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I am addicted to a game

I’m currently addicted to a game.

    I have played it every day for the past three months. When I’m not playing it myself, I’m watching streamers play it on Twitch. When I’m not watching streamers play it on Twitch, I’m reading about it on Reddit. When no one good is live, I turn to YouTube for clips. I save memes off Twitter to send to the friends who play it too, and they send me the best TikToks of the day in return. Together, we sometimes play for two, three, four hours at a time. And it’s only when we stop that I realise how hungry I am, how exhausted. I think maybe I shouldn’t have done that to myself — and then I do it again a few days later because I just have so much fun.

    The friend that got me into this mess will often send me an invite at 4am and I will be there ready to click accept. I won’t have been to sleep yet but he’ll just be waking up. A few nights ago, headsets on and cities apart, he said he might have to put a cap on how much he plays. Weekends only, maybe, if he even can. I said I’d been thinking the same as well. Every other day, maybe, if I even can. We laughed. We admitted that we were both addicted. We joked that our New Year’s resolution should be to work on lifting our shared addiction. We should hold each other accountable like drinking buddies doing Dry January together. Or a drier January at least; we have played twice since we said that.

    This game and I, we are never very far apart. I’m in deep and it feels good but it sometimes feels bad as well. It is on in the background right now while I try my best to write. Honestly, it is a wonder I managed to put the controller down at all. And there are plenty of things I should have been doing over the past three months. I could have started writing the book I’m supposed to be writing. I could have played other games so I had more to write about. I could have been doing sweet festive activities to enjoy the winter season… but I was spending time with my Playstation instead. I feel guilty about these lost moments and the lack of productivity too. But at the same time, I admit that I am stuck and it is not like I chose to become stuck. Something else is going on here. I am addicted.

 

I don’t have an addictive personality in general so it is not something I have thought a lot about, until now. Over the years, there are actually only three games I think I’ve been addicted to.

    It started with Runescape. All-nighters at my cousin’s house fuelled by fizzy drinks, summer holiday freedom, and a sudden realisation that the Internet might not just be for homework but also a place for imaginative worlds full of strangers playing games together. I know it was an addiction because when I look back at that time, I remember the pull in my gut. I’d feel genuinely confronted when the adults suggested we go to the park or walk the dog because it meant spending time away from the game. I had things to do! Places to be! And it was not in the garden having a water fight, Colette. I needed to forge myself a matching armour set, fletch more arrows, and then persuade other players to propose to me with emerald rings so I could run away and sell them.

    Runescape suddenly became more important than sleeping, eating proper meals, eating at an appropriate speed, speaking to my auntie and uncle, or enjoying the hot blues skies outside; we kept the curtains of my cousin’s bedroom closed so we could see our screens better during the day, and when the lights were on at night, we’d fight the moths that came in to get us through the window like a mini game.

    After Runescape, it was the original Pokémon Diamond. Runescape had been a messy social affair but Pokémon gave me one big task to be getting on with. I simply couldn’t stop until I had finished the job: I needed to complete the Pokédex. I didn’t know this word back then but I was being a completionist. I was so intent on completing it that I brought my DS with me everywhere. Every car ride, visit to a relative’s, holidays, bedtime, waiting rooms, wherever. I was also taking my 13 year old self along to an independent game shop on Sunday mornings to trade for the Pokémon I didn’t have. I would be in school unsatisfied and distracted waiting for the weekend to do what needed to be done. I would slip away to gather with these awkward older boys and absorb their awkwardness while we did our little trading ceremonies together. And this was all because I needed a full deck. Once the job was done, I never loaded the game again. And as much as I enjoyed my part-time job, once it was over I felt like I had been released, freed… but that release felt good to me too.

    The final addiction happened many years later when I was new to being an adult. I got addicted to Tap Tap Fish, a clicker phone game in which you tap the screen repeatedly to build your own aquarium. You start with an empty, smiling coral and you tap to complete daily tasks which unlock fish and decorations for your silly little garden. I wanted to make it nice; I wanted to unlock a whale; I wanted to achieve the secret tasks I had read about online, like if you tap the top lefthand corner of the aquarium 5000 times, you unlock a hidden narwhal. I played this game when I woke up, at the bus stop, on the bus, at work, on the bus home, watching telly, and before I went to sleep. My fingers would get tired but there were deadlines on tasks and time-limited boosts so I would rope my boyfriend in for his extra tap tap energy. I know, I sound ridiculous saying all of this out loud but it is what it is — it felt very important to me at the time. I really, really liked watching all of the angel fish swimming about inside my phone.

