I started playing World of Warcraft (WoW) way back in 2005, shortly after it was released in February of that year. I would have been 14 at the time. I stopped playing some time in 2007, I don't remember exactly when. During those two years my real life was put on hold while I created an entirely new life.
I've always acknowledged that I used to be a "Warcrack addict" but I've never discussed it in any great depth. I figure most people aren't all that interested. Online gaming addiction is, however, a very interesting phenomena. It's as real as any other addiction with all of the life-destroying consequences to boot.
It was a friend that got me into it. I'd go over to his place after school and we'd play video games or watch TV or go out or something. It just so happened that he'd bought WoW and we shared an account for a little while. It wasn't very long before I bought my own copy of the game and got my own account.
2005 was a long time before I had a bank account or a bank card or anything of that nature. WoW is a subscription game and, at the time, I believe it required some sort of bank card for you to be able to play (that has all changed since and there are parts of the game that are now free). Not to worry, the account went on my friend's card and I forked over £6.99 a month of my pocket money. Easy peasy.
Falling into the rabbit hole
I don't regret my years on WoW. The game was mentally challenging. Back when I played, the serious players were either competing against each other (PvP) or competing against the game (PvE) in big, elaborate boss fights called "raids". I was involved in the latter. Every night of the week, from 7pm until midnight, I joined 39 other people as we slogged through endless hordes of enemies until eventually arriving at the next unconquered boss fight. Then we would attempt it, die, rinse and repeat until we were met with success.
In WoW, players organise into "guilds". The most serious guilds require non-trivial time and loyalty commitments from players. Being the first guild in the world to defeat a new boss was like a full-time job. Some people even manage to almost make a living from the game, but they are the best of the best and few and far between. Most of their money comes from sponsorships and events where they showcase their skills.
At one point I was spending 16 hours a day with the people in my guild. We would collect materials for upcoming raids (lots of items in game have to be crafted, and the materials to craft the best items can be difficult to come by), chat shit about life, crack jokes, rib on each other, all the stuff you would do with "real" people. We were friends and we were aligned on a common goal: to be the first people in the world to beat the newest boss.
That never did happen, of course. We got the first kill on our particular server a number of times, which was a huge achievement, but we were always a few months behind the world firsts.
Hanging up my gloves: take 1
I first tried to quit when I was 15 and my GCSEs were coming up. My mum was starting to notice that I wasn't the same person any more, and my grades were slipping noticeably. I have vivid memories of her coming into my room one time crying her eyes out and saying: "I just want my son back". Whoops.
I was in a guild called "Novus Inceptum" at the time. It wasn't until some time afterwards that I learnt it meant "New Beginning" in Latin. Quite apt, really. I made the decision to quit one evening (I think it was a weekend) so I asked to have a voice chat with the guild leader. His in-game name was "Madferret" but the real him is a guy called Clint who does awesome covers. Anyway, we jump on voice chat and I tell him I have to leave. He was very understanding and nice about it. My voice was very shaky. I remember crying after that conversation. Why? Wasn't quitting the right choice?
I've never been addicted to substances. I don't know what you might call "real" withdrawal feels like, the kind of withdrawal where your body has developed a physical dependence on a substance and then you suddenly take it away. I think what I experienced after quitting was more like what prisoners feel after getting out... Like you don't know how the world works any more. Institutionalised.
Two things hit me like a tonne of bricks: I had lots of empty time, and I had lost the thing I was good at. The second one was ruinous and take a very, very long time to get over. I had spent over a year learning how WoW works, all of the boss fights, all of the different parts of its world, all of the top players on the server I was in and all of the top guilds in the world. I was good at it, it was my one skill, and now it was gone.
I remember evenings where I sat and stared at nothing for hours. I was dying to run back to what I knew, resume the life I preferred and just not worry about the real world. Eventually this did get the better of me.
Back down we go...
I didn't last long off the game. I got my GCSEs out of the way but then it was summer. 6 long weeks. I'd lost contact with most of my friends through the first year or so of addiction and rebuilding those friendships felt like a daunting task. I went back to the warm embrace of fantasy.
I joined a guild called "Deeprun Pest Control". It was one of the handful of competing elite guilds on the server. Back to the familiar full-time commitments and hunting for world first kills. My timelines are a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall that I spent more time in Deeprun Pest Control than I did Novus Inceptum.
The exact time I quit for good, though, I don't remember at all. I don't even remember how it happened. I just remember knowing that I couldn't keep living in a fake world. This was the last boss fight I ever took part in, and WoW wiki is telling me that we took him down on 08/05/2007. I quit very shortly after that. My character name was "Arkos", bonus points if you can spot me in the first few seconds of the video :)
It was far easier to give up the second time around. I still had all of the same withdrawal but I knew this time that I was making the right choice and it was time to rebuild my life.
Addiction isn't pretty. At my worst I was spending almost 100% of my time in my room. I would leave only to get food and even that was done in a rush and while ignoring my family and friends. Sometimes friends would come over to visit but I wouldn't even move. I'd keep on grinding for the next raid and talk to them in short, monosyllabic sentences until they eventually got fed up and left. I didn't care. If something came up that meant I missed a night of raiding I would get short tempered and moody.
My room was a mess of dirty cups, plates and clothing all over the place. I remember stepping in 3 day-old dinner on more than one occasion while not paying attention. Sometimes I just went a few days without eating anything at all. Showers and the brushing of teeth was only done when other people started to notice. Sleep was done between the hours of 7am and 3pm. I was sung to sleep by morning birdsong on many occasions. It's not as poetic as I'm making it sound.
It wasn't all bad, though. I learnt a lot. Co-ordinating and working in large groups. The level of dedication required to be the best at something. The overwhelming euphoria of being among the first people to achieve something really, really difficult. The value of hard work. The value of friends and family. Discipline and forcing yourself to get back up and try again after failing.
Learning all of this before my 17th birthday was very useful. I had a very good work ethic going into the later stages of my education. I knew how to apply myself to difficult problems and come out the other side successfully. The timing was perfect and it has paid for itself many times over.
If you take anything away from this post please let it be that gaming addiction is just as real as any addiction, and should be treated as such. I got lucky that I got addicted when I did, I got out when I did and I didn't ruin too much of my life in the process. Lots of other people weren't nearly as fortunate. I was good friends with a lot of them.
If you suspect you have a friend or family member that's going through something like this please make an effort to talk to them about it. It might just be that they're having a hard time dealing with their real life, so they're withdrawing into a fantasy that they have more control over. Living like this isn't healthy. Try to understand how they're feeling and help them work out their problems.
Hopefully that about covers all the important bits. Thanks if you read to the end :)