The worst parts, Callum says now, were the mornings—the five-minute drives back home at 6 or 7 A.M. after another night spent planted in front of his office computer, battling druids and death knights. The painful San Antonio parking-lot-at-dawn sunlight. The faces of commuters headed in the opposite direction, fresh from nights of sleep.
Callum would time his entry into the house so that his mom might mistake the front-door alarm chirp for the arrival of their housekeeper. Then he’d sneak upstairs to get an hour or two of sleep, after which—heading back now to the office he’d just left—he’d feel so exhausted and ashamed that only one activity offered even the slightest relief: more World of Warcraft.
It hadn’t always been this bad. In high school Callum had been your standard-issue game-addled 16-year-old: a few hours a day of Warcraft mixed in with ordinary Texas teenage stuff—football, basketball, seeing Vampire Weekend play at Austin City Limits. Then he went to college at Southern Methodist, where, despite swearing off gaming, he performed poorly in class—so much so that his mom decided he needed to come home and get a job. This is when his problems (although he didn’t think of them as problems) really started.
Callum was embarrassed to tell his friends that he’d failed out of school, so he stopped talking to nearly all of them. His mother’s boyfriend, Chris, a natural-resources lawyer, finagled Callum a job as a legal aide at his firm—Callum’s office a few floors below Chris’s—which placed Callum directly in that professional sweet spot of being both unnecessary and difficult to fire. There was no school, no social life, no responsibilities to prevent him from spending all his time gaming, and so that’s what he did, with an industriousness few knew Callum possessed.
Each morning, after coming into the office, Callum would spend 20 or so minutes reading depositions, maybe, or running errands to the courthouse. Then, with the door closed, he would play World of Warcraft. His fingers hovering over the keyboard, ready to switch to another program if a manager came near, he would play until the last of his colleagues went home for the day at 7 P.M.
Which is to say that before World of Warcraft became Callum’s disease, it was something like his job. He adhered to a schedule; he trained; he joined a guild (his in-game team, the spell-casting mages and ax-wielding warriors that doubled as avatars for friends he’d never met). In free moments he would study the keystrokes of his rivals, angling for efficiencies. At one point, in one aspect of the game, Callum was—of the more than seven million people who play World of Warcraft—ranked seventh. (Upon learning that he cracked the top ten, finally, after years of effort, he stood up, realized he had no one to celebrate with, and sat down.)
Even this victory wasn’t good enough for him: He adjusted the resolution on his office computer to the point where he could barely see the game, hoping to free up more processing power and thereby afford himself a few extra milliseconds of responsiveness. When this didn’t work, he ordered, with the last $2,000 in his savings account, a souped-up Origin gaming laptop. He entertained thoughts of becoming number one. He considered maybe even going pro.
It wasn’t that Callum loved the time he spent playing, really. Despite the hours he poured into it, World of Warcraft actually brought him less pleasure, minute by minute, than making notes on a deposition. Playing was just the only balm capable of alleviating the increasing shame he felt about how much he played.
At the end of each workday, Callum would walk out of the building with his colleagues, but instead of driving home, he’d circle around to McDonald’s (burger, ten-piece nuggets), then the gas station (six Monster energy drinks), and then head back to the office. Because the daytime playing was basically just maintenance, the Warcraft equivalent of chores. Night was when Callum and his guild really got down to business. Callum would put on his helicopter-pilot headset and, powered by 96 ounces of chemical energy, play until the San Antonio sun crept up.
The lies Callum told his family to sustain all this—because not everyone is impressed by global efficiency rankings—became increasingly elaborate and unconvincing. He was, he told his mom, spending his nights working out at Life Time Fitness; he couldn’t exercise during normal hours, he explained, because he was embarrassed to have people looking at his body.
His family wasn’t that oblivious. On January 5, a Monday, Chris walked into Callum’s office and told him that his mom needed help at home. Callum drove the five-minute route, thinking nothing of it. But when he walked into his living room, he found his entire family standing, waiting: Callum’s divorced parents, whom he hadn’t seen in the same room in he didn’t know how long. Two of his three elder sisters. Chris. Callum took a seat, and one by one his family members sat down and read aloud letters they’d written to him. I hate what these games are doing to you, I’m so worried for you, I hope you’ll get help. Every person cried. Callum sat speechless. And then a fiftysomething bearded man named Scott stepped forward, flown in at Callum’s parents’ behest from a place in Redmond, Washington, called ReSTART, the nation’s first residential center for digital addiction. Operating closely with local 12-step addiction-recovery groups, ReSTART aims to take young men like Callum—broken-down, computer-obsessed—and make them once again fit for society.
