"I hated level 40," she said with a sigh. It was the first time we'd spoken in eight years, and she had never forgotten the night I spurned her advances in favor of gaining a level in EverQuest.
During the course of my tenure at Kotaku I've referenced my days in EverQuest on many occasions, but I've never elaborated on what went down back then. Recent events in my life have brought that period to the fore, and I've decided to share my experience with our readers.
In November of 2000, my life was going well. I had a lovely girlfriend, a serviceable vehicle, and a job that paid more than enough for me to survive while catering to my increasingly expensive video game habit. Within four months, it would all be gone.
At the time I was sharing an apartment with a friend of mine named Dustin. Dustin was a great guy, but he spent his entire downtime sitting in front of his computer, playing a video game called EverQuest. I had encountered the game before, having participated in the beta for Sony Online Entertainment's massively popular multiplayer game, but once the game went live I lost interest. I just couldn't see myself paying a monthly fee just to play a computer game. Oh, how things have changed.
Having nothing much else to do at the time, I'd sit and watch Dustin play. He'd explain what his Monk character was doing in the game. I was a spectator as he progressed, learning to feign death, earning new weapons, and taking on greater challenges as he got closer and closer to the level cap.
So when I wasn't spending time with my girlfriend, Emily, I would watch Dustin play. Or I would tool around on various text-based MUSHes and MOOs online, role-playing with people all over the world. I'd been into science fiction, fantasy, and comic books since I was very young, so slipping into an imaginary world came easy to me. Perhaps a little too easy.
Towards the end of 2000, Emily and I broke up. The reasoning behind this is far too stupid to delve into…let's just say we were both young and a bit foolish.
I became depressed, and Dustin had just the thing to cheer me up.
The Scars of Velious expansion for EverQuest came out in December of 2000. My roommate, perhaps tired of my moping over my lost love, picked up a copy of the game for me as a Christmas present. I installed it, created a half-elven Bard, and soon our apartment had two guys in the living room at all hours of the day, faces bathed in the glow of monitors.
Within a week, the game that hadn't affected me at all nearly two years previously had become an important part of my life. Soon, it would become my life.
If I wasn't asleep or at work, I was playing EverQuest. The former was becoming a rarity. I would go into work, and I would still hear the sounds of EverQuest orcs in my head. All I had to do was close my eyes and I was speeding through the Greater Faydark zone, killing pixies and turning in quest items.
In January of 2001, a man with a tow truck came to my place of employment and took my car away. I had fallen behind on payments without realizing it, and Nissan had decided they wanted my Sentra back. My first thought as I watched the tow truck drive away was how many hours walking to and from work would take from my EverQuest time.
I worked at a company called FranchiseOpportunities.com, maintaining and creating websites, but increasingly my time there was spent either communicating with my EverQuest friends or browsing websites for tips on the best equipment and techniques for grinding experience points and gold. It was impossible for my co-workers not to notice. In February of 2001, Joseph Lunsford, the owner of the company, called me into his office.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Lunsford told me this month when I went to see him and talk to him about the person I used to be. "You were was amazingly bright. I was convinced there wasn't anything you couldn't do. You showed so much promise, but your interest in work just fell off. Projects started taking longer to get done, and it was obvious your head wasn't in it. You left me no choice."
I was in tears back then. I felt unbelievably pathetic. I had no car. I had no job. Joe had handed me my last paycheck and about $120 he had in his wallet, and sent me on my way. I took a taxi home, broke the news to my roommates (we had moved into a three-bedroom to split the bills three ways), went into my bedroom, started up EverQuest, and forgot about everything.
According to Dr. Hilarie Cash, the executive director of the reSTART internet and gaming addition recovery program and co-author of the book "Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control," retreating inside a video game to avoid real world problems is a common cause of "video game addiction."
"I would definitely call it video game addiction, which is a subset of internet addiction. Many of the things [you] described to me are typical of a video game addict, particularly the way that real life shrinks away for the addict, living more and more in the virtual world."
And that's exactly what I was doing. I had been a confident and outgoing young man who enjoyed hanging out with my friends, spending hours chatting about absolutely nothing while smoking cigarettes and drinking countless cups of Waffle House Coffee. Now my social dealings involved helping online friends camp a rare monster spawn, or discussing class balance on my guild's chat channel.
Going outside was only necessary when I ran out of smokes or beverages. I lived off $.30 pot pies from Wal-Mart and cheap bags of rice. I was taking care of my most essential needs, but only barely. Often times I would fall asleep in my chair in front of my computer with EverQuest running, waking up hours later to start the cycle all over again.
Even now my memories of the period are a blur of Oasis runs, power leveling, and experience grinding. My mother remembers those days much more vividly.
"Mike was unavailable for most of that period," she recalled recently. "There was no way to contact him, except to do a 'drive by' preferably with a bag of groceries in the back seat. I remember trying to talk to him. Such a fine mind and wild sense of humor; all covered up and hidden deep inside again. He listened half-heartedly and was easy to anger. He was going down fast, even to the point of telling how it really was and not just what you wanted to hear."
Hearing her talk about it now, I can barely believe it had gotten so bad, but I tend to hold on to positive memories more than the negative ones. Like the day Emily came back.
It was three months after I was fired that Emily decided to give us another chance. I wasn't the same man she had been with before. I was relatively skinny, and my hair had grown ridiculously long. As we lay curled up in bed one evening she commented on how my belly had disappeared, which tickled me to no end. It seems perverse to me now. It wasn't as if I had been dieting or exercising; I was taking pride in my own malnourishment.
