Computer games: they're a drug like any other. Whether you want to get your blood flowing or escape from your troubles, disappearing off into a fictional world where you play God is delicious. When you're confused, upset, lonely, angry, or just plain bored, nothing beats the blues like killing things.
This is the story of how my self-righteous gamer guilt transformed into a humbling lesson on being human.
As a teenager I used to love computer games: Zelda, Mario, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and the Age of Empires series. But when I became an adult I gave them up. I went traveling, had sex, and met lots of inspiring people who made me feel amazing and cool.
Then one day I found myself in a foreign country, with no job and no money, and I went crawling back to where I felt comfortable: real-time strategy games, and Age of Empires III.
It's 3PM, I'm unemployed, and my girlfriend is going out to do food shopping. The door slams. I scurry across to my laptop, and immediately send thousands of men to their deaths. During this process I am unaware of time and space; I have conquered mortality because I am no longer aware that I exist. The door slams again. I rapidly minimize the window and pull up Gmail to make it look like I've been job hunting. Guilt washes through me like a river of ice.
The fact that I didn't want her to judge me was a reflection of how I was judging myself. I felt like a pathetic teenager who was running away from his problems by hiding in a fictional world. I castigated myself for playing the game and grew more depressed. This, of course, led to more Age of Empires.
Things got worse. I'd be reading a book about social activism in Brazil and imagining hordes of Spahi cutting down peasants in their fields. I'd be falling asleep and suddenly realize that if I allied with the local Cherokee in Texas I might be able to protect my railroad from the British.
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Nothing demands such crisp attention as this semi-historically accurate, civilization-building computer game. Everything matters, from where you build your market to how many Janissaries you train before your first attack. Once you click start, the absorption is deeper than orgasm.
The first step to overcoming addiction is admitting you have a problem. For me, the revelation was double. First, that I was obsessed with playing Age of Empires III. Second, that I hated myself for having this obsession. What was hurting me was not playing the computer game, but the pressure I put on myself not to play the computer game.
I began to study my habits and investigate my addiction.
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First discovery: Age of Empires is both a stimulant and a depressant
In the morning I played to pump myself up. I focused my mind on a simple and captivating task: raising an army of grenadiers and destroying the French. This made me feel like I'd achieved something, even if I wasted the rest of the day.
At night, fighting despondency, I nursed my laptop on my knees and watched my field guns blow away the computer's Spanish infantry along with my bone-aching loneliness.
Second discovery: It is a silent, versatile, and continually accessible drug
It's hard to shoot heroin in a library. But the Age of Empires junkie can play anywhere, any time. All you do is get out your needle (laptop), cook up some shit (train hussars), and wash your mind in numbing escapism (slaughter longbowmen).
Third discovery: During gameplay, everyone listens to you and everyone trusts you
Click settler, click house: settler builds house. Click musketeer, click settler: musketeer kills settler. The power is clear and absolute, and if you mess up and your colony gets destroyed, you can press replay and none of your population conscientiously objects.
Oh, and Janissaries don't get jealous when you click on other Janissaries.
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My first two discoveries highlighted how easy it was for me to maintain my addiction, while the third was the key to my recovery. I was feeling powerless and I wanted to feel powerful. I was living in a new country, with no friends, a fractured relationship, and no job to distract me from all of that, provide me with money, or offer me a social role to play.
Drugs and alcohol were no good to me because they only made my gloomy situation heart-achingly clearer. I needed something that forced holistic concentration; I needed escapism that made me forget about lunch and the fact I had no new messages.
Age of Empires III was my cocoon against pain and confusion. But my realization that I was trying to play God helped me accept my futile humanity. I can be quite an arrogant person; I look down on friends who spend all night watching Orange Is the New Black because it seems such an utter waste of time. I believe there is always something you can be doing to improve yourself: reading, writing, playing music or sports—whatever. At first I didn't want to admit I had an addiction to computer games because I saw it as an inability to deal with the nasty, messy, tiring real world that surrounds us. Then I realized that I am not a god. I get downtrodden and I get hopeless, and in those moments I need some help.
The only things that defeat my imperial colony are my real-life friends. I never miss a meeting with a mate to play Age of Empires. When I'm motivated, surrounded by fun people, and frolicking through the smooth of summer, my Janissaries stay in their box. When I move to a new country with no job or social stimulation to support me, I hide away and wage war.
My experience with Age of Empires III was humanizing. I now have empathy for everyone who spends a sobbing weekend with an HBO boxset, or plays Gem Crusher instead of reading the news.
Life can be shit, but it's better to wallow and massacre a bunch of computerized images, than pretend everything is okay for a while and then spontaneously throw yourself in front of a train.
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