Wasted on "World of Warcraft?"

By Matt Dickinson 08/29/11

A college professor, who nearly committed suicide after playing the popular game for 60 hours a week, says gaming is a real addiction. Not everyone agrees.

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Are video games as wack as crack? The DSM, psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, insists not. But Ryan Van Cleve, who nearly killed himself over an addiction to World of Warcraft, begs to differ. He's hardly a stereotypical gaming addict—neither a teen virgin nor a sociopath, he’s a married 30-something college professor with two kids. And his new quest is to convince the psychiatric world that gaming addiction is real. The English professor recently wrote Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction and gave an epic interview to Yahoo! about his travails. His initial 15-20 hours a week “habit” didn’t stop him publishing a novel or securing a job. But after he discovered World of Warcraft, things began to unravel. In the strikingly real war game, characters form "guilds" and alliances that often lead to intense friendships with other gamers, communicating via headsets. Within months, Van Cleve was playing 60 hours a week. He admits he's always felt like an outsider in the real world, while WoW made him feel secure and “godlike," allowing “ultimate control” over a fantasy realm. By comparison, “The littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering." Even as his avatar rose through the ranks, there was always more to conquer, more loot to amass. "You can never have enough," he says.

Within three years, he'd lost his job at Clemson and his wife was considering divorce. He escaped further into WoW as his real world came undone. On New Year 2007, after gaming for 18 hours straight, Van Cleve hit his bottom. He went to a nearby bridge, intending to jump. Standing on the brink, he finally realized the extent of his problem. He went home and deleted the game. Horrible withdrawals dogged him in the first week: migraines, nausea, and night sweats that he compared to withdrawing from drugs. Van Cleve isn’t the first addicted gamer to have experienced some extreme effects, yet many authorities see the behavior as more obsessive-compulsive than addictive. Ironically, four years free of gaming, Van Cleave began teaching at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, a top video game design school. It might seem like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar, but he insists "I don't think video games are evil. They’re fine if part of a balanced life." Even now though, he sometimes has World of Warcraft dreams, running through a virtual world as a former character. When he wakes, sweating and out of breath, he always has the same impulse—to rush to the computer and log on.

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