My existence slowly started gaining some semblance of a real life again. Emily went out one afternoon and brought me a stack of job applications, which motivated me to go out, get my hair cut, and go to my first job interview at a Fast Signs down the street. Looking slightly more human and feeling more alive than I had in months, I got the job on the spot. It was amazing how fast things had turned around. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.
In an odd twist, my EverQuest friends were now worried about me.
I hadn't been around, and they missed my sense of humor and my enthusiasm. My ability to twist four Bard songs at a time didn't hurt either. These people needed me. I was important to them, and I couldn't let them down. Looking back, I can't believe I missed the irony there.
So I started playing EverQuest again. At first it was only on the nights that Emily couldn't make it over, but soon I was back to my regular play schedule – every waking hour. I was regularly late to work, and called in sick at least once every two weeks so I could stay home and play.
Then came that fateful night.
The woman I had once told was the love of my life was sitting undressed in my bed not a foot away from my computer desk, begging me to join her, and I kept putting it off. I was so close to level 40 I could taste it. I was in the Dreadlands, kiting large enemies back and forth, killing them slowly with my Bard songs. I still remember the urgency I felt, along with the annoyance that this woman was trying to keep me from reaching my goal. Couldn't she understand how important this was to me?
She had certainly tried.
"Back then I just figured I was dating a gamer, and that's how it was going to be," she said to me recently. "I hadn't dated many guys at that point, and my older brother was the same way. He worked, came home, and played video games."
Eight years later it became obvious that my lack of attention toward her weighed far more heavily than either of us had suspected.
One morning in late September of 2001, I called my job and quit. Whatever justification I had for this at the time doesn't matter. The reason I quit was because I was tired of making excuses for being late, and I just wanted to play EverQuest.
Emily and I had grown further apart. During my time at Fast Signs I purchased an old car from my sister, only to discover I couldn't get insurance for it due to my driver's license being suspended over a previous ticket, ironically issued for driving without insurance. Rather than actively working to fix the problem, I slipped deeper into depression. I would let Emily take the car, driving it with a "TAG APPLIED FOR" plate on the back, but wouldn't go anywhere with her for fear of being pulled over and sent to jail. Instead, I would stay home and play EverQuest.
The last time I would see her — until 2009 —was two days after her birthday in early October. I had let her take the car to her party, but refused to go with her. She reacted by keeping my car for two days without contacting me. I responded by telling her to return the car and the keys and get out of my life. She did just that.
And I kept playing.
A New Beginning
December rolled around again, one year after I had taken my first steps into EverQuest's world of Norrath, and I had completely changed. I went from being a strong independent person to a gaunt, unshaven, unshowered recluse, completely withdrawn from the outside world.
My roommate, once one of my greatest friends, was threatening to throw me out of the apartment if I didn't find a job. But I had absolutely no motivation. The only time I left my dwelling was to scavenge for food at my parents' house, or to grab a quick shower, as our apartment's hot water had been turned off.
I remember feeling like a ghost, drifting through the waking world unnoticed. Luckily for me, my mother was looking out for me as best she could.
"He didn't look like Mike anymore," she remembers now. "He was scary and pitiful. I was afraid he was suicidal or dying of some mysterious disease. It broke my heart and I knew that coming home and taking the pressure off would be the best medicine for him."
And so on January 1st, 2002, at the age of 28, I moved back in with my parents. It wasn't an instant cure for my addiction – as soon as I convinced them to let me order DSL I was back online again – but something had changed. I started spending more time hanging out with my parents and less time sitting in my computer chair staring at little computer people doing little computer things. I had responsibilities. I had a support system. I had a stable platform to launch myself from instead of the quicksand I felt I had been standing in before.
Within two months I had found myself a job at a local gas station. Later that year I started speaking with Joe Lunsford again, proving myself through contract work until he decided to hire me on again in 2003. So I once again had a job, a girlfriend, and eventually my own apartment, sans roommates. That's where I was in 2006, when Brian Crecente contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write for Kotaku. That's where I am now.
It would be easy for me to pin my problems on EverQuest, and society in general would accept it without question. I could say I fell prey to an addictive video game that nearly ruined my life, but I would know that wasn't the case.
I hid. I ran from my problems, hiding away in a virtual fantasy world instead of confronting the issues that might have been easily resolved if I had addressed them directly. As far as I am concerned, the only thing Sony Online Entertainment is guilty of is creating a damn good hiding place. It was my responsibility to control how much I played, and the SOE spokesperson I contacted regarding my story agrees.
"EverQuest is a game," the Sony Online rep told me. "The majority of the hundreds of thousands of subscribers play the game in moderation enjoying the gameplay as well as the community interaction the game provides. As with any form of entertainment, it is the responsibility of each individual player to monitor his or her own playing habits and prioritize his or her time as necessary. It is not our place to monitor or limit how individuals spend their free time."
Dr. Hilarie Cash agrees as well, though she suspects that game developers are actively engaged in trying to make their games more addictive.
"Some blame can be laid at the feet of developers, making a conscious effort to make their games more addictive. It's analogous to the tobacco industry, trying to make tobacco more addictive. It works to their benefit. That having been said, it's up to the individual to take responsibility for how they play."
During our conversation, Dr. Cash also likened gaming to gambling. Some people can walk into a casino, lose $5, and call it quits. You have to know your own limits, and be conscious enough of them to know when you are in danger of going too far.
My own solution to my potential for MMO addiction is rather simple. I've managed to turn a habit that once interrupted my work into something I actively have to do for work. It's no longer escapism if I am doing my job. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but if I am going to be that gullible I might as well take advantage.
As for Emily, she's sitting behind me as I type this, playing Peggle. I'd ask her to come to bed, but I know how important getting to that next level can be.