Scott explained that if Callum chose to go to ReSTART, he would be there for a minimum of 45 days, and that if Callum wanted, he could go there immediately. Callum, still unable to speak, just nodded. His sisters had already packed his bags. He was on a plane to Seattle two hours later.
To get to ReSTART you can either ruin your life by playing video games 20 hours a day or you can take Route 202 15 minutes south from downtown Redmond. The road runs between stands of pine trees so tall that they register as dark green canyon walls. The whole landscape, once you get clear of the strip malls and self-storage facilities, feels damp, forested, vaguely Jurassic.
The ReSTART house (it is, despite being called a center, just a suburban house) stands massive, blue and shingle-roofed, with a yard that features a tree house and a chicken coop and a stone chess set with pieces that come up past your knees. The place looks like it could belong to your hippie aunt, and it sort of does. A social worker named Cosette Rae, along with a therapist named Hilarie Cash, founded ReSTART in what until then had been Rae’s house. They converted some rooms on the second floor into offices, painted inspirational quotes on the wall (“What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters…”), and opened for business in the summer of 2009.
Since then ReSTART has treated something like 200 people. A typical stay lasts between 45 and 90 days, and costs $26,000 (expensive-sounding, but typical for live-in rehab of any type). Upon arrival patients must surrender all digital devices. Nearly every ReSTART patient is a male between the ages of 18 and 28. (The program has recently started accepting women, but so far they are thin on the ground.) ReSTART occasionally accepts patients bedeviled by online shopping or social media, but video games are the meth of the digitally addicted world: wildly popular and horribly destructive. It isn’t that video games are so different from other online fixations, the founders of ReSTART believe, it’s just that they’re more extreme. The devout social-media user might worry what people think of the witty “character” he plays on Twitter; Callum cared so much about the fate of his World of Warcraft alter ego—a tall blue-haired elf he named Voga—that he adopted the schedule of a Navy SEAL.
Hilarie Cash presides over ReSTART, part therapist, part den mother. About 20 years ago, in 1994—right around when most of ReSTART’s current patients were being born—Cash was working as a therapist in Redmond, the town in which Microsoft is headquartered, when a man came into her office. He was a Microsoft employee in his twenties who couldn’t stop talking about a computer game. This was a proto-multiplayer online game, a text-only version of Dungeons & Dragons. His marriage broke up over it. He lost his job.
To that point, Cash had had a standard therapeutic practice built to help clients cope with depression, anxiety, and life crises of all types, but with that patient, her life turned. She started giving lectures about digital addiction. She wrote a book. She became increasingly convinced that her Dungeons & Dragons–playing Microsoft employee had been Patient Zero in an epidemic whose significance went far beyond video games and which the psychiatric establishment was failing to grasp. She decided that she wanted to open a rehab center for Internet addicts, and when Cosette Rae approached Cash six years ago to offer the ReSTART house, she did. Ring the bell on a typical weekday and Cash will greet you at the door—friendly, welcoming, and deeply, deeply concerned.
The vibe inside the ReSTART house is: morning after a high school sleepover. Guys with greasy hair trail around wrapped in polyester blankets. There’s a big suburban-style kitchen and a beige-carpeted music room with a piano and a couple of guitars. Throughout the house is the faint Cheetos-ish smell that tends to prevail when college-age men congregate in numbers larger than one. The lighting is aquatically dim.
When I visit in late winter of 2015, the patients at ReSTART, besides Callum, are:
• Luke (who asked that his name be changed), a 26-year-old from Michigan who was an aerospace engineer and who has only just arrived a couple of days ago;
• Paul (also a changed name), an 18-year-old from San Francisco who deeply loves the house’s animals and who is graduating tomorrow;
• Thom (real name), a 24-year-old from Connecticut who struggles with the house’s no-profanity rule and who looks like he could play bass for Smash Mouth.
