I always used to scoff at my friends who talked about chalking up hundreds and hundreds of hours on World of Warcraft, as I never really encountered what it might feel like to be addicted to a video game. I never really realised that a video game of all things could devour more time and attention from my day than anything else on my schedule. I always used to laugh at the stereotype view of ‘gamer nerds’, hunched over their screens, forsaking meals lest they miss out on one precious hour of time in a game world.
But then, I decided not to eat dinner one night, I figured I was too busy hunting down the next big important piece of loot from a dungeon. Then I knew what it felt like to have a game pretty much take over your life. Then I knew where stereotypes come from. Then I knew I was addicted to Skyrim. Something had to be done.
For those not familiar with The Elder Scrolls or Skyrim, you were probably the kind of person that would pick on the kinds of people that knew about things like The Elder Scrolls. But that aside, let me explain. Skyrim is the latest entry into the Elder Scrolls fantasy role playing games series. It is (and I say this in full knowledge that I may offend the more fervent fans of TES) exactly how you would imagine a high-fantasy game, think Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones, full of wizards, lizards, cat-people, three different species of elf, vikings, swords, sorcery, dungeons, and indeed, dragons. The basic premise of Skyrim drops the player in the middle of the vast region from which the game gets its name, and basically says, “Go forth and explore.” And so you do. And its astounding.
Skyrim is a fantastic game. It is, quite frankly, beautiful to look at and listen to. Its the type of game that I found I could just wander through, not really doing anything, just happy to take in the sights and sounds of what is as close to a fully realised ‘world’ as I think gaming has ever managed. This world is incomprehensibly huge, and packed so full of places to go and things to do that it truly boggles the mind. There are hundreds of caves of dungeons to explore, dozens of cities, towns and hamlets to visit, all full of dozens of shops and taverns to frequent, and hundreds of NPC’s to interact with, some of whom will give you quests or point you in the direction of a dragon in need of slaying or a bandit who needs a stern talking to. Preferably with the pointy end of a sword. Or arrow. Or flaming magic fist. It’s a game where you discover new things every few minutes, and every time you do, there’s this wonderfully gratifying and curious feeling of, “Wow, even more places to explore, I wonder what I’ll find in here…”
This is where it all started.
With the majority of games, there comes an end. The story reaches its natural conclusion, the game reaches a climax, and you’re done. Not so with Skyrim. Oh no. I should be so lucky. I mean, there are story arcs in the game. Every quest that you start will eventually end. Every series of quests will end eventually. Even every dungeon that has an entrance also has an exit, accessible only once you have ‘completed’ the dungeon (generally by massacring its inhabitants). There are plenty of ‘ends’ in Skyrim, but the game itself never ends. There will almost always be another cave over the hill that needs your attention or another damsel in some kind of distress. And so I would find myself, on more than one occasion, sitting down for ‘an hour or so’ of dungeon-diving, only to look up 8 hours later, having thought time and time again, “I’ll just check out one more cave,” or “I’ll just kill one more dragon.” Just one more.
“Whats the point?” I hear you ask. Well, quite simply, its fun. The feeling of discovery and the uncertainty of what you might find in the next castle, followed by a series of incredibly crunchy, immensely satisfying and varied combat encounters, is very gratifying, and just fun. For a while. Every one of these moments play out very similarly: find dungeon, kill bandits, collect loot, gain experience points. Wash, rinse, repeat. Soon, the fun dwindles and fades into the background, taken over by much more insidious motivation.
The grind. More loot, more gold, better equipment, stronger weapons, new abilities. What was once fun became a mechanical process of incremental improvement, but one I was even more compelled to see out, as no matter how fun it is now, think how much fun things will be when I have the best equipment and the strongest weapon. Right? Right?
I suppose, in an odd way, it speaks of some kind of compulsion we all have in reality. We all want to be the best kind of person we can be. We all, I hope, look to improve ourselves in one way or another, and we all figure that things will be better for us when we become better. And it’s this compulsion that countless game designers have exploited through the use of experience points and upgrades to glue people to their games. It’s the reason for the current state of FPS multiplayer games, regular levelling and consistent rewards for your efforts, which are absent in the real world.
So, I would sit in front on my TV screen for hours on end, grinding away, finding chests of gold and the next best piece of equipment to turn my lowly farmhand-turned-fugitive into a fully fledged warrior capable of finding bigger chests full of even better equipment. Ad infinitum. It had no impact on how much fun I had with the game, despite my insistence that once I got to where I wanted with my character, the game would suddenly become more enjoyable. Mainly because no matter where I got to, how strong my armour or weapons became, there could always be better things out there. I realised I was no longer improving my character to have more fun, I was improving them to improve them even further. It was an endless cycle.
“There’s a point at which this brand of enjoyableness becomes indistinguishable from compulsion, and it seems fair to ask when a game’s expansiveness becomes an affable form of indentured servitude. I suppose that can’t really be held against the Elder Scrolls games any more than the addictiveness of crystal meth can be held against crystal meth dealers.”
Only then, it stopped. I couldn’t find any better equipment anywhere. I had more gold and jewels and wealth than I knew what to do with, so much that I even started leaving gold pieces in the dungeons I had massacred. Perhaps as some sort of redemptive measure, some compensation for killing, maybe as some sort of weird signature, but mainly just because I didn’t know what else to do with my money. So I reached a pinnacle. Fully upgraded. Best weapons. Impenetrable armour. Now I could start having fun. But something was wrong. I had lost any motivation. If there were no better things to search for, whats the point?
BUT WAIT! My character was an archer, he had the best bow and daggers. But not the best heavy armour, or the best greatsword. Nor was he any good at magic. I know what I can do. Start over again with a different character. Invest in different skills, find different loot. Do things differently.
So, 100+ hours into one character, I start another.
Alarm bells. No more. This is wrong. What am I doing? Why am I so hungry? Have I really been wearing the same T-shirt for 3 days? Why is it suddenly dark outside? Pull the cord. No more. Get out of the house. Fresh air. Friends. Real life. Lest I start doing this….
I sit here at my laptop, on a sunny Thursday morning, getting all of this out of my system, two weeks clean. For 14 days I haven’t touched the thing that has soaked up more of my time and attention than I would care to admit without shame. For two weeks, although I have played several hours of video games, not a single minute has been spent in Skyrim. My elven archer character has traveled hundreds of miles and defeated hundreds of opponents. But there are more out there that he will not have the opportunity to best. There are people he will never meet. He has some incredibly strong armour and weapons, but there could be better things out there, hidden in a dungeon somewhere that he will never find.
And I’m OK with that.