The Face Behind the Screen

photo courtesy of Koku Gamer

This past weekend at Blizzcon I met several interesting people.  And I was reminded yet again how every gamer has a story, a very human story.

The first person I met while socializing in the ½ mile line of people waiting to get in was Luke (all names have been disguised.)  Luke was a gay man who had begun playing World of Warcraft with his then partner and friends about 2 years ago.  In the course of the past two years, Luke and his partner had tried unsuccessfully to adopt a child, which he believes was thwarted by a judge who did not think gay couples should marry.  He and his partner saw the legalization of gay marriage and its overturn in his state, CA.  His partner had lost his job, and their relationship subsequently deteriorated, ending in divorce.  Throughout all of this Luke was able to stay connected and supported by his friends and other members of his guild.  He attributes his ability to move on and be ready for the next phase of his life through the enjoyment of WoW and his guildies.

A second man credited WoW with saving his life.  Sam was working abroad in Qatar in the Middle East.  He told me how he had fallen into a profound loneliness and depression shortly after moving out of the country.  His work began to suffer, and he had a hard time dealing with the isolation.  All his friends were back in the US, and he had a hard time being in touch with them.  He had seriously begun contemplating suicide.  Then he remembered that his friends had been pestering him to try this game, World of Warcraft.  He had nothing to lose, so he loaded the game onto his computer.  He found the game very compelling, and was even happier to discover that he could log on to the same server as his friends at home.  They were able to raid and talk together for the next 9 months he was living in the Middle East, and isolation and suicidality became a thing of the past.

I also met Matt, a young man in the elevator, wearing his gaming regalia.  “How are you enjoying the convention?” I asked him.  He looked glumly at me and pointed to his badge which said “TEAM 127” on it.  “I came in 5th,” he said.  “Congratulations,” I said, adding, 5th place isn’t bad.

“5th place you only win $1000,” he said, “1st is $25000.”  Turns out that he had been flown across the country to participate in the WoW tournament.  So much for gamers as slackers who have no ambition or work ethic.

I wish my colleagues could meet the thousands of people like Luke and Sam who made the trip to Anaheim for Blizzcon.  They would see some very resilient people who were dealing with some pretty big life problems.  These weren’t people who checked out of reality, instead they leaned on the virtual world and the human relatedness they found through it.  I was struck by how affable and engaging everyone I met was.  They were so happy to be in a place where they could engage with others around the games they enjoyed.  The stereotypical lack of social skills people associate with gamers was not what I saw. I saw people willing to strike up a conversation with me as we waited in line.  I saw fathers and their adolescent sons and daughters spending quality together.  I saw couples of every configuration and entire families, all spending time together, not avoiding human contact.

I hope you’ll keep these stories in mind the next time you hear someone making fun of a gamer, or criticizing online gaming.  Each gamer has a story, just like each of our patients do.  And each story deserves our respect.


  1. Carolyn Stack says

    Yay Mike. You’re on a single man mission to save the psychotherapy world from being left in techno dust. You rock!

  2. Hi Mike, you’ll be pleased to hear I (involuntarily!) found myself defending gamers in a session with a coaching client yesterday – not sure I convinced her but I did invoke a moment of thought. Definitely down to your influence!
    From another perspective, your story about Sam left me feeling slightly uneasy. I think my unease started when I read ‘he found the game very compelling’ – how different is that from finding a good novel compelling? Probably not at all, perhaps the word ‘compelling’ just provoked my old stereotypes as I started to feel ‘obsession…compulsion…escapism…’ coming up from somewhere deep inside. Interesting how easily these are reactivated. But I then did hesitate because I thought about the irony (?) of a game called ‘World of Warcraft’ saving a man’s life. I’ve never played this game and know nothing about it, but I kind of didn’t like the link with violence that the title provided. Just a few reactions and thoughts.
    All best wishes,

    • Karin, when I used the word compelling I think I meant it in the same sense you used for a book. Interestingly, I often use the example in my workshops about how we don’t tend to judge a person for spending several hours a night reading Dickens’ “Bleak House,” in the same way we do with online games. After I used this example enough, I think I sent a message to myself, because last month I bought the unabridged version of “Bleak House” for my iPod, and am finding it both compelling and an excellent wind-down for my night!

      • The next stage on would be for someone to create a game based around Bleak House – and to do a comparison of which is more compelling!

  3. What a great post. I love it, as I can relate to my son experience with EverQuest. He started playing EQ when he was ten. Now he is 21 and still plays it. My son went through some Depression a couple of years ago, and after having psychotherapy for a little while, part of the outcome was for him to go back to play EQ and I think it helped him a lot. He definitely enjoys the leadership in the guild, and the team work. One of the posts on my blog was actually based on a conversation with him about EQ. This is the link to my blog post:

    Thanks Mike for sharing with us.


    • Doris, thanks for the link, that post was powerful in a way only a parent’s dialogue with their (adult) child can convey. I hope other visitors here will read it as well! Tell Ernie that it inspired me to download the free 10-lvl starter kit for EQ, and will check it out so I can broaden my gaming horizons.

      For those of you out there who don’t know this, most games offer you a free period of time to try their game, ranging from 10 days to 1 month. So if you want to be a more gamer-affirmative therapist, you can do it by giving some of your time, but no money!

  4. Great article on the power of gamer participation and overcoming depression. I really like your stories Mike, they are a breath of fresh air. There is hope in a group of people that share similar interests, and good communication when they all get together ! Thanks for the post.


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