I’m a recovering addict. Oh, please. No. Don’t give me that look. And please stop sneaking glances at my pale arms. It wasn’t drugs. I was addicted to a game: the online version of Settlers of Catan. Now the pity has dripped off your face, replaced by an open mouth, choking on laughter. If you can control yourself, I’ll tell you how it all played out.
I was on vacation with friends in December 2008. They’d brought various games to play: Set, Bohnanza, and Settlers of Catan. Karen was an MIT graduate student. Her husband, Jeff, a programmer. These are the people who play Settlers of Catan: nerds. I didn’t like the game. The object—to gain ten points first—is simple. The way you do that: build settlements and cities, and/or develop the largest army, construct the longest road, or get points cards, is not simple. The circles on the board have numbers, weighted by the statistical probability of being rolled. I never won a game on that trip. And I like winning.
But the game did afford the chance to socialize and talk trash. I come from a Scrabble family where the exchange of insults is seventy-five percent of the fun. “The game has stopped.
“Must be Mom’s turn.”
Settlers, with its reliance on bartering, was ripe for salty talk.
“You want me to give you three ore for your sheep? Is its wool coated in gold or are you ignorant about the basics of commerce?”
I liked it enough to continue playing. Once I began playing as the dealer, I got good. When you’re responsible for handing out the resource cards, you have a clear idea how everyone at the table is doing.
As my interest grew, opportunities to play decreased. Three players are necessary, and at home it was just Todd and me. At work, my friends’ ability to play waxed and waned with research deadlines.
That’s when I found an online version I could play alone, day or night. Setting up the account was easy. And, if you felt, as I did, unsure of playing with strangers, you could play with robots. The bots were a bit simple, though. The creators had named them after Friends characters. When I wearied of Phoebe and Chandler, I moved onto human competitors.
The online version, with automated set up, guaranteed fast game play. In the time it took to play one board game I could play two online games. The players were ranked, and most were quite skilled. Did I glean that perhaps the fact that they were logged in every time I was might be a clue to their expertise? My online handle, SparkleMotion, attracted attention from Donnie Darko fans. I stopped explaining I wasn’t a super fan of the movie. It took precious seconds that were better spent playing.
People are not their best selves online. For proof, visit the comments page of any online op-ed. Online Settlers should have come with a warning: Here be monsters. Pace of play was crucial. In order to ‘roll’ the dice you had to mouse over and click the computer dice as they rotated. If you got up to pee or to answer the door you might leave the dice on screen, changing numbers, never stopping. Then the aggressors would start in. The comments box would populate with “Where the fuck R you?” and “Your turn!!!” and “Your quitting?” (Spelling and grammar was abhorrent, a fact that brought me small comfort when I’d lost badly to someone who didn’t understand the rules of apostrophe use.)
And still I played. As soon as I got home I‘d open my laptop and type the game’s URL, which would autocomplete because I visited so often. I’d look for a three-person game (four-person games took too long) with suitably ranked players that hadn’t made it onto my ‘do not play with’ list. Bad behavior had seen that list grow. I’d stare, my eyes itchy with screen fatigue, mumbling as my road extended toward the coveted clay port.
“Are you playing another game?” Todd would ask. I hadn’t left the couch in hours, except for food or bathroom breaks. My body ached from sitting cross-legged without moving. Uncrossing my legs took effort and I needed all my power for playing.
“Yes,” I’d say. Part of me resented his question. If he could watch and rewatch The Prestige a million times, why couldn’t I play my game a few times a night?
On those rare nights when I played the board game with friends, impatience made me jiggle my legs, sigh, and look about the room. No one online played this slow, took this long to decide whether to build or trade or pass the dice. If they did, they’d get cursed out. Or other players would rage quit. Rage quitting meant leaving the game because you’re angry. People did it when they were losing or because they thought other players were colluding against them. I’d rage quit a time or two.
My friend, Karen, told me her online account had been shut down due to inactivity. “They only do that if you haven’t played online in four months,” I said. She said that sounded right. I could not imagine not playing for so long.
Todd told me I played too much. My friends expressed surprise when they learned how often I played. And I was lying about my consumption. “What are you doing?” Cooking. Reading. Writing. No, I wasn’t. And I should’ve been.
About a year into my online gaming, I was home on vacation from my day job at the MIT Media Lab. A day I’d set aside to write and edit, though I did neither. Instead, I sat in my office, at my laptop, deciding whether or not to spend an ore, a sheep, and a wheat on a development card. It was the same day the cleaning ladies Todd had hired, to preserve domestic harmony, came. From the kitchen came the sounds of running water and the vacuum’s whirr. The loud humming got closer. Lucy neared my office, the vacuum hose in hand. And as she approached my finger hovered over the game’s close tab, and clicked it. The island of Catan disappeared and my abandoned manuscript reappeared. I scooted my chair back.
In that moment, as Lucy came closer, I’d felt anxiety, awkwardness, and shame. I’m sure she didn’t give a damn what I was up to. But I didn’t want her to know I was playing another game. And it was then that I realized what I had not accepted before. I had a problem.
Weeks passed. I restricted myself to three games a day. Or made myself do ten pushups in order to ‘”earn” a game. But I knew it wasn’t enough. Just as I knew that, at the end of my life, my deathbed regret wasn’t going to be “I wish I’d played more Settlers of Catan online.” So I quit. I didn’t delete my account. I couldn’t trust myself to revisit the site. Some days, when I found myself with spare time, I’d think about logging on. Maybe just play a game with Phoebe and Chandler, for old time’s sake. Old times’ sake? They were robots. Nostalgia wasn’t part of their program. I couldn’t play just one game. So I didn’t.
I still play the board game with friends. I win a fair amount. They joke that I’m good because I played online so much. Possibly. Playing with foul-mouthed rage quitters taught me strategies. Such as don’t get involved in a road-building contest because it will distract you from other sources of points.
I once joked that my friends ought to have given me a chip when I’d been offline, cold turkey, for a year. They just laughed. Because that’s what people do when you tell them you were addicted to a game featuring a robber, knights, and sheep. It’s not like drugs or alcohol. Hell, it doesn’t command the respect sex addicts receive. Leave it to me to pick the laughable addiction. I’ve never been one for serious.