I started smoking pot during my junior year of college, after a loud and messy breakup with my first girlfriend that sent me into an absolutely manic rage. It was shortly after she left, bawling, that one of my roommates asked if I wanted to get high. I guess that was his way of trying to make me feel better. That night I was introduced to a six-foot-bong, which I filled with smoke and cleared twice, and then we all sat down to watch the news.
I wasn't thinking about the breakup anymore or the misery I'd felt in the days prior to calling it quits. All that pain and rage were gone. I was thinking about how funny the news and the commercials were, and then about getting something to eat when I got really hungry out of nowhere. Someone had the idea to get my Super Nintendo Entertainment System, hook it up to the big television in the living room and play 2-on-2 NHL '94.
I had never been so engrossed in a video game before. So began my love affair with playing games while I was high. It would end about as well as my relationship with my first girlfriend.
A Chronicle Of My Descent While Getting High
It wasn't until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that I understood
I was self-medicating with marijuana.
It‘s distressingly common for people with mood disorders to abuse drugs in order to manage the symptoms of their illness. It makes perfect sense if you think about mental illness as an altered state of consciousness. A normal, balanced person doesn't hear voices or fly into rages for no good reason or spontaneously sink into depressions, but a person with mental illness might suffer any or all of these. Mental illness changes the way someone thinks and perceives the world. The effects are random and unpredictable.
Imagine how easy it is to begin self-medicating with drugs when a person like me, who has a mood disorder, discovers they have the ability to choose when their consciousness gets altered and realized they can ensure the experience is pleasurable.
Had you asked me prior to my diagnosis why I smoked, I would have sounded like the pothead archetype played by Jon Stewart in Half Baked. I was an enhancement smoker, someone who thought pot made everything better, and pot enhanced no experience like it enhanced playing video games.
It was shortly after the night I inhaled those first six-footers that I discovered Civilization. Ever since I'd received my first Nintendo Entertainment System I'd sometimes stay up moderately late playing video games, but rarely past midnight. Once I discovered pot, I'd rip a few of those six foot bong hits in the early evening and immediately sit down to play Civ until dawn, when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.
When I played Civilization sober it could feel tedious and slow compared to my traditional diet of console action and head-to-head sports games, but when I played Civilization while high I lost myself in the endless minutiae of building roads and cultivating cropland and moving soldiers around. I embraced the fantasy of controlling things like a god. Of course I toked up before I played Civilization. It made the game so much better.
I remember the remainder of my undergraduate college experience through the haze of a thick cloud of pot smoke. In my senior year I lived with a friend who owned a Mac and a copy of Bungie's original first person shooter, Marathon. I had enough doses of sobriety
to compare playing Marathon sober to playing Marathon while I was baked. The difference was pronounced. Ripping a bong hit before I sat down to fight the Pfhor was a no-brainer, and the late-night smoking and NHL sessions with my former roommates continued as well. If I hadn't been a film major with no tests to take and nothing to study in my last year of the program I doubt I'd have graduated.
3D space combat flight sims like the original Wing Commander and X-Wing were responsible for my first, serious steps into PC gaming, but, when Wing Commander III was released, the rig at my parents' house wasn't even close to having the specs I needed to run the game. When I moved back home after college I discovered that my father had purchased a nice PC for his home office and I finally had a rig powerful enough to run WC III.
My heart leapt as I installed the game, overjoyed that I'd get to see my childhood hero Mark Hamill acting in the Wing Commander universe I adored, and then it occurred to me that I could also get really, really high at the same time! Temporarily stripped of responsibilities like schoolwork, classes or a job I'd sleep all day, wake up practically as the sun went down, smoke a few bowls from the one-foot glass bong I'd brought home from Boston and then strap into my virtual starfighter cockpit with breaks to kick the high back in when it started to ebb over the hours and hours of space combat. I was lucky my parents didn't throw me out of the house.
I lost the PC when I moved back to Boston for graduate school, but my new N64 and GoldenEye came with me. All my old college roommates were still in the area and one of them had a big apartment close to our old campus. I'd pack up the console, head over to his place and we'd rip tubes and play GoldenEye multiplayer until dawn. Those nighttime pot and gaming binges had everything to do with why I didn't pass a key course in the curriculum and had to switch to a different program at a different school. I wasted tens of thousands of dollars on college loans to pay for a year of graduate school that I spent getting high and playing GoldenEye.
My old roommates gradually left Boston one by one, but I was elated to discover that Lesley, the woman I'd met during my abortive year of graduate school was also a gamer. I traded in some old consoles to get us a PlayStation 1 which was kept at her apartment. We ran through Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil: Nemesis and Metal Gear Solid and I made sure to toke up hard and get good and high before heading over to her place for our marathon gaming sessions. The more cinematic and immersive video games became, the more attractive they were to play while I was stoned out of my mind. The further I pushed the real world away, the further I could step into the virtual worlds that video games offered me.
I began a new graduate program at a different college the following year. Lesley and I also moved in together, which was one of the reasons I finally sought treatment for my mental illness. I couldn't stand watching her get hurt by my impatience, intolerance and verbal cruelty during the bouts of spontaneous anger I suffered. There was no sense denying that something was wrong and I was tired of living with it. Something had to change. But I didn't talk much in therapy about my drug habit, because it didn't seem relevant. At least, that's what I fooled myself into believing, because I had made friends with someone at my new college who lived off a trust fund and spent most of his time smoking pot and playing video games. And he loved ice hockey games.
