Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 25, 2008
Gaming as a problem

A reader, Sare, wrote me an e-mail with a link to the latest Penny Arcade comic on WoW addiction. He asks "Game addiction, does it really exist or is it just a myth? I found myself wondering about this as I sat on my computer and played World of Warcraft for the 10th hour straight trying to get attuned to karazan and farming gold and gems for the guild bank trying to prepare everybody else for it as well."

I think one of the major flaws of the whole game addiction discussion is that people see it too much in terms of black and white: Either you are addicted or you are not. Such a yes/no addiction might scientifically exist for addictive substances like heroin. It doesn't exist for video games or other forms of entertainment, like the fabled TV addiction. The Scientific American says "The term "TV addiction" is imprecise and laden with value judgments, but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon. Psychologists and psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder characterized by criteria that include spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving up important social, family or occupational activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it." The same is true for video game addiction: imprecise and laden with value judgements, but describing something which is nevertheless a real phenomenon. That article also says "That said, we need to be careful about overreacting. Little evidence suggests that adults or children should stop watching TV altogether. The problems come from heavy or prolonged viewing.", and again the same thing is true for video games. The same is *not* true for addictive substances like heroin, where even trying once is likely to start an addiction.

Television and video games both offer escapism. Wikipedia lists among forms of escapism "Principal amongst these are fiction literature, music, sports, films, television, roleplaying games, pornography, religion, recreational drugs, the internet and computer games." and quotes C.S. Lewis saying that "the usual enemies of escape are jailers". The problem is not the exact means of escape, one shouldn't join Karl Marx in condemning religion or Jack Thompson in condemning video games. The underlying problem is some unhappiness with our real lives which leads us to search for something better in a virtual one. Not lucky in love? A romantic novel or movie (or porn if it was more the physical part of love you were after) offers a brighter view. No success in your studies or job? But at least your guild downed Illidan! You're a fat couch potato? Compensate by watching sports all day on the TV. It is evident that all these are just false solutions. After all that you're still lonely, unsuccessful, and fat.

As long as you are aware of it, and don't confuse the false solutions with a real way to improvement, escapism can be fine. Sometimes our real world problems are temporal, and there is nothing to be said against a little escape to help us deal with the pain. Why not be a hero for a while in World of Warcraft after a bad day at work? You just need to stop yourself from the escapism adding to the problem. If you neglect your studies or work because of WoW, or TV sports replaces all of your physical activity, you have a real problem. Only such things are usually gradual, shades of grey, not black and white. You can't take the 10 million WoW players and say 40% of them are addicted, or give any other number, that is just nonsense talk. There are some players that play WoW only very little and if they have nothing else to do, some players that dropped out of school or quit work or left their family to play WoW, and all the shades in between. Most people are somewhere in the middle, where they might have the occasional minor real life problem due to WoW, like a late night playing session leaving you tired and without an ironed shirt to go to work with the next day. And with most of them that varies over time. Just take myself, I lived perfectly well without WoW for 7 months last year, and this week I'm a bit tired because I spent several nights raiding. There will be weeks in the future where I will play very little WoW. The need for escape comes and goes. And for the large majority anything you could describe as game addiction only happens in a very mild and not really problematic form. You could compare it to people that might get drunk once in a while, but are far from being alcoholics. It is better to watch yourself, because the border isn't very well defined, and of course you should avoid the problematic forms of addiction. But saying that a particular form of escapism is responsible and should be regulated against is just targeting the symptoms instead of the underlying causes.
Another popular definition in traditional mental health community for addiction is: Does it cause problems?

Specifically this means problems with relationships, family, work, normal function (daily chores).

If WoW is so consuming that above are persistently neglected it could be an addiction and it may be worthwhile to intervene (or if you watch yourself, wake up).
Very, very, very well written, Tobold!
Your heart and mind is in the right place.

Just want to add, that the underlying problem of escapism-addiction doesn't always stems from "some unhappiness with our real lives". Many times the addiction gets sneaked in 'through the backdoor'...

Often we start playing games just because it's fun, social, and stimulating. Some games, however, are SO rewarding in all these aspects (especially MMORPGs), that we soon get hooked to a degree that resemble addiction.

We're still not bored or unhappy with real life - the quick digital fix of escapism is just so much more immediately rewarding.

Even perfectly well-functioning people living in oblivious bliss can get hit by MMORPG-addiction...
I doubt that many WoW players are truly addicted, as most people would define it, but there's definitely something very unhealthy and depressing about the whole raid treadmill.

As someone who enjoyed the game but quit before getting involved in raids, I constantly look on in amazement as people spend hours and hours night after night getting items that make them minimally more effective at raiding - so they can eventually do the whole thing over again in a slightly harder instance. Repeat ad nauseum.

It's not the fault of players - just the poor one-dimensional game mechanics that offer no alternative end game.

Drawing a bad comparison, picture a scene where someone spends a night at a pub with friends once a week.

Now picture a similar scene where the only way that person could continue to enjoy the company of friends was to be in the same pub doing the same thing three or four nights a week, every week.