 

When it comes to gaming, addiction is a term used gratuitously to describe anyone who plays something a lot. It can be a casual phrase, even comical sometimes. I think of the stories of adults glued to Tetris on its release, dreaming about it, seeing tetromino shapes in their everyday. I think of housewives powering through Candy Crush so quickly that the game developers could not keep up with the amount of levels they were beating. I remember when everybody in the world had Pokemon Go in their hand; I remember the warning announcements that had to go out at train stations because people were so distracted they were walking too close to the edge of the platform. More recently, I think of my little cousin clocking in the hours on Animal Crossing when she was off school over the pandemic. Her dad would send me the daily Nintendo report for parents and we would marvel at both her usage and how little she had actually done to her island. Somehow, it always looked exactly the same. 

    Outside of gaming, we know addiction as a heavy word loaded with upset, loss of control, and sometimes dangerous priorities. It can be a life thing, genetics, and often it is both. But I can feel this gap closing, the one between funny stories of addiction to games and the seriousness of addiction itself. I can feel the gap closing while I write to you from ground zero and I start to understand what addiction means to me right now. Because it serves a purpose, I think. It coaxes a bad mood into a warm, comfortable place, even only temporarily. It keeps the person coming back for more in order to return to that comfort, to stay in it. And soon, addiction becomes the centre of the universe because it offers a sweet, albeit brief, stability. Have you ever been addicted to something? It might have been a game or something else entirely. Are you familiar with the feeling at all?

    Addiction to a game might not be as immediately corrosive as substance abuse or other practices, and most of the time it’s a fine thing that goes away on its own. But whatever the consequences, I think it can quickly indicate that life isn’t quite right for the person going through it. At least, I can say that is true for me. Again, I don’t think I have a very addictive personality but I think there have certainly been times in my life when I have been ripe for a game addiction to befall me. There have been moments when everything around me has been the opposite of fun, and gaming has been a shortcut to fun in an un-fun world. Games have made fun available and I have taken what I needed as and when, some times desperately more than others. 

    I found my place in Runescape society when I was struggling to figure out who I was amongst new school friends. Lonely, feeling weird, looking weird, I would fall back on my cousins during the holidays because I hadn’t quite found my people yet. My mad Pokémon mission was a way to deal with the first time I ever remember being depressed. Completionism was a way towards productivity and self-esteem: a thing to do, a thing to win. And then Tap Tap Fish was pretty much the same story. I took anti-depressants for the first time and everyone told me that I needed to keep my hands busy. Apparently, I took that literally and started mindlessly tapping an iPhone screen to make tiny colourful fish appear. Every tap was like popping bubble wrap. Taps for dopamine; taps for dolphins and clownfish. It helped bide the time during a long waitlist for therapy, after which I didn’t think twice about deleting the app. I didn’t need it anymore and I let all my fish swim off into a virtual afterlife. 

 

These stories all come off a little silly, a little sad; an overlap of moods refracting something unclear and possibly uncool — a needy attachment, a body desperately trying to stabilise by finding handholds in handhelds. I can easily see how each one came about and I sympathise with myself for using games like that. I can also see why I am in the throes of an addiction right now. I have just reached my first anniversary with Long Covid. 2021 was the most challenging year of my life. Stuck in the house, fatigued, in pain and going crazy, a fast-paced, colourful game I can play online with friends at all hours of the day has managed to take the edge off.

    It is an addiction again, not just an obsession; I feel a completeness when I play it, and I feel its absence when I don’t. I feel the need to tell you at this point that I feel no shame in any of this. It is hardwired in my cultural understanding of addiction that shame should always come next — that I should hide this thing, play it down, keep it to myself so nobody stops me from the indulgence. But as a disabled person coming to terms with this vast new disability, I think it is fine for me to play this game whenever I want when it very actively distracts me from constant body aches. Doctors haven’t given me anything in the way of a pain management plan but in the heat of an exciting game, I am there — I am not bruised, not wincing, I am inside the game instead. And beyond pain, I cherish that I can play this game at 4am with my friend. Seeing people face to face takes a level of energy I no longer possess. The game meant that we spent Halloween crying laughing through a limited time mode; it meant we spent Christmas Eve in a squad, fighting bad guys and feeling good. And unfortunately, I don’t often feel good.

    I know that it is only a mirage. I know that it is only a safety net for now. It isn’t the real thing I need, the real help. But there is no treatment yet, no cure, and people self-medicate with all sorts of things. I think that’s what I am doing here. I am glad to have found a thing that keeps me cradled and comfortable. Writing this text has helped me to make sense of this intense, defensive, supportive relationship with a game. I understand myself better and I better understand the girl I have been in the past — self-soothing with the magic acts of game mechanics. Melding, catching, tapping, fighting. There have been addictions here and there, but there have been important things going on behind the scenes: my own soft, sad things to fix.