One ring to break them all
Last week, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was anxious, easily annoyed, stressed out, and feeling intensely guilty for no readily apparent reason. Getting to sleep was damn near impossible; television and movies didn't entertain me as much as they used to; and it was starting to feel like things would never return to normal. As Lestat would say, the wine had no taste. It had been almost two months since life made any sort of sense. Then, on Saturday, I was finally pulled from my malaise, finally given what I needed to start feeling like my old self again; I was, at long last, able to afford to replace my broken Xbox 360.
There has been controversy of late as to whether video game addiction is a real thing that should be recognized by the psychiatric community, but that's not what this article is about. As I see it, the only important criterion is whether or not video games can interfere with a person's everyday functionality, and there can be no doubt that, in certain cases, it does (just check out the list of notable video game related deaths on Wikipedia if you don't believe me). No, this article is about someone who has still managed to keep it under control, who is still able to function. I still eat, bathe, sleep, and take care of my son without video games getting in the way. In fact, I have set myself certain rules for when I allow myself to play, which all pretty much boil down to "when my son is asleep, my wife doesn't need me, and I am finished with my chores." Also, I don't go anywhere near MMOs, which are largely to blame for problematic over-gaming.
Still, I can no longer deny that there is a subtle addiction in there somewhere. After only a few weeks of Xbox abstinence, it became clear to me that I cannot quit whenever I want. My Xbox makes me happy, and without it, I don't feel whole. Before you pass judgment on me--before you start thinking you are somehow better--take a long, hard look at your life and tell me you don't have anything similar. Tell me you could go without cable TV, the Internet, books, movies, coffee, diet soda, jellybeans, Afghan Goo Chronic, or whatever else you might take for granted in your daily life. We all have controlled addictions, and those who think differently are either fooling themselves or are twitchy, naked hermits who have done away with all worldly possessions. This experience, though, elucidated much more than just the existence of my addiction. After all, I probably could have told you I was a video game addict before I went cold turkey (actually, I did).
Those fools at the NCR will bow before me, I swear it on the blood of the fallen!
How it all started was with the infamous RRoD (which means "Red Ring of Death" for you non-gamers out there). I had recently finished playing through Alice: Madness Returns and was just starting my second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas. This time, I was going to be evil; I was going to burn a path of death and destruction through the Mojave Wasteland, join up with Caesar's Legion, take over New Vegas, and then see if it's possible to betray Caesar himself (I considered naming myself Brutus, but ultimately settled on Antony). I was, in a word, superpsyched. Anyway, I hadn't even gotten out of the tutorial town, Goodsprings, when the game started bugging out on me. Within an hour or two, the screen fizzled into a mess of digital noise, the Xbox 360 made a whirring sound, and then those three red lights--the ones I sometimes see in my nightmares--started blinking. I frantically tried to deny the inevitable and spent the next hour or two trying to prove that it wasn't actually the end of my game machine. But, alas, it was over. My Xbox 360 had died.
Your average gamer would probably go into a rant about the evils of Microsoft at this point, but I recognize that Microsoft isn't to blame for what happened. I entered into a contract with Microsoft when I got my Xbox 360, a contract that essentially says, "I realize that Microsoft products, the Xbox 360 in particular, have pretty high failure rates, but given that Microsoft offers a free one-year replacement plan and that I can buy even longer warranties through the retailer of my choice, I am willing to take the risk in order to play this amazing game machine." Actually, when you consider the typical failure rate of Xbox 360 consoles, along with the significant amount of time I spend on gaming, mine had a pretty miraculous run of almost four years, outlasting every warranty I had on it. Bitching about getting a RRoD would be sheer douchebaggery.
Besides, the timing could have been a lot worse. If this were to happen in early November, right before the releases of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, and Assassin's Creed: Revelations, I could become homicidal. There weren't any AAA game releases in the last two months (I have a mild interest in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but it may be a long time before I get to it), and I had no plans to buy a new game or play anything I hadn't already beaten. Also, I had just started replaying Fallout: New Vegas; it would have been a lot more frustrating if I were deeper into it, nearing the completion of some vital mission or something. Besides, I had other games on other systems I wanted to play. Yes, the 360 isn't my only gaming console; it's just my most precious.
That's nice and all, but can it play Portal 2?