The problem with WoW is it lacks just about everything normally used in mmorpgs to keep people playing outside of raids - and it's these things (crafting/housing/"sandbox" activities) that people can do at their own pace.

With raids, the problem (or "addiction" aspect) is the unspoken pressure placed on players to keep up with guildmates etc. Sure, you can switch guilds - but that defeats the social "benefits" offered by the game in the first place.
Judging by your current progress into hardcore raiding Tobald I would say you are already on the slippery slope. Will monitor your rate of blog posts and if it drops I will have to conclude that you have sunk into the depths of MMORPG addiction ;)

It doesn't exist for video games or other forms of entertainment, like the fabled TV addiction.

Imagine if your favorite television show (let's say that show is The Sopranos) ran a new episode every single hour - with no breaks ever.

Now, this would mean that you'd miss out on episodes while you slept or went to work/school, and you'd never be able to catch up, because fresh episodes were constantly being aired 24/7.

You can easily see how this could disrupt people's life and not be healthy for them.

Only under such a scenario can television truly be compared to a mmorpg.
During my college time i was introduced to that thing called MMORPG. A short trip to UO, followed by a EQ - wich lasted for 5 years in the end. I wouldn't even consider myself addicted to the game, but there were some truely unhealty and wasted weeks and months, pushing way too many hours into it. EQ was THE thing, there wasn't something even close to the experience. After some time, the curtain felt and the game offered its true core to me. When i realized how things work in EQ and why they exist, the game instantly lost what the game addiction zealots always refer to as the most dangerous elements.

This is why i'm absolutetly convinced that long time MMO addiction is an illusion. The more time you spent, the sooner you realize how simply those things work. When the "Whoa"-moment is over, the game lost any appeal. It's different to TV or pure story driven entertainment. MMOs are pure pattern/formula driven, it's way too transparent to fool anyone for a long time. It's like watching those explanations for real life magic tricks. After you've seen how it works, you won't be tricked into something similar.

There is a very certain percentage of people, that demographicly are pretty much equal, that will spend more time in those games, than some media would like. Most of the "MMOs are the true evil" folks work in media outlets, that simply suffer from losing customers. The more time people spend playing games, the less they will watch crappy TV, visit cinema or whatnot. Long time MMO addiction? A myth.
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@Chrismue - How do you explain the GROWING population of WoW then? What may seem so transparent to you or I may not be so obvious to others.

You can't make sweeping, generalist statements about the addictive properties of MMOs because individuals are drawn to the genre for a multitude of reasons. However, it is obvious that SOME players are hopelessly addicted to escapism, and therefore MMO-addiction exists.

If gambling addiction is widely accepted, how can anyone write off MMO-gaming addiction? By definition and symptom, they're the same thing.
I agree that things like TV and video game addiction can occur, but I think it's much different than physical addictions such as smoking or drugs. I recently quit play WoW cold turkey and have not touched it since other than to empty my mailboxes. I still have time left to play before I need to feed in fifteen more dollars, but there is no urge. In fact it feels more like a relief, I have entire days back. I actually have no idea what to do with all my free time now, I currently just counting down days until some other game get released.

Point is with my WoW addiction, there is zero withdrawal. I only visit this and one other WoW related site, this one because it covers other topics. I had no desire to continue playing, not even for WotLK. Despite playing for seven hour days, more on days off, I have no trouble going through out the day with out giving it a second thought. That's why non physical addictions are far different the than traditional definition.

The amount that I was playing and the time spend researching the game (through lore, add-ons, and whatever) I would consider an addiction level. But how fast I abandon it all makes it more on a level a habit. I basically played the game out of habit, because I had nothing better to do. I think this is the case with most players that exceed casual play time. They are not truly addicted, they will not go through withdrawal. Some yes, but most will live if they had to go without for a week.

The term addiction gets thrown out a lot, by both people who have an agenda against video games and by those who seek to use it as a badge of honor. It's becoming a mere buzz word that's losing it's meaning. It's not an accurate term, a "habit" is closer to what most people have.
Point is with my WoW addiction, there is zero withdrawal. I only visit this and one other WoW related site, this one because it covers other topics. I had no desire to continue playing, not even for WotLK. Despite playing for seven hour days, more on days off, I have no trouble going through out the day with out giving it a second thought. That's why non physical addictions are far different the than traditional definition

then its really not addiction.

persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful

If no harm is being done then there is no addiction. It's a fuzzy place people want to go when they start waiving the word addiction around. If I spend 30 hours a week watching tv. Is that addiction. If I read sci fi novels that much is that addiction. Anything could be addiction but it has to cross the line and start causing harm. Work issues, not taking care of family, etc. And I submit that the people that are actually that addicted would have gotten addicted to something else. TV, internet porn or something.
The heroin example is an interesting one. I'd say alcohol or tobacco (cannabis?) might be a better analogy due to the highly addictive nature of heroin from the initial intake.

MMOs might be more similar to the legal substances, which gradually build the levels.
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