It's 4am, Christmas is over, and I'm sitting in my bed under a layer of cats nearing the end of my Angel series re-watch, but all I'm really thinking about is how I haven't written anything in two days, because I actually took the time off like it was suggested. I didn't end up doing anything this year, which is probably the first year I've never done anything. I pretty much only cleaned my house, hung out with my cats and played World of Warcraft for two days straight. My Priest has gone from 93 to 60% through 99 in a brief time period, and while I was waffling between feels over this, I realized that this time last year, I wasn't even playing games.
For about a year, I'd always tell people what I do ("write about video games") and sooner or later, I'd get asked what I was playing. Whenever I'd say, "Nothing right now," I'd be met with sideways glances and stares of disbelief. "How are you not playing games when you write about them?" they'd ask. My favorite was always, "But isn't that your job?" Well, yes and no. At the time, I was the lead content writer and associate community manager elsewhere, so my job technically was to promote games in a positive light. This wasn't always easy; when you work with multiple games, you'll have plenty come across your desk that either look terrible. Sometimes, you end up with the special case of "what the hell is this game about, anyway?" which goes unresolved after hours of research. Still, I managed to find something positive about them, no matter what, and I did what I could to promote these games. Overall, I enjoyed my time there, but it's damn nice to have the option to say something sucks if I think something about a game sucks. So, here we are.
Not too long after my first time logging into EverQuest in June of 1999 with a (now ex) boyfriend's account while he was out of town, I became hooked with MMORPGs. I stayed up to 5am that night and when I slept, scenes of the Feerott played out on my eyelids. The very first character I ever made was an Ogre Shaman. I made an Ogre because they were hideously ugly in a weirdly adorable way. I went with Shaman just because the class sounded cool. I had no idea what I was doing. My friend and roommate Sarah was in a similar situation two rooms down from me. Our dudes were out of town, so we called them for their logins and we were yelling at each other from across the apartment about how we were completely lost at what to do. I wanted to play the game because I saw that you could talk to other people who weren't anywhere near you. We both wanted to play the game because our dudes were so into it, that it had to be good. Right? At the time, we were all casual console gamers. Metal Gear Solid and whatever Lara Croft game that was available then were what we played usually.
EverQuest sparked something in me, something that has flourished, even now 15 years later. My love for games lead me to volunteer for several fansites and official sites, which in turn gave me a foundation and experience to eventually get paid doing this. That's something that will be with me always. Despite it's shortcomings (mostly the persistent layoffs and the misogyny, sexism and bullying), the gaming industry is a pretty special place. A former manager of mine once told me over dinner that if something's worth doing, it's worth doing for free. That's how I got my foot in the door, and I'll advise anyone who wants to get into this industry to find the time to volunteer for experience, as well. Today's column isn't about working in games, though. It's about a more personal side of gaming.
When I started playing EverQuest, my friends and myself slipped down into this cozy rabbit hole. We didn't see light of day unless we had to head out, bleary-eyed, to go to our jobs or school (we were all in college at the time). More than one friend would call in "sick" or insist I work shifts for them. They'd give me some excuse, but what I really heard was that they were up too late trying to get to their next level. We've all been there. Just one more level, skill point, attempt for an item and I'll go to bed. Just one more and I promise I'll go to bed. Some people manage to find balance. Not all of us could. The guy I was dating at the time ended up with what I now call gamer's depression and it hit him pretty bad. It's easy to ignore how shitty the world can be when you have this awesome virtual one to turn to. Inside Azeroth, Norrath, Telara, Tyria, etc, you can create an avatar that can obtain unmentionable power; power you can't access here on Earth. Sometimes this can be truly empowering - in EverQuest, one of our Monks only had one arm in the real world. In Norrath, he was one hell of a puller and could do more in game with one arm than what I've seen people pull off with the best gaming equipment money can afford you with two arms.
