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The Globe and Mail

Dexter McMillan is a freelance journalist.

A few days after the COVID-19 pandemic began, I messaged a friend from high school. We used to play a video game called World of Warcraft together. I was thinking of playing again for the first time in a decade, hoping it would be an easy way to kill the many empty hours of quarantine. I asked if he wanted to come along for the ride.

“Really appreciate the offer,” he told me, “but I’m actually a bit scared I’ll enjoy it too much.”

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I understood. I wasted most of my high-school years playing the game without realizing my leisure activity had become problematic.

During those years, I struggled to regain control. First, I tried to limit playing time. But deals made to avoid time spent gaming became fractures in the grey matter of my brain. Thoughts of more seeped into those cracks and festered. And in an instant the dam would burst and the longing would roar over my other priorities like a breaking wave. Playing would consume me for months, until finally I would uninstall the game in a fit of frustration.

I have spent a decade building and rebuilding walls brick by brick, around memories of the game and a sense of shame that goes along with having wasted more than 3,600 hours – almost half a year – of my life in a digital world.

But, thanks to the pandemic, idle hands have taken up a pickaxe and led me back to those walls – walls that will take only hours to destroy. Soon I’ll be back in the world I left so long ago, and there will be levels to earn. Monsters to slay. Quests to complete. Soon I’ll be skipping meals and ignoring texts.

Through the years I played, I led what most would call an unadventurous life. I refused to join extracurricular activities of any kind, preferring instead to stay at home. My parents struggled to understand. I complained incessantly if my dad asked me to do even the simplest of chores. My mom watched me grumpily force down my food around the family dinner table so I could get back to gaming. Eventually – a story she loves to tell – my mom pulled the internet cable out of the wall.

“Go get a job,” she said, and I could have my internet back.

I’m thankful for this intervention. The damage could have been much worse. Although I continued to play, the responsibility of a job held me accountable. There is a forum on Reddit, a popular social-media website, called r/StopGaming. It’s a graveyard of stories from dozens of gamers in the throes of their addiction who are unable to stop.

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“I’m 24 years old and have wasted years of my life and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on competitive shooters,” reads one post from March 26. “I squander life opportunities and time for dopamine-fueled, temporary and intangible achievements in virtual settings that have no transferable merits in real life. I am tired of being a victim to them.”

For me, the damage was not so extreme, but gaming robbed me of the skill to develop hobbies that made me feel fulfilled. Even today, I don’t know how to engage in new leisure activities without eventually falling back into gaming, after which I long for something that makes me feel better.

Most would agree that a lack of hobbies and sparring with parents is nothing overly sinister for a teenager. But the lack of control I experienced was frightening. For years I couldn’t look at anything related to World of Warcraft, for fear I would get sucked back in and never emerge.

Now, opening the game again for the first time in 11 years, I found myself in a world both familiar and seductive. The experience fit like a plug into a socket that long lay dormant in my brain. The animations, the graphics, the combat statistics. Even muscle memories linger. I clicked the scroll wheel on my mouse – the same one I used in high school – without realizing it had been a decade since I last used it for that purpose.

It all lay just underneath the thinnest layer of dust, one that was easily brushed away.

Suddenly, there was so much to do. I was busy. I needed money. I needed experience points. I started to organize my trips out into this virtual world for fast levelling: Don’t cover the same ground twice, that’s a waste of time. I needed gear for my character. Reputation with different factions – essentially the countries of this fantasy world – increases as you complete quests for faction members or kill certain types of creatures. I recall days spent hunting the same kinds of monsters to grind out favour from these factions so I could buy exclusive gear.

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It all boiled down to a familiar rush: dopamine, achievement, purpose.

There are no prevalence statistics for video game addiction and few specialized treatment programs. It’s also a difficult addiction for most of my friends to understand. They’ll tell me it’s typical for people – especially men – to game for hours at a time. They resent any connection with substance abuse, because gaming addiction rarely results in the kind of physical damage that heroin or alcohol can have.

My strategy had been to wall off the memories of this game. Now, it was time to deal with it.

After several days, I began my detox with Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, a group of people from around the world who meet online and who actually understand.

“Are there any newcomers today?” a user who volunteered to run the meeting asked, using an app called Mumble. I typed that I was new.

“Welcome, Dexter,” came his voice (we gave first names only). “We’re glad you’re here.”

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The group has some rules that closely resemble what you might expect to see in any anonymous support group online. To put up your hand, type an asterisk. To end your share, two asterisks. Members are not to mention their “games of choice” by name (a rule I inadvertently violated before apologizing profusely).

Each group begins with a topic, although you’re not required to stay on that topic when you share. The meeting’s chairperson suggested the topic at the start of today’s meeting: “We suddenly have a lot of time on our hands and can struggle with boredom and motivation to do things. How can we deal with this?”

He shared first, telling us how he had gone about 80 days without playing, after trying to quit for nine months. He described how he’d managed to stay away from gaming so far: reading self-help books on personal finance and psychology, and running. He would attend each of the three hour-long meetings I did. He would always share.

“My mind tells me the best thing to do is to play a video game, even though the last time I played a video game … I didn’t take care of my children, I neglected my relationship with my wife,” he said. “My mind doesn’t remember those things.”

As he says this, other members type a flood of “relates” into the chat. It’s a common way for others in the group to show you’re listening and that the sharer is not alone.

Other attendees have had it worse. One woman, another regular in the sessions I attended, tells us her husband left her after issuing several ultimatums. “When he left, I thought, ‘Oh, thank God, now I can game the way I want to.’ ”

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Finally, I nervously began my share, knowing my experience had not been as severe. I explained how gaming consumed my teens and how I had fallen back into old habits. “My classes have been moved online now and some of them have been cancelled. So I’m just at home not doing much. Now I’m playing all day,” I told the group. “It feels terrible to end the day having done nothing productive.”

I ended my first share to the group with a simple and sincere statement: “Thanks for letting me talk.”

Unlike some members, I’m lucky to have only pangs of shame to remind me how I had prioritized a game over people and experiences that I now see were far more important. It was the first time I had ever really acknowledged my all-consuming gaming habits. The sharing was cathartic and the sudden accountability was powerful.

I uninstalled World of Warcraft a few days after my pandemic resubscribe. Since then, I’ve found other ways to occupy my time. I began to cook. Omelettes for breakfast. The next day, shakshuka. A day later, a lasagna for dinner and red curry paste while tending to a batch of ginger beer.

Achievement can be measured on many different yardsticks. More than anything, I’m thankful for the chance to measure my life on a different one today.

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