Dr. George Vaillant studied one group of 237 male Harvard Graduates for decades – a group of men which included President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee – and observed that not a single one lived a life without, “a full share of difficulty and private despair.” Called The Grant Study, the lives of these men inspired Vaillant’s classic psychological texts on alcoholism, aging well, and coping. The public-at-large – gamers included – might understand how the body reacts to breast cancer, mononucleosis, and a broken leg, but recovering from mental illness can still seem a bit arcane. This is where games shine, I think. They have a lot to teach us about good and bad coping.

Vaillant writes, “for centuries fever and pus were synonymous with disease, yet they are actually the body’s adaptive response to invading bacteria. If complications do not occur, such responses are normal; it is the external infection that is unusual.” So it was with coping. These inner processes reflected the human ability to be creative, in the face of extreme outside conflict. Vaillant was ever amazed by coping mechanisms, writing that, “I can not explain why specific defenses emerge and not others. In my opinion, the origin of defenses is as multidetermined as the origins of humor and art.” But he could observe which defenses cropped up, mining his specific terminology from – among others – Sigmund and Anna Freud.

If the shit going on in life is atrociously bad, and support is utterly lacking, people sometimes develop the most intense of the coping mechanisms: the psychotic. The paranoid delusions, denial, and gross distortions of reality. It might be tempting to assume a hardcore raider as having something like denial, if they quite literally reject certain parts of their lives. Sometimes the opposite is true. In games, a lot of the thefts, sexist or racist trolling, and general shitty behavior gets justified as a-okay, since “the game isn’t real.”

To Vaillant, immature mechanisms were the step up from the psychotic, but they still bespoke problems with intimacy. They were the escape of fantasy, projection, hypochondria, and passive-aggression. They’re hard to improve, though it’s possible given time, a therapist’s help, friendly interventions, and getting better people into our lives.

Schizoid fantasy – the tendency to fall headlong into books, TV, and other escapes – is I think tricky for games because it’s so common everywhere. We all have our safe places, and in my experience the harshest critics to gaming drop exponentially more time and cash in their lives as barflies, foodies, and serial Vegas vacationers. I’d venture that the “escape” we spend so much time chiding comes in two flavors, one of which probably deserves to get sorted more on the level of mature coping. I take my cue here from Jane McGonigal, and her 2013 Game Developer’s Conference talk, There is No Escape. She differentiated between escape for self-expansion, and escape for self-suppression. In the former, we might drop into games for a little energizing fun, but as life gets more challenging, we play less. We still take care of things. In the latter, when life gets harder, play becomes a downward spiral. We play rather than fix things. This is probably my favorite way to differentiate where escape moves from being healthy, and useful, to where it starts to drag us down. Whether you’re getting lit at the local dive, or diving into the depths of Ahn’Qiraj.

In projection, we attribute our own prejudices and intimacy problems on others. We assume that the raid leader is abrasive, when we’re the one barking more than a dockload of sea lions. Hypochondria transforms unbearable aggression, intimacy, or loneliness into physical pain. Passive-aggression is openly redirecting anger towards others onto yourself, typically with less than stellar results. Acting out probably figures into some of what Jane is talking about with escape, though it is a separate extra layer. It involves impulsive motor behavior, or throwing tempers, or failure by way of drugs, perversion, and/or excess fuckuppery, just so we don’t need to be aware of something unconscious and bothersome.

Such ridiculousness will turn other people off to being around you – no matter what world you’re in – but to a far lesser degree than the psychotic.

Neurotic defenses were to Vaillant healthy enough, and common in folks acclimatizing to the stress of everyday life. Intellectualization is overthinking for the sake of not acting. We isolate, rationalize, ritualize, distract ourselves with busywork, and use magical thinking in order to not actually do anything about whatever’s bothering us. Repression is that aggravating, “oh, darn, I forgot” that we sometimes get from the people in our lives.

Displacement is taking strong feelings, and then pinning them on someone or something we don’t care about so much. Hostile jokes and caricature, prejudice, we’re getting it out of our system in a place where it feels safer. Finally, there’s dissociation, where we drastically change who we are, our own identity, so we don’t have to deal with certain of life’s bullshit. It can be a sudden devil-may-care-attitude, or abandoning responsibility, just for a little while. Vaillant writes that, “Dissociation is more comprehensible to others than distortion, more considerate of others, and less prolonged than acting out.”

