Hello, I am The Author, and I am an addict. If I were to test today I would be diagnosed with video game addiction, I have suffered from this my entire life. I have never attempted rehabilitation, I do not currently seek it nor will I ever. This week I want to talk about one of the darker shadows cast over our medium. As one might suspect from the introduction, this dreadful shade is the haunting specter of video game addiction. I use the term ‘video game addiction’ as opposed to the more popular ‘gaming addiction’ because I wish to draw a distinct line dividing our medium and gambling (a whole other addiction no more or less compelling than our own). This week I want to talk about what addiction is and how it relates to video gaming. I would also like to address how we currently attempt to treat it, and give my (very unprofessional) opinion on a better means of treatment.
“But… this is Something Wicked Games, you always talk about happy stuff, you love video games, now you’re saying that we’re all drug addicts? What gives, mate? How in god’s name did Jesse not shoot this down like an Overlord nearby your nexus?” Remember what I said about this being my soapbox? Jesse trusts me and personally approves every individual subject I cover. Also, if you remain patient and keep reading, you will find that this isn’t nearly as gloomy as it looks at the outset.
So, let us start at the beginning. What is addiction? Addiction is that itch you get under your skin, that nagging at the base of your skull when you are performing unrelated tasks. Its why you’re thinking about your fantasy handegg team while writing that TPS report, it’s why you think of grabbing a smoke after copulation and why you daydream about cold Killian’s Red while writing your paper on video game addiction. Unfortunately, the word has such a negative connotation even though everyone is addicted to something. I know the assumption is that addictions are always negative, but are they? My father was addicted to information gathering, he loved to learn things. Dad was one of those academics that studied simply because it was fun, my mom once said he had an addiction to higher learning. So is that an addiction because he had an (at times) reckless fascination with learning new things? Yes, his fascination did have negative ramifications, the guy probably wouldn’t have needed inch-thick glasses if he wasn’t always staring at a screen or a book, and he died at 60 because you couldn’t get him to step outside for a jog even at gunpoint. Still, can you say he was an addict? I mean, I clearly just did, but really? If you were to bring him to a psychiatrist, would he be diagnosed as an addict? Most likely, he would have been diagnosed with an addiction to fast food or daytime TV, even though those fascinations developed later in his life.
In reality, addiction is everywhere, my boss (not Jesse, my other boss) is addicted to ballroom dance, I am addicted to video games, some people are addicted to sex. Yes, sex is an addiction, the very action required for our species to survive has an associated addiction. You could even see food, water, and air as physiological addictions, we all require those 3 things to survive day-to-day. So why is a compulsion to eat 3-6 times a day not considered an addiction while the need to have the pleasure centers in your brain tickled is considered an addiction? Good question, don’t ask me, that’s not what we’re here to discuss (probably one of the only times I will say that).
We are here to discuss video game addiction. Now, the folks over at Extra Credits once attempted to draw a line in the sand dividing video game addiction and video game compulsion. Unfortunately, the data put forward by every respectable case study out there simply does not support this. Video game addiction is as real and pernicious as gambling or drinking. I’m not saying video game addiction is as dangerous, nor am I saying that video games are one of those one hit addictions like cocaine. Nobody will ever transform into a basement dwelling troglodyte from a few Call of Duty sessions, and not everyone who samples World of Warcraft will end up writing editorials about gaming tropes for a 4th party video game reviewing firm. I am just saying we need to start being honest and stop throwing around qualifiers. I am addicted to video games, that does not mean I need to recover. There are plenty of 30 year olds living in their parents’ basement playing fantasy handegg, but on the other hand there are also plenty of perfectly functional teenagers getting straight A grades in class while spending all of their weekends and summers playing Halo.
