In the summer of 2006, my wife and I moved to Kobe, Japan to teach English for a year at a private corporation. I made sure to hit up all my buddies as quickly as I could once we got back. After boring them to death with verbal vacation slides, I would always ask them what they had been up to. One friend in particular had a rather interesting answer: “World of Warcraft,” he said. And that was it. For the whole year.
While having never gotten into an MMO (RPG or otherwise) myself, I had spent several years manning the trenches at GameStop and was, as such, very familiar with Blizzard’s phenomenal phenomenon. But this was my first introduction to addiction up-close and personal. It was simultaneously fascinating and worrying.
“I didn’t go for walks,” my buddy said. “I didn’t see the outdoors, besides driving to work. I missed the entire summer that year.” (His work, by the by, was– and still is– at a nuclear power plant. He’s one of the smartest cookies I’ve ever met. And he obviously has impeccable taste in friends.) “I would wake up, check my auctions on the WOW Auction House, take a shower, queue up any more auctions that needed to happen, and then head off to work. I’d think about WOW all day at work, even occasionally practicing mouse movements for specific actions.” He’d come home, some nine or ten hours later, and put in at least three to five hours in the game. Then he’d catch a few hours of sleep and start the whole thing over again. He quit cold turkey by the time I had returned Stateside, vowing to appreciate the natural cycle of weather– and the company of flesh-and-blood friends (and family!)– once again.
The funny thing is he was actually quitting at exactly the same time another of my friends was getting his own monkey off of his back– sort of. By the beginning of ’07, Jacob had amassed 487 days played in Lineage II. He was a blade– later, a spectral– dancer, at level 80. He had a complete set of unsealed Imperial Crusader armor. “I was one of the most-sought-after classes in the game,” he explained to me. “People needed me to raid.”
And raid he did. He would put in, on average, three to seven hours a day, every day of the week. Weekends were a different story; his friend Ethan would come on over, playing Halo 2 on the Xbox while Jacob sat next to him on his computer, going through the rounds on Lineage. They would play the entire night Friday, do something out in the really-real world Saturday afternoon, and then play the whole night through again. This lasted literally every weekend of their junior and senior years of high school.
Jacob’s reasons for dropping the game were slightly different. Though he says he was getting bored with the game– he had played it continuously since the beta– it was the cancellation of his account that finally did him in. He was pinched for file sharing; three of his pals would hop on his account and take a spin with his Superman of a character since Jacob was barely playing anymore.
But he didn’t kick the habit– not completely. His MMO compulsion had started years earlier, with Planetside, which he had picked up from his impressionable days of working at GameStop (full disclosure: Jacob was one of my employees, and he still has the scars to prove it) and having the advertising shoved in his face for weeks on end. When his outfit was quitting to pick up the Lineage II beta, he followed suit. Then, four (or so) years later, when his cadre of Lineage players started to drift away, he accepted an invitation from another GameStop manager (full disclosure: I was in his wedding, and his wife still has the scars to prove it) to tag along in World of Warcraft.
This time, though, he swore that things would be different. He was graduating from community college and moving to an honest-to-goodness university, joining ROTC, and jumpstarting his social life (“Parties had become important to me,” he said, “particularly the ROTC ones. Those were crazy, and I meet a lot of cool people.”) The days of 200-on-200 battles or 18-hour marathons to change classes and attain uber-rare quests would be over.
And they were. Jacob played WOW only casually, a few hours here and there when he could. He would play this way for a few months, then take a few months off, and then start back up again. He rarely did raids– just two a month, on average. He mostly engaged in PvP combat, then stopped that when he got the highest-level PvP gear. He hasn’t touched the game in twelve months, and he probably never will again. (His final in-game count, though, is something he still has memorized: 217 days.)
“Make sure you tell them that I’m a manager at Best Buy now,” he told me at the end of our conversation, “and that I’m a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Just as there’s high-functioning druggies, there’s high-functioning gamers, too.” (Note: Jacob is not a druggie. Well, besides his videogames. And his gun collection, which is massive.)
Drug abuse is a good analogy, as Jacob says he powered through Star Wars: The Old Republic in no time at all (“a disappointment,” he describes it), and he’s anxiously awaiting the release of Planetside 2. That addiction is still there, as he’s looking for something to scratch that Lineage II itch… even if he can no longer eat all his meals in front of the keyboard and now has to leave all of his gaming systems behind for weeks on end when undergoing training in the deep South.
Still, despite the ups and downs, the thrills and the bannings, Jacob is glad that he went through his “MMO phase.” When he first purchased Planetside, he thought that it would work just like his Xbox– you stick the game in, and off you go. He was immensely disappointed that the game looked like “ass” on his crappy PC, and he wanted to know why. He started to engage in the twin Eternal Pillars of Geekdom: research and tinkering. Before he knew it, he was building computers and working at Geek Squad. Aside from the whole military business, it got him where he is today.
My other friend, though, is happy enough that he’s still at his power plant job, making more than the two of us combined.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including Gamasutra, IGN, and TotalPlayStation, where he was features editor. Read about his latest, apparently controversial, obsession here.