Ryan Van Cleave is an accomplished poet, editor, freelance writer, and creative writing instructor. His forthcoming memoir Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction is due out June 1, 2010. In this interview he discusses the book and why he wrote it, his own experience with game addiction, and what he sees as healthy and unhealthy gaming habits.
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Would you mind describing what your professional background happens to be?
I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature from Florida State University. I was the Anastasia C. Hoffman Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. I also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Clemson University. Currently, I teach writing at Eckerd College and the Ringling College of Art & Design, in addition to working as a writing coach and addiction & recovery consultant (with an emphasis on digital media and video games).
You have a forthcoming book entitled Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction. Would you mind talking a little bit about the book and why you decided to write it?
I hope this book begins a lot of important conversations. Many gamers feel trapped by their love of games. Many parents are frustrated and feel guilty or ashamed over the unhealthy relationship their children have with video games. There’s even a term for spouses who’ve “lost” their partner to The World of Warcraft: “WOW Widow.” I recognize that we’re not all going to wake up tomorrow and just stop playing video games. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. Video games provide some terrific and useful experiences for us. They teach us. They entertain us. They can be cathartic. They can improve memory and motor function. They can simulate unique experiences.
What concerns me, though, is how so many people are swept up into the dizzyingly compelling world of video games and they just go with it unthinkingly. There are ramifications beyond the time spent in front of a screen. These video games are doing something to us emotionally, socially, and intellectually. I’m including information about some of those things in this book to help wake people up about the true costs. If they then still choose to make an informed choice to play, great. Part of why I included Josh Schweitzer’s story in this book is to show that some people have a very successful life and still maintain a heavy gaming schedule. It can work. But even Josh admits he’s the rarity.
At some point you’ve said you hit rock bottom. How would you describe this time?
It’s where Unplugged starts—with me pretty much having surrendered everything important to me in order to keep playing video games. I talk about this experience a few different times in the book, but there’s no clear way to explain it beyond saying I was completely de-personed by games. The Ryan who was playing like his life depended on it wasn’t a Ryan I knew anymore.
And so what was the turnaround point for you and how did this come about?
The turnaround point came when I realized that I actually had to make a choice—keep my marriage, meaning my wife and two young daughters, or keep on gaming. I had a huge blow-up with my family and it suddenly became clear to me. It took some time to summon the courage to quit playing Warcraft (my particular video game poison). When I finally deleted it off my computer, I had withdrawal symptoms. Fever. Chills. Migraines. I felt an intense sense of loss, as if I was missing a limb. That’s the difference between addiction and just some video game splurging. The addicts can’t quit, even when the repercussions of the gaming are tremendously bad. And if they do manage to pull away (or have the game taken from them), they explode.
Just consider how important video games must’ve been to that 12-year-old boy in Bangkok who threw himself off a sixth floor veranda in 2009 after his parents took away his video games. And what about 17-year-old Daniel Petric, who shot both of his parents (killing his mother) because they wouldn’t let him play Halo 3? South Korea and China have called video game addiction their #1 social issue to face. These are just two of many examples of how deep of a hold video games have on some of us.
How serious is video game addiction?
A 2007 study by the AMA reports that close to 90% of American youngsters play video games and as many as 15% of them—more than 5 million kids—may be addicted (source: msnbc). And an April 2, 2007 Harris poll found that: “Nationally, 8.5% of youth gamers (ages 8 to 18) can be classified as pathologically or clinically ‘addicted’ to playing video games.” This is a $22 billion dollar a year industry we’re talking about, with expectations for that number to double by 2012. 247 U.S. colleges now have degrees in the creation of video games. That’s a lot of numbers, I realize. So what does this all mean? It means that whatever level the current problem actually is, it’s only going to get worse.
In the description of Unplugged, it says that you still have an ongoing battle to control the impulses to play video games. Do you still allow yourself to game some or is that not an option for you anymore?
I have a strange relationship with video games today. I recently got a job teaching at the Ringling College of Art & Design, where 90% of my students either want to work for Pixar or make video games (often both). Even more ironic, when I had a hard time covering my bills this past summer, I got a freelance job—making video games for a major social networking site. In this economy, beggars simply can’t be choosers. So though I only play occasionally as a way to research how other games operate, I’m very much in the trenches, so to speak, with the video game industry. But as I’m designing each new game and considering options in which the game requires players to interact with it, I’m on the lookout for opportunities for ways to discourage marathon gaming sessions and to encourage non-game activities. Games like Eco Tycoon: Project Green, Machinarium, World of Goo, Between, and Hush give me hope. Those are the type of alternative gaming experiences I’m interested in supporting. A straight hack-and-slash dungeon crawl or WWIII first-person shooter? That’s not enough for me, though it certainly would’ve been a decade or so back.
