Gaming disorder, recently recognized by the World Health Organization as a disease, affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities. But for those affected, the addiction can be all-consuming, controlling the mind. Gaming addict Julian Struksheats tells his story in this interview with The Phoenix Spirit. The interview has been edited for length.
How did your interest in video games begin?
We got our first video game console – an Atari system– when I was five or six. Then we got Nintendo. I remember playing that a lot without any real problem.
Around the age of 17, in 1997, we got our first computer and this one game called the Age of Empires. I remember walking to the library one day, thinking I’ve got to crack that CD in half. I remember thinking, this is taking time away from school and other things I want to do. So I stopped playing it.
In college, I got a computer game called EverQuest. It was so addictive that people called it EverCrack. My grades dropped, and I barely made it into grad school.
Did you play this game with friends?
You play with people online from all over the world. Nobody I knew in person played it.
How was the game affecting you?
It was on my mind all through the week. I spent many, many, many hours playing it. I ended up selling my online avatar for money and bought other online avatars that are part of this game. It became a source of income.
Did you have other things you were involved in?
I did play basketball with a few friends. I went to movies with my family. I lived at home during college so I helped take care of my younger siblings. Nonetheless, I look back and remember how much time I lost playing games. I would rather that I had spent those thousands of hours learning to play the piano or making works of art. I’m a painter, a sculptor. This game just sucked up so much of my time.
In grad school, I stopped playing it. But this other game came out, World of Warcraft. I played that for 14 years. I bet I quit it seven times.
What prompted you to try to quit?
I wasn’t performing at the level I wanted to in grad school. It was affecting my love life. I would play games instead of going out on dates or doing things with friends and family. Every night I would get home to play the game for four to five hours. On the weekends, sometimes for 14 hours straight.
I dawdled around in grad school, taking longer than I should have, in very large part due to the game. I quit the game several times in grad school for that reason. OK, this is taking up too much of time. I’m sick of it.
The whole time I pretty much felt guilty about it. I felt it was something I had to hide because I was embarrassed that I did this as an adult. A lot of what addicts do is done in secret. It’s one of the things that creates internal shame and prevents them from seeking help. It affects your self-worth a lot. It’s very insidious.
I had given it up probably for the second or third time before I met my girlfriend, now my ex-wife. We got together and started a relationship. Then I started playing the game again. Three years into our relationship, I remember punching a hole in the wall because of how angry I was at the game. At that point, I again quit because I was concerned that the game had made me do that.
How did gaming affect your marriage?
After I got my Ph.D., I was doing post-doc work, working for a professor. That was very stressful. I’d come home at 8 p.m. and head straight for the computer. She’d say, you’re basically ignoring me. We fought about that a lot. Eventually she gave me an ultimatum, and I stopped. I chose her over the game. Then I started playing other games that weren’t nearly as addictive. That was “manageable” for about four years. Then I went back to my original game and did it in secret so it wouldn’t affect my wife.
Our marriage ended over other issues. But that was a big moment in my life that caused a lot of grief. I was still playing the one game in secret. The bubble kind of popped and I became disgusted with myself.
When did you first seek help for your addiction?
Right before I got married, I found there was a group called Online Gamers Anonymous [OLGA]. I started reading the forums and I was, like, whoa, these are very similar to my story. But at that point I was getting married, and I got distracted and thought I could manage it.
When my marriage ended, I decided now’s the time to join. I emailed them, saying that I didn’t notice any face-to-face meetings in Minnesota. I had been in other 12 Step groups and had led meetings, so I said that I would like to start a group in Minnesota. They were all for it.
What has been the result for you?
I haven’t played any video games in 10 months. Instead of having a dual-monitor gaming system and gaming chair in my office, I now have a painting easel, a sewing machine, and a block of wood that I’m carving. I’m going out on dates. I’m having more friend time. I’m going to a lake on Saturdays to enjoy time with a recovery buddy. I’m going to movies. My life has been enriched so much, now that I don’t have this one thing holding me in its grip – staring at the screen for hours and hours, with nothing really gained from it.
What are the daily anchors for your recovery?
One is affirmations. It has a lot to do with what, in my therapy, is called developmental immaturity. The idea is that addiction is a secondary symptom, and the primary symptom is developmental immaturity. The addiction is there to fill a void. So the affirmations I say to myself every day help me remember that I don’t need this other thing because I am whole the way I am. Then I add a Third Step prayer every day that keeps me in a spiritual way with other people in the world that have this same disease, so we’re all linked together.
Give me an example of an affirmation you say.
The one’s that really good is, “I’m enough and I matter.”
Did the gaming take you to a place where you weren’t enough?
In the gaming, you’re always trying to achieve perfection, a high status, become the number one. I had come from growing up poor, feeling I needed to “ascend” to matter in the world. I felt I was not good enough the way I was. I had to do something great to matter in the world.
When you first joined OLGA, did you experience any kind of withdrawal?
When I gave up video gaming, sometimes I’d get triggered when I’d see something about the game. I’d use affirmations or make a recovery phone call and say, I just need to talk to you, I really want to play the game right now. Can you help process this with me? Having those people on your phone list to call in time of need is what really helps people stay sober.
If I do pick up the game again, I can always come back to the community without being judged. They’ll say, We understand. It’s part of the disease to go back, so now let’s work on it together. We’re going to help you. The longer you’re in sobriety, the better your life is.
Is there anything else you want to mention about recovery?
It would be good if everyone could look at this as a disease like any other disease, with a certain set of diagnosable symptoms. I think that will help reduce any stigma, any shame. It would take away the idea that these are just kids who can’t control themselves – don’t have the will power. It’s not something easy to give up. It’s like the game has its tentacles in your brain.
Pat Samples writes on personal growth and is a writing coach. Contact her through patsamples.com.