Their routes to ReSTART all, with allowance for biographical and geographical variations, more or less resemble Callum’s. Luke hit his nadir in Maryland, spending all day immersed in World of Warcraft, lying to his boss about working from home. Paul dropped out of school and cut himself off from his friends and family in order to play Vindictus 18 to 20 hours a day. Thom lived with his parents, working as a cashier at a car dealership, spending his every off-hour drinking scotch and playing League of Legends. Each of their biographies could probably be rendered best by a graph in which time spent playing video games ascends exponentially while time spent in reality plunges to near zero.
When I first visit, two months after Callum arrived, he is nothing like the sleepless junkie who left Texas. He’s confident and gregarious, with a missionary’s zeal for the psychology books he reads in his daily downtime. He whips up guacamole for the staff and pronounces things “baller” and exudes, generally, the air of an RA who hopes that the school year never ends.
This core group of patients is supplemented by a handful of recent graduates who are now in what ReSTART calls Phase II, meaning: a group apartment in Redmond, a menial job, a sponsor. These Phase II guys, in whom I detect the slight arrogance that comes with being allowed a flip phone, drift in and out of the house, attending meetings and therapy groups at their discretion, helping themselves to glasses of orange juice from the communal fridge.
Most of the time it’s just Callum, Paul, Thom, and Luke, facing one another and the expanse of the day. Informationally, the men of ReSTART live in a state of perpetual cyber-sequestration. Viral videos do not infect them; raging online controversies may as well take place on another planet. Each morning meeting concludes with a weather report, and to deliver this report, whoever’s leading the meeting will turn around and look out the window. (“Pretty much default” is Thom’s term for the Northwest’s ambient grayness.)
“Did the Spurs win last night?” I ask Callum one day, in journalist rapport-building mode.
“I have no idea.”
Which makes sense. (Almost. Each morning there is, in the kitchen, the day’s newspaper, but it’s unclear whether the patients at ReSTART know how to work a newspaper.)
Knowledge of the outside world is only the most obvious distortion caused by the house’s lack of digital technology. Time here is also cordoned off, controlled, slowed to a drip. You know that episode of Star Trek where the Voyager finds a planet on which time passes much faster than on Earth, whole centuries in what we’d experience as an hour? The ReSTART house is the opposite.
Time moves with such slowness that you think you’ve been slipped something; the hour after lunch crawls like a slug across a windowpane. Into this void, every scheduled activity—every group-therapy session, every lesson in constructive communication—arrives like a solar eclipse. We didn’t miss it, did we? Is it two o’clock yet? Today’s is the most anticipated and dreaded appointment of all. For the men of ReSTART—many of whom arrive spectacularly out of shape—it’s CrossFit time.
The instructor is a ponytailed fortysomething woman with a cursive I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST tattoo on her forearm. The house’s garage has been converted into a gym, with rows of kettlebells, wooden boxes, pull-up bars. Signs shout from the walls: DREAMS DON’T WORK UNLESS YOU DO. I ♥ BURPEES.
Today’s workout is the Dirty 30, meaning 30 box jumps, 30 knees-to-elbows, 30 medicine-ball throws… Thom is in visible distress before the first box has been leapt upon. His torso is a luxury pillow: pale, bountiful, lush. He weighs 240 pounds, and he likes to remind everyone of this fact. Watching Paul do a pull-up: “Yeah, try that with 240 pounds.” Learning that Callum has gone off for a warm-up run: “Well, I weigh two-forty, so…”
The rest of the guys—even Paul, who is as wiry as Thom is soft—take to the workout with surprising gusto. They clap and whoop and bob along to the dance-pop blasting from speakers. These are the guys as they might have been had they never fallen for guilds and loot quests: sweaty, competitive, full of opinions about proper dead-lift form.
The theory behind the daily exercise—aside from that these guys desperately need to get in shape—is twofold: The patients need to learn to take pride in something other than their digital lives, and they need to learn a suite of basic life skills, of which exercise is only one. Most of ReSTART’s patients arrive with real-world skills that are the precise inverse of their video-game skills. They don’t know how to cook, so they have an evening supervisor—a former chef named Ryan—who teaches them how to sauté chicken and chop herbs. They don’t know how to socialize outside of video games, so a woman named Linda visits each week and teaches them how to identify and express their feelings.