I skipped classes or spent them practically bouncing in my chair as I waited for class to be over so I could head to my friend's house, get high and play NHL 2000. Lesley would call incessantly to ask when I was coming home, and I'd delay to take that one last bong hit and play one last game of hockey. Lesley and I also began playing EverQuest and massively multiplayer online games turned out to be the most dangerous combination of video games and pot I ever experienced. MMOs are addictive enough without getting any drugs involved, but I would smoke up, get myself into that space where I was high and divorced from the real world and then step into EverQuest's fantasy world of Norrath.
I finished the coursework towards my Masters Degree in two years but not the final project required to graduate from the program which I blew off because I was too busy getting high and playing video games. Things got worse when Grand Theft Auto III came out. The open world insanity of GTA III was a perfect match for the manic ebullience I felt when I was stoned, and never was the chaos of the game funnier than after a bong hit or 12. The trips to my friend's house became longer and longer and the tension with Lesley elevated to new heights of awful.
Star Wars Galaxies was my rock bottom. I'm glad I don't remember all the days I went into work late due to smoking pot and playing Galaxies all night, but I was a role-player in that game and was therefore much deeper into it than I'd ever been into EverQuest. That meant I was even more into smoking while I played. I even allowed the delusions of grandeur that came from my manic highs to inspire me to try founding and running a guild.
Do you know that book about the lessons in management that can be learned by playing World of Warcraft? Imagine a start-up business under the guidance of Rick James as depicted on Chappelle's Show and you understand how my attempt at running a guild went while I was stoned out of my mind.
Getting Help and Getting Better at Games
It was around this time that I began tackling my drug addiction. The volume of pot I was smoking had long since passed ridiculous. Lesley and I almost didn't get married because she was on her last nerve dealing with my addiction and being ignored in favor of video games. I still hadn't finished my Masters Degree. And, the more time I spent in therapy dealing with my bipolar disorder, the more I realized why I was smoking and admitted the futility of trying to cope with my illness that way.
I also came to realize that smoking pot while I played video games actually made the experience worse.
Knights of the Old Republic was my other big Star Wars game in 2003. I was cutting down on smoking by the time the game came out in November. I had plenty of juxtaposition between playing while I was high and playing while I wasn't. Many times I would load up my game, see how I'd built my characters' skills since the last time I'd played or looked at which items my characters had equipped (and I usually sold any items I wasn't actively using). I would wonder what the hell I'd been doing the last time I played. It looked like, while I was high, I'd been experimenting with gear and builds that I'd never use while I was sober. And of course I'd been too stupid to think about saving the game *before* making those kinds of changes, so I was stuck with them.
The original Call of Duty released a month before and immediately eclipsed any other shooters I'd been playing. I couldn't help but take notice of how much easier the game was when I was sober than when I was stoned. Part of that had to do with cranking the difficulty up all the way—I might have been able to play the game successfully while I was high had the difficulty been set to Normal—but it was impossible to get through levels when my reaction times were slowed and my ability to think tactically was fucked.
Playing video games was an excuse to get high, as though I wasn't getting high just for its own sake, like getting high to play video games was healthier or something. The logic was idiotic, and so I finally addressed this aspect of my drug abuse. Realizing that pot was getting in the way of enjoying video games allowed me to break the connection between them. It's no coincidence that shortly afterwards I finally got my act together, finished my final project, and received my Masters Degree.
Even as I understand and admit how badly I abused marijuana and video games I'd be lying if I said that I didn't sometimes miss getting high and gaming when I play Fallout 3 or Skyrim or some other game that presents a world I could lose myself in. It's been 10 years since I conquered this problem, but nostalgia for the idea that smoking enhanced my gaming will probably dog me for the rest of my life if I keep playing video games.
Games and Pot: A Unique Combo For Me
I'd been smoking over that 10 year period. Even if I hadn't been playing video games, because I was self-medicating, I would have smoked. But nothing got me more fired up to get high than playing games. I would smoke up before I went to the movies but I didn't go out of my way to go the movies like I made time for video games. I loved listening to music when I was stoned, but getting high before I played a CD wasn't a necessity. The interactivity of video games made all the difference in how pot altered the experience.
My story should not be taken as a blanket warning about playing video games on drugs, nor as an insinuation that anyone who plays video games while they're high is demonstrating addictive behavior. But spend one night playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II or Halo 4 on Xbox Live and note how many user names include the number 420 or some other pot reference likely spelled out in leetspeak. We take the abundance of pot smokers among core video game players as something normal and somewhere between a joke and an annoyance.
I worry that it's only a matter of time, I think, before the wrong person notices the connection between smoking pot and playing video games and decides to launch studies of their own. And they're going to find xXPuffy420Xx and KinBudKiller waiting for them online. The anti-video game crowd will fashion a noose out of whatever evidence they can by which to hang our industry, at which point the ease with which we can find a plethora of pot smokers playing video games online might not be so funny anymore.
Video games were in no way responsible for my drug habit but the relationship between my getting high and gaming is something I can't ignore, and by the same token I don't think any of us should ignore the reality that video games can be abused. By asking the questions ourselves—before outsiders begin doing so—we arm ourselves to do a better job of steering those conversations when they begin. I think my experience speaks to what I believe is the ultimate truth in regards to how video games affect human beings. They reflect what was already in the player when they sat down and put the controller in their hands, for better or worse.
You can't blame video games for behavior. You have to blame the people playing them or better yet, rather than blaming them, try to understand them. This was my story.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA who's been published in a number of video game journalism outlets including Ars Technica, Gamasutra and The Escapist. He blogs at punchingsnakes.com and would love to hear your tales of video game debauchery on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.