Be Wary of Happiness

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The message was scrawled on the ground at the entrance to the Undead Burg, left by another player making their way through the unforgiving world of Dark Souls: “Be wary of happiness.”

It’s a warning not to be complacent. As with any Souls game, no victory is permanent and each tough enemy slain is a stepping stone to something even tougher. Behind every mountain you climb, there’s a bigger mountain waiting. Over time you realize that the true reward of Dark Souls is in the pleasure of the struggle.

But when I saw the message, all I could think of was Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which I had just quit playing. In contrast to Dark Souls’ organic sense of striving, FFXIV‘s MMORPG mechanics felt more like running a treadmill, following a breadcrumb trail of incremental rewards. Ultimately, I was happier playing Dark Souls. I hardly suspected that a week later, I’d be back in Eorzea—the fictional world of FFXIV—and on my way into a spell of compulsive gaming that would nearly cost me my job.

I was 19 when I tried my first MMORPG. Final Fantasy XI had just come out in the U.S., and I was hooked instantly. I joined a static party with friends from a Final Fantasy message board, staying up late every night for marathon play sessions. The longest I can remember was eighteen hours straight, killing crabs and damselflies in the Valkurm Dunes.

At the time, I was living with my parents while attending community college. As I played the game, I became irritable, withdrawn, and intensely depressed, frequently skipping classes. I went on antidepressants, then quit them because they made me feel listless and unbearably foggy. I knew the game was affecting me badly, but found it difficult to make the decision to quit. As long as I can remember, I’ve had an addictive personality. I grew up with, among other things, a serious impulse control problem around food, and a strong bent towards escaping into fictional worlds. MMORPGs and I were always going to be a bad match.

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When I returned to FFXIV after a week with Dark Souls, it was because my friends had sent me screenshots of their characters having fun on a virtual beach, in brand new outfits from a seasonal event that began just after I quit. I felt like I was missing out on something major, some key piece of fun in my life. Why not reward myself, I thought? I’m 30 now, and I’ve learned a lot more about responsibility and impulse control than when I was 19. Sure, I had quit FFXIV the first time because I felt myself becoming compulsive about it, a red flag I’ve learned to heed over the years. But this time was different, I told myself. I’d grown up a lot in the last 11 years. I could handle it.

And at first, I could. But it wasn’t long before the game was playing into the worst of my obsessive and addictive tendencies. I thought about it constantly; I would read FFXIV wikis all day at work, making long, nested to-do lists for my character and elaborate diagrams of my skill rotations for battles. The friends I played with were also coworkers, and we conducted endless email chains in which we discussed the game, its world, our strategies and even the finer political and emotional resonances of the game’s well-developed story. It had become my world. And I was maintaining a kind of functional auto-pilot in life and at work, or so I thought.

Staying up late to play, I was getting less and less sleep. This came to a head one day at the office, when I’d only slept a couple of hours but decided to power through it. Halfway through the day, I had prepared an order for a big client, sent it out, and was preparing to take my lunch break so I could catch a nap. Before I could, the phone rang; it was the client. In my exhaustion something had escaped my notice, and I’d made a critical error on the order. I immediately began doing damage control and managed to smooth things over as much as possible, but the implications were clear in my mind: If the client decided to take their business elsewhere over this, I would lose my job.

I still played Final Fantasy XIV when I got home that night. Only this time I was noticing soberly that I had the same hopeless, foggy feeling as the year I spent on antidepressants—and I wasn’t on any medication.

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We tend not to think of video games as habit-forming in the same way that drugs, alcohol, and junk food can be. For many people, moderation with games is easy, something they take for granted. But for people who deal with compulsion, depression, and other mental health issues, MMORPGs can be dangerously seductive. They tap into our desire to escape and reward us with an alternate life where we’re heroes, in worlds that seem far more coherent and beautiful than our own. When a game presents a synthetic sense of meaning, an alternative to having to find meaning in real life, it can become dangerous, even dissociative.

Our big client didn’t leave, and I didn’t lose my job. But I continued to play FFXIV, and continued to make serious errors. I was mentally checked out. Eventually it was made clear to me that any more errors would result in a black mark on my record, a prelude to getting fired. At that point, I knew I’d overstayed my welcome in Eorzea.

Slowly, I scaled back the amount I played and, after a few weeks, quit the game. And when I finally dislodged myself from the fantasy, I couldn’t believe how relieved I was. My mind was beyond exhausted from running on the MMORPG treadmill. I was no closer to being happy, because as much as Eorzea filled me with a simulated sense of reward, it wasn’t real happiness. How could it be, if I had to mortgage my own life against it?

I’m still at my job. I have slowly begun to recover the focus and attention to detail that made me good at it in the first place. It was tough to return to the real world, to its grind and stress. It meant facing up to the depression and struggle for meaning that I’d been trying to avoid. But if there’s anything Dark Souls has taught me, it’s that happiness is not about being given everything you want. Happiness is about struggling, growing, and evolving. Happiness is savoring the view from the summit before climbing the next mountain. After quitting FFXIV, I’m looking forward to spending some time away from video games on the other things I love in life—friends, family, writing, nature, plans for the future. When I come back, it’ll be Dark Souls that I load up. Ornstein and Smough are waiting, and I’m terrified. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a while.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.