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By Erica Garza
March 27, 2018

My living room has become a place of zombies and fireballs, machine predators and ancient temples. I recently gave my husband his first-ever gaming console, a PlayStation 4. Though we’re both in our 30s, my husband grew up on a commune in Australia, where his beloved toys had been sticks and river stones, so he missed out on the technological relics of my own childhood — beginning with the first Atari and progressing to Nintendo, Prodigy, AOL, PlayStation and beyond. Watching his face light up every time he pops in a new game is amusing to me and familiar. Though I long ago lost interest in gaming, his enthusiasm almost makes me want to start up again. But something stops me. My own gaming history is complicated.

In the mid-90s, around the time I got hooked on the first Nintendo, I was a shy, socially awkward girl with glasses and a back brace for scoliosis. Figuring other kids wanted nothing to do with me, I kept a low profile and threw myself into a handful of solo obsessions to keep me from troubling thoughts of self-loathing. One was playing video games. The other was watching soft-core porn. Though I’m confident I found video games first, I discovered late-night Cinemax shortly thereafter, and it’s difficult to recall which pursuit I loved more and which I used more. The two are intertwined in my memory.

Both worlds were irresistible to me as a tween. But as compelling as they were, they were equally isolating because of my gender. It seemed to me that video games and porn were intended for boys, not me. This sense of not feeling like I belonged forced me to engage in secret — which proved to be a pathway to unhealthy use.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of Man, Interrupted and TED Talk The Demise of Guys, has claimed that gaming and porn have the capability of becoming “arousal addictions,” where attraction is in the endless “novelty” and “surprise factor.” I remember learning the Konami cheat (up, up, down, down…) to get 30 precious lives on Contra and not being able to peel myself away. Don’t blink, I’d remind myself. I was always desperate to make it to the end of the game and wouldn’t stop until I did. When I wasn’t playing games, I was thinking of playing. When I was playing, I was thinking of what I’d play next.

Similarly, I remember the thrill that coursed through me when I saw the coveted SSC warning label that came before soft-core movies late at night when my mom and dad were sleeping. Signaling “Strong Sexual Content,” the label presented an opportunity for another “win,” another game to play, with my hands down my pants, where instead of advancing to the next level, I wanted to see how many orgasms I could attain in an hour.

While gaming and porn were indeed full of “endless novelty” and “surprise,” they were also both tied up in shame.

In Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Contra and others, women were rarely part of the storyline, and if they were, they served only as princesses to be saved. The Nintendo console didn’t even belong to me; it was a gift for my older brother. And although we sometimes played together, it was clear to me in the way he always took the Player One controller and chose the game we’d play, that he was in charge and this was his territory. It seemed to me that girls were supposed to be into other things — cute clothes, makeup, boy bands. I knew I should be collecting Tiger Beat magazines, not video game cheats from GamePro or Nintendo Power.

It also seemed that the sexy Shannon Tweed movies were not meant for me, either, even though my body certainly responded. I never heard girls at school talking about porn or masturbation and, after later finding unlabeled porn movies and dirty magazines in my brother’s drawers, I felt that watching porn was just another thing I was doing wrong as a girl.

But I couldn’t stay away. I can’t count how many times in adolescence my mother had to coerce me out of my room to say hello to a guest. Glued to the screens, I often found myself lonely, but loneliness was better than the anxiety I felt in social situations as I was so often preoccupied with the idea of fitting in that I usually shut down and just kept to myself. It was easier.

In my high school and college years, I stopped gaming, but I held tight to my interest in porn. This was unavoidable considering the technological advancements that kept everything new and enticing. While technology was advancing in its own ways in the gamer universe, I was more consumed by what I could find in places like Pornhub, RedTube, TubeGalore and so on. No longer into soft-core scenes, as they failed to get me off, I turned to porn that still surprised me, often scenes of misogyny and humiliation in HD clarity, accessible through all the fetish search terms my overstimulated mind could imagine. The internet was king of distraction and I was its subservient subject. This preoccupation carried over into my real life when I sought emotionally detached sex with various partners over the years until I was soon lost in the painful throes of what felt to me like sex addiction.

Dr. Erica Sarr, an addiction therapist in Arizona, has also noticed a connection between gaming and sex addiction. “Oftentimes, folks who are struggling with sex addiction are really struggling with a primary intimacy deficit,” she said at a 2017 conference for addiction professionals, IITAP. She claims that while modern gaming offers the potentiality for community, the danger for addicts is when they stop trying to connect with real people. “We want games to enhance your life, not replace your life.”

The same could be said for porn. Porn can aid the development of intimacy, both emotional and sexual, according to psychologist David Schnarch, author of Resurrecting Sex: Solving Sexual Problems and Revolutionizing Your Relationship. “A significant portion of our work in helping couples develop a deeper sexual connection is through erotic images,” he told Psychology Today. But other cases and studies show that porn, when used in excess, can lead to impotence and relationship problems.

It took many years of therapy and failed relationships to get to a place where I could face my issues head on and seek comfort in intimacy. Meeting my husband, a fellow addict — to drugs and alcohol, not sex or porn — and talking openly about my habits and insecurities helped me see how I was using porn as a crutch for emotional distress and how isolating this habit was. And when I started to write and publish about my struggles, and other women with porn compulsions reached out to me, I realized that I was not the only woman dealing with this. I didn’t feel so alone after all.

Lately, my husband has been trying to get me to play video games with him. I’m usually more inclined to collapse in front of Netflix by day’s end or hang out on social media. There’s always the online option for him to play with some faraway stranger, yet he keeps searching out two-player games to entice me. They’re not so easy to find. But the other day, he did find one — some fast-paced odyssey through a land plagued by zombies. The graphics are some of the best I’ve seen. The story sounds compelling. There’s a brute male character, as expected, but also a female character that looks nothing like a princess. Though we haven’t had a chance to play it yet, I have a feeling that when we do we may not want to stop. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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