Finally, mature coping is the realm of those who can balance the world, the people in it, and their own bad selves. Altruism, be it through philanthropy, service to others, or just our showing up for the friend in need, is instinctually gratifying. Humor, to Vaillant, “lets you call a spade a spade” – it was a way to express the underlying, oft-ugly truth of a thing – to the inclusion and enjoyment of all parties. Suppression was the conscious to mostly-conscious decision to not pay attention to bullshit. It included, “looking for silver linings, minimizing acknowledged discomfort, employing a stiff upper lip, and deliberately postponing but not avoiding.” Anticipation was the sometimes-harsh shoring of defenses, in “anticipation of death or surgery, separation,” or to accommodate the difficult leaps advised by a psychotherapist. Sublimation, the last of the mechanisms described in Adaptation to Life, comes when we act on our inner desires in healthy ways. Our, “expressing aggression through pleasurable games, sports, and hobbies” or perhaps romance, “during a real courtship.” Making good art was Vaillant’s “classic example.” Sublimation pours our efforts into the pursuits we care about, and the results can be grand.

Near the end of Adaptation to Life, Vaillant goes to the home of a Grant Study participant whom he gives the moniker, “Alan Poe.” Vaillant says that the bedraggled guy reminds him of either a tug captain, or a French Resistance Leader. The man lived on almost nothing, frankly chatted about the benefits of rampant alcoholism, and would later blithely say of Vaillant’s early book drafts,

“…the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. As I read over the material, they seem to come down to having a good income, a stable family, reasonable job satisfaction, a capacity to love, and a capacity to play.” That a person, “either copes satisfactorily by mastering his life, or he limps along.” Alan Poe asked Vaillant, further along in the letter, “What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, “Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon” and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn time back to some nagging unfinished business?”  This changed the course of Vaillant’s research. It showed him that maybe good living was just a balancing act.

Random misfortune or poor choices might lead to a broken leg, but that big cast could also be the mark of some scintillating hiking, biking, or asskicking. We need to let that heal, but it’s just as important to get back out there, to live.

“Anxiety and depression,” writes Vaillant, “like blisters and fractures, become the price of a venturesome life. In daring to live and grow up, we create disparities in our inner balance between conscience and instinct, and between that precarious balance and the people we love. True, doctors can lance boils and desensitize phobias, remove cinders and anesthetize anxiety. But much of psychiatry, like much of medicine, becomes simply supporting natural healing processes.”

It’s not about being blindingly happy, at all times. Some of the “happiest” aging gentlemen in the Grant Study only fit in that category because they’ve never taken the time to look at their lives. They seem to have rated the most happy, in standardized tests, because they took life’s lemon without ever really inspecting it. Alan Poe’s response was to take a lemon and squeeze. Not just dutifully eat it, to keep from getting scurvy. He didn’t just cope, to get by, to keep contented.

Alan Poe sat at one extreme, but he’s a reminder of that curious balance to be struck, between coping with blisters, fractures, or compulsions, and having the unhinged fun that creates them in the first place.

Mooncloth Boots

It was four AM in my HawaiĘ»ian dorm, and I’d been killing stunted manbears since midnight. As a break from writing a thesis about excessive gaming. Ironically enough, after scoring the most powerful hat and pants in the game – during that first week of raiding – for weeks thereafter a pair of decent boots eluded me.

If I became “Friendly” with a tribe of bear people called the “Timbermaw” (by killing roughly 1,000 of their “corrupted” brethren, who bore bone-chilling names like “Gardener” and “Pathfinder”) I could get my hands on “Mooncloth Boots.” They weren’t the greatest, but the Eternity Dragoons were constantly teasing me for sporting a pair of particularly weak-ass boots.

Killing Furbolg was dangerous. Not because the Furbolg themselves were any particular worry. It was dangerous because at any time, goodie-goodie Dwarves or Elves could swoop down, securing this scant resource, catching a Furbolg grinder mid-battle. Having a semi competent buddy helped everything go faster, and it gave some slight protection against ambush. When a rogue-class character offered to join me, I was all too happy to have the company.

We didn’t talk much, in that first hour. After that, he started by name-dropping some of the rare gear he had on his alternate characters. A greatsword called Ashkandi, on his warrior, nearly everything he’d need for the legendary mace: Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros. Full tier-one armor on his priest and shaman characters. I had tier two hat and pants, which were strictly better, but tier one meant he’d been at this roughly a year longer than me. Once he was level 60, he’d switch this rogue away from the random leveling guild it was in now. No-name guilds usually have one or two wealthy players who suppose they’re ‘mentoring’ lowbies (who often, like this player, are all too happy to take their gifts and goodwill before a swift exit). He’d switch to his main guild soon, and they’d have this rogue geared out in a few weeks. This rogue would be his main character. He said he loved it.

Then he started talking about his personal life.

He was Australian, had just turned seventeen, and had stopped attending school a couple weeks before. His mother had no way to force him. He played twenty hours a day, which struck a little close to home. For another half hour, while we wiped out Furbolg on a clockwork schedule, I just listened.
His home life sucked, or at least, couldn’t hold a candle to his raid life. He was making fundamental changes to his living arrangements, he said, so that finishing high school wouldn’t be necessary. He didn’t mention what he’d do for money. Maybe a classmate had a spare room, he didn’t say. It did sound like he’d be living with his guildmates.

