Charlie Bracke can’t remember a time when he wasn’t into video games. When he was 5, he loved playing Wolfenstein 3D, a crude, cartoonish computer game in which a player tries to escape a Nazi prison by navigating virtual labyrinths while mowing down enemies. In his teenage years, he became obsessed with more sophisticated shooters and a new generation of online games that allowed thousands of players to inhabit sprawling fantasy worlds. Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls — he would spend as much as 12 hours a day in these imaginary realms, building cities and fortifications, fighting in epic battles and hunting for treasure.
During his childhood, Bracke’s passion for video games, like that of most young Americans, didn’t cause him any serious problems. At school, he got along with just about everyone and maintained straight A’s. His homework was easy enough that he could complete it on the bus or in class, which allowed him to maximize the time he spent gaming. After school, he would often play video games for hours with his cousin and a small group of close friends before going home for dinner. Then he would head to the den and play on the family computer for a few more hours before bed. When his parents complained, he told them it was no different from their habit of watching TV every night. Besides, he was doing his homework and getting good grades — what more did they want? They relented.
When Bracke went to Indiana University Bloomington, everything changed. If he skipped class or played games until 3 in the morning, no one seemed to care. And only he had access to his grades. After a difficult breakup with a longtime high school girlfriend and the death of his grandmother, Bracke sank into a period of severe depression. He started seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, but by his junior year, he was playing video games all day and seldom leaving his room. He strategically ignored knocks at the door and text messages from friends to make it seem as though he were at class. Eventually, he was failing most of his courses, so he dropped out and moved back in with his parents in Ossian, Ind., a town of about 3,000 people, where he got a job at Pizza Hut.