I started playing EverQuest in 2001. Most video game addiction stories start with a friend who coaxes you into playing, and mine is no different. Over the course of two weeks I went from “I dunno…” to a full time career as a bronze-plated, hammer-wielding, high elf cleric healer.
It was a weird time in my real life. I’d quit writing fiction a few years before, and I’d just left a reasonably lucrative career as a marketing writer because my employer had been irritated by the inconveniences of my high risk pregnancy. Now, I was working second shift at a call center with a baby at home. All of my priorities had changed dramatically in less than a year. Cracking the skulls of giant rats outside the gates of West Freeport was cathartic in its violence, and comforting in its predictability.
I went through an mild addiction phase with EverQuest, where I sometimes ate dinner at the computer screen. I still think of it as a happy time. My friends and I would go home from work and play for hours. We’d fight crocodiles in an oasis, or hole up in the goblin-filled dungeon of Highpass Hold and fill our bags with loot. But the best part was the joking around. Playing a game like EverQuest or World of Warcraft is like standing in the Hall of Presidents in Disney World without a tour guide. One is asked to take it seriously, but the degree to which that’s actually done is entirely up to the participants. That choice can make the difference between being bored out of one’s mind and going to bed early, or staying for hours before noticing that the sun is coming up. My friends and I had a lot of adventures that way. We once spent a night just jumping off of the Plane of Air to land in the Ocean of Tears below. Once we fought to the center of a witch’s lair, and the keyholder fell asleep at his monitor. During the day, we sent each other links describing new places we wanted to visit, quests we wanted to finish, treasure we wanted to loot. Everyone else thought we were completely intolerable.
Because the game occupied my intellectual energy (the baby, happily, took up the rest of my energy), I was thinking about other things besides how angry I was at the enormous change in my real life circumstances. I could make a stupid mistake in a dark dungeon, and then laugh about it by the fax machine the next afternoon. My friends had play styles that reflected their personalities, and asking each other to correct tactics could sometimes end up as personal criticisms. Part of what broke that first gaming addiction for me was realizing that despite appearances, I was ill-suited to play a healer. I still deal with the consequences of that discovery, on both sides of the monitor.
The big surprise came when I wanted to write fiction again. One afternoon at work, I was (sleepily) reading the forums at eqcleric.com and someone had posted this:
“Does anyone else think it’s strange how we heal? We wait until people are nearly dead before we do anything, in order to conserve mana. But in real life, could you really wait until your friend was almost dead before you did something about it?”
Many clerics replied that the total absence of mana in the real world was an important consideration, but it got me to thinking. Thanks to EverQuest, I had gained some new points of view. As a cleric, sure — I’d learned a way to turn a blind eye to suffering in the interest of the greater good. But I’d also learned what can happen when someone who claims to have the same allegiances has lied. I’d learned about wanting a reward for weeks, only to get it and realize it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped before — even though I’d known exactly what it was the whole time. I’d learned that the pleasure of arriving someplace new can be wholly contingent on one’s traveling companion. And I knew what could lead to stepping back from a world and a life that had been generally good, and nearly all consuming.
None of those events was reliant on blessed claymores, angry pixies, or dragons that respawn once a week. But they were part of the gaming life, because they’re part of any life. Realizing that is what brought me back to fiction. There have been times since when my gaming and writing balance has been off kilter, especially when one of them offers me something shiny and new. But is life ever completely balanced? In the end, the two reap rewards for each other, and I can’t complain.
Later, I spent some time in a role playing guild. From a more technical point of view, that was also very educational. Roleplaying gamer decisions — what armor to wear, what quests to choose, even whether to walk or run — must be justified by narrative and backstory. Even on an ordinary day, good roleplay gaming presents small but interesting writing challenges. Cheat on those, and guildmates will notice. Do well at them, and become an architect for larger stories.
Eight years and eight games* after EverQuest, I play Aion once or twice a week. It’s cookie cutter in design, but very pretty to look at. My character Ambiguous is musclebound with broad shoulders, purple armor, long flowing black hair, and just a hint of lip color. The female characters seem to like Ambiguous a lot. I also play Left 4 Dead. That game is only about stumbling through warehouses and sewers and forests with a rifle, zombies at every turn. Left 4 Dead gave me strange dreams for a while. (One of them led to There are always children.) All of that said, I’m waiting for Star Wars: The Old Republic, which will come out next year. There’s going to be a smuggler class. Lately I’ve been thinking about how people can be unintentionally heroic while just trying to make a living. I can’t wait to try that out.
*Dark Ages of Camelot, City of Heroes/Villains, Lineage 2, The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, and, of course, EverQuest 2.