So where am I going with this? Why does mainstream media jump on video games as the next heroin? Why is it that every single Columbine-like tragedy gets chalked up to either autism or GTA? Well, there are many different explanations for this, ultimately it all whittles down the fact that the media is inundated with xenophobic folks who are rarely more mature than the groups they seek to label (thanks for the quote, Extra Credits). I would rather talk about the more comprehend-able issues. So, why do I want to talk about this? Simple, really, every addiction out there has a specialist, there are specialists for each type of drug addiction, there are counselors specifically trained for gambling and drinking, many of whom are recovering (and not recovered. My occasional, if brief, lapses back into nicotine prove to me that there is no true cure for addiction) addicts themselves. We don’t really have such things for video games. Yes, plenty of ‘specialists’ out there quote B. F. Skinner as a cause of game addiction. You know the drill, clear line between action and reward, repetitive stimulus, etc. Yet, does it really feel like that’s it? I mean, it explains games like WoW, which I’ve heard described as “a game where you open boxes”, but what about games like Amnesia or Silent Hill? The skinner box doesn’t work with negative stimuli but the closest you get to ‘positive’ rewards in those games is not dying slow and painful. So Skinner doesn’t really work there.
No, we need something else. Just like how alcoholics drink for a wide variety of reasons. Not all alcoholics drink to bury sorrow. Some drink to embrace joy, some drink because of a belief that drugs heighten your creative centers. Hell, some drink simply because the burn tastes good. The same goes for video games. Some play because there’s a certain sensation (in the case of Ntac, its terror) that is best crystallized in an interactive medium, he also plays because it lets him blow off those feelings we all get towards our coworkers and loved ones in a safe, controlled environment (see back alley hooker with a new ventilation duct in her skull, Payday). I play because I like stories. I like to have my head played with and my beliefs questioned. For me, a game can be made or broken by it’s story, while Jesse plays because she likes the Skinner box.
So that leaves us with 3 gamers and 4 reasons why games are amazing. Only 1 of which falls into traditional understanding of video game addiction. Yet, if you were to believe the average talking head, games are basically elaborate slot machines. So, to this statement, I apply my favourite word: Why? Why are we reduced in such a fashion while sports addicts are glorified to the point of being considered the cultural ideal? I’ve spent 2 weeks contemplating this question. All of my meditations have boiled down to one word. Fear. Fear, while ineffective as a skinner box reward, is excellent for controlling a population. We aren’t here to complain about what’s wrong with mainstream media, that is one essay I won’t write. Let us simply say that it’s easier to make people reject a thing if they think it will hurt them.
So, how do we identify video game addiction? Good question, I don’t know. I do, however, have a few suggestions for identifying and combating game addiction.
“Woah! Why are you doing this, Author? Almost every week you throw us under the bus, what gives?” Just stick with me. For now, video games are our medium, completely ours, ruled by us, for us, and if we want to keep it as such we need to accept both it’s positive and negative aspects. Look at gambling, the big guns in Vegas took a very slash and burn approach to their medium, accentuating how fun it was to play and sweeping all the people who lost their homes to addiction under the rug, and now, in states like Massachusetts, if you play anywhere but the most structured environments you are breaking the law. You can’t legally hold a poker game for real money in your basement every week, you can’t sell raffle tickets without a massive tax being levied against your institution, you can’t even rent adverts on TV. Same happened with nicotine, voices who stood against Big Tobacco were silenced via Plata o Plomo (that’s Silver or Lead, mom, in other words, you can take a bribe or you can take a bullet) and nowadays you can’t advertise nicotine anywhere and taxes are being pumped up every year.
Now, before I get lynched, I am not saying video games are anywhere near as destructive as alcohol or tobacco. All I mean to say is that we need to be honest. The warnings are everywhere, we’ve all seen the government massively over-react when they feel compelled to take a stance on a subject. Every other product on the planet has gotten the same warning, “If you don’t watch yourself, then we will do it for you”. Once that day comes, the day on which the government decides that we can’t be trusted to take care of ourselves, then we will be slammed just as hard as gambling. All acknowledgment of our power for good will be ignored, our arguments concerning freedom of speech and opportunities for education and value as a story telling platform will be rendered invalid. Our medium will become something that is policed entirely by people who don’t really care about what we are trying to do.
