As of 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has posited ‘gaming addiction’ as its own bona-fide mental disorder. But even though “persistent or recurring gaming behaviour” can have a negative or damaging impact, naming so-called ‘gaming disorder’ as an illness is one that raises many problematic questions. True, gaming seems to be a draw for many people seeking escape from real life, and a considerable number of these people will therefore prioritise their lives in-game. But is it that compulsion that makes people ill, in and of itself? That seems a dangerous misjudgement, and insensitive to those who know gaming as salvation from their existing issues and worries.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie’s self-proclaimed “elite NEET” Moriko Morioka has never been able to find satisfaction in a professional lifestyle. For her, being a working adult was synonymous with isolation, alone in her office well into the night, and coming home exhausted to begin the whole depressing cycle over again. The only hope and purpose for her was online gaming, but by the time we’re introduced to her it’s been months since she last logged in. Work was a wall between her and the one place she felt at home and accepted. So she quit, like turning a light back on in her tiny world, tired to the point of tears.
Western gamers have told their own stories of losing and quitting jobs over their believed addiction to gaming. Kotaku’s Mike Fahey resigned from his job at Fastsigns in 2001 “because I was tired of making excuses for being late, and I just wanted to play EverQuest”. But there are cases in which the deeper-seated reasons behind such dependence are apparent in the written experiences of the subject. “I was quite angry with my parents for being away so much”, Andrew Woods recalls for The Telegraph, bought an Xbox to keep him entertained through their regular absences. “Games like FIFA and Call of Duty became a great way of escaping from life.”
Moriko could consider herself blameless beside certain women who became addicted to games. Rebecca Christie was imprisoned for 25 years after allowing her daughter to starve to death, so engrossed was she in World of Warcraft. When VICE spoke to Patricia, a 69-year-old recovered WoW addict, she said “I wanted to shut out real life totally. I just wanted to climb in the game and stay there“.
None of these cases, however, speak to Moriko’s experience of healing and rejoining life through an MMO. Starting up a new profile in a new game, her old favourite discontinued in her time away, she soon rediscovers what it was like to feel confident and welcome as part of a larger world. She finds her support as she gets to know the mechanics of Fruits de Mer in Lily, a seasoned healer who helps Moriko back up with a smile. Except, this avatar is decidedly not Moriko. She chooses to appear as a hot guy called Hayashi. He is heroic, serene and strong in her mind, but currently having trouble with running towards a foe, rather than beating a noob’s accidental retreat.
This character becomes Moriko’s means of reclaiming an active role in her own life, rather than being at the whim of the opinions of others. Not only in the virtual sense, mind you, but in the real world too. When her Fruits de Mer friends, including Lily, start popping up in her everyday life, she starts reconsidering her outlook on the world outside her apartment, her world, and why she’s avoided the people who are a part of it.
Gaming is only one way of forging and reforming connections to others, especially when submerged in the international hodgepodge of MMOs. But it is a legitimate one, hampered by decades-old fears of video games encouraging violence and otherwise antisocial, basement-dwelling behaviour. It can be a buffer for transition between a healthy social life as an anon, and as your far less customisable flesh and blood self. Through gaming, Moriko realises that the people who play Fruits de Mer are the same as the guy behind the counter at the convenience store, sometimes literally.
It is human to be uncertain how one’s identity fits with the rest of the world. It is human to have periods of desolation and loneliness, which can sometimes feel unfounded given being surrounded by people who care. It stands to reason that the people further isolated by their mental illness, psychological struggles or disabilities would be pulled towards a safe space to define that belonging, intentionally or otherwise. Yuta Sakurai, though he may seem more ‘together’ than Moriko, has his own stresses he’s been repressing for the sake of being an upstanding citizen. He created Lily as an identity through whom he could be carefree, and shake off the constant societal pressure not to cause trouble for others with unnecessary displays of emotion.
Then again, perhaps Sakurai’s reasons for playing a girl go even deeper than the fact that it allows him to be emotional. In choosing to embody femininity in all its stereotypical pink frilliness online, he could well be seeking the reason why he feels the need to play up to a role in his real life; one born of gender expectations. In a Japan whose fashion sects are breaking down boundaries of gender expression, and where androgyny is the ‘in’ thing for men, its working world is still bound by a restrictive masculine culture, high-pressure lives lived drinking and socialising with colleagues when not on the clock.
On Sakurai’s side of the matter, we see how he expresses himself in real life versus online. We notice the alternate existence he keeps secret from his colleague and friend Koiwai, who nonetheless calls him by the feminine nickname “Sakura-chan”. Considering the apprehension towards otaku that still lingers despite its increasing cultural acceptance, it’s understandable that he’d want to distance his professional life from his personal attraction to kawaii cuteness. Such perversion as creating an alternately gendered narrative for oneself could endanger his social standing, if let slip to the wrong person.
The character of Lily is Sakurai’s only tell of a hidden yearning to show gentleness, compassion and welcome romance into his life. He makes slow steps towards that in his real life with Moriko, through small, spontaneous acts of tenderness, as she learns to take responsibility for her own choices and happiness. All the while, societal expectations to keep your head down and do the work puts such mental and physical strain on others like Sakurai that they will commit suicide or work themselves to death before speaking out about their health.
It’s hazardous to assume that gamers are putting their well-being at risk, when it’s a link to a social world that they rely on. Anyone could have their lives changed for the better by gaming—as an example close to my own heart, two of my friends met on World of Warcraft, are now happily married and expecting their first baby. MMO Junkie takes the refreshing stance of exploring that games can be a viable means of players bettering their mental health and lives as a whole.
Pokotaro and elf Himerelda, members of Moriko’s guild, stand as proof of how games and functional lives aren’t mutually exclusive. They themselves are married, sometimes playing each other’s characters, and Pokotaro logs in at net cafes on his three-hour commute home from work. Moriko can rejoin her world because of Fruits de Mer, the friends she’s made there and how they support her with her worries AFK. She can be brave because she knows they would be cheering her on, and as if through pure self-actualisation, she finds those friends in the real world.
Though the WHO may believe otherwise, gaming itself doesn’t cause isolation and harmful behaviours, but rather attracts such isolated people; those suffering from mental afflictions which make social life a struggle, giving them a link back into the wider world. Logging in with people who most probably have their own psychological reasons behind their escapism relieves the loneliness and damage of suffering alone. Even in isolation, there can be comfort, and to some that could be a life-saving prospect.