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World of Warcraft: One Family’s Battle

As our culture continues to debate the addictiveness of online video games, it's more than just a philosophical issue for the mother of a 25-year-old man we'll call "Joe." During adolescence, her smart, highly motivated son grew so obsessed with World of Warcraft that it crippled him, stealing years from his life. She asked to remain anonymous, yet desperately wants to help other families avoid similar pain:

Tell us about Joe. He didn't really fit the profile of a disenfranchised teen who could only compete in a virtual world, did he?
Not at all. He went through life as Mr. Perfect. People have always expected big things. He's creative, handsome and intelligent, and succeeded at pretty much everything he did, which tells me that anyone can fall prey to these sorts of games.

Did your son play video games from an early age?
It started with Nintendo when he was about 10. We used it as a reward. He would do anything to be able to play. I noticed that when he played Nintendo, he wasn't very obedient or kind, and would get immersed in it. Even though he grew up on a California ranch with a river nearby and had all sorts of activities, he was more interested in the video games. The older he got, the more the games took over. We lost control when they ended up on the computer.

When did you and your husband realize that Joe was in over his head?
He was still living at home at 23, charging $80 an hour to fix people's computers. His door was always closed, so we figured he must be making a fortune in there. As it turned out, he was playing World of Warcraft all day. It wasn't until we urged him to get out on his own that it all made sense. That's when he moved to Colorado to manage a hotel at night. He would sit in his room and play video games all the time. He lived off his credit card. He finally lost that job because he would sneak up from the lobby to play the game instead of working. Meanwhile, Joe had totally cut off all relationships. People were calling to ask about him. I'd just have to say, "I'm sorry, he's gaming. It's not you." Then my husband and I visited the next place he lived. He had no table, just old quilts piled in a corner. There was a bathroom upstairs that he didn't even know was there. The computer sat on the floor, pizza boxes stacked in the kitchen. My son didn't cook or clean. It was as if he was a drug addict. He sat in a hovel in filth playing this game.

How did you respond when you saw that?
I was shocked and horrified. I asked, "How can you live like this?" which made him angry. Soon after that he had a serious motorcycle accident. We went to the hospital and said, "These are steps you need to take to get your life in order. We love you. If you want us to help you, we will. But if you are happy with things as they are, we'll pray for you but we need to leave you alone." He said he wanted our input, that he was done with the games. No sooner was he out of the hospital than he played all night, then lied about it, which led to a big blowup.

When did you realize you weren't the only family dealing with this problem?
I found a lot of horror stories on a Web site called wowwidows.com. One guy wrote that he'd had a roommate who was a meth addict, then got a roommate who was a World of Warcraft addict. He said the behavior was exactly the same. When you're not in the game, you're thinking about playing. You can barely concentrate on your work or relationships because the game is so involved that you spend a lot of mental energy thinking about your strategy and when you're going to play again.

How is your relationship with your son now?
We're seeing improvement. He's at home and off the game. The first week he was back here, we wouldn't even let him bring his computer into the house. We're setting up a budget with him. He has a to-do list and marks things off. Still, he's 25 years old now, so there's been a lot of prayer about our role in setting boundaries.

After years of gaming, has it been hard for him to readjust to life in the real world?
He was very reluctant to get back into the real world. It's sad, but the game world becomes more real and important than flesh-and-blood human beings, even though I asked him after the motorcycle accident, "Are any of your gamer buddies concerned about you? Do they even know your name or where you live? They aren't the real world. I'm your real world. Old friends trying to find you—they're your real world." I'm so grateful to the people in our church. They welcomed him back and had jobs for him to do. I can tell by his politeness and overall attitude that he has stopped playing. You see it in how he acts and gets things done. God is good. I'm praying He'll use our situation to save other families from heartache.

Published May 2008