Okay, I should probably state an example. I direct you back to the subject of gambling. We’ve all heard the story, guy walks into Las Vegas with $1000 bucks to play with, wins a few games, and gets hit with the old skinner box, by the end of the weekend he has already traded his car for in-house credit and is attempting to get the deed to his house faxed over so that he can win back the car. Nowadays, unless you live in Nevada or frequent other countries (American Indian resorts and reservations aren’t actually part of the United States) you can’t play with anything other than your on-hand cash, and even in those cases you can only play in government run outlets (like Powerball or scratch tickets). Now consider my old TCG house (that’s a place where you can buy stuff for trading card games and table top role playing games, mom, I won’t name it for legal reasons). The proprietor of the establishment wanted to start a cash-only poker game to raise some extra money and expand the services available (like expanding the store so that more people could play TCGs and private rooms for Dungeons and Dragons groups, the later of which were being provided free-of-charge to people both willing to deal with the background noise and willing not to discuss matters like drugs and sex, as the establishment was aimed towards teenagers). Sounds reasonable enough. However, he was slammed so hard with taxes and legal shenanigans that his choices were reduced to paying more in taxes than he intended to take in with the venture or not doing it at all. He had been shut down by an organization that wasn’t interested in the fact that the gambling would go entirely towards driving down the prices on his other merchandise and enriching the lives of inner city youths. He was shut down because it was gambling, not because he was planning anything particularly nefarious with it.
The same will happen to us. Amazing, mind-stretching, critically acclaimed games like Persona, Final Fantasy 10 and Bioshock will no longer be producible because quality control systems will judge them “too mature” for a child’s toy. Imagine if Fallout 3 got rated AO (that’s Adult Only, mom, the rating system, another seed) because it’s depiction of death using VATS was too graphic to be safely consumed by children. Now, we all know that VATS was used to highlight the over-the-top brutality inherent to a post-apocalyptic world in a story that intends to warn against the dangers of nuclear proliferation, but your average congressperson doesn’t know or care about that. He/she hears “game” and jumps straight to “It’s like a version of Candyland where you can find crafty ways to spray your opponent’s brains across the wall”. Its your congressperson’s job to understand the rules and how they interact with eachother. In a perfect world that would mean everyone in congress and the senate would have a fairly decent grasp of everything they were expected to vote on, but let’s be serious, while every product, service, or element of our world has someone who hyperbolically claims to know everything there is to know about their area of expertise, nobody, even in the video game industry knows everything there is to know about video games. Hell, I’ve spent my entire life studying video games and I barely claim to be a novice in game design theory. We simply can’t expect even the most dedicated senator to have a full grasp of what games are and what they mean.
I would also like to jump back a bit and talk about terminology. The folks at Extra Credits attempt to dilute the impact of the issue by using the term “gaming compulsion”. As much as I agree with Extra Credits on most subjects video game related, I know addiction. My family knows addiction, there’s a difference between addiction and compulsion, I’m compelled to eat greasy food because it tastes good, I am compelled to write these essays because they’re fun and help me organize my thoughts, I am compelled to listen to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt for 5 hours on end because he had a beautiful voice. I am addicted to games. When I’m at my day job I run dungeon simulations in my head. When I’m at Starbucks I’m analyzing the tropes used in Mass Effect and how I feel about them. Before I go to bed at night I run over my Monk’s rotation and debate Witch Doctor builds with myself. I sit up until 2 in the morning making sure I’ve collected every single pokemon in a zone before moving on to the next gym. I am not compelled to play. Playing is a significant part of my life, and while I am far more functional now than I was in highschool (play was my only escape from that pit) I will not pretend for a second that what I did was a mere compulsion. I sacrificed much on the altar of video games as a kid and would be much better off now if I made some effort to control my addiction. The only reason I can exert control over my need to game now is that I met someone that made the real world just as compelling as the worlds I was running, jumping and shooting my way through.
So why do we become addicted? Many reasons, there are more reasons to love games than there are people who become addicted to games. Some people like games because the digital world is prettier than ours (both in the sense of visual aesthetics and state of the board, OH! State of the board, there’s an essay seed, was a bit short on them this essay). Some play because games are ultimately more fair than the real world. Some play because they are fascinated by the speed at which our computers run these simulations (anyone who has ever played a combat heavy D&D session knows how long it takes to do all the math involved in 60 seconds of game time at 10 rounds a minute, I’ve seen 2 minute battles take an hour or more to hash out).
