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“I want to go to PAX,” Jessica said.
“That’s cool,” I replied, disinterested. I typed a message to my guild; we were preparing to run Molten Core.
“If you saved up some of your money, we could go. I could lend you a bit too.”
“Definitely, yeah, yeah.”
“And your dad said he wanted to send you on holiday before you go to uni. We could talk him into paying for your flight next year.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I minimized World of Warcraft and navigated to the Domino’s Pizza homepage.
“I’ll save some of my student loan.”
“I think it beats going to some hot island somewhere.”
“Yeah, uh, Jess, do you want one?” I pointed at the Domino’s order screen.
She sighed. “No thanks.”
“Okay, cool. I don’t have time to cook, though. We’re running Molten Core.” I pressed the order button and went back to the game.
“Mind if I play on your PS2?”
“Sounds good, cool,” I said.
I don’t remember having this conversation, but it sounds like something that could’ve happened. Jessica told me about it when we met up last week. She loves games but hated that I played World of Warcraft; it demanded more of my time than any game I’d ever played. Time which I willingly gave away.
Sitting next to us was her four year-old son, Shaun, playing on his blue DS Lite. She couldn’t get anyone to look after him, so she’d packed his DS and a pair of earphones and brought him along. He was quietly playing Sonic Rush and was more interested in the game than our conversation.
I told her about my graduation, my job situation, and everything going on in my life since we last got together eighteen months ago. She told me one horrible story after another: losing her job, a string of bad boyfriends, and Shaun’s deadbeat dad.
It’s fair to say that Jessica’s made her share of mistakes, but leaving me was not one of them. She mentioned that the above conversation was probably the first time she’d thought about finishing with me, and our relationship only lasted a few more weeks. Even so, I don’t blame World of Warcraft. I was the one who neglected my girlfriend to go raiding with my guild. In hindsight, my addiction actually did me more good than harm.
Allow me to explain.
A month or two before I ignored Jessica’s suggestion of going to PAX — something I sincerely regret now — I was in my sixth year of high school. I remember turning up at school one morning in a complete state. I hadn't slept, and if it wasn't for the 6 a.m. shower, I would have smelled pretty bad. My breakfast consisted of Red Bull and two coffees before Philosophy class at nine.
World of Warcraft had only been out for a few months in the UK, and I’d raced towards the endgame so I could join one of the early guilds and be a prominent player on my server. At the time this seemed way more important than my studies. Time for homework, sleep, and social life had all but vanished, replaced by the glare of my monitor twelve hours a night. As the weeks passed, all nighters became more and more normal.
"Today we'll be studying Descartes' ontological argument," said Mrs Salmon, my Philosophy teacher. "We're looking at page 57 and…"
My mind drifted to thoughts about Molten Core. My guild was going to run it that night. I'd never been there before, and I had no idea what to expect. The whole lesson became a blur; my focus was on the tier-2 leg armor we could farm from Ragnaros. I'd been told a successful Molten Core run could take up to three hours, but I'd planned for more. I set some money aside for takeaway and eagerly awaited the class bell.
Raiding was a big event in my life. Hugely important. I had to live up to the expectations of my online peers and come prepared. I squandered my two hour Philosophy class — a subject I had willingly signed up for — thinking about digital trousers, damage per second, and fire resistance. Back then, I considered it time well spent.
This continued for months. I never completed my homework assignments, was either half asleep or daydreaming in class, and couldn’t wait to get home so I could carry on playing. My studies, time with Jessica, and results day were all lost in a giant Warcraft-shaped void.
I began to ignore my best — but incredibly patient — friends. Instead, I spent my time with two fellow WoW players (people I’d introduced to the game) talking about the future of the Azeroth, what we’d be doing later that evening, and our scheme to break away from our guild and start a new and better one.
My friends watched as I deteriorated from a well-read, intelligent student into the overweight, lazy, depressed and uninterested slob I’d become. They tried to invite me out to parties, to the cinema, or out for lunch, but I ignored them and became more and more involved in the game. To their credit, they never gave up despite my constant refrain of “No, I’m too busy” whenever they asked.
At the time, I remember rationalizing in my head that it was okay. I’d always played a lot of games in lieu of studying, and I’d managed to plod along fine thus far. I passed all of my previous exams without much effort, and I figured that my next set of exams, which I needed to get into university, would be exactly the same.
Then came my results, and they weren’t pretty: English: B, History: D, Computing: E, Philosophy: U (which means it was unclassified; so low they couldn’t even grade me). It was a disaster. I’d never get into university on those marks, even if I improved in the second year.
But instead of breaking the news to my family, the first thing I did was go back to my computer and tell my guild. I didn’t get the responses I needed.
“gz on the B,” one of them said.
“u can always resit the others in jan,” replied another.
