SARASOTA, Fla. — At the height of what he calls his addiction, Ryan Van Cleave would stand in the grocery store checkout line with his milk and bread and baby food for his little girls and for a split second think he was living inside a video game.
It sounds crazy, but it's true: Something would catch his attention out of the corner of his eye — maybe another shopper would make a sudden move for a Hershey bar — and he was mentally and emotionally transported to another world.
World of Warcraft, to be exact.
It was his favorite video game, the one he played every night, every day, sometimes all weekend. The sudden movement in the store triggered a response similar to when he was in front of the computer screen, battling dragons and monsters for up to 60 hours a week. Van Cleave's heart pounded. His breathing quickened.
But then the thirtysomething family man would catch his breath and come back to reality. Sort of.
World of Warcraft began to crowd out everything in Van Cleave's world. His wife. His children. His job as a university English professor.
Before teaching class or late at night while his family slept, he'd squeeze in time at the computer screen, playing. He'd often eat meals at the computer — microwave burritos, energy drinks, Hot Pockets, foods that required only one hand, leaving the other free to work the keyboard and the mouse.
But possibly the most insidious part of his addiction came in the hours when he wasn't gaming. During those times — in class, out with his kids, drinking beers with friends — he thought about the game. Which weapons he should upgrade, which "quests" or challenges to take on, whether to join a "guild," a team of players who conquer territories, gain points and status.
Gaming and thinking about gaming was all-consuming. Yet living inside World of Warcraft seemed preferable to the drudgery of everyday life. Especially when the life involved fighting with his wife about how much time he spent on the computer.
"Playing 'World of Warcraft' makes me feel godlike," Van Cleave wrote. "I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent ... a computer malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cell phone battery — the littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering."
Despite thoughts like this, despite the dissociative episodes in supermarkets, he did not think he had a problem IRL — gamerspeak for In Real Life. But he did, and a reckoning was coming.
Van Cleave grew up in suburban Chicago. He was adopted, which he said always made him feel like an outsider in his own home and in the world. As a kid, he was more interested in guitars and computers.
When a female teacher invited him to her house to look at a crude computer game called "Range Wars" on her Commodore computer, he jumped at the chance. He used this event from his middle school years in the 1980s as the opening scene of a book he would write about his life with video games.
He describes the game as "intoxicating," then moves on to a description of the teacher touching him, leading to sexual encounters with her on three occasions. At 11, he felt as though his insides were shriveling and "crawling with maggots."
Were these complicated first sexual experiences and first gaming experiences forever linked in his mind, thus predisposing him to gaming? Van Cleave doubts it.
"I would have played video games, regardless," he said.
In high school, each year brought more exciting games with better graphics, but his parents didn't see a problem because all teen boys seemed to play video games. And their son also played guitar in a band, so video games weren't the only thing in his life.
Same with college. "Gaming 15-20 hours a week in college is no big deal," said Van Cleave, who graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in English. "The problem occurred after that, when I got into the real world."
Although Van Cleave played games throughout his first job and after he married, he didn't notice that they were starting to occupy more of his time. He was seemingly on an upward career path, publishing poems and selling a young adult novel.
He earned a master's degree and a PhD in creative writing at the Florida State, was named a poetry fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and found a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Then in the fall of 2003, he was offered a tenure-track position at Clemson University in South Carolina — his dream job.
His wife, Victoria, became pregnant for the first time; the baby was unplanned and Van Cleave admitted to being shocked at the idea of becoming a father. He and his wife were late for her first ultrasound because Van Cleave was playing Madden Football, a sports game.
It was around this time that World of Warcraft entered his life. He had heard about how popular WoW was online — especially in Asia — and bought hundreds of copies to mark up and resell on Amazon to overseas buyers.
"I wondered, 'Why is everyone playing this game?' " Van Cleave said. One weekend, when his parents were scheduled for a visit with their new granddaughter, Van Cleave decided to install WoW on his computer — "just test it," he said.
Van Cleave ended up playing the entire weekend, stealing away to the computer while his family was sleeping or while his parents played with his baby daughter.
Victoria used one word to describe her feelings: "disgusted."
"I was too annoyed that he seemed to be avoiding parenting altogether," she recalls. "I was exhausted and frustrated, but didn't realize what was going on until he started playing World of Warcraft ... It was infuriating to hear his phone conversations include extensive planning for a gaming session."
She felt abandoned. "I couldn't believe that someone could choose a virtual family over a real one."