Their most significant deficit, though, is that, absent digital devices, they don’t know how to fill a day. This is the most jarring thing for new arrivals at ReSTART: How am I supposed to fill 24 hours? So their boredom between sessions is no accident; it is purposeful boredom, practice boredom. And exercise, the ReSTART staff believes, is among the most potent boredom antidotes there are.
It’s also the closest the men of ReSTART can get to playing a video game, which might account for the special place gym time holds in their racing hearts. They can feel their waning energy points in their legs; they can slap their fellow players right on their sweaty backs. When the instructor presses the button on her stopwatch, indicating that the last of them has finished, they can stand flush-faced and panting, happily eyeing their names on a leaderboard on the wall.
At some point in my time at ReSTART, I find myself beginning to feel smug about my own Internet use. Like every other person I know, I spend more time online than is probably optimal, productivity- and happiness-wise, and so before I arrived I had an apprehension that I might be in for a Shutter Island-type reversal. Here I’d think I was visiting ReSTART as a journalist, but once inside, I would be recognized for the wretch I was, the gates would slam shut, and I’d be cuffed, device-less, to a narrow bed.
But now, having spent some time among actual addicts, I’m feeling positively spartan. A bit of compulsive e-mail-checking, an afternoon lost to Twitter here and there… This doesn’t demand treatment; it demands a medal. If you find yourself feeling similarly complacent, and would like to go on feeling that way, do not speak with Hilarie Cash.
Cash is an unremittingly warm and gracious woman. She likes to ride horses, and she has the patrician, cheerful manner of an elementary-school headmistress. She just happens to bear news of the apocalypse.
One night, while we sit in the dingy lobby of a church, waiting for the guys to get out of a 12-step meeting, Cash decides to uncork a bottle of misery for me. She tells me about South Korea, where the government has declared Internet addiction a national public-health crisis, and where schoolkids are screened for Internet addiction the way U.S. kids are screened for lice. She tells me about the pie chart of human needs, and how Internet use, even the ordinary Facebook-in-the-elevator kind, threatens to crowd out such basics as sleep and exercise. She tells me she’s bewildered there aren’t more centers like ReSTART. (There are at least three others, in Pennsylvania, Utah, and California.)
She also tells me, nearly in passing, that she thinks almost everyone who owns a smartphone is mildly addicted to it. Which is somehow both obvious and surprising, and which crystallizes something that I hadn’t entirely appreciated before our conversation: To be an addict is not necessarily to be wandering alleys shoeless in search of a fix. According to Cash, we live surrounded by—or maybe as—high-functioning addicts.
Cash gives me the look that therapists use to mean “Explore that.” And I do. Here’s an alarming analogy about addiction, courtesy of David Linden, one of the authors ReSTART recommends its patients read. Imagine, Linden says, you’re training a dog to come when you call it. If you call it over once and give it a T-bone steak, it will be delighted, but may not get the message. If, on the other hand, you call the dog 100 times, and each time it comes you give it a tiny bit of steak, the dog never gets that orgiastic T-bone high—but that dog will be yours for life.
According to a UK study, the average smartphone user looks at his phone—handing the pleasure center of his brain a tiny piece of steak—221 times a day. This is the behavior Cash has in mind when she says we don’t have a good handle on our digital lives. She actually begins to cry, telling me how worried she is about the generation of toddlers growing up with iPhones in their hands, and by the time we finish talking I feel like flinging my phone off the nearest cliff.
Instead, in the hope of outing Cash as an alarmist, I call a handful of experts, each of whom I ask some version of the same question: Things aren’t that bad, are they?
The answers I get are maddeningly inconclusive. Yes, these digital devices are doing something to us—and the younger we are, the more they’re doing—but just what that something is, and whether it is on balance good or bad, the experts aren’t willing to say. We’re less able than we once were to sit in a restaurant paying attention to the person in front of us, but we’re more able to track tiny objects moving across a screen. So does this spell a future of socially stunted keyboard-tapping, or one of being perfectly suited for our increasingly tech-centric jobs? And even if we are losing the capacity for deep attention, is that such a bad thing? Or is it just evolution: As beaks adapt to food environments, so do brains adapt to information environments. For these sorts of answers—assuming there are any—we need more data.
