Nina Huntemann is a professor at Suffolk University who does (among many others) studies of “game widows.” She initially started out focusing on wives and girlfriends of male gamers, but will include husbands and boyfriends of female gamers, as well as partners of gay couples in further studies. Play As Life asked Dr. Huntemann about who game widows are, and the perspective of the person who doesn’t play.
Q. How did the term “game widow” come about?
A. It is a borrowed term from “football widow” and other sports-related versions. Essentially, in all cases it refers to the significant other (most often wife or girlfriend) of a sports or MMORPG fan who engages in the sport or game so much so that the significant other feels neglected in some way.
Q. What exactly is a gamer?
A. The definition of what makes a gamer is such a controversial subject within game studies. At the core of this question is what makes a game, which is perhaps even more difficult to define than gamer. Personally I find the question pointless and a waste of time. Games and gamers exist on a continuum, I suppose. Degrees of gaming may include time devoted, platform, genre, financial investment, psychic investment. Casual games and casual gamers, one could say, devote less time, money and psychic investment while a “hard core gamer” devotes more. But even that distinction is wrought with contradictions. For example, if I play solitaire on my BlackBerry every day to and from work on a 60 minute commute, and thus 10 hours a week, am I a casual gamer or dedicated gamer? If I have played World of Warcraft for 8 hours a week – perhaps two 4-hours session – for several years, am I a casual WOW player or “hard core”? Many WOW players would say I’m a casual player compared to those who game 4 hours everyday.
Q. Why don’t game widows play games with their partners?
A. Many do, in fact, play alongside their partners. I found that many game widows would play in order to increase time spent with their partner. For women playing because your husband or boyfriend plays is often the entry way to becoming a regular gamer. But many game widows also refuse to play because they see the game like a drug. Addiction metaphors among game widows and game widow support groups is very strong. Thus, if you see the device as a dangerous drug and the cause of so much relationship conflict, you wouldn’t chose to participate. Also, many game widows are or were gamers before feeling like game widows.
Q. Do couples that are distracted by games get counseling? What type of therapy/methods have you seen work successfully in terms of bringing couples back together?
A. Many couples chose to get counseling as would a couple with a myriad of relationship conflicts. The feelings of neglect or abandonment are universal and hardly specific to gaming. Thus, counseling to repair the relationship is often very effective. I don’t have an opinion on what types of therapies work. That falls so far outside my area of expertise, it would be irresponsible for me to comment.
Q. Is there an age range for game windows?
A. Nope, I’ve meet all types of people who are self-described game widows. The couples are very diverse in age, race, education, income and so forth.
Q. How could one prevent from becoming a game widow?
A. Like all relationship conflict and stress, communication seems key to resolving problems. Before a game widow feels the game playing is too much and he/she feels neglected, it is important to address the behavior as soon as it is identified. Look for non-game factors that may be contributing to the feelings of neglect (lack of physical contact, decrease in talking) and non-game factors in the partner’s life (loss of a job, depression) that may be the triggers for excessive game playing.
Q. What are the “lessons” you’ve learned from talking to people with game addiction?
A. I don’t think “game addiction” is a specific affliction. I’m not even convinced and certainly not qualified to say if excessive gaming is a medical condition. What I have learned, however, is that the mainstream attitude toward gaming makes it difficult for society to see the very real effects, pain, shame and sorrow of the game widow experience. Labeling the game player a loser and denigrating the game widow as pathetic for staying in the relationship dismisses the ways in which gaming is changing our lives, our relationships and our culture. The game widow is just one example – and an extreme example at that – of the influence video games are having on our society. The lenses through which we understand “play” and “popular culture” need to widen so that we can see gaming as a significant aspect of everyday life for many, many people, not as a marginal activity.