-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last week, the Aberrant Gamer was forced to acknowledge spending an alarmingly significant number of hours on games. And not just playing – thinking about them, writing about them, chatting about them and making amateurish game-related craft projects. In and of itself, it wasn’t so alarming.

What gave me pause was how nervous the idea of stopping made me.

To that end, the Aberrant Gamer declared a week-long moratorium on gaming of any kind, in the hopes of learning something about a chronic, habitual game user’s relationship with the behavior, the nature of gaming, and the abiding nature of the soul, or something. In other words, I wanted to see what would happen. And I invited readers, both in the original column and in a challenge extended to the readers of my workblog, Sexy Videogameland.

So how’d we do?

You Mean All Games?

Some of the questions and early feedback I received from participants about my experiment were rather telling. There were a few people who wanted to know exactly what I meant by “gaming.” One email respondent wondered if tabletop RPGs count, and a commenter wondered if he’d have to give up chess and monopoly. “Is Brain Training really a game?” He asked. “Is My French Coach a game? Is it because it’s electronic?” Chess and monopoly are not video games; Nintendo DS cartridges are. Semantics were still the order of the day, however – numerous respondents said they’d love to try the experiment, but they couldn’t, because they just bought an anticipated title, or because they’re halfway through another right now. They were apologetic, but the message was clear – they couldn’t give up video games, because they were too busy playing video games.

I’d soothed my anxiety ahead of the experiment by ordering myself, online, a copy of Sega Genesis Collection for PSP. Scanning and sharing the pictorial evidence of my juvenile enthusiasm for Phantasy Star II made me rather urgently desirous of playing it again, and I figured the shrink-wrapped game would arrive as a tidy reward for an abstinence experiment dutifully conducted. Defying my expectations, it arrived the following afternoon, wrenching my plans by sitting there shiny and plastic-scented on my coffee table, promising me hours of handheld zone-outs if only I’d rescind my commitment.

I almost broke. In fact, weakly deciding that a column wherein I failed to make it seven days might be more interesting than one where I succeeded, I slit open the packaging, put in the UMD and turned it on. Just as the splash screen appeared, the doorbell rang. Dinner. If not for serendipitous timing, I would not have made it 24 hours.

Just Something I Do Automatically

One respondent, with the best of intentions, found himself breaking his vow entirely on accident and habit. “It turns out that picking up a gamepad and switching on the console is something I do automatically,” he wrote, ruefully. “It's strange that I hadn't made any conscious decision to play a game - I just did it, unthinkingly. It's just What I Do at the weekend, these days.”

I was not immune to force of habit, either. On my second successful day of abstinence – it had already begun to feel like an eternity, by the way – I, with equal thoughtlessness, reached out my hand to demand a turn at Umbrella Chronicles. Fortunately, my friend was aware of my efforts and refused to yield me the Wii remote. I was surprised, a bit, at the level of frustration I felt at being denied. Watching him play had created a certain investment in me, a certain bundling of my nerves in preparation for a fight. I would describe it as primal, like how domesticated animals might feel at the scent of blood, but it was less physical than it was a humming at the nape of my neck, a gathering of intangibles in the tendons between the bones of my hands, something agitated stirring a little under my sternum, demanding resolution.

This is the frustratingly tough-to-identify sensation that characterized my go at gamelessness. Like the respondent who emailed me, gaming is What I Do on the weekend. I began the experiment on Thursday, and by the time Saturday morning came around, I had begun to feel preoccupied. I felt the palpable urge to reach for my DS after breakfast as if it were a cigarette, laying on the couch in front of morning cartoons that presented the same absurd, eagerly sincere characters that populate some of my favorite titles.

The Fallen Hero

Instead, I went for a long run, hoping to exert away the restlessness through exercise, thinking as I went that When I Quit Gaming, I Exercised More would make a sparkling takeaway. Instead, my iPod decided to play all of my Guitar Hero music. With rhythm titles, eventually you develop a relationship with a song proportionate to your level of challenge or success at the level in which it features. Playing music from rhythm games when I exercise never fails to give me an adrenaline rush that no other psyche-up tactic can approach. This time, though, it just made me want to play Guitar Hero. Badly.

