The Guardian published an amazing confession by writer Tom Bissell recently, in which he describes becoming addicted to Grand Theft Auto IV… and cocaine.
Gaming on drugs is a niche pastime and an illegal one at that. It seems like the last thing we need as gamers is to be compared to hardcore drug users, but perhaps there‘s a thing or two we could learn about ourselves in the process.
We all know that you don‘t need narcotics to get lost in a game. I certainly didn‘t when I first played Oblivion, a roleplaying game by Bethesda Softworks. Unlike many games (that know better than to scare their players thus), Oblivion records the amount of time you spend in the game world.
Over a single long weekend in the busiest academic year of my life, I spent forty eight hours navigating the hillocks and rivers of Cyrodiil, a fictional fantasy world I still know better than most nearby suburbs in Cape Town. I snapped out of it, soon enough, but I‘ve had to rid myself of similar obsessions many times since. If a game really pushes my buttons, I‘m likely to spend at least a week devoting most, if not all of my time to unlocking its secrets.

Oblivion requires players to explore and rewards them for doing so with stunning scenery and treasure.

I suspect many others do the same. The question is: should we be worried?
Bissell‘s seduction was more lasting, and more damaging, than most of us will be familiar with, but he highlights an interesting parallel between his drug of choice and games:

“œSoon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.“

Profound. But more than that, his words strike at the heart of interactive entertainment’s appeal: bringing a unique personality and its needs to a game and becoming fulfilled on your own terms. Think campers versus team players in Counterstrike. Think achievement and trophy whores, as opposed to people who enjoy Grand Theft Auto for the scenery.

People can ruin their lives with just about anything, but if their engagement with games helps them excorcise their demons, or captivates them with a compelling narrative, then we shouldn‘t sound the alarm bells just because they haven‘t left their room in a few hours. Disregarding the cases where prolonged gaming leads to physical danger, it‘s much more important to realise why we game excessively than to police ourselves for hours spent online, or weekends whiled away in front of HD screens.
A gamer who is honest with him- or herself will realise that there are probably one or two social engagements that they shouldn‘t have skipped to beat their own speed run of Deus Ex. Equally, they would realise how lucky they are to have had some genuinely inspiring, and even transformative, experiences with a medium they love.
As Bissell puts it:

“œVideo games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal measure. The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe. I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt. I let this happen, of course; I even helped the process along. As for cocaine, it has been a long time since I last did it, but not as long as I would like.“

Poor sod, if things get bad for us we just throw out that copy of Pro Evo.
by Niel Bekker, News24 Games editor