My memoir of heroin addiction, White Out, appeared in 2013. When I told people that my next book, Gamelife, is about computer games, many assumed it to be another book about addiction. "It's like you're addicted to writing about your addictions," a friend said. I told her that for me, computer games aren't addictive, that heroin and computer games have absolutely nothing in common. She scoffed. "You're in denial."
My friend's perspective is easy to understand. The media worries constantly about whether our children are being seduced by screens into zombiehood. We've been bombarded by lurid stories of Korean gamers dying after forgoing sleep and food in marathon-gaming sessions. Experts debate the impact of violent games on school shootings. Finally, computer games just seem to many people to be the very definition of a time-wasting, anti-social, brain-killing activity. Given this context, it's natural to assume that anyone who's spent enough of his or her youth playing games to warrant writing a whole book about it, must be addicted.
Computer games have enhanced and enriched my life while drugs and alcohol turned me into a walking corpse.
And yet a doubt remains. Unlike tobacco and alcohol, computer games aren't (yet) regulated by law. Anyone with $30 and an internet connection can download the latest Wolfenstein (I recommend it). People hesitate to put playing computer games in the same category as compulsive gambling or crack smoking. History shows that this hesitation is warranted. From Plato's attack on poetry, to the 18th-century's anti-novel hysteria, Western civilization has a tendency to condemn innocent art forms for turning audiences into helpless fiends.
So the question remains. Are computer games addictive? In my capacity as a certified addict to an unambiguously addictive substance, who has also played an average of 15 hours per week of computer games since age ten, I'd like to share my perspective.
The question of computer games' addictive potential first occurred to me in January 2002. I'd just gotten into recovery for heroin, and had resolved to stay away from anything remotely addictive. Did this include computer games? My therapist, my sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous, and my girlfriend said yes. I had a felony charge hanging over me, plus a dawning sense that life might be better than death, so I figured, why take chances? I knew from experience that pot and alcohol led me back to dope, and didn't want to risk playing with another relapse trigger.
I stayed away from computer games for three years. Then one day I accidentally turned down the wrong aisle at Best Buy, and found myself looking at a wall of boxes for the new WW2 game, Call of Duty. Within a week I'd bought it, and by the end of a month I'd resumed the 15-hour-per-week computer-game habit I'd maintained since childhood.
It was the best decision I ever made.
Computer games have enhanced and enriched my life while drugs and alcohol turned me into a walking corpse. And they've helped me overcome my addictive nature in a way that I have to share because I think my revelations might be helpful for others.
First, we have to define addiction. This word gets tossed around enough to render it almost useless. People speak of chocolate addictions, exercise addictions, television addictions. If addiction was simply another word for habit, then all these uses would be fine, and we could add computer games to the list. After all, I certainly have a computer-game habit. I play games more than I do anything else besides sleep, read, and talk to people. But something extra is needed to make a habit an addiction. Some people think this extra element is withdrawal. If withdrawal just means feeling bad if my habit is interrupted, then, yes, I have experienced withdrawal after being deprived of computer games. But I've also experienced bad feelings when deprived of exercise, or spending time with my girlfriend. Perhaps we should use "withdrawal" to refer to actual physical symptoms: chills, insomnia, muscle aches, and the like. But a number of indubitably addictive substances—like cocaine—don't cause physical withdrawal.
Because of these difficulties, many in the medical and recovery community don't define addiction in terms of habit or withdrawal. Instead, we define it as a substance or activity that an individual continues to engage in even after suffering negative consequences. This definition neatly separates the wheat from the chaff. Has your chocolate habit caused you to become obese, to develop diabetes, to lose your partner, and you still can't kick it? Sounds like an addiction. Do you snort cocaine on the weekends, but when your friends complain about your erratic behavior, you give it up? You're probably not an addict.
With heroin, I had plenty of bad consequences—failed relationships, repeated jailing, having to pawn my television—and I just couldn't give it up. By the end, as many addicts like to say, every time I used, all I could think about was how to quit. And as soon as the drugs wore off, all I could think about was how to get more.
With computer games, by contrast, I've suffered no negative consequences. I've arranged my playing time so as not to interfere with work, exercise, relationships, etc. If I'm traveling for a couple weeks, I don't obsess about games. When I'm playing games, I'm having a good time. When I'm not, I'm not wishing I was.
So, at least in my case, gaming doesn't meet the most common test for addiction. But this test is, after all, pretty superficial. It's a fast and easy way to determine the presence of addictive behavior, but it doesn't reveal anything about the different structure of benign versus pathological habits. I think comparing drugs and games can tell us something important about this difference.
Contrasting my drug use with my game habit, I've come to the conclusion that heroin addiction isn't really a habit at all. When I was using, it only looked like I had a habit. But it didn't feel that way inside.
If you were to observe me on any given day of my using years, you'd see me get out of bed in my shitty apartment, use dope, put on some clothes, go out, beg, borrow, or steal, cop drugs, go home, use drugs, pass out, repeat.
My actions were so regular, you could set your watch by them. But on the inside, everything was different. Always, day and night, burning behind my eyes, was the immaculate vision of the first time I'd ever used. That marvelous white high. And as soon as I thought about dope, or saw dope paraphernalia, or saw the streets where I copped, or the money I used to buy it with, or the faces of the people I bought it from, or the faces of the people I hid it from—it brought me back to that first time.