One reason Van Cleave was so captivated: It offered different perspectives. Previously, most games Van Cleave played were seen from a bird's eye view, looking down at the action. In WoW, a player can zoom, pan and look at a scene exactly how a human does in real life. And as Van Cleave discovered, the WoW characters didn't just jerk and shuffle across the screen while playing; they could swim, fly and even dance.
Because he had a free, 30-day trial of WoW, Van Cleave figured he would "play the crap out of it" and then discard the game. He had never paid a monthly game subscription before.
But he didn't uninstall the game at the end of the trial. And he did end up buying a subscription.
Three years into his job at Clemson, Van Cleave's life began to fall apart. His four dogs died, one after another from various causes. His wife was pregnant again. Then Van Cleave began to get the impression that other faculty disliked him and wanted him gone. But he didn't try to repair the rifts, instead channeling his anxieties into WoW, a virtual world he could control. Time management was his biggest problem, he said.
Van Cleave called it his "black period."
"All that tethered me to anything meaningful during this time was WoW, which I clung to for dear life," he wrote.
For millions who play, the lure of games like WoW is irresistible. They're called massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Players create an "avatar," or online character, who operates within a startlingly detailed storyline and graphics. Playing makes the gamer feel like the star of a really awesome sci-fi movie.
While in-game, characters form "guilds," or teams, and go on "quests" to find items, conquer lands or achieve new levels. They occasionally fight with other players or guilds, slay zombies, clash with evil elves or kill monsters. Players talk to each other in the game via headsets and often form intense friendships.
"People play those games often in a desire to meet their social needs," said Hilarie Cash, a Washington state therapist who runs a six-bed inpatient program for Internet and video game addicts. "There's a sense of friendship and self-esteem you develop with your teammates, you can compete and be cooperative. It really feels as though it meets your social needs."
When he started playing in 2004, Van Cleave named his avatar BurritoThief, a gnome with the power to cast magical spells with ice. With each task completed amid molten lava or other vivid scenes, Burrito Thief earned points, and with each kill, each quest, each obstacle overcome, Van Cleave rose within the game's ranks.
Unlike other games, WoW didn't end. It went on and on, with characters roaming through different realms and meeting new people along the way. When Van Cleave had reached the apex of one world and hit the maximum points a character could possess, there were always other characters to create and more loot to amass. Meanwhile, the game makers offered expansions every year, which meant new worlds to explore, new levels to achieve.
"There was always something better and cooler," he said. "You can never have enough in-game money, enough armor, enough support. You've got to keep up with the virtual Joneses."
Cash, the therapist, puts this in context, saying that rewards, levels and scenes change regularly, hooking the gamer.
"We've become very, very sophisticated about designing the right reinforcement schedule to keep people interested," she said. "They are really consciously building highly addictive games."
The maker of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment, declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
In the past five years, news stories have described people suffering exhaustion after playing a game for 50 hours straight, of teens killing their parents after having games taken away and of parents neglecting infants while mesmerized by the online world.
Yet not all authorities believe the games are addictive.
"I do not believe that the concept of 'addiction' is useful; it only describes strong temptations; it does not explain strong temptations. What makes the temptation so strong? The memory of past pleasant experiences with the behavior that we are talking about — in this case videogames," wrote Jackson Toby, a professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, in an email to The Associated Press. "I don't believe that someone can be addicted to videogames."
The American Psychiatric Association will not list video game addiction as a mental disorder in the 2012 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, the APA said there is a possibility that a group of reward-seeking behavioral disorders — including video game addiction and Internet addiction — will be included in an appendix of DSM-5 to "encourage further study."
Van Cleave and others disagree, insisting video game addiction is similar to gambling addiction.
By the time his second baby was born in 2007, Van Cleave was playing some 60 hours a week.
A few months later, Clemson didn't renew his contract and said he would not achieve tenure. He was hired for a one-year fellowship at George Washington University, teaching one class, but that meant he had more time for gaming while the stress of finding a long-term, full-time job ratcheted up.
As Van Cleave's professional prospects dwindled — he applied for dozens of teaching jobs yet no school seemed to want him after Clemson— his gaming skill increased. It was as if World of Warcraft was the only thing he was good at. At least it felt that way. He had achieved 75,000 "kills." A sense of accomplishment, and the corresponding adrenaline rush, he said, were powerful incentives to keep playing.
Van Cleave spent money on gaming. He bought two new computers so he could see better game graphics.
In 2007, Van Cleave had three different World of Warcraft accounts (each at a cost of $14.95 a month). A secret Paypal account paid for two of the accounts so his wife wouldn't hound him about the cost.
