Hello everyone. This post is going to be very personal indeed, and I must begin by apologizing for writing such a long digression from my usual subject matter. Which is not to say that I will not be discussing videogames, I will be, however I will be talking about the darker side of their presence in my life.
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (among other things) tells the story of a fracture in space time that sends the entire world back in time ten years. Everyone remembers the ten years that are to come, but they are robbed of free will. They are made into mute spectators of their own actions. They have all their happiness and all their sadness, do every wonderful or awful and petty thing they did in those ten years, all over again, without being able to change a thing. The thought is a horrifying take on Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence”, the idea that one should live one’s life as if one willed to have all of it over and over again eternally.
However Timequake comes with a, somewhat, hopeful message. After the ten years are up, everyone’s free will kicks back in again. Of course because everyone has been on autopilot for ten years, this comes as a surprise and planes start falling out of the sky. Vonnegut’s perennial recurring character, Killgore Trout (a deeply eccentric itinerant science fiction writer – just go with it), is one of the first to snap out of the funk. He discovers that he can snap other people out of the haze with the phrase: “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do”.
The trouble with living, as Vonnegut seems to suggest in Timequake is choice. Every day when one wakes up, one must decide to live. From brushing one’s teeth to taking out the bins or telling your partner you love them, every act must be put in motion by an exercise of will. Further, every one of these decisions will, for better or worse, stand for all time.
Most of the time one does not notice these small exertions, they are simply a part and parcel of one’s day to day being. For every decision however, there is a possible negative decision. It is open to all of us to just not do whatever it is that we planned to do- to refuse to brush one’s teeth, fail to take out the bins, and neglect one’s partner. Negative decisions stick around as well
Why would anyone choose to live like this? Because it is easier, because it risks no rejection, because one is tired. Deciding is hard, living on autopilot is much easier.
To live this way is to sleep while waking. One fades from moment to moment, day to day, events slide by in a smear of empty color. One loses the narrative that connects the days, dates become meaningless, the future becomes an excuse not to act in the present.
If you have been here, you know what I am talking about, this strangely timeless place. That is where I have been for the past few months, ticking by the weeks trying not to think too hard about being alive.
One day I woke up, and I just didn’t do what I knew I was supposed to do and it felt really good. What felt so good, was abandoning all responsibility for my own happiness and just letting things go. Getting stuck is like slipping into a warm bath. The problem is, if you lose consciousness in the bath, you might drown.
I suppose part of what I am talking about is addiction, or at least the addict’s mindset. There are three key markers to an addiction;
1. One loses control over the frequency, and the extent of one’s use of a substance or performance of a behavior.
2. One craves that substance or behavior and engages with it in a compulsive manner.
3. One continues to use that substance or perform that behavior in the face of adverse consequences.
Ridiculous as it sounds, I am addicted to videogames. They are my escape from life and responsibility.
It started when I was in the fourth year of university. Fourth year was horrible, I was spending every day in the library from nine until five, my eyes constantly ached from the strain of forcing myself to read books I had no interest in. I was growing fat from a diet of junk food and energy drinks, consumed while staring at some abstruse text.
I would lie awake at night, worrying about exams and essays, feeling that I was running on a treadmill which was constantly speeding up as I tried desperately to stay in one place.
I lived with my then girlfriend, in a horrible messy flat in a small Scottish town. Everything in the house was either dirty or broken, small or uncomfortable. Everything outside was either grey or far away – the most beautiful thing about the town was the view out into the surrounding countryside. It was as though everything I touched caused me discomfort or pain.
Everything that is, except my computer. I would arrive home at around half five, turn on the computer and immediately start up World of Tanks. I was good at World of Tanks, while it was occasionally frustrating, I performed consistently well. The after game screen provided me with a sense of achievement that was entirely lacking in my real life – progression towards obvious and achievable goals. You see, in World of Tanks, when you play a tank it gains “experience” which can be used to upgrade it, and to unlock other, different tanks. Therefore every time one plays, one is working towards a goal, getting some more experience to go towards unlocking more of the same (in a slightly different flavor). The fifteen minute matches are short enough that they are over quickly if they go badly, but also are long enough to allow for tense and complex tactical play.
The more I played, the more the game became my life. I didn’t have to be alive when I was playing. There were no expectations on me as a boyfriend, or a son or indeed as a student. I could simply be a tank, completely devoid of personality or emotion, cranking through an endless series of tactical permutations of an endless and entirely fictional conflict.
I would find myself still playing at two or three o’clock in the morning, avoiding the bed in which I knew I could not sleep. I would play immediately after breakfast, getting in a few matches before I knew I would have to go back to the library to scrape my eyes once again over an endless succession of texts.
I would find myself staring out of the library window, thinking about armor penetration values, how to angle one’s armor correctly and considering different paths through virtual battlefields that might allow me some advantage. I would sit in lectures and re-run previous tank-on-tank combats through my head, just dying to get back home to fire the game up again. When I was with my friends, who also played, I would talk about little else.
It was a choice, not an irresistible decline. I decided to give up what was left of me to a game. It continued to get worse as I moved ahead in academia. During my masters I would rarely go to bed before two in the morning, pushing the knowledge that I had assignments to write right to the back of my mind.
I could go on describing the various ways in which I ignored my own life in order to play games which, ultimately, left me feeling empty and unfulfilled. I will not, however. It is a story that has already been told, and not an uplifting one. Suffice to say I chose to put my life on autopilot, to give myself over to something simple, to stop doing the things that I knew I had to do to get where I wanted to go, because it was easier to dissolve into a game.
Suffice to say that it got really bad and I got completely stuck. It has taken me a long time to drag myself back up, and that is an ongoing process. This blog has helped, it makes me play mindfully rather than as an escape. Playing with others, and only with others, also helps. I have to stop when they do, and that keeps me on an even keel. Sometimes I stumble and fall. Hearts of Iron four did that to me; it was too big and engulfed me (which is why, I’m afraid, the story of France won’t be completed).
I have not posted here for months, I was asleep, but now I am trying to wake up. Waking up from a deep sleep is difficult, the world one finds oneself in is completely different from the world one left behind. So much changes in a month, even a week, that it is a challenge even to know where to begin. Every day is a choice, and now I choose to live. So I choose to write this blog and I choose to move on. I choose to brush my teeth, I choose to take the bins out, I choose to write and I choose not to ever fire up World of fucking Tanks ever again.
You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.