Saturday, March 19, 2016

Addictions and my Experience with Computer Games

I have long struggled with a tendency to get easily addicted to computer games. To the point where I'd spend days just sitting at the computer and lose all sense of anything else I needed to do or any of my other hobbies, and have severe withdrawals any time I managed to actually wrench myself away for a few minutes. And it could happen with any kind of game really. It could even be something as simple as Tetris. The sad thing is, I'd begin by genuinely enjoying the game. Then I'd start to get bored with it, but be even more highly addicted. After a few days, I'd turn into an empty husk, gaining nothing from the game yet feeling even more worthless and depressed whenever I'd stop and inevitably reflect on the manner in which I'd spent my time. It's not a fun place to be.

I've experimented with various different methods of control over the years. For whatever reason, it's been a pretty complex issue for me. The simplest approach I've found for dealing with addiction is simply to quit cold turkey. For example, I did this with fast food beginning in the summer of 2010:

First, I looked at the cons of eating fast food, from the amount of money I spent on it to the health issues to the way it made my body feel. While most the time I felt fine, if I went a month without eating it then tried it again, my stomach would react almost violently to the grease. Next, I looked at the extent to which I relied on fast food as a crutch. I tended to go through a drive through several times a week and felt strong cravings on the days I didn't go. Various factors played into this, from the addictiveness of the food itself to the convenience and relative cheapness compared with eating at a restaurant, to the fact that my mom was also addicted to fast food and more than happy to suggest it and drive me there.

Finally, I considered what I would lose if I never ate fast food again for the rest of my life. Certainly I would miss the taste for a while, I thought, but there are plenty of other foods that taste good. I might miss out on some convenience, particularly if my friends really want to hang out at a fast food place, but this is unlikely and I could always plan ahead to eat something else and then hang out with them without eating there myself. Overall, I realized that if I never ate fast food again, I would truly not be missing out on anything essential or even important. So, I wrote out a list of fast food places I would never eat at again. Listing the specific places was important for me, as this way I couldn't rationalize my way out of my promise ("well, it doesn't exactly count as a fast food place...") I would also be clear on the places that I would allow myself to go to. If, at a later time, I deemed an additional place unhealthy and addictive for me, I could always add it to the "never list".

For many years I took a similar approach to computer games. While I hadn't strictly ruled them out, I simply avoided them altogether. Still, in many ways I missed the positive aspects and felt a sense of loss when I'd see others enjoying video games or computer games. Similarly, if I added all of my potential addictions to a "never list", I would very quickly wind up painting myself into a corner. At the very least, I deemed it worthwhile to try and see if I could find some other way to moderate my game usage.

One idea was to limit the amount of time I could play a game per day. In theory this was a simple, logical idea. In practice, it was extremely difficult for me to maintain. I would start out strict with myself, wrenching myself away from the screen painfully as the timer I set would go off. This never worked for more than two or three days, and even when it did I experienced intense withdrawal symptoms.

After a while I started to wonder if the problem had to do with playing games that were meant to be played for several hours at a time, drawing the player in. So I tried picking games that were simpler and could be paused easily at any point. I figured maybe I'd get bored with them easier. The results? I would indeed get bored with them sooner. The problem is, I would still get addicted incredibly quickly. And being addicted to a game I wasn't even interested in was even more irritating.

One day, after weeks of being hooked on a game I initially didn't think would hold any long term interest, I started to wonder if there were some underlying needs of mine getting indirectly fulfilled by playing various games. I thought that a need was probably getting met even by the more boring games, and the convenient and familiar method is what made it continue to be addictive even after the need was no longer getting met as efficiently. I began to analyse what the appeal of each game was (for example I enjoyed a game called Terraria because I could explore and find lots of different items that could be combined in interesting combinations to build new things, which reflected my values of curiosity and creativity). This understanding changed the way I played games, helping me get more out of them in less time by disregarding activities that weren't as fun wherever possible. Unfortunately, while I became more efficient in extracting value from my game play, I was still left with an addiction. Dropping games once I lost a sense of joy in playing them worked with a bit of attention and effort, but I would still be drawn to the next game.

Now while I obviously recognized the problem with excess and how depressed the resulting guilt and self loathing made me feel, I also felt pretty depressed and bad about myself when I denied myself all activities that weren't strictly productive; reducing life to "worthwhile" and "worthless" activities made everything feel flat, cynical and empty to me. In addition, even if I cut out computer games, there were an infinite number of known and unknown potential addictions waiting for me and I still had no reliable method of curbing them without rendering myself frozen by restrictions. And so, I continued to experiment on myself from time to time with the familiar medium.

One of my more recent experiences was getting addicted to a very, very simple puzzle game akin to Candy Crush for over a month. And I had planned on deleting it after a couple hours. Now, on the plus side, I had limited myself to fifteen minutes per day, an unusually low time limit, and I managed to stick to this limit for all but the last week I was addicted. The benefit of this small time limit combined with the simplicity of the game seemed to be that I didn't have time to get too deeply involved mentally, so it was easier to stop when the timer went off.

Unfortunately, the game also slowly evolved from being something I could easily recognize as a meaningless distraction to relax on occasion to a central part of my daily routine. Oddly, even with such a small amount of time, my sense of worth started to get attached to my increasing mastery of this silly little game while motivation in other areas of my life decreased noticeably. And, of course, the time limit eventually started slipping and I had to delete it.

This particular experience gave me a new idea: maybe part of the problem was that I had to fight my addiction on a daily basis instead of just every once in a while. Plus I would constantly feel like I hadn't played as long as I really wanted to. These two things would tend to reinforce any withdrawal symptoms. Worst of all, I had far too many chances to fail in keeping my word to myself, especially as the inevitable stresses of daily life began to set in. And once I had failed in my self moderation attempt, the depression would start to set in, making it easier to fail each consecutive time, to greater and greater degrees until I would finally hit a "rock bottom" point and ban myself from the game.

So, I thought, perhaps I could allow myself an entire day of shame free gaming. But only one predesignated day out of each month. This would give me a clearly defined limit, but one that was long enough to let me really get into the game and enjoy myself. I gave it a try and was amazed at the results; for the first time in over a decade, I spent all day playing a game (Nethack, something I greatly missed from my childhood), and I did not openly or secretly hate myself. Not even a little bit. Not even in the back of my head. Not even when it was time to stop and go to bed and I could clearly see that I had "accomplished" absolutely nothing that day. I would even go so far as to say that my self worth improved from the experience.

And was I tempted to play again the next day and just keep going and going indefinitely? Did I experience intense withdrawal symptoms? Yes. But I felt no need to act on these feelings. I simply looked forward to the next game day, clearly marked on my calendar. Why was this method so effective? I believe the primary reason is because it allowed me to feel good about myself. I gave myself permission to enjoy the day, embracing it wholeheartedly. I set clear limits. I didn't set myself up to fail with a situation where I'd be repeatedly tempted.

Most importantly, having experienced the joy and positivity resulting from that "shame-free" label, I became intrinsically motivated to maintain that highly valuable label at all costs. If I gave in after one day, or indeed any day before the next designated game day, I would destroy it. Gaming would be depressing for me again. And the joy would be far more difficult to get back than it was to destroy. While thoughts about the game continued to pop up randomly in my head for a few days, they gradually became less frequent and the painful urgency dissipated rapidly. What was left was a feeling of contentment, and a level of confidence in my abilities I was unaccustomed to.

While I still need to see what the long term results of this method will be, I am optimistic that I may have found a viable way to self moderate most potentially addicting interests and behaviours that may develop in the future.

No comments: