By John J. Hanan
Keith Searson hasn’t left his room, other than to use the washroom or kitchen, for days. He often falls asleep in his clothes, with bloodshot eyes and smokey breath.
However, Searson, 27, isn’t hooked on heroin, or any other illegal substance, but to online video games. Searson says he’s played the computer game Diablo 2 a minimum of 12 hours a day for the past three weeks, in a never ending quest to finish a never ending game.
“When you’re a kid, you rent a game on Friday and play all weekend ‘till Monday morning when you have to return it,” explain Searson about how he became a rabid game player. He began playing the original 8-bit Nintendo system as a teenager, but now prefers using a computer to kill the sorcerers, assassins and other evil henchmen that invade his screen.
“Fuck they’ve gone multi,” curses Searson as the video villains regroup behind his back. Searson quickly swings back around in his chair to resume playing the game. In cyberspace, Searson is part of an online clan of several hundred players, watching each other’s back as they make their way through a maze of castles and medieval villages.
He’s been playing Diablo 2 for more than two years, but the added human element online means that PC games aren’t as predictable, or beatable, as earlier versions. “In the past, games had a predictable pattern and once you figured it out, mastering the game was easy.”
But the online games are no longer quite as easy as your basic game of solitaire. “You tell yourself that once the game is finished you’ll do something else,” explains Searson, “But once it’s over you usually feel cheated. Once the quest is complete that’s when the real emptiness sets in.”
“There are games that just kill time – the same way television does – and then there are those exceptional games that you just can’t stop playing.”
Elizabeth Woolley wishes her son had been able to stop playing before the 21-year-old took his own life. Woolley blames video games for encouraging antisocial behaviour that led to her son’s suicide.
Shawn Woolley was addicted to EverQuest – hardcore gamers refer to it as EverCrack – and his online character – rumoured to be called “I’m Sorry” – continued floating around in cyberspace a week after his death.
“He totally withdrew from us and replaced his family and friends with video games,” says Woolley, who was the first to find her son’s slumped body laying over the computer, with notes relating to the game piling up all around. “I was appalled to find out how many people are going through the same thing Shawn was.”
She says her son had no major crises in his life and bought the gun with which he would eventually shoot himself a week before Thanksgiving. He spent the next week alone, playing EverQuest until the fateful moment he shot himself.
Woolley decided she needed to do something for other compulsive video game players. With the help of a couple of exgamers, Woolley started a web site called Online Gamers Anonymous. It includes a 12-step program, similar to alcoholics anonymous, for people looking for help. The first step is admitting you have a problem.
“A lot of people are in denial [about their addiction].” Says Woolley. “There’s an underground epidemic going out there.” She says that when police came to search her son’s belongings, they ignored the video game contraband. As a spokesperson for this 21st century addiction, Woolley wonders why governments won’t add online games to their list of addictive substances. “They need to start another ‘Just Say No’ campaign.”
How many people are currently addicted? Woolley has no idea, but fears the number may be much higher than commonly accepted. Dr. Stephen Kline, a media analyst at Simon Fraser University, surveyed media use by 728 B.C. teenagers.
78 per cent of the sampled teens agreed certain forms of media are addictive – with video games considered the most addictive, ahead of television and Internet chat lines. On the whole, boys were more than twice as likely to develop destructive habits than girls.
Psychologists define addictive behaviour as consisting of three main qualities: It is physically destructive, the person’s behaviour is out of control and consists mostly of a narrow-minded focus on finding their next fix.
18-year-old Andrew Atkins is a virtual wizard among his online competition. The Toronto high school student has won several hundred dollars at organized tournaments for the game Counter Strike. He’s hoping to travel next summer to Dallas for a $70,000 prize tournament. Atkins and his Counter Strike teammates practice for four or five hours every night, honing their search-and-destroy skills.
“Sometimes the games can get frustrating, but I’m pretty addicted, so I don’t think I’m going to quit.” Atkins feels serious problems can develop in certain personalities, adding he’s witnessed friends drop out of school so they can continue playing video games.
“But if you’re mature, and you know the difference between reality and video games, then you won’t probably won’t take them too seriously.”
Seriously about studying is Dushern Naidoo’s philosophy. The Ryerson computer science student enjoys making a trip down to the arcade in the basement of Jorgenson Hall in between classes. But he rarely puts more than a quarter or two into his current favourite game, X-Men.
“There are too many other things to do. You pay $5,000 to get in here so you better not waste it playing games all day,” warns Naidoo.
Back in the world of wizards and dragons, night has turned to day as Searson continues playing Diablo 2. He’s on level 85 of the game at the highest difficulty, weaving his way through bone-wielding skeletons. Searson works as a window washer and will continue playing the game until the warmer weather arrives.
But he doesn’t consider himself addicted, just a big fan with a lot of time on his hands until he starts back at work. “It can become a vice, just like with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. It’s when the vice starts dictating the way you love – the point when you start leaving work early to play is when you’ve got a problem.”
But compared to his day job – cleaning windows from as high as 35 stories up – playing video games is a relatively harmless and pain-free way of killing time.