David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction: “We’d need multiple generations, control groups…”
Marc Potenza, professor of psychiatry at Yale: We’re in “a large-scale social experiment in which we don’t have the answers.”
Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health: “The bottom line is, we have no idea.”
So okay, maybe it isn’t quite time for the CDC to set up the emergency tents. But we are all, in Greenfield’s words, walking around with “the world’s smallest slot machines” in our pockets—devices that dispense rewards, in the form of texts and likes and shares, with precisely the sort of unpredictable schedule that our monkey brains find irresistible. Ever study the expressions of people deep in a slot-machine binge? That blend of profound anxiety and semi-catatonic boredom may not be symptomatic of a disease, but it’s not a reassuring vision of our future, either.
But enough with the brooding; it’s Paul’s last night. Which means pizza at a joint called MOD in Redmond. Everyone piles into ReSTART’s white SUV, Cash in the driver’s seat, all the guys bearing the high spirits of camp counselors on their night off.
A Phase II patient named Neil (name changed) sits up front and sets off mock outrage by putting on the soundtrack to the Harry Potter musical. (Luke asks if he can claim a Harry Potter addiction, thereby requiring it to be turned off.) Music is a big, weird deal at ReSTART. The patients are limited to old, Internet-less iPods and CDs their parents send. Each song is like a piece of fresh fruit in wartime Britain.
While we wait for our pizza, Paul tells me about flunking out of college, playing Vindictus all day, neglecting his dog. He has a faint blond puberty mustache and the timidity of a woodland creature. Tomorrow he’ll sit in a room with ReSTART staff and his baffled-seeming parents, defending his readiness for graduation. (Before leaving, each patient must present a life-balance plan, explaining how he will incorporate digital devices healthily back into his life.) But tonight is for double-stacked pizza and nostalgia.
Neil—who’s British, and who seems far too sophisticated and wry to be here—tells me his game was Hearthstone. (“Not worth playing, honestly.”) He’s been at ReSTART since October, which makes him the veteran of the group. He has black hair that hangs in his eyes and the manner of a young Bob Dylan: You can never tell if he’s making fun of you, which makes you long for his approval.
On the ride home, Neil puts on Queen’s Greatest Hits, to surprising acclaim. “We Are the Champions” comes on. Freddie Mercury is singing to a car full of young men whose greatest accomplishments involve damage-per-second ratios, and we’re heading back, under psychiatric supervision, to a house with a mandatory 10:30 P.M. bedtime. The SUV cruises smoothly on through the wooded dark toward the center. The guys’ faces wear expressions of triumph. No time for loooooserrrrrrs!
Back in the house, it’s time for evening meeting. The patients gather in a circle in the sunken living room and take turns sharing their day: what they achieved, who they helped, what they learned about themselves.
Paul leads the meeting, in honor of it being his last night, and this is the most I ever hear him speak. He says he’s feeling nervous. He says he’s going to miss the chickens. He says he’s proud he finished his life-balance plan.
As meeting leader, Paul gets to ask a “custom question,” which tonight he decides is going to be, “Why are you here?”
“I’m here,” Thom says, “because at some point I handed my life over to a machine.”
Luke says he’s here because he needed to work on himself away from the distractions.
Callum—who in a couple of days is heading back to Texas for the weekend, his first venture into civilian life since entering the center—says that he’s here to fully grasp step one of the 12 steps: that he is powerless.
They go around the room one by one, and they’re listening to one another so intently, and the room is so dim, that the scene feels something like a séance. No one else is the least bit distracted, but my mind jumps to a line by 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
This, I realize, is the basic skill that ReSTART exists to teach. All the deadlifting, the daily-intention-setting, the journal-keeping—the whole enveloping, expensive program—is aimed at something just that simple. In a few days, when Callum returns to San Antonio, he will close the door to his room, he will sit down, and—in a feat that will show up on no global online scoreboard—he will try to bear it.
Ben Dolnick is the author of the novel At the Bottom of Everything. This is his first story for GQ.