For 6 years I dated a gamer. It was during this time that I stumbled upon MMOs as a possible research site. I was pacing in the living room, thinking out loud about what I would do for my first class research assignment of grad school. My then boyfriend was half listening to my rambling while the rest of his attention was absorbed in hunting Jaggedy-Ear Jack in FFXI. This became my introduction to my first synthetic world.
I did that paper on FFXI and later moved on to WoW - the site of my MA research - and other worlds. Most of the games I played, whether for school or for pleasure, I played with him. We logged in and interacted with each other in both physical space and through our avatars. Over time, our play diverged and we stopped interacting online as frequently; until eventually I switched servers in order to join a guild that was more understanding of my inability to raid 5 nights a week.
I had in the past run with power gamers, but those days were over. Not that I didn’t enjoy them, but I had a thesis to write, then defend, and a PhD to begin. Most of the evenings that I did play my boyfriend was also playing, but we were no longer playing together. Though we were still playing the same game, we played with different groups of people and wore headphones to voice chat with our respective guilds; and so even sitting next to each other we were, in fact, worlds away from each other.
My boyfriend went through a few jobs during this time until he gave up looking and delved full time into his synthetic world. He could no longer afford the game I was at this time still playing, but had switched to a free to play game that worked on a pay per item profit model. In order to make up for his inability to pay for items he spent endless hours grinding and farming to obtain the things he wanted. He regularly began playing before noon and continued well into the night - frequently playing until sunrise.
I was a full time PhD student by this time, working that first year as a waitress and the next as a TA. When I would arrive home I was expected to make dinner and if I wanted to live in a clean apartment it was up to me to clean it. I began to hate the game.
I hated the game he played and felt that hatred every time I walked into the house. I tried spending more time outside of the house (probably a good idea anyway for a shy girl trying to be an anthropologist) but every time someone asked me where my boyfriend was that night I felt the hatred for that game arise anew.
With this hate I also experienced a kind of intellectual schism. I hated a game and yet I was a game scholar. I still believed that "Everquest widows" were nongamers who just didn’t understand and yet I was becoming one myself (no he didn’t play Everquest, but same idea). I was myself a gamer! I continued to play a MMO myself, although, as time passed, I found that my enjoyment dwindled, and even playing a different game with people I had been playing with for a couple of years already, reminded me of how much I hated that other game.
A love/hate war had erupted within me and it was frightening. I had just spent 4 years in school laying the foundations to be an anthropological game scholar, my master’s thesis was based on a MMO, and my first publication - on DKP - was about to come out. In truth, I had no desire to change directions academically, but what was happening in my private life was causing a kind of ethical turmoil in my head.
What was happening was directly related to my work and yet was something I would speak about to no one. Was this really fair? I had no problems writing all about the splintering of one of the largest guilds in WoW and the storm that it had caused, but I was unable to put myself in the position of informant. Life removed from the written word is just so much easier to bear.
I eventually left my boyfriend. It wasn’t because of the game. He said something to me that simply crossed the line of acceptability and I ended it right there. It was unplanned, a snap decision. It was almost 1 year ago now.
So why I am writing this now? Its not because of him. I am over that. In retrospect, I think I was over him before I even left him, I just couldn’t see it at the time. I write this because of the peace that I have academically found with the whole situation. Yes, it took me a while, but we can’t all be perfect and hindsight is so bitter-sweetly 20/20.
In the end what I realized was that I never hated that game. The problem was not the game, the problem was the person. I was not a game scholar that hated a game nor an anthropologist who couldn’t take what she dished out. I simply needed time to process the reality of the situation before I could put it into words ... and so here it is.