Sometimes the high itself would dimly remind me of that distant initial mindblower, but more often all I experienced was dullness. Part of what kept me running was the physical withdrawal, sure. But withdrawal couldn't explain why I kept going back to heroin after 12 different detox treatments, after being off it for days or weeks or months. All the things I went through to use, all the mechanical actions that made up my days, these were just hoops I jumped through to try to get back to that wonderful first time. The fact that it never came back is my tragedy. The fact that I kept trying was my addiction.
My addiction was driven by the fact that I couldn't forget my first time. I couldn't get used to it. I couldn't get habituated to it. This is the paradox of addiction. My brain never learned the lesson that the first time isn't coming back. All that back and forth, all those unsatisfactory highs, all the pain, degradation, despair. I never learned from the habit of getting and using. Because I was not in the habit. The habit only had my body. The fatal first time had my mind and soul.
Playing computer games, on the other hand, for me is a genuine habit, one that joins body and mind. The first time I start playing a particular game usually isn't very memorable. It isn't very fun. It sucks, in fact. I have to learn which keys do which things. I keep making mistakes. I have to keep looking down from the screen to find the button I need. It's awkward, like learning how to ride a bike. I've got to familiarize myself with the game world. I have to habituate myself to my new game legs, my new game eyes. Once I'm in the habit, once the keys and screen have melded with my fingers and eyes, that's when the fun starts. That's when the world opens.
Contrasting my drug use with my game habit, I've come to the conclusion that heroin addiction isn't really a habit at all.
Here's a real-world example of habit formation that illuminates what happens in games. I'm a professor, and every fall I welcome first-year students into my class. Many of them have never been in a college class before. They're unsure what to do. They look nervously around, trying to figure out where they should sit. They're quiet, they seem uncomfortable. The environment is so new it's hard for them to focus on what they're supposed to be learning.
But after a few classes, they begin to get the hang of things. They tend to sit in exactly the same spot each class. They open their books on cue when I walk in the door. They raise their hands automatically when they have something to say. The wide-eyed lost expressions are gone. They've become habituated to the world of the college classroom. They no longer have to think about everything around them. And this habituation opens the world of the course to them. They enter into discussions with passion and intelligence, and begin to learn.
Novelty bathes the world in undifferentiated brightness. Habit puts most things in the background, so you can focus on what's important. Habit is the vehicle we use to enter new worlds. Without habit, we circle endlessly over the surface.
When I was addicted to heroin, I circled endlessly over that first time. What brought me back to life, what raised me from the lifelessness and worldlessness of addiction, were habits. Exercise, regular meals, a sleep schedule, work habits. Gradually the world opened for me. I discovered relationships, a career, independence.
For me, recovery is largely a matter of accumulating habits that bind me to the world, and keep me from floating back into the ether of addiction. Computer games fit seamlessly into my recovery. I think of each computer game as a different habit. A different configuration of automated responses. A different circuit of action, perception, and cognition.
At first I had to drill these responses into myself. W moves forward, A moves left, D moves right, and [space] is jump. Once I learn the habit, I forget all about W, A, D. I'm just moving through a cave, dodging bullets, tracking a dragon. This forgetfulness of the mechanics of computer-game motion isn't the emptiness of zombiehood. For me, it's the condition of awakening to a new form of life.
I can imagine how my game-skeptical friend might respond at this point. "OK," she might say. "Some habits are good for you, no question. I can see how exercise and regular work habits are good for recovery. Those habits bring you into the real world. But these computer games habits throw you into unreal worlds. That's just escapism. And there's no denying that computer games have destroyed some people's lives. Whether you call it addictive or not. It's a waste of time."
I won't deny that some—probably even most—computer games are a waste of time. But this just means they're bad computer games. I don't waste much time with them. It's really hard to make a great game. And the great games, the ones that tend to captivate me and millions of other gamers, are not a waste but an expansion of my precious time.
Truly excellent games can enrich time by doing one of two things. Sometimes the actual habit they create is compelling. The configuration of keys and perception enables me to discover new possibilities of movement through space. Think of the exhilarating motion of the Assassin's Creed games, where the realistic imitation of running transforms, at the touch of a button, into an angelic capacity to scale walls and leap unharmed from towers. Or the fluid shock of combat in Shadow of Mordor, tumbling over and around foes, dodging blows that hit just often enough to convince that this isn't a fantasy. Feeling my senses flow through a new kind of body changes me a little. The real world has more angles and spaces in it when I return.
Other times the point of a game isn't the habit itself, but the world it grants entrance to. And these worlds are marvelous and strange, full of unexpected discoveries. I write in Gamelife about how when I was a child The Bard's Tale II showed me the power of mixing fantasy with numbers. I could lie in my bed alone and imagine shooting electricity from my fingers. But when the computer calculated the chances of the spell working based on my intelligence statistic and the dexterity of my target, fantasy began to feel real. Sid Meier's Pirates! opened the basic emotional vocabulary of capitalism by showing me how fun it is to steal stuff, and how much more fun it is to then sell it, buy different stuff, and make a profit. A text-based adventure game called Suspended showed me what it was like to die and be reborn. I was seven when I entered the wrong command at the prompt and received the fatal message: "Your life-support systems have been disabled. You have failed." I fell shocked through inner space until my finger accidentally brushed the keyboard and the game restarted. Suddenly I lived again.
All of these lessons might have been delivered by other means. But meaning goes deeper when delivered via habit. When the lesson incorporates my viscera and binds my nerves, I'm not learning from someone else, but from my own experience.
I can testify that while the addict floats in space like an astronaut with a failing suit, the computer gamer moves through a richer Earth. Other dimensions proliferate, limits and borders seem weaker, life starts over and over.
Michael W. Clune is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of a memoir titled White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin and Gamelife, which comes out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux September 15.