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“Your Princess is in Another Castle”

By (September 1, 2010) No Comment

Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction

By Ryan G. Van Cleave
HCI, 2010

Addictive tendencies are common in my family. Since I was old enough to understand the notion, I’d been told what my mother called ‘cautionary tales’.  Smoking was the earliest and easiest thing to understand. Like so many children of smokers, I tried to take my parents’ resolution to quit into my own hands, tearing up cigarettes when I found them, making a fuss when I saw them light up.  I imagine these gestures came from some intuitive understanding that what my parents were doing was giving in. At so young an age, this kind of surrender by all-powerful guardians couldn’t help but be traumatic. To this day, I have nightmares about my wife taking up smoking.  I don’t know if this is a common experience, or a unique form of personal madness. My favorite book in all the world, David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest, is a sweeping treatment of addiction, happiness, and their strange obverse relationship.  As I said: addiction frightens and fascinates me.

Which makes Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction by Ryan G. Van Cleave (Ph.D.) an object of doubly great interest to me.

And in admitting that, I instantly suspect myself of partisanship. Claims of video game addiction as a grave social ill, like claims of video game violence as a grave social ill, immediately make me wary. My gut reaction is to point to preceding instances where new art forms were viewed with distrust and even hysteria – the now wholly-sacred novel was once feared to be a dangerous blight on the intellectual and moral development of young women. Ironically, great novels were themselves written on this very subject, as the sad careers of Gwendolen Harleth and Emma Bovary testify. The discourse of video-game-as-social-evil is often dominated by individuals with no real experience with games, members of an old politico-cultural guard whose uninformed views gain credence almost expressly with the similarly uninformed.

But Ryan G. Van Cleave is no such individual.  A science fiction author and, as his book clearly demonstrates, long-time gamer, Van Cleave is neither uninformed nor does he gain anything from courting a political constituency.

Unplugged is the memoir of a man who went through a very deep, personal struggle, an experience he attempts to present with humor and honesty, for the benefit of fellow sufferers.  As a professional writer, too, he’s both articulate and engaging.  Only an immense snob and generally callous bastard would want to criticize such a work. Luckily I’m just such a snob/bastard, otherwise writing a critical review would be very difficult.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, the director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, writes the introduction, creating what must be taken as the moral context of the piece, as well as the medico-scientific underpinning. I am leery of all such sallies by the forces of neural normativity, but I’ll include his bullet points on the qualifying features of addiction just to give us a zero point to work from. The following is paraphrased and generalized:

Salience: the behavior becomes the most important activity in the person’s life and dominates thinking, feeling and behavior.

Mood modification: the feeling of getting ‘high’ or ‘buzzed’ or, alternately, the feeling of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’.

Tolerance: increases in the amount of time dedicated to the behavior are necessary to achieve aforementioned mood modifying effects.

Withdrawal Symptoms: unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects that occur when the behavior is discontinued or suddenly reduced.

Conflict: conflicts between the addict and those around him/her, conflicts with life activities, conflict within the addict themselves, due to feelings of lost control.

Relapse: repeated reversions to earlier patterns of the behavior, even after periods of abstinence or control.

All of which the author of the memoir exhibits to shockingly conclusive degrees.

Dr. Griffith’s uses only the example of online gaming, but these criteria could be applied successfully to any behavior that has become addictive, be it gambling, shopping, any of the behavioral complexes that can suddenly grow teeth and latch on. A recreational activity turned illness.

This is a story about video gaming turned critical illness, about the familiarly crippling effects of addiction in the new context of modern technological habits. Griffith provides the scientific-professional metric by which we can quantify the social evils video games do.  In short, he embodies all the parts of the memoir that seem, if not insincere, then certainly reclaimed for a social-curative purpose – the places where the story requires the intercession of men in white coats to assure you that this isn’t ‘just one man’s story’, though it’s one man’s story.