For a long while, just meditatively killing these oversized Ewoks, it bothered me that I didn’t know quite what to say. There aren’t any magic words. And I hadn’t been researching games or dependency for long. When I told him to finish school, that it was important, he finished killing one last Furbolg, then politely excused himself. After a few hours grinding together we parted ways, and I never saw him again.

I never could quite forget that.

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Next: Coping >>

Destroyed Time

In 2010, Ian Bogost created the game Cow Clicker as a way of poking fun at FarmVille, Zynga’s social game which at the time boasted tens of millions of active players. Observing that in these games, all you did was click, pay for the privilege of clicking more, and pay for the occasional decorative item, he made a game that simply had cows. Every four hours, you could click your cow. It would moo. If you wanted to click it before the four hours were up, you could pay for that. If you wanted specialty cows (which included oily BP cows, shimmering gilded bovines, and a Hello Kitty style Hello Cow) you could pay for those too.

On September 7, 2011, disappointed at having made more profit on Cow Clicker than all the rest of his tremendously thoughtful oeuvre put together, he finally raptured the cows into the great milky beyond.

Cow Clicker still exists, as an app, though its cows remain in our hearts and memories only.
In a blog post, also called Cow Clicker, Bogost outlined his frustration with social games. He wrote that games like FarmVille didn’t merely consume our time, they destroyed it. “Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities.”

While Skyrim might take some folks nearly a hundred hours to finish, while some gamers might drop hundreds more trying out Deity games of Civilization V, online games are always there. Waiting for the player’s august return. Those games never end, not after a hundred hours. Not after a thousand.

When games mix attractive rewards, compulsive design, and a disregard for the value of a player’s time, they create grinds.

Back to Chapter Introduction

Next: Mooncloth Boots >>

Five Years

World of Warcraft often gets described as, “a job I wasn’t getting paid for.” That statement signals to Anna DiNoto – probably the most competent young clinician I’ve met – that a client’s gaming has very likely welcomed some brand of pathology. It’s also one of the more common things you’ll hear from daily raiders.

When the Dragoons kicked into high gear – seven days a week and 8-15 hours a day – things went past job. It was a life that didn’t feed me. An entirely separate existence that ran sidealong to every life I’d known, including the other games in that life. When I finally re-emerged in a (mostly) final manner, five years later, I had five years of culture to catch up on. Books, movies, games, news about the world.

That existence became everything.

The frenetic race to be first to Nefarian, the black dragon at the end of Blackwing Lair, finished in my first few weeks with the Dragoons. We didn’t win. On our server – still one of the largest – first went to a professionally-sponsored Alliance guild. Paid gamers. First was still up for grabs Horde side, but The Cold, our server’s longtime top Hordies, were working on Nef, and the Dragoons still had three bosses to figure out before we’d even lay eyes on him. Blackwing Lair was a big place; we were more interested in beating Grisly Retribution for the #2 spot, making us look welcoming to skilled defectors for the next big race.

World First

This being late 2005, first had come and gone a few times. The black dragon Onyxia was dead a thousand times over, as was Ragnaros the Firelord. The Dragoons only visited those two to “farm,” slog through 2-6 hours of fighting they'd slogged through for half a year, just to reach that one last bountiful fight, with its weekly harvest of two always-random, always-coveted items. My very first week, each just happened to be Druid items, my items. The most powerful hat and pants in the game. My first week. None of the more senior Druids needed them. And should you, oh dear reader, think that hats and pants are trifle things, that this is all just a bit silly, do consider these things were valued at about a hundred bucks each. They were, at the time, the aforementioned “game actualizing rewards.” And since those mighty monsters had been guarding Druid-based treasure, it meant that the comparable items for Shamans, Warriors, and so on (and everyone else who'd been in the guild for substantially longer than a week) did not “drop.” That is to say, didn’t magically arrive – fitted and ready-to-wear – at the feet of the monster. After some choice refrains as to my sexual preference, expectations for attendance and punctuality were made crystal clear.

“You ass belongs to Eternity Dragoons now, faggot,” said the guild master.

The gear is what makes the World of Warcraft endgame such an ingenious and ingenuous grind. From the first level to the last, you go from maybe a few hundred hit points, to many thousands. And there’s nearly always better gear, to make those numbers higher. Likewise, your damage, ability to heal, and armor are sometimes improved exponentially, if the right hat and pants drop this week.

Usually, it was just a handful of the most snarling badass players out of our 40 – wearing the fanciest of gear – who were doing the lion’s share of the damage, healing, and tanking. Some days I’d never see them sleep. They’d be out in the snows of Winterspring, collecting powerful oils from the anal glands of invisible white tigers, or luring out great white sharks in Azshara, with questionably-gotten chum. Or just grinding for the latest hot item, for good ole’ gold. So when I got these hugely coveted items in my first week, my relative inexperience maybe mattered less. It’s just that somewhat more was expected of me.