This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Some things carry such emotional weight, you have to choose between holding on to them forever or quitting for good. In World Of Warcraft you call these Soulbound items—objects that once you equip them, they bind to you for life. Throw them away or keep it forever. There are no other choices. WoW is one of those Soulbound things. It's a truly one of a kind experience that ex-players either cherish or reject. My relationship to the game was toxic, but I gotta embrace it because it made me who I am today.
With World of Warcraft: Legion arriving this month I briefly flirted with the idea of jumping back in. I combated the urge by listening to the soundtrack and filling a journal of old memories from the game—compiling inspiration for a fantasy comic. After a few long nights reliving my digital glory days the allure of logging in became dangerously enticing. My gaming experiences as of late, have left me longing for a more immersive experience. Without a PS4 No Man's Sky was out of my reach, so it looked like WoW was back on the menu. Then, I remembered why I stopped playing.
I was addicted. World Of Warcraft gave me so much in the way of experiences, interpersonal skills, and self confidence that I couldn't put it down. I was a champion online but in reality I had stopped showering, eating right, and was consumed by self-loathing. I played 13 hours every day without putting on pants. I've been a mouth breather my whole life, so you can imagine the image. Before long I walked into a toxic in-game relationship that embodied my damaging addiction to the game. (It also partially existed in reality, I promise.)
We worked together. Her name was Rho*, she was older than me. We started dating almost immediately. We celebrated our union by making new characters together in WoW. We spent a lot of nights hanging out on our computers three feet away from each other.
Rho and I would roleplay as majestic beings known as the Draenei. I was Artoodee the hunter. A purple skinned wayfarer who liked to stay back and use his crossbow. He was nary seen without his loyal cat companion, Threepeeoh. Rho was a holy Paladin who used heavy weaponry and a divine ability to heal. She was relentless and definitely in touch with voices. Together they were an incredible team.
Rho and Zac were not. I was an overweight 20-year-old history major. A pale-skinned recluse who loved to lay down and eat Doritos. I was nary seen outside the house thanks to some pretty intense body image issues. Rho was a lifetime student and aspiring chem major. She was angry, impulsive, and I felt she manipulated me and other people.
We fell into things fast, spending our nights farming gurgling frogmen called Murlocs in Azuremyst Isle rather than going out with "real" people. It's as awesome as it sounds. Losing myself in the game was much easier when I had my girlfriend with me. The process was therapeutic in a way and helped me make friends. I was spending quality time socializing and was able to leave my imperfections behind. Online, I was the most idealized version of myself. I always felt empowered because I had a friend at my side.
Where the magic happened
During the years I was playing the game alone it was a sobering and lonely experience. I was left to wander the vast expanse of WoW without a friend on the server. Like real life, I avoided other people. With Rho I stepped outside my comfort zone. I began making real friendships and started to develop a leadership role. I began going after late-game excursions I could never tackle alone and the experience was eye opening. I felt empowered by my friendships. They allowed me to explore new experiences and do things I wouldn't have even considered in the real world and no I don't mean boning.
Rho and I weren't having sex in the game, but there was textual foreplay. She'd type, "I'm getting hot," and remove all of her character's armor. She'd dance in game clothed only in her underwear and that was a pretty clear sign we'd stop playing very soon. To me, this was a joke—at least that's how memory serves.
In the physical world, I was falling apart. Rho and I spent all our time together between work, school, and WoW. I didn't know how to tell her I wanted alone time, she terrified me. Part of this was my own insecurity and aversion to conflict. It culminated in nights in drinking four liters of Pepsi and eating several entire bags of Doritos. Don't get me wrong I still like to eat filth, but I've come to enjoy having solid poops and would rather not wear D-pants for the rest of my life.
After a month of dating she asked me to move in with her. I said no. I was afraid and had trust issues. We were already spending an unhealthy amount of time together. Our ideas about the relationship were starting to drift apart. I'd dodge this issue by pushing junk food and lazy nights in. It was all a deceptive performance to keep her comfortable and occupied.
As my physical body deteriorated, my digital body thrived. I'd spend my days running over plains of purple grass chasing monsters for scales, swimming to the depths of green oceans, hiking into mysterious caves and fighting beasts beyond imagination. Picture me in my underwear doing these things to Bon Jovi. It was pretty damn majestic.
My friends started planning a Eurotrip—an idea I pitched before Rho and I met. They asked me if I was coming. I recoiled and poured myself into the game. I was too afraid to commit to leaving. I didn't want to let them down but Rho encouraged me to bail. She didn't want me to travel and I was too naive to see that I needed out. Walking away was more difficult by the day.
Shortly after this whole Eurotrip revelation, Wrath of The Lich King was released. The expansion added of new territories, quests, and items. My addiction reached critical mass. Rho and I led a group of 20-odd players into large combat scenarios called raids. We'd spend more time talking to these people than anyone in our real lives. I developed a sense of responsibility for these people. This feeling went on for months, and my addiction reached critical mass. My grades at school were ruined and prompted me to take a break from the game. I guess I really wanted that history degree (for some reason).
Rho pulled away and started playing without me. She would level up and intentionally play in areas I couldn't access. She spent time with other characters. I'd be sitting in Greek mythology class wondering if she was out with other players. I was plagued with insane and paranoid delusions that you get at peak breakup stages. Instead of coming home with another dude's cologne on her, she was logging in outfitted in armor I knew she couldn't afford.
I would obsess over this and feel compelled to log in and confront her. It's the type of insane behavior that you come to regret—as close to stalking as I'll ever get. I'd jump online and open up my friend's list, track her location, and get to her as fast as possible. She'd whisper chat me the whole way, but I wanted to talk in character. We'd roleplay the whole thing, and I know that's sad but it wasn't a performance. She would place immense pressure on me to live like her and confront me in the real world to be more committed to our characters. I no longer felt good when I logged into the game. So I never logged back in again.
I left for Europe with my friends and faced pressure to call Rho every day of the trip. I didn't have a fixed itinerary so this proved almost impossible. Eventually I just stopped calling—I'd whether the shitstorm when I returned.
When I arrived back home, I had changed and had no desire to play WoW anymore. I promptly scheduled a "talk" with Rho. She didn't take it well and the conversation ended when she tried to punch me in the face. After a few weeks, she cooled off and accepted that I'd never return to the game or the relationship.
When I left my computer to travel the world, I hadn't socialized outside of WoW for at least a year. I was terrified when I left. Traveling requires you to rely on strangers and you can't be stubborn. Kindness and teamwork get you a lot further on the road. I noticed I wasn't a weak-willed social recluse who rarely wanted to leave the house anymore, because that's not who I was in the game. I overcame my fear by using my in-game confidence and leadership. As for the toxicity, I left that behind with Rho.
Losing myself to the game fostered real physical and emotional growth. It gave me the power to leave my shitty relationship, travel the world, and develop a healthy understanding of myself that I still hold today.
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*Name has been changed to protect privacy.