The downside to being able to create these avatars who can become powerful beings within virtual worlds is that we can begin to turn away from the real world. My above mentioned ex-boyfriend got to the point where he wouldn't leave the house, which turned into he couldn't leave the house. He would just eat whatever food I bought, so he wouldn't have to deal with talking on the phone for pizza delivery. When we broke up, I talked to his mom on the phone for weeks until she moved him from our shared apartment back into her house. She got him medication and therapy, and kept him offline for as long as she could. He eventually moved out of state and got a job as a gaming tester, moving up to Quality Assurance soon enough. Around that time, PvP rankings had come out in World of Warcraft. Is High Warlord still a thing? It was a pretty big deal back then, but if you put in the time, you could get there. My ex spent three weeks pretty much not eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom. He ended up getting sick enough to be hospitalized. I'm not in anyway blaming games here. We all have influences that can make our time spent in virtual worlds play out differently.
At this time and plenty of other times, I pretty much worked just because I wanted to pay rent and eat more than a $5 pizza delivered with the worst of ingredients. Really, all I wanted to do was game. The last few months I was living in California, I decided that I would continue to be unhappy with my life until I changed it. The problem with depression is that often times you feel too powerless to change your life. You either don't know how or don't think you really have a problem to begin with. I know that my case is an outlier and am fortunate enough to have been able to pull myself out of the rabbit hole. Most I know with this same affliction haven't been able to do it themselves. To begin making myself better, I quit games. Cold turkey. They weren't making me happy, at least at the time, so I removed them from my life. I began running again for the first time in almost 20 years. I changed my diet. For once in my life, I decided to focus on me, which is something I've never really done before. Long story short, part of this massive life change included moving back to Chicago, which meant I'd have begin that not-so-fun process of finding a new job.
By some ironic twist, I ended up with my second paying job in the gaming industry, which I began about six months into my gaming abstinence. This isn't to say that I stopped paying attention, because I could easily tell you what has happening - which studio had the most recent layoffs, what the biggest faux pas was and who in the industry said/did it, what the latest expansions where, and all of that. Games continued to be my passion, but for myself, I needed to appreciate them from afar. At least for a little while. I couldn't find that healthy balance before, so the only way I could aim for it was to remove games completely and then re-add them here and there. I was worried that I couldn't trust myself, but in the end, I had to trust myself. I wasn't ready to just completely give up something I spent so long being so passionate about.
As I was writing about these games and promoting them in a positive light, I noticed a few things about myself. The more I dug to find positive things to say about games with barely any information out there about them, the more I was looking for the positive in everyday life. I can now proudly call myself a recovering cynic. This isn't to say I'm a full-blown optimist these days, but I'm no longer so damn negative about everything. Another thing I noticed about myself was that I could get really excited about a game, talk about it plenty (Second Chance Heroes was a favorite of mine to talk about at the time), and not end up in some stupid pit of despair. Some former co-workers of mine had a super casual guild in World of Warcraft with their real-life friends and significant others. I saw my former boss make a post about it, so I decided to check it out.
By now, I was working two (and sometimes three) jobs. I liked to say that I loved my writing job and the others were to support it. I was running on a regular basis and even dabbled running during a Chicago winter. I don't really have good winter running shoes, though. World of Warcraft was something I could do in my spare time. Playing MMORPGs no longer were my spare time. Somehow, in all of this, I've managed to find a balance. I don't think I missed much not actually playing games for the little over a year that I abstained. What I have managed is finding a way to get a good day's work in, stick to exercising on a regular basis (nearly every day, in fact!), eat relatively healthy, maintain a social life out on planet Earth, and even, yes, play games. I'll be the first to admit that I've had days where I do, in fact, play WoW a little too much. It's all I did on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That's okay, I wasn't working. I managed to clean all of the common areas in my house from top to bottom in the absence of my roommates (I live with three guys). I didn't exercise much because my cleaning frenzy agitated the sprained ankle I've been recovering from. Looks like it'll be another week without running, which I miss sorely. I'll get there, if I just stay patient.
It's been a long journey for me, but I don't regret a moment of it. I can enjoy gaming and not let it consume me. I can fight depression and win.