Gaming once provided a safe space for Liam Harding, but he doesn’t need it anymore.

by guest columnist Liam Harding
First published in The Big Issue Australia

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I began exploring the many worlds of video games from a very young age, possibly even before I started really exploring my own world. As soon as I had any concept for free time, I always unquestioningly indulged in my virtual habit. It was not so much a slippery slope into addiction, but a direct and rapid plummet. The general consensus among my family was that I’d simply grow out of it, that the switch would flip and I’d engage in more “productive” ventures. I, however, firmly believed that, in a way, my free time would never truly be mine.

My family moved with staggering frequency through my youth and adolescence. Every two or three years I had to tear the roots of my life out from where they lay, and ungraciously force them down somewhere else. My parents could probably tell you all about the stress that came with gutting each house of our possessions so frequently – boxing, re-boxing and unboxing everything we owned again and again. The only thing I remember was the overwhelming anxiety of having to unplug my Xbox and PlayStation, knowing it could be up to a full week until I’d be able to play either of them. With every move, these were always the very last things I packed, and the very first fixtures in my new house. Until such time that I was traversing a familiar world with a controller cemented to my hands, our new house could not be considered a home; they were nothing more than hollow shells, empty carapaces. This feeling of displacement became even more severe when my gaming moved from single player to online. Without warning, internet connection difficulties could disrupt my sense of belonging for days at a time. I’d wander my own transient halls in search of something else to occupy me. But no matter what I did or where I went, I couldn’t shake this unsettled feeling, some kind of baseless, nameless sense of vagrancy. It wasn’t quite a feeling of a fish out of water, more so a fish in foreign tides.

Up until age 11 or 12, I just needed a small handful of games to generate a sense of contentment. Then, right on the cusp of puberty, I found World of Warcraft, the game that would simultaneously change and siphon away most of my life.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but once I logged into WoW, I was basically resigning myself from almost the entirety of my adolescence. I’d already been spending an unreasonable amount of time leashed to my consoles, but this shift into a constantly evolving and ever-occurring online world elevated my habit from overuse to abuse. Many games offer the role of the hero to its players, and they take it on with pride. This is probably the reason I engaged with WoW the most. I never had to be a hero, I never had to save anyone or progress any plots. I could simply just occupy the world. Having moved so much, coupled with the rollercoaster of adolescence, gaming gave me a sense of stability in an otherwise tenuously balanced world.

Every waking moment on every weekend, every minute after school, sometimes even in the dim, fleeting hours before school, I could be found in my chair, unshifting, completely oblivious to the real world around me. I would have sporadic forays into new games as they came and went, maybe even delve back into the previous line-up every now and then. But WoW was the dominating force in my life. When everybody at school started discussing what they wanted to do with their lives and how they wanted to grow as people, my only thought was, “Will this career direction give me enough time for Warcraft?”

There is an in-game function that allows you to view how long you have spent playing any given character to the exact second. My rough total play time (given that some characters have been lost or deleted) lands somewhere between 430 and 450 days. After looking at these, quite frankly, harrowing numbers, one would certainly think that if anyone in the world was going to call themselves a gamer, if there’s any person who should be so worthy of such a crowning glory, it’d be this person. Well, as that person, I’ve spent the past year coming to terms with the fact that, no, I’m really not a gamer at all anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy video games, and I still carve out an hour or two for them every now and then. But in recent times I wasn’t really playing them for the right reasons. I spent a great deal of time trying to earn in-game achievements for a lot of the games I played. I wasn’t really sure why I did, but it felt like something I should do; so I would chase down accolades ravenously. But while I had fun following these yellow-bricked roads (much like Dorothy), when I arrived at the end I was left feeling unfulfilled. This lack of real satisfaction became more and more apparent as the years went on. I was still trying to earn these increasingly shallow victories despite not even really enjoying them. My use turned from enjoyment into nothing more than habit. But I still never felt ready to leave this artificial world, and these achievements were the only way I could rationalise still spending a lot of time in a place I’d already seen a thousand times. But the harder I pushed myself, the less interest I had in the gaming aspect. Several months ago I dropped World of Warcraft entirely.

Being a gamer is being someone that thrives on the challenges offered by these games, that strives to improve how they play in every way they can, that takes a genuine interest in goals and objectives. They don’t just play; they get involved in the world and have a real sense of investment. I still can’t pinpoint when it started to happen, but I had begun to play not for a sense of belonging, but for a sense of vacancy. Vacancy from a world that felt like it was changing so much I could never keep up, that I’d been avoiding since the age of six. To a child, there was something so unbelievably comforting about the idea that no matter where in the world I was taken, or how long I’d be apart from the worlds I called home, wherever I was when I put my controller down was where I would find myself when I picked it back up again.

Liam Harding is a Melbourne-based writer who spends his time reading, making other people coffee and wondering what shirt to wear. 

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