The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When I can’t progress in my love life, I level up in video games

(Getty Images/iStock)

“Let’s go out and get some girls,” my friend said, one day after a girl I’d been dating for six months broke up with me. “Stop playing that game, bro!”

No, I wouldn’t stop.

I needed to play something. Anything to get my mind off the hurt.

For years I’ve been using video games to soothe the pain of being dumped, or dumping someone else. I take two days max of nonstop fantasy. Whether it’s “Super Mario World” or “The Last of Us,” I’ve needed to immerse myself in another world entirely to get over the initial shock. Longer than two days, and I just get further into depression and totally block myself off from the world. Two days is enough.

Gaming has always been about love for me. Love for the game. Love for unlocking achievements in a fictional world where consequence is a figment, where the boy and the girl always live happily ever after. It’s an opportunity to start again from the beginning if the ending wasn’t what you wanted. The exact opposite of real life.

After a breakup, I usually play a game that fits the relationship. I played “Tomb Raider” after one of my harshest breakups. I had known Karen for years, but it had only been online. We still needed to learn a mountain of information about one another when she moved in with me. When we got engaged, neither of us was quite ready, but it was too late. I broke things off because I realized that first. Our engagement was as long as this paragraph.

Karen was an adventurer: beautiful, smart (she spoke at least 3 languages), funny and as strong-willed as anyone I’ve ever met, myself included. Loving her was deeper than any relationship I’ve ever had.

When we were dating, we played video games together, a first for me because none of my exes were remotely interested, and she was even better than me at a lot of them. She reminded me a lot of the character of Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, because Lara was an adventurer, too. A female Indiana Jones. I still play “Tomb Raider” and think of her. But now that the pain of the breakup has passed, I don’t think of what could have been; I’m grateful for what we had. It gave me respect and knowledge for relationships that followed.

Rachel and I had a real whirlwind, passionate kinda thing. We often joked about robbing banks, setting fire to villages. That breakup led me to playing a lot of first-person shooters and “Grand Theft Auto”-type games. I needed to blow stuff up to get her out of my system. It wasn’t that I was going to do any of those destructive things we talked about, but I knew Rachel would probably be leading the charge if I ever did.

My Irish girlfriend, Oona, was more stable. She would talk to me about her home country and about Irish folklore and music. I loved it all … up until the day she left me. I’d heard all the reasons for a breakup because I’d been broken up with a lot, but hers was different: She said I talked about breakups too much. That hurt. What didn’t hurt, however, was the PS2 she gave me on my way out. A farewell present? I guess I spoke about my gaming obsession a lot. She was too mature for me, so I played a racing game to try to catch up.

I’ve found games to be more than simple diversions. There was a time when I was ashamed to mention my affinity for games, but it’s actually quite normal. According to recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week.

Sure, escaping into a video game — and the alternate universe within it — isn’t always a good idea. But there are a lot worse, more physically and psychologically damaging forms of coping. I’ve tried those as well. Yet no drug or drink has quite filled my voids like electronic consoles have.

Maybe I’m just a product of my generation. A millennial born in the mid-1980s, raised during the Nintendo and Sega wars. Maybe I’m just a gamer lost in a romanticism of a time long gone. Or maybe I just haven’t found my Player 2. If she’s out there, I challenge her to a game of Tetris.


How to break up

I thought I was going to marry her. After we broke up, here’s how I coped.

I’m proud to be a veteran. But I don’t want to talk about it on a first date.