I’ve never bought an Xbox or played online role-playing games for the same reason I’ve never done heroin: I don’t want to get hooked and destroy my life. I know enough about video game habits, having wasted my pre-teen life joy-sticking my way to the conclusion of Atari 2600 adventure games. Luckily, at 14, I discovered music and comic books, and diverted my obsessive behavior toward playing guitar, writing graphic novels—and, you know, trying to get laid.
Ryan G. Van Cleave’s excellent, new memoir, Unplugged: My Journey Into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction (HCI, $15), makes me think I did the right thing. We all have dependencies, of course—some worse than others—but because of our increasingly computer-centric existences the problem of video game addiction still receives scant attention. Other Internet-saturated countries such as China and South Korea have declared video game addiction to be a No. 1 public health crisis. Van Cleave insists the U.S. should, at minimum, consider adopting a more common-sense approach toward the epidemic.
It’s a problem Van Cleave details intimately, harrowingly. Like many addicts, he was functional, a university professor and writer of more than a dozen books. Gradually, though, his participation in World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) with 11.5 million subscribers, overshadowed everything—his wife, his kids and his university job. Relationships shattered and tenure denied due to an inability to interact with his academic peers, Van Cleave found himself standing on the Arlington Memorial Bridge. He almost jumped.
Getting into a MMORPG is easy; getting out is tougher than defeating an Obsidian Destroyer. WoW cancels subscriptions, never accounts, thereby ensuring players’ online characters are always available. On the phone in an effort to cancel his account, Van Cleave hears the game maker’s billing rep tell him: “Sir, it’s our policy not to try to police people’s playtime or accounts in that way.” Even more insidious: the built-in pursuits, like gold farming—when in-game currency is sold as real-world cash outside the game—that go with WoW. Throughout, Van Cleave supports his story—and the stories of others—with the latest research in game addiction studies. The resource guide looks helpful.
As with any addiction, there’s no magic bullet. Van Cleave struggles daily to check his desire for reactivating his level-70 Gnome Mage, loading WoW patch updates onto his PC, and assembling a PUG (online pickup group) to launch an assault on Black Morass courtesy of an expansion download. Not a simple path, denying compulsion. Which explains why Van Cleave ends his book with the last stanza of a Robert Frost poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” Hopefully, Unplugged will make a difference, too.