This brings me to a big lesson I learned during my ordeal: those other consoles are not enough. I have been an on-again-off-again defender of the Nintendo Wii in the last few years, but being sans Xbox put my words to the test. Sure, the Wii has some great games, including Super Mario Galaxy 2, de Blob, and Metroid: Other M, but compared to a list of great games on the 360, the library is extremely lacking, and the next big game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, is still a couple months away. If you're in the mood for something dark, hardcore, lengthy, and deep, you don't have many, if any, choices on Nintendo's current console. Also, if you're an online gamer, the Wii is at least a decade behind in terms on online functionality, with both Microsoft and Sony running circles around Nintendo with things like achievement points and trophies, live chat, and online toys. Even though I'm no online gamer, not getting achievement points to display to my friends makes playing anything but my 360 seem just a little empty and pointless. I know my gamer score is largely meaningless, but I can't help the way that ever-dangling carrot makes me feel.
Still, this setback gave me the opportunity to catch up on some great games that passed me by. I grabbed copies of Grand Theft Auto III and Shadow of the Colossus for my PlayStation 2, and I downloaded Chrono Trigger from the Wii's Virtual Console. I do feel good that I've finally given all three of these games a spin, but none of them really hooked me. Yes, Chrono Trigger is an amazingly good classic RPG, competing with old-school Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games for the title of greatest 2D RPG ever made. And yes, Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful piece of bonafide art. Grand Theft Auto III is an important game, too, but the controls are maddening; playing it only made me wish I could pop Grand Theft Auto IV in my 360 and play that instead. These games kept me happy for short bursts, but they were a poor substitute for the Fallout: New Vegas, Dead Space 2, L.A. Noire, Mass Effect 2, and Prince of Persia I knew I would have otherwise been playing.
In the last two weeks of my withdrawal, I couldn't bring myself to play any of those games, just knowing that they'd only serve to make me feel more depressed. This probably made things worse. Without playing any console games whatsoever, I started downloading games for my iPhone. I got hooked on things that are incredibly unsophisticated, games that make up for limited graphics and gameplay with really insidious methods of getting you addicted. I discovered that the iPhone has its own achievement point system, for example, and that Angry Birds, despite being insanely repetitive and monotone, can get you playing for hours on end if you're not careful. If you want to know what desperation, depression, and desolateness feel like, play an iPhone game for more than an hour. It's awful. Like a heroin addict smoking banana peels out of a dumpster, I felt deeply unsatisfied and ashamed, and since replacing my 360, I haven't opened any of my new apps.
This story does have a happy ending
They were alluring, because they were a cheap fix and I was broke. Angry Birds, for example, only set me back a whopping 99 cents. This brings me to another important revelation: I'm stupidly poor. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me, because my wife and I made a series of life decisions to put us in this situation. When she found her current job in the middle of a crappy economy and unemployment Hell, she snatched it up, because the alternative--more unemployment and living off my parents--was far worse. We decided to have a child, which is a poor choice if you want to be swimming in the dough, and we decided that I would be a stay-at-home father/writer. I made the choice to stay away from credit cards, making my credit practically nonexistent, and we made the choice to wreck my wife's credit after she lost her last job. These are not the choices of people eager to join the upper class, the upper middle class, or even the middle middle class. We have no delusions about where we stand in the financial order of things.
Still, I like to think we have enough money to live in relative comfort, which we do, and to cover our expenses when the poop hits the fan. We have savings and we have insurance, but the idea that we have enough to cover any contingency presupposes that, when things happen, they only happen one at a time. Anybody familiar with reality knows that this is a foolish assumption. My Xbox broke around the same time that we were saving up for a trip to Orlando and shortly before our car decided to crap out on us. We also wanted to enroll our son in The Little Gym, which is way more expensive than you probably think (although it's cheaper than Gymboree), and we were talking about getting satellite television. Also, winter is coming, and we have a growing toddler to clothe. Oh, and did I mention the hurricane and the flooding? Sufficed to say, replacing my Xbox was stubbornly low on the list of important priorities, only managing to stay barely above satellite television, something that will probably have to wait until next year.
The good news is that, with a little finagling and a couple of boxes of ramen, we were able to pull it off in less than two months. All things considered, I'd say that's pretty impressive. It was still stressful and we're not out of the woods yet, but we're reasonably intelligent and flexible people who have learned how to behave like adults.
In the end, this was a good experience for me, and I'm better for having gone through it. No, I have no plans to "cure" myself of my addiction, but I now know more about myself and what makes me tick. I have empirical evidence that I am, in fact, responsible, that I have my priorities in order. I also have a more rational view of my Nintendo Wii, even though my inner Nintendo fanboy is still more than willing to defend it to the death. On top of that, I have greater sympathy for those poor lost souls suffering from smart phone game addiction, and I hope they can find peace (but not MMO addicts or Facebook gamers; those people are beyond help). Most of all, though, I now know that I am emotionally and psychologically committed to gaming, probably for the rest of my life. I'm perfectly okay with that, though, because a life without being able to blow up super mutants on occasion isn't a life I'm interested in living. Speaking of which, it's my son's naptime; I've got something I need to do.