What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?
I’ve always been interested in gaming. D&D from age eight until mid-teens, console systems during that same time (and far beyond it), and along the way I started playing computer games. I was maybe 20 or so before I started really getting into PC games. They weren’t as exciting back then—it took them a while to compete with the quality of good console games. Now? It’s no contest—even the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 don’t really compare to the size and scope of some of the better computer games. The best games are so powerful, so immersive, that in many ways they are a better experience than seeing blockbuster movies.
You have been quoted as saying, “The three things I remember most clearly? The Challenger Explosion. 9/11. My first video game.” What was this video game and how would you describe the experience?
We had an Atari when I was little, so 01 Combat was my first game. My dad won the system as a prize for being a top salesman for Amoco that year. My brother and I played the heck out of that Atari, wearing through a number of joysticks each year. A friend of mine had an Odyssey system and I used to sneak over to his house at night to play with him far past our bedtimes. For some nine-year-old kids who previously thought that being a delinquent meant stealing an Oreo when your parents were watching “Hee Haw” in the other room, this was pretty exciting stuff.
What do you see as unhealthy gaming habits?
That’s easy. Anytime video gaming starts to interfere with one’s regular life. You know someone’s in trouble if they start to exhibit the following:
- Experiencing euphoria while playing
- Craving more time to play
- Neglecting important responsibilities in order to play
- Feeling empty and irritable when not playing
- Lying to parents about how much time is spent playing
- Eating irregularities (skipping meals)
- Inability to sleep (or even dreaming about playing)
What then do you see as healthy gaming habits?
Having a healthy relationship with video games means that if you have a girlfriend as amazingly beautiful as Kim Sears, you don’t play Call of Duty and video tennis for seven hours a day. British tennis stud Andy Sears clearly had his priorities all wrong.
Healthy gaming habits include keeping up with non-gaming things like work, friends, hygiene. People’s lives work best when there’s balance. Too much of any one thing—video games, drinking, sex, chocolate, even exercise—can end up really decreasing the quality of your life. Having a good perspective (which sadly only tends to come with a lot of years of mistakes behind you) will help a lot.
Check out Unplugged and see if you find yourself understanding what I was going through. I put it all in there, so many ugly moments that it’s hard for me to read or even talk about. If looking at that book is like looking in a mirror, you need to get some help. My book has resources, but the internet does too. Don’t let it get any further out of hand.
And if it’s not you but someone you know, get involved before there’s another Andy Murray, Daniel Petric, or Shawn Woolley on our hands. This is a social issue, not just a personal one. That means we’ve all got something (someone?) at stake.
What advice would you have to offer those who are raising children in these times where video games are so prevalent?
Get educated about video games and video game addiction. Part of the problem is that parents aren’t the experts—younger people are. It’s easy to disguise overindulgence from parents who don’t know a byte from a brownie. Learn about the games. Learn some of the lingo. Most importantly, though, talk to your kids. If you have an ongoing relationship with them, you’re much more likely to know what’s going on in their lives. Ignorance is no longer an acceptable state of parenting, no matter how much we want to park out kids in front of TVs and video games (the “other parents”).
I’d like people to take away three key ideas from Unplugged. (1) Video game addiction is real. Yes, not everyone who plays will develop it, but those who do are as helpless as if they had a dependence on drugs, drinking, or gambling. Video game addiction is a disempowering state of existence that’s only made worse when people laugh it off or simply say, “Just quit!” That strikes me as about as useful as the “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. (2) You can end the addiction. I did it. Others have too. But it takes serious effort and help from friends and family. If you don’t have a team effort in getting past this, you’ll probably find yourself logging back in before long, feeling worse than ever that you couldn’t break free on your own. (3) It’s not your fault. Too few people are seriously talking about video game addiction. It’s not taken seriously enough, and people come to these games unprepared for the powerful experiences that are provided. It’s a wonder more people aren’t hooked.
The biggest reason I’m an educator is to help young people reexamine the world they live in and reevaluate their relationship to it. If my book provokes some of the same reactions in a reader, I’ll consider Unplugged a resounding success no matter who picks it up or why.