All I really wanted was to turn my brain off. I wanted to be alone, but not by myself. I wanted that comfort of knowing other people existed, of not being cut off from the world. I enjoyed them being there, as long as left me on my own. Anything that had to be done, I could do myself. If I couldn’t then it wasn’t important. A soloist, no accompaniment needed, nor wanted. No attachments, no obligations, nothing to gain, nothing to lose, just, peace.
Hard to believe that was almost ten years ago.
In November 2004 Blizzard released World of Warcraft. Early the next year, I started playing, primarily because of the numerous posts about it by my friend Travis on his Xanga blog, back when Xanga was a thing we all had, like MySpace. After some reading on the various classes I decided to play a paladin as I didn’t anticipate playing with many people other than Travis, who I later found out was on a different server than I was, and as a human female because, as the old excuse goes, if I was going to spend hours staring at a video game character, I’d prefer it to be one I like looking at. I didn’t know at the time that this character would consume me. I also didn’t know that this consumption was good.
I’d roll out of bed around 6am and go right to the computer to log on. Around noon, or whenever the house was empty, I’d pause for lunch. Around 6pm I’d log off an hour to eat dinner. Around 3am, or whenever I could no longer keep my eyes open, I’d stumble the six feet from my chair to my bed, fall face down on top of it until the moment my eyes opened again, usually around 6am when I’d roll out and go right to the computer to log on. If I wasn’t playing or sleeping, I was thinking about death.
It was 2005, specifically March, when a close friend of mine died of cancer. She’d endured months of chemotherapy, the news of her illness reaching me through convoluted channels while I was living abroad, and I returned home partially to spend time with her. Cancer is a strange, horrific disease, as brutal to the mind and spirit as it is the body. It’s a ravaging experience, both to the one suffering and to those watching their loved one suffer, wasting slowly, into nothing, with no recourse but to either be there or walk away. Ten days later, my grandfather died.
When I wasn’t playing WoW, I spent time reading any article I could about death. I wasn’t looking for religion, like my friend had thrown herself into during that final year, or faith, like my grandfather had that his wife was waiting for him, but strictly science. Studies about young children knowing things they shouldn’t, people brought back after a minute with no heartbeat, a room with a word written on the ceiling too high to read unless someone actually floated up to it. I couldn’t find answers, but what I could find were enough little bits of evidence to at least have doubt. My research turned up a condition called “death anxiety.” I mentioned this to my therapist at the time. She called it, “the point where religions are created.”
It was the mythology that drew me to WoW. Not the gameplay, especially back in the days of “Vanilla” with its 5-minute pally buffs, minimal attack abilities and two healing spells, doing slow enough damage that I’d run into a mob, set my Judgement, sneak away for a few push-ups, heal, and do more push-ups. I liked being in this world, where there was no death, at least not permanent. I liked being a holy warrior in this world, with a clear sense of purpose and cause. The gods, the dead, they were there if you knew where to look. There were no questions about what to do, where to go, what the future held or anything else. If you didn’t like your job, respec. If you didn’t like your class, reroll. If your friend was dying, heal her. If your friend was dead, resurrect her.
Eventually, as I accepted that interacting with other people was necessary in order to advance, I gravitated toward the healer spec without being required to by the class limitations at the time. I became one of the top healers in my guild, a constant in 5-player groups and 40-player raids. I was what I called a top-off, whack-a-mole healer. As soon as that bar starting going down, here was health. As soon as a disease icon popped up on Decursive, here was your cure. No one dies today. This was my job.
I barely ate all year. I barely slept. I left the house, often, for my temporary job and volunteer positions, didn’t matter as long as it kept my mind occupied. When I spent time with friends I would smile, tell them I was fine. Later, when I started performing poetry on open mic stages, I’d emote, yell, get angry, act like I cared about whatever I was saying. Then I’d go home, log in, fight monsters and heal allies until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Anything else left my mind to wander: What was it like to no longer exist? What comes next? What if there’s nothing? Just emptiness. Would there be shapes, like the inside of eyelids when unable to sleep? I’d sweat and panic and cry, unable to think of anything but death death death. And then I’d get up and play more WoW.
It was 2006 when I was finally able to go for five consecutive minutes without needing some kind of distraction, any kind of distraction, to keep from feeling like my mind was eating itself. I’d read enough to at least feel comfort imagining various possibilities. At least enough to sleep for more than three hours. It cost me a year of my life, but I was ready to move back from the fictional world to the real one.