There is one more possible root of video game addiction that I almost forgot to mention. I initially forgot in the rough draft of this essay because of how obvious it is. Every other entertainment and artistic medium out there focuses on this concept, and ours is no different. It’s the reason Jesse has her own booktube channel. It’s the reason why people liked Breaking Bad and Supernatural. I find myself pausing here because there is no word to summarize the whole concept. Daniel Floyd called it ‘abnegation’, I’ve heard it called immersion or escapism. I, however, prefer the term ‘Narrative Projection’. So, what is that? I could probably write a whole essay on the subject, (ref. masochist behind the keyboard) but to summarize: have you ever played a game or read a book and just get sucked in? You believe the world, you smell the smoke, you feel the flowers. Everything is just so and it feels like you are really there, whistling the Mocking Jay salute or jumping across distant ledges. Games are addictive, just like TV and books, because sometimes this world just sucks. You wake up every morning, drive to work, get berated by your boss for parts of your project that you aren’t even related to. I know for certain that to succeed in this world you must either be smart or you must be pleasant, and while I am knowledgeable almost beyond my years, mainly because I spend 90% of my waking hours studying and meditating, I am not very smart and am only capable of being pleasant in very short bursts. It’s nice to know that somewhere in this world there are places where effort in is the only variable related to result out.
If my dad is listening right now, I would want him to understand that, as well as the massive opportunities for tangential learning, is why I played so much as a kid. We live in a world that insists constantly that reward out is directly proportionate to effort in. Such simply isn’t true, no matter how hard you want to believe. If success had a family tree, then reward and the quality of being personable would be brother and sister, while effort and force of will would be distant cousins. Such isn’t the case in games. Any person out there can beat any game out there if they just calm down and think. Hell, thinking isn’t even necessary. I’ve completed jumping puzzles in Mario by dumb luck alone, simply trying slight variations on the same strategies until some quirk of the programing decided that I actually landed on a ledge that I was barely close to. In video games you can sit down, focus on a problem, and not worry about whether you’re going to get fired because you messed up your boss’s coffee on the morning after she had it out with her spouse.
Simply put, games aren’t addictive because they are easy, video games are addictive because they are fair. To clarify, I don’t mean fair from a individual level, I’ll never be up to even the lowest ladder ranks of Halo because my nerves are tweaked in such a way that my hands tremble when I focus (2 weeks after we got together my wife decided I was no longer allowed to give massages), I’ll never be good at Real Time Strategy because regardless of how hard I study my brain just refuses to handle the wrote memorization required to learn the great plays. No matter how much I try, my mind will never retain any of the popular strategies, and any chess player can tell you that once you get to the semi-pro level you don’t really get to innovate until you’ve reached the top and understand the popular plays and strategies on a deep, subconscious level.
So what do I mean by fair? Well, if I’m playing Starcraft then my Terran Marine’s base stats like attack, defense, sight radius and reach, along with more esoteric concepts like board presence and unit superiority will always be set in stone and identical to my opponent’s Terran Marine. The only variable will be my nonexistent skill level. I can sweet talk the judges at the Blizzcon Invitational all I want but it won’t change the fact that my opponent’s Zealot is now dislodging chunks of my Hydralisk from his mind-blade. Everybody who plays Ratchet and Clank will get the Omniwrench, and everyone who did the full round of Halfhill dailies in World of Warcraft on January 4th 2014 received exactly 89 gold, 30 silver and 50 copper along with 5 lesser charms of good fortune and 20 valor points from quest rewards (before gold drops, cooking turn-ins, vendors and auction house, of course, and yes, I did the math). There is absolutely no accounting for personal appeal in video games. No amount of money changing hands in dark rooms behind closed doors, no amount of gossip or politicking will ever make a zergling better than an ultralisk.
So, what does all this mean? How do we combat video game addiction? Now that I’ve spent 8 pages explaining the question, let’s see what we can do about it. First thing we need to worry about is diagnosis. Anyone looking to diagnose video game addiction should look for a few warnings, most are pretty obvious to a trained eye.
