How I Gamed My Youth Away

I spent so much time gaming I brought my own mother to tears. I spoke to her about what that time was like for her.

by Marvin Xin Ku
02 September 2019, 6:45am

Illustration: Russlan

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

I ran towards the defence towers and thrust my sword into my opponent, killing him. The clock was ticking; the dreaded moment when my enemy would be resurrected drew closer. There was no time to lose, so I yelled into my headset: "Push into the middle!" The opposing team's barracks began to crumble – I could almost see the green smoke signalling glorious victory. But I was suddenly struck by a blow from an unexpected enemy: my own mother.

"I've pulled the power cord," she boomed from the other side of the door. "And I swear to you, if you start playing again, I'll cut it in half." I didn't turn around. I realised that, for the previous five hours, I'd been sitting there playing Dota 2, despite the fact I had a history exam the next morning.

When I was 18, I was a gamer. I gamed when I was bored and I gamed in the hours before an exam. I gamed when I was happy or sad; to reward myself whenever I did well at school or to distract myself whenever I was doing badly. I kept playing when I was on a winning streak, and especially when I was on a massive losing one.

Now, eight years later, I'm left asking myself: was I addicted to gaming? In 2018, the WHO recognised online gaming addiction as a disease. Then, in May of 2019, the new disease catalogue (ICD 11) was adapted to list gaming addiction as a disorder, and defined as a neglect for friends and family, falling further and further behind in regards to education or a job and / or malnourishment or sleep deprivation, pervading for a year or more.

I was ten years old when I got my first computer, a clunky second-hand Windows desktop that often gave me an electric shock when it was booting up. I was supposed to be preparing for exams at the music academy I was attending, but instead of practicing piano I commanded armies of Knights through the Middle Ages in Age of Empires II and battled my way through the heroic epic of Warcraft III, sometimes for days on end.

Whenever I heard my father's footsteps coming up the stairs I'd rush from the computer chair to the piano stool in the next room. Often he went directly to the computer and put his hand on the tower to check if it was still warm. It almost always was.

When I was 15 years old a teenage gunman killed 15 people in a school in Winnenden, Germany. A heated debate about first-person-shooter games flared up across the country – a debate I didn't even notice as I continued to beg my parents to drive me to my friends' LAN parties every weekend, and one that bizarrely continues to rage in the wake of every new American mass shooting.

While other teenagers were drinking alcopops and snogging each other at house parties, my friends and I blazed our way through Call of Duty 4, and then Counter-Strike, and then we'd do it all over again. Time didn't pass by in hours, but in rounds. Most of the time we played through the night and well into the morning, not realising that the sun had come up hours before.

Jakob Florack is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Vivantes Hospital in Berlin. Since 2015, he's offered consultation services to teens addicted to video games. He believes that gaming gets problematic when it's used as a way to avoid reality. "For example, someone who is getting into fights or has a lot on at school," says Florack, "and who thinks, to avoid the confrontation or thoughts associated with this, 'I'll just game.'"

At the time, I never really thought about whether I was controlling my hobby or it was controlling me. Maybe because I never actually felt like I was addicted, or had any reason to feel guilty. What I did know for certain was that gaming made me happy.

My mother doesn't see it that way. She was worried about me, and even cried once while I sat there zoned out in front of the screen. So when I called her recently and told her that I wanted to write about my time as a gamer, she laughed and said, "Finally!"

"From my point of view, it was way worse," she said. "Sometimes you wouldn't even look up from the screen, you wouldn't even blink." Once, when I was about 16, she put a plate of orange wedges on my desk. Two hours later she came in to take the plate back. I hadn't touched it. "I'd talk to you, but you just kept playing. Your face was red, you looked so tense, like you had taken drugs."

My mother said she felt very conflicted at the time. She weighed the pros and cons: the freedom and well-deserved break she wanted to give me after school, against the fear for my health and future. While she never banned me from the gaming meet-ups – "I didn't want you to be the only one of your friends who wasn't allowed to go" – occasionally, when it all got too much for her, she tore the router out of the socket and locked it up. Once, she threw her keys at me in a fit of rage. She missed me by a long way, but I shouted at her until my voice was hoarse.

"I was often afraid that you hated me," she told me over the phone.

"Did you hate me back then?" I asked.

"No. No matter how bad you are, I could never hate you."

That was the first time we'd ever talked about this period of our lives. At points, it feels like my mum was talking about her experience with someone else, and not me. "I never wanted to hurt you," she said.

I asked if she thought I was addicted. "It was pretty serious," she said, adding that she thought I might be developing a dependency, but never went to a therapist with her concerns. "Everyone plays their own game in one way or another," she said. Everyone did – that's the problem. According to a survey, 34 million people in Germany – around one in three – play video games, but only a fraction of them play excessively.

Where do we draw the line between intense hobby and gaming addiction? I reached out to some of my friends from school, to chat about that; it was the first time we'd looked back on our 15-year-old selves. After school, we would log into TeamSpeak, a programme we used to talk to each other through headsets. We would do our homework together and then play World of Warcraft for the rest of the night.

One of my friends said he used to get up in the middle of the night to participate in WoW raids. Another guy said he sometimes felt excluded from us because he wasn't a gamer and didn't understand what we were talking about. Today, almost all of the guys I used to play with think they probably had a problem, yet none of us thought of it as an addiction at the time.

"Computer games are a valuable cultural asset," says child psychologist Jakob Florack, who believes it's crucial to separate addiction from an intense hobby. "The question is, how satisfied are you with your life? Do you want to change something?"

If the game is fun and it feels good to defeat opponents, that's a good thing. It becomes dangerous when bad feelings are being compensated for – if the kills aren't so important, or a win doesn’t feel good anymore, or a child feels stressed out by their parents and just games to avoid the argument. Gaming becoming a "problem" isn't necessarily dependent on the amount of time spent playing.

The border between hobby gaming and excessive gaming remains blurry. Modern video games skilfully provoke the ambition of the players with ranking list events where players can only get special rewards within a certain timeframe. Florack calls these elements "game-binding factors". They are dangerous because they're time-sensitive, creating a pressure that fosters dependence.

I don't know exactly when or why I stopped gaming so intensively. There was no moment of enlightenment; I didn't fail my exams, nor did my parents burn my computer. My gaming just gradually dwindled on its own. I do still play sometimes, like last December, just after my final exams at university. I sat in front of the TV for a month and ran through the world of The Witcher 3 as a white-haired monster murderer. I even cried a bit when my mentor Vesemir died.

My mother thinks I used to game with the sole purpose of annoying her. Maybe she's right. If there's anything I'm left with after all this, it's that I'd like to take back some of the things I've done in the past. Remarks I've hurled at her. Family dinners I refused to attend. A real-life reset button would be nice.

This article originally appeared on VICE DE.