And I started becoming aware of another kind of building pressure. Not the sort of constant preoccupation, restlessness of the hands that had taken up residence in my body, but an awareness of the gaming community around me. Many of these things take skill. And skills lose their luster with time. What if, the next time I played Guitar Hero, I was rusted? My friend and I had been eagerly planning some online co-op, and I’d even fantasized numerous times at getting good enough to enter local competitions – how embarrassing would it be to fail horribly in public, online, in front of people? I became painfully aware of all the games I had not yet completed. Games that came out in December, and this is January, and how can I be a writer if I don’t stay on top of things? What am I going to do at the end of this week, I wondered? Go back to blogging about BioShock?

I also began to wonder what, exactly, I would have to tell people about how it felt to stop playing. What if I suffered very badly? Could I admit that? Could I admit that it seemed I’d lost my ability to sit still long enough to watch a TV show? Confess that I found movies a slack-mouthed, lackluster, unrewarding waste of time, now that I bothered trying to watch some? How would I describe the creeping unrest in my heart that I began to become just slightly aware of – and more with time – that surfaced slow and sinister now that my hands and mind were not engaged in constant activity and obedience to the laws of a digital world? Things I avoided began to push up against my awareness like water swelling behind a dam. Sometimes it was good to stop avoiding those things – like laundry, or dishes, or phone calls to family members. Other times, it was things I would decidedly prefer to avoid. The experiment was evolving into something uncomfortably personal, and I wondered about my duty to explain it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could not endure seven days without video games. All right, all right. I made it to the end of three days. That’s it.

And in the end, it wasn’t the infuriating psychosomatic humming in my ribcage, the restless urge to translate kinetic energy onto a screen for relief. It wasn’t envy, or the feeling of exclusion from my friends or my community, and it wasn’t fear of falling behind, nor was it fear of what I might have to share if I pressed on.

Homesickness

It was a simple need for comfort. I had an upset stomach Saturday night, and there was nothing to be done for it. There was nothing on television, pain distracted me from reading, I’d already called everyone there was to talk to, I was too uncomfortable to go out and not tired enough to sleep. I remembered being nine, and home sick from school, playing Phantasy Star II in the quiet of the empty house.

I’d put the Sega Genesis Collection on a low shelf under my coffee table, but it was still within arm’s reach of where I lay, under a blanket, with no idea of what to do with myself. Feeling guilty, apologizing internally to the loyal readers more stalwart than I who’d been emailing me dutifully on their successful progress, I put it on. And amid the simplistic chiming music and the soothingly repetitive grind, the feeling of illness did not subside, but a mantle of quietude, of contentment, settled on me.

I played the damn thing for what might have been ten straight hours on Sunday, as if all the more fixated for having been deprived. And, pointedly refusing to consider the ramifications, I’ve played it every night since then. I’ve avoided playing anything else, as if that’s worth anything given that my fixation seems to be singular right now, experiment or not.

So what was it all for? Have I answered the question as to whether or not gaming is an addiction? Or, further, whether it’s a harmful one? To the first, yes, and to the second, probably not – but in all fairness, I chickened out just as my life in the absence of a retreat route into games began to frighten me. Who knows whether I was really sick at all, or whether my temperamental digestion was really a psychosomatic manifestation, just like the tension in my shoulders and the urge in my fingertips.

The World Opens Up

What I did learn – and this was the primary aim – was just a little bit more about why I play, and what gaming means to me, does for me. I thought that without games, the world might open up just a little; that I’d divert that gaming energy into learning new things, visiting new places, developing more relationships. But, even given only a few days to experiment, I realized I felt then, at least for that moment, content with the size of my world and the people in it as they are.

On the other hand, the absence of games left a distinct sense of feeling stranded, as if bridges I had made from my imagination into worlds made by others had been closed for repairs. I didn’t have a bad couple of days; more ordinary than I would have expected, and neither more nor less fulfilling.

But it did feel like my world was a bit smaller; there were emotions, impulses and dreams that had nowhere to travel to, that languished amid the everyday. It’s true that I learned perhaps gaming has cultivated in me a lack of long-term patience, a need for more regular stimulation, a poorer attention span. It’s also very possible that I zone out with games to avoid dealing directly with things that cause me frustration or sadness. But I’m now certain there is a singular fashion in which games engage both mind and emotion – not only for the purpose of play, but for personal reasons both creative and therapeutic – that no other form of media approaches. It’s a quality unique to gaming, it speaks to the power and responsibility game developers have assumed, and it makes sense out of the intense, often perplexing personalization we feel toward the games they make.

Perhaps those that have been thoroughly introduced to gaming in a way that builds that connection really can’t do without it thereafter. And probably, it doesn’t make sense to ask them to. I’ll never ask that of anyone again, and nor will I ever make a similar endeavor myself.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances intermittently for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]