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Fantasy and the Internet

Reflecting on my own struggles with Internet addiction as well as those of people who have participated in my cyber recovery groups, I am convinced that escape and fantasy fuel our obsession. The mundane rhythms of our lives are unsatisfying, and unfulfilled dreams die hard. The Internet offers a potent outlet, but many of us slip into addiction.

Some escape into literal fantasy worlds, akin to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Everquest cater to tens of millions worldwide. Players develop an avatar, a personalized fantasy character, an alter ego, that grows in experience points and attributes the more they play the game. They often become highly identified with this character. Players combine forces in guilds and cultivate a network of online “friendships,” people with whom they play every single night. These games also tap into the brain’s reward system due to their use of the highly-potent variable interval schedule of reward. Rewards, like advanced armor or a “cool” double-handed sword, are not acquired in a predictable amount of time. Players must log an increasing number of hours to get the next reward. The identification with the avatar, “camaraderie” with other players, and tapping in to the brain’s reward system give these games an incredibly addictive potential. Nightmarish tales of these games abound all over the Internet, and there is even a spousal support group called World of Warcraft Widows. Fantasy, in these cases, overtakes real life.

Fantasy Sports, comprising a multi-billion dollar industry, are also played by tens of millions across this country. Participants are “owners” who build teams that compete against other “owners” based on the stats of real professional sports players. “I ‘own’ four teams,” said Sol, a participant at one of my cyber recovery groups. “I can’t stop checking my players’ stats from my iPhone. I even zone out at work meetings and my wife is getting angry.” Before he got involved in fantasy sports, Sol was a serious sports fan. But something about the ability to constantly check and update his teams’ status threw him into obsession, from which he struggled to break free. “I always wanted to be a pro athlete,” Sol said. “Fantasy sports made me feel like I was.”

The Internet allows us the ability to poignantly express our fantasies. But, for so many of us, our fantasies exist in close proximity to the darker, obsessive sides of our nature. When we begin to indulge these longings, we must beware that we are treading in very troublesome territory. Between 1993-2003, I logged over 14,000 hours playing real time strategy games like Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and Command and Conquer. For me, the fantasy that fueled my obsession was to be a battlefield commander. From the time I was six or seven, I had idolized men like Patton, Hannibal and George Washington. Deep in my heart, I wanted to be the charismatic field marshal who would rally his troops and destroy the oppressor. The cyber-mediated fulfillment of that desire cost me ten years of my life.

Like many who get ensnared by the cyber world, I’m a creative person, full of ideas. While I sat entranced by the computer screen, however, I petered away all my potential, and my ideas evaportated into the endless communion I had with my games. I sound the alarm not to label the cyber world as evil, but to be the voice of reason, to make people aware of the dangers so that great minds do not do society the great disservice of wasting their gifts.

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6 Responses to “Fantasy and the Internet”

  1. Les Hines says:

    Interesting article. I think myself that the traditional board games such as Scrabble can be equally captivating for some.

    Great Blog !

    • kevin says:

      Thank you, Les. Of course, many things can be captivating. I enjoy Scrabble myself. My sister, on the other hand, plays Scrabble online and often spends entire evenings in said pursuit. So, somewhere there is a line between interest and obsession, which is probably a function to whether an activity enhances or detracts from my life. Of course, a true addict does not usually see this distinction.

  2. Michael Irwin says:

    no

  3. Michael Irwin says:

    I the whole avatar business is very interesting. Reminds me of the character in the movie ‘Until The End Of The World’, who becomes addicted to a reviewing recordings she makes of her dreams on a special machine with a screen. For some, I suppose these games occupy a world between waking and sleeping – a field of addiction.

    Great piece.

    Thank you Kevin

    • kevin says:

      Michael, I think your remarks are quite perceptive. Many cyber addicts do escape into a veritably alternate reality. i say that from both personal and professional experience. Thanks very much for your remarks. Have you had any cyber issues yourself?

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