Of course, this wasn’t the game’s fault, other than it being, objectively, really addicting. I can’t blame it for consuming my time. In fact, in many ways, it saved me. Rather than spending a year contemplating an infinite loop of what happens after we die : what if nothing happens after we die : but how can we prove nothing happens after we die : so what happens after we die, until I’d been so inundated with darkness and pointless that I decided to just find the answers myself immediately, I dumped far too much time into a video game. I became Annastrianna, constantly healing paladin, instead of Ouroboros, infinitely consuming myself. World of Warcraft may have taken a year of my life, but it gave the rest of it back to me.
Sadly, it’s because of this time that I can’t go back to playing WoW. Even though I’m in a better place now, those old anxieties far enough beneath the surface that I can usually fall asleep on my own, I still too closely associate the game with the extreme, insomniac depression I had while playing it. That’s the way the mind works. Or perhaps, that’s the way the mind heals. Going back to Azeroth, if just for a month, or even a few days, conjures up those memories. Being in the game reminds me of what it was like to be hopeless, helpless, using this game to escape from a life of nothing. I miss it sometimes, but I can’t go back there.
The funny thing is, even though I still play video games, I don’t enjoy them as much as I probably should. It always feels like I should be doing something else. In just the last year I’ve gone through and written about Bioshock Infinite, the Arkham games, a couple hours of Tomb Raider, half a dozen free MMOs both new and old (including TERA, DC Universe Online, Vindictus (even while traveling in Europe), Rift, Warframe and most recently Path to Exile), and probably have a couple days on my current Skyrim game. Remarkably, I no longer gravitate to the healer classes as I did during my depression, favoring instead the quick self-reliant classes- rogues and rangers – that adhere more to my nature.
Still, I can’t play any game for an extended without becoming terribly depressed. They can be great games. Really fun things to do when there is nothing else I can productively spend that time on. Yet they still feel like I’m running away from something. It makes me wonder if by relying on a game so heavily when I most needed one I’ve completely ruined games for times when I don’t. Will I ever be able to play a game just for fun again without feeling like I’ve regressed back into depression? I honestly don’t know. Maybe there’s still some healing left to do.
Yeah, it’s kind of sad to say that I spent an entire year doing nothing but playing World of Warcraft. At the same time, it may have been exactly what I needed.
I heard stuff like this before. Eve Online saved a guy from being an alcoholic…this is just the first time I’ve seen somebody write about it.
Thanks for the comment Kevin. Glad I’m not the only one, haha.
I’ve also heard how some woman lost custody of her kids because she played WoW so much that she was letting them starve…
I’ve heard the stories of people allowing their kids to starve, dying after 90 hour marathons of Diablo III, killing themselves because their character died, and so forth. There are always going to be stories like those, and they’re sad. This story is not one of them. This story is mine. Perhaps it could have been one of those, but thankfully it’s not.
I love WoW…LOVE IT. The main reason is that I am an addict, and, as any addict will tell you, you are always an addict. I replaced my many deadly addictions, with WoW. I don’t know if I would be around without it. Great article.
One addiction can replace another…
That is true for some people, but in this case, there is no other addiction. Doesn’t mean it will work for everyone, but it worked for me.
Kevin, Jay, yeah, game addiction can definitely keep your mind off of other addictions that are potentially more harmful. Though the case that Ken mentions, man, that’s just crazy.
Wow. Thank you for sharing something so personal. I guess my relationship with gaming is somewhat similar. Growing up I used to watch my older brother play video games rather than doing it myself. I didn’t really start to play so much until he suddenly passed away in a car accident. At one point I was basically living in the world of Ragnarok. I probably would have lost myself in WoW too if it hadn’t been for irl friends who threatened to stop our friendship if I started playing WoW. As young as we were, they were smart enough to realize that once I started playing I would be completely lost to them. In the beginning I only started gaming as heavily as I did because I needed an escape from the pain and grief. The years that followed were hard, but I still love video games. I love them for all the same reasons most people do, but I also love it because it had been my oasis in a time of need. If anything I love it more now because I feel free to love it out of free will rather than a grief driven need. I still play a lot of video games. It’s become a kind of gift, a legacy, my brother has left me. Sometimes when I’m playing something especially good, I feel like I’m playing for the both of us.
Hi Grace. Thanks for your response. And thanks for sharing your story as well. That’s truly something else. Shows how profound an effect games can have both in grief and recovery. Glad that you’re not only able to play but also to truly appreciate gaming. And kinda smart to stay away from WoWcohol, haha.