Not that Van Cleave shies away from tossing about a few studies and statistics himself.  I made a point of checking up on his sources, a difficult task considering there are no citations, but luckily my wife has all the right psychology department resources, and I was able to track down the source of such statements as: “According to a May 2009 study in Psychological Science … about 8.5% of American youth between 8 and 18 show symptoms of video game addiction.” (xiv)  He’s not fibbing.  The source is real, and the study is entirely legit.  To point out that the same statistic applies to television viewing in the same age group is to equivocate, I know, and I will credit Van Cleave with the fairness of mind required to pose his push for addiction awareness as an issue of recognition rather than a crusade against video games in general.  His worry is that games have become mainstream enough that people will not accept that video game addiction is a problem when, as his personal story shows, it can be a titanically huge problem for some unlucky individuals.

It’s in this personal story that the book shines. I actually didn’t care for his chatty style and his (occasionally false-sounding) self-deprecatory, buddy-buddy attitude, but the man is able to tell a grim and terrible story about his own life with wit, humor and the humility that all recovering addicts must adopt in order to stay clean. This book is part of his recovery.  Its failures are minor compared to the triumph that its even being written symbolizes.

He starts his tale at his rock bottom, the true beginning and end of any story of addiction, the point where he stood on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, ready to give up what was left of his life, what remained after World of Warcraft tore it away from him, strip by painful strip.  It’s raw, it’s real, and while it’s maybe a little cheesy (the chapters ends with the groaner: ‘That’s when I realized I was already dead’), the point is that this contemplation of death over the ravages of a video game where you play as a cartoonish sorcerer or warrior is not just tragic nor merely pathetic, it’s both.  And it can’t be one without the other.  Fear and pity are both things we should feel for Van Cleave, because no matter how virtual his addiction, his suffering is as real as it gets.

That’s the hook, of course.  The exciting cliffhanger (whoops, pun not intended) we’re left to look forward to as he turns back the clock and lands us in his early childhood.  Van Cleave’s was one of the first generations to grow up with video games in the home. A lot of what he does in the memoir is go back and pull out themes from his personal history, trying to account for the many forces that either came together in forming his addiction, or were early expressions of what would become his addiction – differentiating the two is nearly impossible.  These themes are women, sex and abandonment, forming a dark, intermingled sediment, with addictive behaviors popping out here and there like mushrooms from night soil.  The first and craziest of these experiences is his seduction/molestation by an older woman who lures him to her house with the promise of an in-development video game (Range Wars, which you’ve never heard of because it apparently never got finished).  Deciding to really beat out Mrs. Robinson, Van Cleave’s Mrs. Monroe doesn’t wait until little Ryan has even graduated elementary school before snaring him. I can’t even fathom the motivations of a woman who’d prey on sixth graders, but Mrs. Monroe marks the first in an extensive series of sexscapades that dot the first fourth of the text, spanning from that early date, up through a college debauch that I can scarcely credit.  At one point, undergrad Ryan, after pausing in the midst of one drunken hookup, stumbles into the wrong dorm room, and some ‘unknown lover’ gives him ‘the most amazing oral sex [he’d] ever had’.

Might I say, what the hell? While these may be the most lurid and improbable of his sexual adventures, they aren’t the only ones, and I got the impression he’s maybe a little bit proud of himself, considering the time and text he puts into describing these scenes.  Ostensibly it all comes back to the video games. Though he ‘chases skirt’ obsessively and is an ‘epic drinker’ (a budding alcoholic), evidently none of this more traditional vices even compares to his experience with video games, particularly World of Warcraft.

As he puts it:

I really could not help myself. It sounds like an excuse, but I don’t mean it that way. I merely mean it was the most accurate way of describing how I felt, which was that WoW had manifested itself as the more important thing in my life. Body and soul, heart and mind, I was WoW‘s.

I lied for WoW.

I ignored my wife for WoW.

I ignored my kids for WoW.

I ignored my job search for WoW.

I ignored my writing career for WoW.

I ignored my health for WoW.

Which, like, yeah. That sounds like addiction to me.

Addicts come in two stripes (and no, these are not official terms, but they work). Cataclysmic addicts destroy themselves quickly, making a Stuka nosedive for oblivion. If they recover without overcoming their addiction, their life becomes a hideous roller coaster ride of ups and downs, until one final drop scares them straight or kills them. The man in South Korea (a country that treats online gaming like the US treats pro sports) who died of heart failure after 50 uninterrupted hours of playing Starcraft is a prime example of a cataclysmic. Van Cleave is an operational addict, like the man who gets up, goes to work, comes home, and drinks himself into a black out before pulling himself out of his vomit puddle and heading to work the next morning. Van Cleave keeps his ship afloat for a while, and he credits the loss of his job to WoW only insofar as if he ‘hadn’t been playing WoW, I might have noticed how much ill will certain administrators and colleagues held in their dark little grinch hearts for me.’ What suffered in his life, due to WoW, was everything but his job. He did his hours, published his books, taught his classes. And he logged in to WoW for thirty to forty hours a week, chewing up what time was left over, what time one usually spends doing, well… anything else.