Let’s start with one of the usual subjects, withdrawal from social life. This one is a bit deceptive, most addiction lists start here, with one abandoning their social life for video games. Fortunately, especially in this day and age, many gamers who appear to be withdrawing might actually have vibrant social lives connected to their games. Here one has to keep in mind that most big titles out there have absolutely titanic followings. WoW alone has a bigger population than some first world countries. The Halo community is pretty big too. At this point you need to talk to your friend or loved one. Show genuine interest, don’t just yell “who are you playing with” through the door. Bring it up at dinner, ask about who your daughter knows online. If she says something like “oh, Krog is doing great, his son just took his first steps” or “Valindria just got a promotion at her job, she’s considering retiring her warlock until she’s settled into her new position at Bank of America and Solara is offering to keep a raid slot open while she gets her personal life in order” then chances are you’ve got a healthy, functional child, even if your daughter is clearly spending more time at her computer than she does outside or in after-school activities. If her answer is something like “I mostly just farm, can’t really get into any big guilds”, “you don’t really do much socializing in Dark Souls” or “eh, I just do what I do” then you might need to go a little more hands-on. Remember, don’t just take it away, because then you are just an obstacle in the way of what your friend really wants to do, and that makes you the enemy.
The second thing to look out for is pretty obvious too. Stories of my childhood often revolve around my aunt remembering that I would never stop talking about Pacman. Now, I don’t have many childhood memories but I know that this accusation isn’t true only because I don’t like pacman, nor have I ever. I know that I talked a lot about video games, so the central point stands regardless of what game my aunt thought I was playing. So, if your kid talks a lot about video games, what do you do? Let him. Many game addictions stem from the fact that the rules of the digital world are simply easier to grock than our own. Some people, like myself, garner the majority of their understanding of the world through analogues put through by video games. Why is there evil in the world? Legend of Zelda puts it forward as a cosmic 4-dimensional entity knowable only by the word ‘Demise’. Such is true for the real world. Evil is unknowable, unfathomable, and unextinguishable. One can combat and defeat evil, just as Link regularly combats and defeats Demise and his interminable system of avatars and hosts, but there are only 2 things in the LoZ universe that the Master Sword (which symbolizes justice, truth, and the indomitable spirit of good) can’t kill, Hylia (the goddess that Hyrule is named for and an allegory for love and community) is one of them and Demise (a symbol representing hate and ill-will) is the other. Just like any other addiction, knowing that there’s someone to talk to about what you’ve seen or done makes it easier to manage, when your child or loved one has no one who understands (either through willful ignorance like my father or via intentional deceit by a third party, in the case of mainstream media’s effect on many parents out there) all she will do is assume that nobody is willing to get what she gets with minimal effort and retreat further.
Remember, the number 1 frustration of gamers is a lack of people to talk to, I am married to a gamer and all of my friends are gamers, yet I don’t really know anyone other than Ntacman who really wants to talk shop on my level. Yes, Jesse wants to talk about storylines and pets while Jim wants to talk stats and gear. Carson wants to talk about how he offered a lowbie a portal to Dalaran only to reveal that the portal he opened lead straight to Stonard (okay, mom, first, in the second World of Warcraft expansion, titled Wrath of the Lich King, Dalaran was a floating city replete with profession trainers, banks, auction houses, several inns and portals to every major population hub in the game, low level characters often paid good money for portals to Dalaran because any point in the world could be reached from there within 5 minutes, Stonard, on the other hand, was a Horde base in the middle of a swamp that you could only get away from by either having a connected taxi point or walking several miles through swampland filled with enemies that were usually well above the level range of most characters who require portal service, if you were strong enough to beat these mobs then chances are you’ve been to Dalaran or one of the other major commerce centers designed to facilitate travel). When I was a child, however, I didn’t even have that. My father thought I was a lazy sod who played with kids’ toys at 22 and my mother, while much more supportive, didn’t really have a solid grasp of what was going on in my games, usually landing somewhere in the awkward no-man’s-land between child’s toy and mechanism for escapism (through no fault of your own, mom, I really need to get around to writing that essay on marketing).
So that’s my 2 cents on video game addiction, remember, I am always looking for essay seeds, so if you want a better understanding about things related to video games, shoot Carson an email or post a comment. I’d love to hear from you, whether you have positive feedback or violent assertions. Also, remember, an addiction is not always a problem, I merely hope to offer a means of identifying and combating addiction when it becomes an issue.