After one protracted evening of play, I was not awarded a piece of gear that I thought I deserved. I felt totally enraged at what seemed a terrible injustice. Suddenly, it hit me that these strong feelings were about an imaginary piece of equipment in a virtual world. I started to feel ashamed of myself for my total immersion and loss of perspective. I knew that it was time for my WoW journey to end.
While it was hard to let go of my character with its elite gear and guild standing, it wasn't as hard as I thought, and it was nice to get back to a saner sleep cycle and become reacquainted with my wife and children.
I left WoW with a greater appreciation for how gamers like Greg could have gotten hooked. It happened to me, after all. While I'm clear about the risks of online gaming, I have a new understanding of what devoted players get out of it, which feels very different to me than just knowing it can be addictive. This understanding has been critical in treating other patients with gaming habits. Knowing what their world feels like and how they get very real psychological needs met through playing has helped me better understand some of the tremendous trade-offs they make, and made me more patient in helping them to re-evaluate these choices.
Games like WoW allow immersion in alternate social universes where thrilling, complex battles take place, important psychological needs are met, and surprisingly intimate interactions are possible. Some of us recognize that we have gotten lost in these worlds and quit before irreparable damage is done, while others do not. Others find ways to limit and manage their play so that it doesn't cause an extreme disruption in their lives. For them, WoW may become a relaxing evening diversion or a chance to spend time with real life friends, spouses, and children.
Greg was never able to achieve a healthy integration, nor could he recognize the severity and consequences of his WoW problem, despite persistent efforts to help him. In the end, he was removed from his home to a remote boarding school with no internet access. After a year, I received a note from him. His grades were up, he had a nice girlfriend, and he was headed to a fine college. Greg wanted to thank me for helping his parents extract him from WoW.
In the end, I was glad that both of our stories ended well, and I was grateful for the perspective a year under the influence of WoW provided me in helping others like Greg.
Mark J. Kline, PsyD is Associate Director of the Human Relations Service, a private non-profit community mental health center in Wellesley, MA. He can be reached at [email protected].