He now had dozens of avatars spread out within various realms. When one WoW realm would occasionally go down for maintenance, Van Cleave moved to backup accounts in different realms, allowing him to play continuously.
He spent $224 in real money to buy fake gold, so he could get an in-game "epic-level sword" and some "top-tier armor" for his avatar named Azzkicker, a level-70 human warrior. He had seven characters at this highest level then achievable.
Changes in Van Cleave's personality began to appear. Among those who noticed was his best friend from high school, Rob Opitz, who lived in another state but played "World of Warcraft" with him for years.
"When things in IRL — in real life — would interrupt what was going on in the game, he would get very loud very quickly about those things," Opitz recalled. "During that time, it's kind of like everything was completely over the top. It wasn't that he was a little mad, he was in a full-blown rage."
Van Cleave was about to hit bottom.
It was Dec. 31, 2007. Van Cleave was halfway through his yearlong fellowship at George Washington University. Yet there he was, standing on the Arlington Memorial Bridge. He was thinking about jumping into the icy water.
He had been gaming for 18 hours straight and wasn't feeling well. He had told his wife that he was going to buy cough drops for his sore throat. But his misery was not just physical.
"My kids hate me. My wife is threatening (again) to leave me," Van Cleave would write in his book. "My friends no longer bother to call. My parents are so mad at me, they don't bother to visit their only grandchildren anymore ... I haven't written anything in countless months. I have no prospects for the next academic year. And I am perpetually exhausted from skipping sleep so I can play more Warcraft."
That night marked the first time Van Cleave realized he had a problem.
"It's embarrassing, isn't it? ..." he said. "Everything that you do as a video game addict, is usually small incremental steps. I was like a Charlie Sheen of WoW. Unapologetic and like a rebel, like, screw you, I'm going to play this game...even though I'm not being the best role model for my kids, I'm not being the best husband, I'm not being good to myself."
The self-examination pulled him back from the bridge railing. He went home and deleted the game from his computer.
For the next week, he felt horrible: His stomach hurt, he had migranes and was drenched in sweat — like an addict withdrawing from drugs.
Staying away from WoW was difficult, but didn't re-install the game.
And he started rebuilding — In Real Life.
He began repairing the relationship with his wife and family. At one point long after quitting, he asked his daughter to draw him a picture; in crayon, she drew one of her father sitting at a computer and a second with BurritoThief, his gnome character from WoW.
Said Victoria, his wife: "I didn't believe him. I had heard it all before and had no confidence that he would stop."
Van Cleave worked on his professional life. He freelanced, wrote poems and young adult books. He wrote the tell-all about his addiction, titled "Unplugged" and published last year.
He set his sights on a job, sending out 182 resumes.
In 2010, he was hired as an English professor at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota. Van Cleave and his family bought a beige stucco home in a quiet subdivision.
It's an irony in Van Cleave's new, game-free life that Ringling is one of the nation's top schools for video game designers.
"I'm not holding a crusade on campus," he said. "The school really likes the idea that they are on the cutting edge of these technologies and ideas."
Yet he knows his students spend much of their lives online, and he worries about them. "I don't think video games are evil," said Van Cleave. "That's not what I'm saying at all. I think games are fine if they are part of a balanced life."
Last semester, he had two students in class who talked about WoW non-stop. "Super jargony geek-speak about the minutiae of the game," he said. It made Van Cleave anxious.
His wife, too, is worried that he will relapse.
"Although I believe Ryan has his gaming impulses under control, sometimes I still worry that he may start again," she said. "I also have concerns that my children may have a pre-disposition to gaming addiction in the same way that the children of an alcoholic might."
She added that she thinks that gaming can be educational, but monitors her daughters' playing time and tries to tell them often that "that they are playing a game and none of it is real."
Over the past year, Van Cleave has talked about out-of-control gaming to various mental health groups. Recently, he spoke to the Institute on Addiction Studies in Toronto.
"Some of the things Ryan said, people were blown away, especially the older people," said David Rourke, the chairman of the Canadian institute. "The fact that there could be video game addiction was an eye opener to them."
But even now, four years after he stopped gaming, Van Cleave thinks about World of Warcraft. At first, he occasionally bought a copy but would not download it. Just being close to it gave him a delicious thrill.
Then there are his dreams.
In them, he is playing one of his former characters, running through the virtual world. When he wakes, sweating and out of breath, he always has the same impulse: to rush to the computer and log into the game.