One man's journey into the world of RTS addiction, and back again.
By James Pinnell on February 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm
Real Time Strategy: heroin of the hardcore gaming landscape. Its consumption is not only draining, but soul destroying; its almost sensual draw is intense and powerful. Addicts are careful, for detection is the first step of their inevitable intervention.
The smart ones hide their gear; Red Alert 2 are discs “misplaced” in the depths of a desk drawer, Zero Hour permanently in the drive. StarCraft cracked and shortcuts forged because the mind alerting Zerg are the highest grade of purity known to man.
Have you ever been addicted? I was, before I was saved. Saved by the power of gaming diversity itself, the divine being that drip feeds that cleansing variety, the wondrous balance.
But one cannot truly be cleansed. My past was a sordid one — full of micromanagement, nuke cannons and overlord tanks, zerg rushes and cannon spams. Follow me as I detail my road to ruin, and my subsequent path to redemption.
Things were never always like this. My path to ultimate ruin began with a simple speculation, a mere flirtatious curiosity. A friend of mine in high school invited me around to his house in 1994, praising the merits of a certain game. He knew I had a penchant for strategy, a certain interest in anticipating the movements of my adversaries. Eventually, my inquisitiveness peaked and I gave in to sheer wonderment; my evil friend grinning at another potential convert as I, too, fell under the control of Dune 2.
What got me interested in this particularly intriguing concept was the idea of constructing a base. Never before had any game I played provide you with the tools to construct your own army in your own way, in real time. Before long, I was slapping down concrete foundations like the best of them, pumping out little soldiers to do my bidding, extracting spice, and softly cackling as my plans developed to fruition.
That was it. I was hooked. For three weeks I found more and more contrived ways to get invited to my friend’s place. With each play, completing yet another mission, edging closer to the promised control of total domination. Eventually, I took control of the Death Hand; I imagined my enemy commanders weeping uncontrollably, their subordinates looking as each other awkwardly as I dropped missile after beautiful, long range missile on top of their bases. Victory, as it were, was mine.
I ended up finishing Dune 2 about seven times overall, but it did nothing but whet my appetite for more. The release of Command and Conquer forced me to move my new obsession into hiding, as my parents were not fans of violent games. My dad’s old Pentium 75 relished the task of outputting glorious pixel death, and behind closed doors, I took control of the GDI and was again transported into the realm of glory.
Words could not describe the immense feeling of power I felt controlling such enormous armies. For at my very whim, a soldier would gladly undertake what could only be described as a suicide mission, without complaint or restitution. Finding sneaky, subversive routes through impenetrable defenses made my adrenaline rates spike, and I had to force myself to not cry literally out in joy as my tanks rolled to success. For if my father found out about my dirty fixation, it would be likely that Red Alert would not find its place onto my hard drive.
Over the next few weeks, months and years, I found myself up till the wee hours of the morning, my eyes almost baked open by stimulants like No-Doz and Jolt Cola. “Just one more mission,” I would tell myself over the pile of coffee cups staining the half-hearted attempts at schoolwork that littered my desk. I would day dream about German Shepherds and razor wire, constantly thinking of new and exciting ways to tank rush. I couldn’t get enough.
But the worst was yet to come. Because I was only being fed the average gear, the rough stuff, cut with basic tactical advantages and spliced with similarity between factions. As I settled into an existence littered with moments of social occasion in between sessions of WarCraft 2 and Total Annihilation, I began to feel numb. I had developed a resistance to the dripfed excitement that had begun all those years ago. I needed something stronger; I now craved exuberance, euphoria, and that blind sense of cannibalistic power.
I didn’t need to wait long for that fix. StarCraft found its way into my veins on the 31st of March, 1998, beginning the first and only love story I’ve ever had with a piece of software. If you can call relentless devotion “Love,” that is, since I spent the next year with my fingers on the hotkeys climbing up the Australian Bnet ladders. My addiction had left the alleyway and entered the crack den; I now had fellow junkies to share my electronic air with. Only this time, I did the unconscionable: I passed on the terrible affliction to my best friend.
It started innocently. Back then, access to the internet wasn’t cheap, nor fast, and it was charged by the hour (yes, really). Unfortunately for us, Battle.net was on that same internet. For a period, both of us would sit on Bnet for hours at a time, raising the ire of our fathers, furious at the three figure bills from the ISP. But we were hooked, thanks to Pegasus and Blizzard teaming up to serve us a virtual rock of silky dope. Banned from the web, we needed a solution quickly.
Lucky for us, Starcraft allowed for direct connection. At the price of a local call, we would dial into the others’ PC and the matches would begin. In a sense, we had scored. Hour upon hour each afternoon, night and weekend, we would fight. 1v1, 2v6(AI). We would download new maps on our pittance of allowed net time, and continue playing. Before long, we had devised 2v2 strategies so foolproof, that the odd times we could get back on Bnet, we would dominate. This was life.
But, like every addiction, a toll must be taken; my body and mind could accept no more abuse. I banned myself from the PC, forcing myself to branch out and move on. Gaming could not supply me with life’s bounty; I needed a job, a girlfriend, a life. My brain could no longer stand the sight of a Terran marine, nor a Zerg hydralisk. It rebelled. I quit.
Years rolled by and time moved on. I would occasionally pull up the odd skirmish of Red Alert 2, but it was only playfully. Dancing with the idea of taking up the habit again, I could feel a part of me that was empty that longed for the sweet, seductive embrace of a night long session. I resisted… until 2003. Everything changed in 2003. Westwood had decided to release a new product into the market. It was flawed, but different. It felt… familiar. They called it Generals.
I had managed to last three years; I was free of the scourge that had taken over my life. But now that the internet is cheap, I lived out of home, and my roommate was a fellow junkie; everything fell into place like the perfect storm. My bedroom once again became a den of swirling cigarette smoke as I carefully planned bombing runs and commando sabotage. The window between our rooms shared the cool mix of winter air and carbon monoxide along with our exclamations of joy and horror.
I never really recovered from that relapse. Learning to control my addiction became easier than trying to avoid it. Over the years, new elements entered my life and pushed the boundaries of how I dealt with my vice. Supreme Commander, Rise of Nations, and Sins of A Solar Empire all contained their initial challenges, but in the end, I felt I was always the one on top.
In the end, I had no choice but to admit it. I am an RTS addict. I will always be in the iron grip of these tools that provide me with that element of micro-managing control I crave. But it’s important to know when you have a problem. So the question stands; are you an addict?