I’m driving through the creepy forests outside Redmond, WA, feeling that very particular anxiety of being lost for awhile. I left the paved arterial for (what I hoped) was the correct turn, and the cratered gravel road dumps me at a house that’s somehow too modern to be this far out. It was ReSTART, America’s first inpatient treatment program for “problematic” gamers and internet users.
I’d met the brains behind ReSTART: Hilarie Cash, PhD, a few months prior. We were carpooling from Redmond to Portland in her humble teal sedan. She wasn't yet appearing on The Daily Show, Rock Center, Fox News, and so on, billed as Co-Founder of ReSTART. Nor was she yet, I don't believe, charging five figures per patient. That day, we were just off to Oregon, to talk about “Pathologic Computer Use” for our mutual friend Dr. Block.
Hilarie seemed to especially enjoy the breadth and grit of my anecdotes for the fringe element in gaming. The schizophrenic BDSM romances between online friends, the Mexican barmaids who used their orc rogues to tease salacious Baja fishermen, violent Russian citizens dodging mandatory Army service by living in America on expired student visas. Then there was me. Twenty six, living with a nineteen-year-old woman I’d met in the World of Warcraft, recently hired to teach ethics at a college for game developers.
Back at ReSTART’s grand opening, Hilarie greets me warmly at the door. She’s nearly sixty, tall and stout. Her bouncing white curls still show a fair trace of red, and her clothes and jewelry billow freely around her. A little sign asks me to turn off my cellphone. The classy spread inside includes hand-cut prosciutto, a fondue fountain spilling a constant stream of warm chocolate, all surrounded by red ripe strawberries. Outside, there’s a treehouse dolled up to look like high-fantasy elven architecture. I’m told they use it for group therapy. There are daybeds, hammocks, and baby goats wander in a little pen. I talk awhile with Ben, the young, skinny gamer who’d been the first of Hilarie’s students. He seems chuffed to be the self-proclaimed “addict” for Time magazine’s ReSTART feature, apparently their crew had visited earlier in the day. He points at the goat pen and says, “Sometimes, we’re not sure how, they get out.”
In 2009, the reSTART website listed the cost of attendance at around twenty grand. In 2013, articles often report attendees leaving with significantly more out-of-pocket debt. For a 45-day group retreat, I’ve heard mixed reviews on whether that’s fair.
At one point, with the evening winding down, I sit down opposite to Hilarie and her business partner Cosette. They ask if I’d be comfortable publically endorsing reSTART. Maybe approach some of the big local tech firms about creating scholarships for treatment. I could always take a stay myself, they say, free of charge. I’d have to be serious about my abstinence of course.
I take a long moment – check myself – and measure my response.
I don’t, for instance, mention my reservations about abstinence-based recovery for technology. I understand it can do great things for alcoholics and heroin junkies. The stand-up comedian Russell Brand – outspoken about his heroin use – is an inspired writer and speaker on the necessity of abstinence. In his Guardian piece My Life Without Drugs, he recounts re-watching the video of his younger, strung-out self. “…what is surprising is that my reaction is not one of gratitude for the positive changes I've experienced but envy at witnessing an earlier version of myself unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was, who, for all his problems, had drugs. That is obviously irrational.”
Sitting with Hilarie and Cosette, my reservations don’t stem from the belief that games represent some subordinate addiction, beneath drugs and alcohol. The compulsion to game had me slouching on hardwood floors over a massive, fifty-pound computer monitor in the game Star Wars Galaxies for nearly a full year. I’d stewed in my own trash, playing twenty hours a day, evading my harried parents like a withering shit ninja. The degree to which I was able to escape myself is something that I find enviable too, now and again. I agree with Brand, that the envy is both irrational and powerful. But part of me wanted so badly to believe that gaming was different. That I’d left my problems behind. That I was fine.
Games were just experiences, and the only way to abstain from all experience is to get locked in a room with a blindfold and a straightjacket. What I wanted, instead, was to be smart about experience. Learn to pick the good ones, avoid the bad, whether in games, life, wherever.
I didn’t have the tools. It must have been obvious. When I mention wanting to keep playing, wanting to balance games with everything else, Hilarie grins and says,
“It sounds like the pickle wants to go back to being a cucumber.”
Two months later I’d be broke, single, and living with my parents. Again.
Two years after that – two years almost entirely without games – I was staring at Jane McGonigal’s New York Times bestseller Reality is Broken, getting very dangerously drunk. Her thesis was straightforward: games will save the world. It made me pretty fucking angry, at the time. My working thesis had been to avoid games at all costs. After abandoning that world, teaching had turned into a stable job. I had a nice place, a full liquor cabinet.
Which got replenished perhaps a touch often.
In fact, I’d switched from agreeable Earl Grey to a tall glass of wine, after Reality is Broken told me matter-of-factly that games may be the last shining hope for finding meaning in the world. That, unlike videogames, “Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy.” (This making an exodus from reality entirely good and acceptable). Were people really that fucking selfish, that they expected Disneyland lives? And then there was the tone of the thing.
Reality is Broken uses the word “happy” (if you count variations like, “happiness,” “happier,” and “happiest”) roughly a thousand times, with alternates like “fulfill,” “pleasure,” “satisfy,” “thrill,” “engage,” and “enthrall,” bringing the count exponentially higher. Never do we see more reflexive happies than in her discussion of addiction, a word she uses with surprising ease. She calls Warcraft an IV drip of productivity, saying “almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” Just after an anecdote where she – unplanned – takes one first taste of Warcraft and proceeds to drop an entire weekend leveling up. She calls it, “blissful productivity.” A phrase that’s always made me grin, because it’s so very close to Tom Bissell’s term for his cocaine-fueled days-long binges of the game Grand Theft Auto IV: “blissful self-destruction.”
Anyway, I didn't need to hear that shit. Running away from games was what I needed. Away from the expectant people, the insane self-inflicted excess. Not even writing a goddamned book could help me understand those. Tea and Western Classics. They were better. Robert Frost, Kurosawa, Adams, Gaiman. But for the nagging boredom. And the rapid deflation of my liver.
In part, Jane was right. Something in my skull recognized it, more or less immediately. Modern videogames do offer individuals, people across the face of the world, something tangible. Something real. Games let us experience anything, within or without the human experience. Like any other dysfunctional geographical subsection of the planet Earth, they can drag adults and children into frenetic compulsion, and loneliness. Sometimes, these beautiful landscapes with impossible physics, they teach us profound lessons.
It’s where this book started, wanting to tell some stories and make that plain.
Not necessarily to broadcast everything I've seen in twenty years as a slobbering addict, hardcore raider, dungeon master, researcher, and games professor, because I think games are the work of cult fetishists, perverts and devil-worshipers (not that they wouldn't make good stuff). Games are cool. At the edge of a knife – and during all the other merry antics of battle – games brought me together with people who leapt into my real life. Probably even saved it a couple of times.
I started this book just wanting to spin those stories, about those friends I’d made and psychopaths I’d escaped, the high-body-count weddings and curious smells one encounters during a life in gaming’s back alleys. But how do you romanticize sitting on your ass for sixteen hours in a day? I put it away, and switched to some nonfiction about games. I thought it possible to take smart game developers, overlooked architects, venerated psychologists – basically the foundational scholars of experience – and find a better way to talk about the experiences games make. It had to be better, at least, than gaming’s present hallowed criteria, which usually boils down to whether or not something is “fun” (whatever that means).
I couldn't finish that book either.
But the two projects, surprise, fit together. As much as I hate to share this with someone first cracking open a new book, putting them together let me ignore whether it would entertain the casual reader. Mixing stories with a semi-formal “Experience Language” – I could write this for me – and start to see how my life in games started with fun, slid into compulsivity, but righted itself along the way. I saw the people who dragged me down, online, and the ones who’d helped me climb out of the mire. Such people did eventually even show me how to “de-pickle,” learning to pick the good experiences, and avoid the bad.
That’s my lengthy excuse for mixing high scholarship, triggery anecdotes and a frequently filthy mouth. For a book that became simultaneously an answer for Hilarie, a response to Jane, and a high-five to my gaming buddies.
Games aren’t singlehandedly driving children to bloody massacres, but nor will they magically heal the world’s poverty, hunger, ignorance, and/or loneliness. They neither break nor fix reality. They’re a part of it. A part which has a lot to teach, if we can learn to listen. A part which included some damn delightful characters, in my case. In the end, that’s what matters: the places you visited and the people you were with. They’re what brought me in as a kid. After everything, they’re what keep me coming back.
Next: Chapter 1: Games >>
In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld is available in paperback and kindle.