School wasn’t quite as positive, and I was told as clear as possible: “Re-take the failed classes, or you’re out.” I was given a week to think about it, so I went home and played World of Warcraft.
That night, Jessica dumped me. Between me not wanting to talk about my situation, then ignoring her to chat with my guildmates, she decided there and then she didn’t want a loser for a boyfriend. I was a lost cause, and she was sick of coming second place to Azeroth.
It was the kick up the arse I needed. Losing your first true love really makes you think about your life. I’d been dragging her down, ignoring her as she played Final Fantasy X on my PS2 during our evenings together. Watching her leave so unexpectedly forced me to re-evaluate my situation.
I’d put on nearly two-and-a-half stone (about 35 pounds) in eight months, severed most of my social ties, alienated myself from my family, and drained my savings to pay the monthly fees and takeaway bills. I spent hours lying in my bed, quietly thinking about where things were going.
I'd always had ideas and dreams about what I'd do with my life. I loved telling stories, and I wanted to pen a novel. I also wanted to one day write my own video-game scenario. I firmly believed that going to university wasn't an option but an expectation. Gaming was an important part of my life and my biggest passion, but I failed to realize that sometimes it just has to come second if I wanted to make something of my life.
In short, I was letting myself down and something had to give: either I would have an easy time as a slob or a satisfying and meaningful existence.
The next day I cancelled my subscription, uninstalled World of Warcraft, and snapped the disc in two. I rang Jessica and told her I was ready to change, but she wouldn’t come back. She was scared I’d slip into my old ways, and decided to stay away for a few months. School was more forgiving, letting me re-take the year so long as I adhered to a strict learning contract which placed work ethic over everything else. Despite turning eighteen mid-contract, I was being treated like a child.
It was worth it. Two years later, I’d got through high school, and was on my way to university to get the degree I’d always dreamed of. And I didn’t let up there; I worked damn hard, and nearly earned first-class honors. Had I some more life experiences to give spark to my writing, I’m sure I’d have crossed that threshold.
For a few years I considered World of Warcraft to be a soul crushing, life wrecking experience that had dragged me to rock bottom. Had I not played it, I felt I’d have gone to University a year early, graduated in 2009, and would be making something of my life now. But now I don’t think that’s true.
If I hadn’t found WoW, I’d be playing other games. And while they wouldn’t have been the continuous, unending experience that made WoW so compelling, I’d have still dragged myself through my education unwillingly, doing coursework the night before and cramming for tests on the same day.
Just like in my earlier exams, I’d have scraped through a pass with little-to-no work, settled for a mediocre university placement, and studied something that didn’t interest me. I’d have probably wound up with lower second class honors too. It was my excessive gaming in general that was the problem. All World of Warcraft did was magnify the problem to the extreme and help me realize it before it was too late.
Even though I don’t play as many games as I did in my teens, I feel like I’m more of a gamer now than I was back then. In those days, I lived in the shadows of gamer culture, playing to procrastinate or shy away from my problems. Then it got so bad it consumed my other hobbies and eventually my social and family life. Now I’m part of that culture; I write about it, join in the important discussions, and experience it healthily and in moderation.
I’m also living my other dreams: my novel’s first draft is nearly complete, I’m getting by comfortably, and I’m proactive with my job hunt in the barren Welsh wasteland. I’m even considering starting an MA next year. At twenty three years of age, I’ve done nearly everything I’d have wanted to have done by now, except going to PAX.
Last week I asked Jessica if she’d like to come with me to PAX 2012, purely as friends, of course.
“I can’t,” she said, then looked at Shaun. He was completely fixated on Sonic Rush — the speed of the action hypnotized him as he hummed the level’s tune under his breath. “I’m not letting him stay with his father for a week.”
I nodded and frowned. My disappointment was hard to hide.
“But you should go,” she added. “Take some photos and write about it for me. I’ve been following your writing on Bitmob. I’m dead proud of you.”
That was all it took. To know that she doesn’t see me as the same loser she dumped five-and-a-half years ago is enough to convince me to somehow find my way to PAX. And while I wish Jessica could come with me, bringing some of it back is the least I can do to make up for the way I treated her.
As I walked home, my mind raced to plan my trip to PAX, and I thought about what I’d do there. But these things don’t happen by themselves, so I’m going to start saving for it now. Hopefully I’ll see you all there.
Please note: The names of everyone in this story have been changed out of respect for their privacy.
Fun fact: it took Chris six months to write this, mostly because he couldn't work out how to start and finish the story. Last week's meeting with Jess gave him the inspiration to get it done. You can reach him on Twitter, or you can explore his personal website, Been There, Played That! He'd also like to thank fellow Bitmobbers Ben Ingber and Rob Haines for reading over, editing and giving feedback on this one.