FIFA 13 was my introduction to soccer. Watching the players in FIFA curve their shots into the top corner of the net blew my mind, and I was certain there was no way they could do that in real life. Lionel Messi, the greatest player who has ever lived, proved me wrong. My assumptions about the sport were blown apart, along with my eardrums due to techno found in the soccer highlight videos I watched.
Soccer became one of the biggest sources of joy in my life, and I owe it all to FIFA. The video game version of the sport quickly became a problem, however, instead of a solution.
Five years after beginning to play the EA series, I finally quit.
Catalonia, take over
The only way I’ve been able to describe FIFA’s most addicting modes to those who don’t play is to imagine combining Pokemon with professional sports. You become attached to your players, and building and improving your team is a lot of fun. It’s a long, slow process with a lot of challenges and rewards.
It also began to feel masochistic.
A full match in FIFA takes about 20 minutes, including pauses, various cutscenes and loading times. I played Squad Battles, where I had 45 matches (15 hours a week) to earn points. These points are awarded based on your performance against the AI, which include your goals for and against, passing accuracy, set pieces and more. Every moment counted if you were worried about getting the optimal score, which meant every game became stressful.
But it was fun for the first couple months, and the rewards in the new Squad Battles game mode felt exciting. The AI was fresh in FIFA 18 and everything felt like a marked improvement from the previous years’ release.
But soon all that was left was the grind for coins to improve my team and earn the FIFA equivalent of loot boxes, of which I purchased far too many with both in-game and real currency. I estimate that I’ve spent about $500 on the game since FIFA 14.
As Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann put it when discussing clicker games, playing FIFA would “fill my heart with the darkness and make the numbers keep going up.” In the past I would have moved onto other games, but the reward structure of FIFA kept me playing.
It’s one thing for a game to be monotonous and devoid of fun, but it’s another when playing actually makes you feel worse about life. Thankfully I live alone, and my neighbors aren’t close enough to hear my literal screams late at night when the AI would make a three-goal comeback with two minutes to go. Of course this forced the match into extra time where I completely smashed the AI with another three goals, but it felt like wasted time.
The game seemed to do this just to spite me. The AI was cheap and the rubberbanding was infuriating. I would often say things like “I hate this game” or “this game is a joke,” without stopping to wonder why I kept playing at all. The whole thing became a vessel through which I could improve my characters to play more games I wasn’t enjoying.
I quit playing FIFA 18 exactly 150 days after it was released. My total time spent playing was 376 hours. I had spent two and a half hours playing the game every day. I wasn’t hooked on something that was making me feel good, I was hooked on something that was making me feel bad.
Getting Up And Leaving
I put some serious thought into what I could be doing with my free time that would be more productive than spending a big chunk of every day on something I didn’t enjoy. The answer was … anything.
I could be looking at dank memes, tweeting pictures of horses at Logan Paul, watching Vine compilations, writing Sonic fan fiction ... or even sleeping. Literally anything I could be doing would be more productive and healthy than playing FIFA.
I wasn’t experiencing even a mediocre story nor was I immersed in a meaningful sense of progression. I wasn’t even playing with friends, which is one of my favorite aspects of gaming. The time just disappeared, and I was in a worse mood when I was done with my daily games.
It didn’t matter what I did with my time instead of FIFA:, it would be a step up as long as it didn’t make me feel bad. Even staring at the walls and getting bored would have been an improvement. FIFA was an addiction, and a bad one. I was past the point of feeling euphoria, I was past the point of maintaining and I was at the point where my mental health and bank account were being directly hurt by my inability to walk away from the game.
Waiting On You
I had a vague feeling of anxiety during the first two weeks I didn’t play FIFA.
I soon realized that my constant need to rush through the activities of my day were due to the multiple internal timers I had set to daily challenges. Ignoring that sense of pressure allowed my days to flow with a little less stress and gnawing anxiety.
Now I can take my time with things; I feel like I can take ten minutes to play a few songs on guitar or break something inside my house by kicking a soccer ball around. I no longer have the nagging feeling that I should be getting my FIFA chore out of the way, or that I had to avoid things that were meaningful in order to have time to play something that upset me.
Like many addictions, it sounds obvious in retrospect. But getting that time back to use on things that help me feel happier opened my eyes to how ridiculous the past few months had been.
I have written eight songs since quitting FIFA, which is more than I had written in my entire life previously. I’ve been reading and writing more. I’ve been teaching myself how to play piano. I’ve yelled less at, well, everything, and I’ve had time to play video games that don’t make me completely miserable. Sometimes I even go outside!
Honestly, it’s been great. All I had to give up was something I wasn’t enjoying. The fact that it was so difficult is a sad comment on how our brains are organized.
The Good Life
I believe that all of us have a FIFA in our life, although not everyone who plays FIFA does so in a destructive way. But the game is designed to get its hooks in you, and to create tension that can be relieved through spending real money or spending more time with the game. I was an extreme case, but these sorts of games are often tuned to tap into the reward structures of our brains to keep us locked in. The actual fun you may or may not have playing is almost beside the point.
So how can you tell if you’re hooked on a game in an unhealthy way versus just playing it often? It’s different for everyone, but remember to take the time to examine how much time you’re spending with your hobbies, and ask yourself what you’re getting out of that time. Are you gaining more than the game is taking? Is it hurting other aspects of your life?
Don’t wait for the game itself to tell you to take a break; these things are designed to never end and to take as much as you’re willing to give them. Be mindful.
I’m glad I did some soul searching and realized just how vacuous and empty my time with FIFA was. I now get to fill that time with more productive things that I enjoy, like creating and consuming art, spending time with friends and family and enjoying games that make me feel better, not worse.
Take a minute to really be honest with yourself about your gaming habits. You might be surprised at what you find.