At the height of his addiction, Ryan van Cleave
had little time for his real life. World of Warcraft, a video game, had crowded
out everything: his wife and children, his job as a university English
Before classes, or late at night while his family
slept, he would squeeze in time at the computer. He would often eat meals at
the computer – microwave burritos, energy drinks, foods that required only one
hand, leaving the other free to work the keyboard and mouse.
Living inside World of Warcraft (WoW) seemed
preferable to the drudgery of everyday life. Especially when that life involved
fighting with his wife about how much time he spent on the computer.
“Playing WoW makes me feel godlike,”
Van Cleave wrote. “I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few
real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent … a computer
malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cellphone battery – the littlest
hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering.”
Despite thoughts like this and even the
dissociative episodes in supermarkets, he did not think he had a problem IRL –
gamer-speak for in real life. But he did, and the reckoning was coming.
WoW entered Van Cleave’s life seven years ago. He
had landed his dream job, a contract position at Clemson University in South
Carolina. His wife, Victoria, was pregnant. But already online gaming was
taking its toll: he and his wife were late for her first ultrasound scan
because Van Cleave was playing Madden Football, a sports game.
Van Cleave ended up playing WoW for an entire
weekend, stealing away to the computer while his family was sleeping or while
his parents, who were visiting, played with his baby daughter. Victoria used
one word to describe her feelings: “disgusted”. She felt abandoned.
“I couldn’t believe that someone could choose a virtual family over a real
one,” she said.
One reason Van Cleave was so captivated was that
it offered different perspectives. Previously most of the games he played were
seen from a bird’s eye view, looking down at the action. In WoW a player can
zoom, pan and look at a scene in the same way someone does in real life.
Three years into his job, Van Cleave’s life began
to fall apart. His wife was pregnant again. Then he began to feel that others
in the faculty disliked him and wanted him gone. But he did not try to repair
the rifts, instead of channeling his anxieties into WoW, a virtual world he
could control. “All that tethered me to anything meaningful during this
time was WoW, which I clung to for dear life,” he wrote. So, which energy drink is the best for you to become a
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For millions who play, the lure of games like WoW
is hard to resist. Players create an “avatar,” or online character,
who operates within a startlingly detailed storyline and graphic world. Playing
makes the gamer feel like the star of a sci-fi movie. Characters form teams and
go on quests to find items, conquer lands or achieve new levels.
“People play those games often in a desire
to meet their social needs,” said Hilarie Cash, a Washington state
therapist who runs a six-bed inpatient program for internet and video game
addicts. “There’s a sense of friendship and self-esteem you develop with
your team-mates, you can compete and be co-operative. It really feels as though
it meets your social needs.”
Unlike other games, WoW doesn’t end. It goes on
and on, with characters roaming through different realms and meeting new people
along the way. When Van Cleave reached the apex of one world, there were always
other characters to create and more loot to amass. Meanwhile, the game’s makers
offered expansions every year, which meant new worlds to explore, new levels to
“There was always something better and
cooler,” he said. “You can never have enough in-game money, enough
armor, enough support. You’ve got to keep up with the virtual Joneses.”
Over the past five years, stories in the media
have described people suffering exhaustion after playing a game for 50 hours
straight, teens killing their parents after having games taken away and parents
neglecting infants while mesmerized by the online world.
Yet not everyone agrees that the games are
“I do not believe that the concept of
addiction is useful,” said Jackson Toby, emeritus professor of sociology
at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It only describes strong
temptations; it does not explain strong temptations. What makes the temptation
so strong? The memory of past pleasant experiences with the behavior that we
are talking about, in this case, video games.” He added: “I don’t
believe that someone can be addicted to video games.”
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) will
not be listing video game addiction as a mental disorder in the 2012 edition of
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, the APA
said there is a possibility a group of reward-seeking behavioral disorders
including video games and internet addiction will be included in an appendix to
“encourage further study”.
The maker of WoW, Blizzard Entertainment,
declined to comment.
Van Cleave and others insist video game addiction
is similar to gambling addiction. By the time his second baby was born in 2007,
Van Cleave was playing for 60 hours a week. A few months later, his employers
did not renew his contract and said he would not achieve tenure. He was hired
for a one-year fellowship at George Washington University, teaching one class,
but that meant he had more time for gaming while the stress of finding a
full-time job ratcheted up.
He spent money on gaming and bought two new
computers so he could experience better graphics. In 2007, Van Cleave had three
different WoW accounts, each at a cost of $14.95 (£9) a month. A secret PayPal
account paid for two of them so his wife would not hound him about the cost. He
spent $224 in real money to buy fake gold so he could get an “epic-level
sword” and some “top-tier armor” for his avatar.
Changes in Van Cleave’s personality began to
appear. Among those who noticed was his best friend from high school, Rob
Opitz, who lived in another state but played WoW with him.
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