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How I Became Obsessed with World of Warcraft

June 23, 2015

I am admitting this in public for the first time: I used to have an addiction.

I was in my third year of grad school. I had been working on my dissertation proposal for about half a year, and it was nowhere near ready. I was completing my first half-time internship and taking three classes. I was working part time. I was very stressed. I was doing research for my dissertation one day when I decided to take a break. I don't even remember how, but I ended up finding and downloading a free trial of World of Warcraft. I remember it took quite a while to download, but I was very curious. I hadn't played games in a long time, and I felt like I really needed a distraction. I'd heard of World of Warcraft (WoW) before, and it sounded like fun.

I remember I was feeling like I was running on empty back then. There were too many things going on in my life, too many demands. Though I was meeting them, I didn't feel that I was giving 100%, and I was displeased with the quality of my work. I constantly questioned myself. I was also displeased with my dissertation proposal, and I had absolutely no time for friends, which also made me feel disconnected. When I started up WoW, I just wanted to spend ten minutes doing something other than research. But when I logged in, it was like I entered a different reality. I could be anyone. I could look however I wanted. My character didn't have to complete a dissertation and she could still help people and be a hero.

It started off innocently enough. The first day I played for a few hours and before I knew it, I realized I should probably go to bed because I needed to wake up early the next day. The following day while I was at work, I began thinking about the quests I had to do and the rewards I would receive for them. When I returned home, I did some work and then I played again for a few hours before I realized I should go to sleep. I was still tired and stressed from my usual routine, but something was happening. I was beginning to feel happy. I had found something awesome.

In WoW, it didn't matter what level I was, there would always be quests that would be just difficult enough for me to be able to complete on my own. Accomplishments were just within my reach. Any given day in the RL was a tough and stressful day, but as soon as I got home, I knew I could just log in and the stressors would simply melt away with each strike of my sword. Dopamine was being released with each murloc I felled, and my brain was loving it. And there was always something new to discover.

A murloc. Ew.
Shortly before my free trial ended, my boyfriend gave me a surprise. One day when I arrived home, waiting at my place was the full game, including the latest expansion at the time, Wrath of the Lich King. I played for hours.

Before I knew it, I was spending more time playing WoW than with my boyfriend, more than writing my proposal, and I wasn't calling my friends or family, or going out as often. I was thinking about WoW almost all day when I was in a class or at my internship. I stopped listening when my coworkers shared stuff about their day. I smiled as though I were listening, and thought of the quests I had yet to complete. I began buying large bags of frozen food from Costco so that I wouldn't have to cook or go out frequently, so I could spend more time playing the game. When I did go out, it was usually because I had to be at work or school or to go to GameStop to buy more game time. I didn't have that much money, but I made sure I was always able to buy game time cards. Eventually I linked my account to my credit card so that I wouldn't have to wait to buy the card in case my time ran out. I played WoW during class breaks, which were only about ten minutes, if that. I even took my computer to my internship once so I could play, before I realized I could not access the internet because they did not have WiFi.

Things went south very quickly for me. I didn't really realize I was doing anything wrong until my boyfriend commented on how much time I was spending playing the game. Something along the lines of, "You really like that game, huh?" I became defensive. Was he upset? He had bought the game for me, how could he be upset about me playing it? He would ask about my proposal and I gave him generic responses, usually without making eye contact, as I was on a quest. Then he said he missed spending time with me. I realized I was neglecting him. I remember how hard it was for me to log off and spend time with my boyfriend. I was not in the middle of a dungeon raid or anything. Why was my hand not moving? Why was it so hard? Why couldn't he wait, didn't he see that playing helped me not feel stressed? I logged off, but not without feeling a bit irritated, and I thought about the game the entire time I spent hanging out with him. One day not too separated from that incident, one of my closest friends who was also in my graduate program called and said, "Hi, Stranger!" I began to realize that I had a real problem.

This is difficult to admit because of my profession, because I do not want to be stigmatized or ridiculed ("That's not a real addiction!"). The best way to fight stigmas is to speak out. I had a problem and I am admitting it. It was not a drug problem, but in a way it was. I was getting used to the way I felt when I accomplished something in-game. I stopped playing a few times, then started, then stopped. Even when I stopped playing for a couple of months, I felt safe in that my credit card was still linked to my account, so that it acted as a sort of backup plan, "just in case." Eventually I unlinked my credit card and didn't look back. Once in a while, if I was near a GameStop, I would have to avoid looking in the direction of it or I would get an urge to buy a game time card.

I can't say that it was as difficult as someone who is addicted to substances. Not at all. This is a different type of addiction. It took a lot of willpower on my part and use of my internal resources, but it was doable. Once some of the external stressors were gone from my immediate environment, things got easier. I finished my internship, I focused on my part-time job more, and I spent more time with my loved ones. I was able to continue to work on and eventually finish my proposal. I feel lucky that I have internal resources, because I realize that many people don't. It wasn't easy for me to stop playing WoW, but it was a lot easier than most people I have known who struggle with the "real" addictions.

It might sound silly, but it's been years since I've played and it is a struggle for me to this day. I am not as stressed now as I was back then. I don't actually feel a strong need to play anymore, but I do miss it when I see something that reminds me of WoW. I feel a tinge of melancholy when I see Lady Sylvanas Funko Pop figures at comic book stores, or pictures of WoW cosplayers online. I do wonder how long it took for my guild to kick me out after I stopped logging in. I can't say that I would be able to moderate myself if I ever played again. Some people absolutely can, and do. They spend hours and hours online, they socialize, they make friends, and then go back to their lives and their loved ones in the "real world," and have healthy relationships, and can do their jobs. It is a healthy coping mechanism to play games. I do believe that games are healthy overall, that they provide many benefits, and they can save someone's life. I still own a game console, and I still play video games. I encourage others to play video games. My relationship with WoW has nothing to do with how I see video games ("It wasn't you, WoW, it was me").

Some people might laugh or minimize this, thinking 'Oh, it's just a game! It's not like it's a drug or alcohol! You have no idea what an addiction is!' And in a way they'd be right, it is not something I had to be weaned off of, it is not something that affected my body like a substance would, I didn't lose a job over it. I am glad that it didn't affect my internship. It's not actually in the DSM5 either. I think it was affecting my brain though. And maybe if I were to pick it up now, I wouldn't feel the compulsion to play that I felt back then because the same environmental factors are not present. It was something that definitely affected my relationships with loved ones, and my relationship with my credit card. And that is enough for me to choose to stay away from it.

"It wasn't you, WoW, it was me."

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