That’s not to say the game is radically asocial. Much the opposite. Van Cleave denigrates online social circles as ‘virtual friends’ as opposed to real friends, in the same line as ‘virtual money’ opposed to real money. And while I do think it’s a error of prejudice to treat human connections via text and voice as somehow intrinsically less meaningful (a friend I met online was in my wedding party, so I speak from experience), I’ll grant that when you do have a ‘real life’ wife and corporeal children and physically manifested co-workers it sort of would be nice if you’d interface with them once and a while The social aspect of WoW is, in fact, part of its terrible power. I never exhibited addictive tendencies towards WoW during my periods of play, but when I did feel a pressure to play regardless of my ‘real life’ obligations and desires, it was because I felt obligated to my fellow players who relied on my presence to defeat more powerful enemies and thus gain better equipment.

In fact the sociality of WoW, while certainly being an ‘improvement’ over solitary gaming in a hum drum ‘it’s good to interact with people’ sort of way, also makes it all the easier for WoW to supplant one’s offline social experience. WoW, being a distinct, shared experience, does lead, even in non-addicts, to druggy-esque ‘shop talk’. Even now I can have discussions with my WoW playing friends that are utterly unintelligible to a non-user. Van Cleave compares it to ‘alcoholics at AA meetings cracking jokes about pounding vodka’. Only its constant. A vast ‘in group’ that must serve as a panacea to many a lonely gamer.

Even when you’re not out questing [think knightly quests] or grinding mobs [enemy monsters], you’re chatting with people about equipment, trades, and real-life stuff. Some players just sit in the major cities [in-game cities are hubs of activity] and talk all night. There’s a constant hubbub of activity that is coming from like-minded gamers sitting before their computer screens. It feels active, alive.

And it’s not like it isn’t. I am absolutely a proponent of the virtual community, of erasing as completely as possible the geographical component of that which bounds a social groups. Let gates be torn down, white picket fences ripped up!

But for the addict, this only serves to make the suturing of the self into the addictive behavior all the easier, all the smoother. And for the addict, it wouldn’t matter either way. As Van Cleave himself says: ‘Even without the huge social aspect of the game, I’d still have played. For me, the magic was the intoxication of the game itself…’ Intoxication being the key thing here. A pleasurable poison that makes you lose yourself. And, eventually, everything else as well.

a local news story featuring the author

And he does. He loses his wife, his kids, and his job. Every time he tries to quit, he is pulled back in. Every time he is pulled back in, his shame deepens. Every time his shame deepens, he hides his habit a little deeper. The deeper he hides his habit, the more disconnected he is from his nearest and dearest, the more miserable he becomes, the more he depends on the game to make him forget his misery.  In a heart wrenching insert, Van Cleave includes one of his daughter’s childish drawings.  Its depiction: her heading out to play because her father is too busy playing on his computer.  That these gruesome moments could happen at all cannot make sense, cannot possibly be credible, without the dreadful force of addiction to account for them.  It’s a whole different kind of unbelievable than his early sex life.  And mostly because it’s a story as old as they come.  It’s about wanting something more than anything else.  It’s about endless, self annihilating desire.

At one point, Van Cleave invokes Princess Peach of Super Mario Brothers fame, the princess you get to rescue from the evil Bowser.  To him, Peach is the ideal woman, and video games are the medium by which he can attain the feeling of getting every desired object he ever failed to acquire.  World of Warcraft is simply an addictive distillation of this principle, being the game where the goals must be sought again and again, the ‘princess’ (metaphorically speaking) must be saved over and over, trapping Van Cleave in the nightmarish cycle that destroys his life.

