Tetris – A simple computer game of shaped blocks that must be maneuvered into the right open space before they drop to the bottom of the screen. Boring to video-game veterans but just easy enough to lure the unsuspecting with its repetitive yet varied nature. Many a writer has been known to spend an entire evening playing Tetris rather than work on that nagging chapter that doesn’t seem to want to be written. Maybe Tetris isn’t your favorite poison – maybe yours is World of Warcraft or some other video game, or reading page 99 of random novels on some new web site you found, or IMing strangers. It doesn’t really matter what your pet poison is. Whether it’s addictive behavior syndrome or avoidance behavior that makes dalliances like Tetris and other games so hard to resist, the end result can be the same.
To illustrate, consider the episode of the popular TV series Star Trek Next Generation (okay, popular for you sci-fi geekazoids out there). Wesley Crusher, perennially cheeky boy-genius and Captain Picard’s perpetual thorn in the side, notices all the crew – including the captain – have become unnaturally enamored of a new game picked up from shore leave. Fitted with elegantly simple headgear that visually projects floating disks in front of the player’s eyes, the player gets a little endorphin ‘charge’ every time he or she mentally maneuvers a disc into any of a multitude of slots in a visual field projected by the headgear. Of course Wesley notices that those who introduced the game to the Enterprise crew have an ulterior motive – getting everyone so hooked on playing the game that they can no longer stop to do their jobs aboard Enterprise, leaving it ripe for takeover. It seems silly to imagine that placing a pretend disc into a pretend slot would be so rewarding that the player could not find the willpower to set the game aside and go to work when his shift starts. But the episode aptly demonstrates that’s exactly what happens when players of the game experience a surge of pleasure each time the disc is successfully placed in the slot.
On a crueler note, scientific studies have shown that lab monkeys will abandon basic necessities such as food in favor of pressing a lever or button to repeatedly activate an induced pleasure response in the brain – continuing to do so to the point of death. And that is precisely how addiction works for humans too.
So back to the question of Tetris and other recreational activities providing an escape from the doldrums of work. Reaching a higher level in the game, or even building a bigger score in the game becomes the sole goal, the end result of continued playing. This false sense of accomplishment while racing against the clock produces the need to play ‘just one more time’ – which easily runs into hours and hours of punching scroll buttons, until sometimes a wrist brace is necessary to alleviate the repetitive injury strain on tendons and muscles. Gambling is the same. Just one more hand of poker, one more toss of the dice, one more spin of the wheel – success could come any moment. The false expectation of accomplishment, with the cycle repeating over and over again, gives no impetus for the player to stop, because racing against a computer or gambling away one’s life’s savings on a roll of the dice quickens the pulse and pushes sweat to one’s brow with a sense of thrill and danger or feeling of accomplishment that must be experienced again and again, faster and faster.
Literally any pursuit, taken to extremes, whether it’s work at a day job or recreational play, can become addictive. Checking your email every two minutes to see if somebody’s rattled your cage, or spending all your time texting silly stuff about what you’re doing at any given moment can become highly addictive and highly dangerous if done inappropriately, like when you’re supposed to be paying attention to boring old driving.
Writing – or the avoidance of writing – can become a source of pleasurable accomplishment that can escalate to an addiction. And once addiction takes hold, all other priorities disappear, even sometimes eating, showering, or socializing with friends and family. What may result is a sense of isolation and further dependence on the addictive behavior to the point of self-destruction. So how does one avoid the pitfalls of addictive behavior traps like video games and other pursuits an individual may find obsessively pleasurable?
Don’t play. If you know you have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, abstinence may be your only answer. If you simply can’t leave it alone, then try some methods to moderate your behavior.
Stick to limits. For those of you who think you’re strong enough to quit anytime you want, take the precaution of timing yourself – set an alarm, and when it goes off, immediately stop playing. If you’re gambling, bring only a predetermined amount to the table that you’re prepared to lose, and no more. If you can’t trust yourself not to mortgage your house, then put your valuable assets away so that you can’t get to them when you’re in ‘addiction mode.’
Take regular breaks. If you’re driving, stop every two hours. It’s not a race to get to your destination if you become so hypnotized by the road that you have an accident. And if you can’t write because you can’t think because you’ve been at it for five hours straight and haven’t stopped to eat or pee, then you’re not doing your body any favors. Hunger pangs or bladder twinges are a good signal that it’s break time. Save your file and get up.
Use common sense. Put things in perspective. Really, just how important is it for you to make that next game shot or stroke, or write that next sentence? Is it more important than doing what you need to do to keep a roof over your family’s head? Which seems to be the better choice – seeing that there’s edible food on the table for your kids, or playing one more hand of virtual poker while supper’s flaming on your stovetop? Playing a silly game or answering an email that means absolutely nothing in the long run should not be the top priority in your life. If it is, you need to change your life!
Writers who are glued to their computer, trying to tap out the next great American novel in desperation instead of taking care of the business of life are no better than Nero fiddling away while Rome burned. Balance and moderation in all things should be every writer’s motto. Otherwise you might find yourself staying up till three in the morning fussing over a recalcitrant chapter, or playing Tetris while your subconscious works on a way to fix that recalcitrant chapter, instead of getting the sleep you need to function at your job the next day. Maybe you’ll get so involved in what you’re doing, you’ll forget lunch, forget to mow the yard, forget to feed the dog, forget to go to work at your day job, or decide those other obligations can take a back seat to your passion, your obsession. But in the end, all you’ll do is make things worse for yourself. When you miss appointments, get reprimands from your boss, and suffer social indifference or loss of family support, you may be tempted to further entrench yourself in your obsessive behavior, in the hope that something will gel or sell. It’s easy to end up falling down and not getting back up.
To avoid allowing the pursuit you love – whether it’s writing or a simple game – to become your worst nightmare, try sticking with a regimen or schedule of planned activity. Every once in a while you can cheat and stay up all night to engage in some time-wasting activity like playing a video game, or putting concentrated effort toward your goal of becoming a successful writer. Just don’t let it take over your life. Kick the habit and stay grounded so you can actually reach your goals – all of them. Later, when it’s cold and snowy out, and you’re all snuggly in your toasty-warm house (that didn’t go into foreclosure because you didn’t repeatedly forget to make your mortgage payment) you’ll be glad you used some moderation and common sense to keep your priorities straight and your addictions under control. After all, what good is having fun if you ruin everything else in your life while doing it? Achieving your life’s goals and enjoying the successes that come with real accomplishments is way cooler than missing your kid’s graduation because you were too busy filling another screen with Tetris blocks! Moderation in all things is the key to achieving success and enjoying life. So write, play, and live. Do it all, do it well, and be happy with your inner balance.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing