In Soviet Russia, Game Plays You!
From screen-addicted game junkie to a life of balance and service to others.
Since the first time I glimpsed the opening level of "Super Mario Bros." when I was 5 years old my life as I knew it was over. I wish I could recreate the level of excitement and passionate stimulation I felt as I literally jumped along with Mario to the end of the first level.
I almost felt like I would jump out of my own skin sometimes as 8 bits of pure wonder surged into my young mind and body. What was previously "playing with friends time" quickly became "playing Nintendo with (or without) friends time."
I found that video gaming had a power to gradually edge out all the other things I previously found enjoyable in life. Before gaming really began to take hold in my early teens, I was an avid reader, martial arts student, and musician. I began to notice that before long I was letting all of these hobbies and interests slide as my affinity for virtual entertainment grew more and more powerful.
Yakov Smirnoff's "Russian Reversal" summarizes what began to happen to me in relation to video games. In the beginning, I was able to enjoy playing by myself and with friends and I would generally be able to walk away when I needed to and keep a balance going in my life.
At around 14 years old I noticed that I would begin staying up later and later to play Counterstrike, Warcraft 3, Starcraft and other multiplayer games. I would consciously realize that I had school in the morning and needed to finish an assignment but would have ever increasingly more trouble tearing myself away from the screen.
I never got to the point of the man in the cartoon above, but the slippery slope was certainly there. My grades began suffering, I stopped caring about my other hobbies and most of my interactions with friends took place in the virtual ethers for much of high school.
It wasn't until I went to school to study addiction and mental health that I realized gaming addiction was increasingly gaining interest by groups like the American Psychological Association as it was having adverse effects on many people's lives as well as their friends and families.
I don't want to throw video gaming under the bus by any means; I still enjoy playing to this day. It is just a question of being able to understand the place such things ought to have in our lives.
The question of what screens can do to young children is also a big concern. I was lucky enough to have a few years where I did not have anything beyond a TV set in my house. When I see very young kids glued to phones or tablets I find myself cringing and wondering what the long-term effects of this type of lifestyle will be.
Gaming, like everything else, is a neutral phenomenon. It all depends on our relationship to whatever it is we are doing. I realized at some point in my late teens that I was being played by the game and wasn't even enjoying it very much anymore.
This was due largely to the competitive aspect of many online games. I began taking what was meant to be fun very seriously. I envisioned myself becoming a world champion in certain eSports and practicing with the diligence and determination of an athlete going for the gold.
The more I played, the more I realized how many people were lightyears beyond the skill level I was demonstrating, even in my best moments. The more time I invested in any given game the more the law of diminishing returns began to take over, both in terms of my enjoyment and in my level of mastery of that game. I had to take a long break from gaming and screens in general before I was able to bring the balance back.
I started realizing that the main purpose of my life was not to master a specific video game, but rather to master the game of life itself. Specifically, to master the ability to relate to my fellow human beings in the real world in ways that will help them make the most of their own lives. I have talked to many clients who have struggled with various addictions over the course of their lives, and video gaming has been coming up more and more as a self-diagnosed problem for them, just as it was for me.