Now, the funny thing with the quest for Princess Peach is that, until you reach the final level, each castle you conquer comes with a messenger that informs you that ‘your princess is in another castle’.  This iconic video game line is deployed by video game auteur Jonathan Blow in his masterpiece Braid, which makes you read bits and pieces of Italo Calvino and makes powerful statements about how the constant deferral is part of desire itself. World of Warcraft is just such a constantly deferring system, one that traps desire in a recursive loop, always putting the princess in another castle (so to speak), and so it’s worth noting that Blow has himself spoken out against World of Warcraft, going so far as to call it ‘unethical’.

Of course, I start critically salivating at the mere mention of ethics.  And, yet more interestingly, his contention ties in perfectly with the purported addictive mechanism of WoW, which is likened to that of gambling.  Blow stated in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that WoW uses ‘a reward system that is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme.  It’s considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don’t get bored and give up on your game. That’s actually exploitation.’  Like those rats (or slot machine junkies) who are rewarded with total randomness for pulling a switch over and over, the WoW player is rewarded with just enough frequency just randomly enough that they keep pulling the switch, hoping the food pellet/jack pot will drop into their laps.

Blow also says in the same interview that ‘I believe that games are important to the future of humanity’ a statement he admits sounds ‘grand’ but one he stands behind.  His position is that there is a great responsibility placed in the hands of game developers, that as the minds behind an increasingly powerful cultural force, it is their duty to avoid producing unethical, and thus punishingly addictive, games.

Van Cleave’s experience might stand as a grim example of what happens when this ethical duty is not observed.  And while I find Blow’s argument convincing, whole-heartedly echoing his call for innovation and responsibility on the part of our cultural industrialists, I feel that addiction on Van Cleave’s scale is, as his memoir poignantly indicates, something in the blood.  Preyed upon by Mrs. Monroe though he may have been, and trapped though he may have been by the Pavlovian mechanism of WoW, Van Cleave still acted like a quintessential addict. That all of us may have some dark circuit in our brain, some seed of possible enslavement to what David Foster Wallace wryly dubbed ‘too much fun’ is quite possible.  And when that feedback loop flickers into life, life itself, as the addict understands it, ends and begins, just as it ends and begins upon the day before the endless road of recovery.

I play video games. I’ve played World of Warcraft. I’ve experienced obsession and preoccupation with it and with other games. I’ve played for hours and hours straight on any number of the games that have grabbed my attention, flipped the correct neural switch. In truth, if I don’t have an obsession at any given point in time, I often find myself bored, slipping into lassitude. And occasionally (as I’ve mentioned), I’ve gotten yelled at for diving too deep into my interests. But these must be pale shadows of ‘salience’, ‘mood modification’, ‘withdrawal’ and ‘conflict’. As for ‘tolerance’, I just get bored with the game I’m playing if it loses its initial kick. Playing more will only make me more bored. Addiction, that exponential curve of desire, has never sloped up before me, asymptotic and deadly, pointing to an ungraphable, mythic apex of pure pleasure. But I know what Van Cleave is talking about it. He’s made real to me. And that is all one can really ask of a memoir.

The first mistake would be to think that video games are something exceptional, addiction-wise. The second mistake would be to act as if that means it isn’t a problem to be taken very seriously. What worries me most is the potential for this book to be deployed as an attack of video gaming in general, or to be ignored as a piece of anti-video game propaganda. Neither possibility would do this memoir any justice – neither partisan could possibly have read the book in its completeness. This is not about a culture war. This is about the battle that addicts like Van Cleave fight from the moment they first become addicts. Hence my distaste for the medico-scientific bracketing – it feels too general. There is nothing more personal, more deeply entrenched the expiernece of the sufferer, than addiction. The deepest conflict is always with the self, the corrupted will.

Addicts don’t win.  They just stop losing.  Every day, Van Cleave feels the urge, the need to play again.  To go back and lose himself.  He needs help to stay clean.  He can’t do it alone.  And that’s why he wrote this book.  He’s passing it on.  Irritating as I may find his prose at times, and leery as I may be about the uses someone with a political agenda might find for a book like this, I have every faith that all Van Cleave wants to do, and all he will do, is try and get help to those who need it, to help free others from the same nightmare he was trapped in, a nightmare he relates to us over the course of 300+ pages.

I don’t know if you’ll care to read this book.
 I do know that if you need you, you really, really ought to.
 Your life may depend on it.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.