed by yourself yet again. “Just a few more minutes…” “I’m coming to bed soon…”
One time, I completely lost it. I went to bed before midnight, and Andrew said he would be coming shortly. I woke up after 12:30, he was still playing. I fell back to sleep. I woke up at 2:30, he was still playing. I got up and went into the room where he was and told him to logout. NOW. 10 minutes later he was still in there. I went back and cursed at him and told him to shut it off. All of it. There was really no point to making him physically shut off the computer and monitor, but I made him do it. His excuse that he had to go back to a certain point before he could leave the game only made me angrier. Another time I came over, and arrived about 20 minutes before I said I’d planned to. No big deal, right? And yet somehow I ended up being ignored and hanging out with the dogs by myself for over an hour before he deigned to logoff. Thinking about it still makes me angry. And sad.
I get the lure of these places, and the people in them. I get the friendships, the cameraderie, the excitement. I get how much easier it can be to exist online, and the freedoms it affords people, especially those who are shy and awkward in real-world social situations. But at the end of the day, the real world is still here. Girlfriends and wives and children and friends and family are still here. We need attention, too. We need to feel valued. We are in these relationships as well because we value the other person and want to be an important part of their lives. However, real life isn’t ideal. You can’t re-spawn when you screw up, and there won’t always be immediate rewards for valuing us. But I guarantee there will be repercussions for not valuing us. And life will get less and less pleasant out in the real world, which will push gamers back into worlds like WoW. Happy vicious circle. It is not without some bitterness that I note the “convenience” of Andrew’s current relationship. Long distance girlfriends aren’t around to have issues with how much time you spend online. Game every day of the week – they don’t even necessarily know about it, and you’re not taking anything away from your relationship or time together.
Things didn’t work out between Andrew and I for a number of reasons. Gaming didn’t torpedo our relationship. We both made some pretty big mistakes. And I hope my friend and her husband find a balance that allows them recreational activities AND a happy marriage. But in our case, gaming did make things worse. We lost balance in a whole bunch of areas.
I realize I probably sound like I’m lambasting Andrew pretty thoroughly, and I honestly don’t mean to. He’s one of my best friends and I love him. (And hell, from what I know he’s only in the last little while started reading my blog at all.) But it is the most glaring and most raw example I have. And it’s typical to the point of being stereotypical.
Andrew’s not the first gamer I’ve dated. In fact, all the guys I’ve dated have been gamers at one time or another with one genre or another to one extent or another. I get gamers, I’ve been one. I understand the lure, and I have no beef with videogames. But like any other addiction, burying yourself in it won’t make things better. Building a complex and powerful avatar won’t make you a better spouse or parent or friend.
So yes, Rands, I understand that it’s real. That’s the problem. It’s not the only thing that is, or the only thing that needs to be.