Whenever video games and addiction are discussed in the same sentence, images of sweaty acne-ridden teenagers hunkered over cluttered desks shrouded in darkness come to mind. However, it may be that the problem runs far deeper, and across a far greater audience then previously thought. In fact, some of us may be addicted ourselves, without even realising. So what is video game addiction, why is it a problem, and why analyse it now in today’s technologically dependant society?
I’ll answer the last question first. Recently, I took part in an interview for an upcoming documentary which explores video game addiction, due to my status as a voluntary games journalist, and whether it should be acknowledged as a formal addiction in the way that drugs and alcohol are. I was interested to find out that there is only one established rehabilitation clinic that deals with video game addiction in the whole of the UK, opposed to the hundreds of clinics that serve to deal with other compulsions.
Some may vehemently claim that there is no such thing as video game addiction; it’s merely an attack from the unknowing public against our favourite consoles and games, who are lambasting hard-working developers for presenting fascinating worlds combined with unique art design. However, despite the admirable defence of such comments to protect a much scrutinised industry, they would sadly be mistaken, as recent tragedies have shed light on the dangerous and often unnerving abilities of games that can ruin families, destroy personalities, and in rare situations, lead to death.
Take for example the case of a man in China, who died of exhaustion after playing online continuously for three days at a local internet cafe, without an extended break. Perhaps even more tragically, the suicide of a young boy who threw himself from a tower block, leaving scattered notes detailing his gaming addiction, as well as highlighting his reunion with other cyber-players in heaven.
In the United States, Kendall Anderson, 16, killed his mother after she confiscated his Playstation. The weapon used was a claw hammer, with over 20 marks and bruises found on his mother’s corpse.
Let it be known that these cases are rare, and whilst there are a small minority who act irrationally as a result of extended periods of gaming, the vast majority of us enjoy the largest entertainment medium in the world without problem. However, as video games are attracting an increasing demographic, cases of addiction may be increasing despite no formal diagnosis to prove otherwise.
With recent massacres such as Sandy Hook causing both the public and major organisations to lay the blame at the feet of video games, now seems like an appropriate time to address such an issue, and how we can tackle the problem in modern society.
The most significant symptom of gaming addiction, and the most easily identifiable, is when normal daily activities are sacrificed in order to increase gaming time. For example, a change in sleeping pattern, a cancellation of a social event, or missing out on a hot meal. Most gamers will have experienced such events in their own gaming activity, as I can attest to myself as an avid gamer, but does repetition of such examples immediately identify someone as a video game addict?
To analyse my own situation, my friends and girlfriend would disagree I have any form of addiction in relation to video games, stating that I can effectively balance my free time, along with my social and working life. If the same question was asked to my mother however, a completely different answer would be given. She feels my attachment to gaming is of an addictive nature, and I play far more than I should, citing video games as the core reason of the breakdown in our relationship, which began to collapse over 10 years ago with the purchase of the Playstation.
I’m sure there are many other gamers out there in an identical situation to myself, whereby they feel their time spent with video games contrasts with the opinions of those around them, causing an internal conflict which leads to questioning their own behaviour.
Do I spend too much time playing games? Have I sacrificed other important duties in order to play more? Do I place more importance on the virtual worlds of gaming, than I do on the one in which I live?
My Gamerscore of over 100,000 probably answers some of those questions immediately, although opinions are likely to be split. To provide context, I work during the day, and partake in the odd social event some evenings, including rock climbing, going to watch soccer, the odd drink at the pub and just hanging out. My argument therefore is that during the rest of my free time, I should be able to use that as I see fit.
Some people may choose to sit in front of the television the entire evening, flicking between channels whilst experiencing mind-numbing reality TV shows that appeal to lowest form of intellect. Others may enjoy dipping their head in a good book, allowing them to be enveloped by the characters and world contained within. Neither activity is associated with addiction, despite the excessive amounts of time some choose to spend with each activity, so why does gaming take a few punches where other forms of media do not?
It essentially boils down to two ingredients, which developers include in all games (critically and commercially successful ones anyway), and essentially keep us playing, often far longer than we should.
Rewards and Reinforcement.
These two factors are what separate gaming from any other entertainment medium on the planet, demanding player involvement and a pro-active mind, as opposed to the relaxed and passive nature of other entertainment activities. As a result, players with low self-esteem, lack of confidence or social anxieties, are more likely to develop an attachment with gaming than those who do not, as the rewards and reinforcement within such games will be more clear and regular than those in the real world. This will most likely cause the player to develop a psychological dependence to video games.
Such an analysis may support why I developed a strong attachment to games in the first place over other forms of media. At the age of 7, my parents had settled a bitter divorce, and due to my lack of understanding, I felt I had some part to play in such a conclusion. As a result, I withdrew, both from my family and the rest of the world, with the Playstation offering comfort and escapism that I struggled to find elsewhere. This may have then manifested over time, causing me to develop an addictive attachment, long after any issues regarding my parent’s divorce was resolved.
Whilst I am no longer the withdrawn child I used to be, as evidenced by my bold confidence, an embracing of social events, and a good strong mix of solid friendships, I still often lapse into moments of isolation, as if I have been pulled into the dark shadows of gaming once more. How else would I achieve a Gamerscore of over 100,000?
Unsurprisingly, most cases of video game dependence stem from playing MMORPG’s, known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, which package those two ingredients, rewards and reinforcement, in a far more hasty and apparent manner. Almost every action in this genre leads to a positive result, whether that’s an increase in virtual currency, or one step closer towards levelling up your personal avatar. This doesn’t mean to say such dependencies aren’t possible in single player experiences however (otherwise this article wouldn’t be featuring on our site, would it?), it’s just that MMORPG’s demand more of a player’s time, and sometimes cash, than an offline experience justifies.
Also, the possibility to develop relationships online is another addition which can have both positive and negative outcomes. For example, one friend from my gaming group met his current wife on World of Warcraft, and they are now happily living together having just recently given birth to a baby daughter. On the other hand, players will often emphasise the importance of these virtual relationships over the potential friendships that surround them, despite no face-to-face contact having ever been made during these simulated conversations.
It’s worth asking therefore whether the development models for such games contradict the health guidelines given to players. Recommendations are that after each hour of play, a minimum break of 15 minutes should be taken. This is fine for games such as Fifa 13 or Hitman: Absolution, where the game experience is short and offers the luxury to pause during said occurrences. With games such as World of Warcraft and EVE: Online however, it can often take an hour for the player to become fully immersed, by which point there are so many lures in place to prevent the player from taking a break, such as online chat, PvP battles, and bountiful treasure, that to separate from the gaming world becomes an inconvenience, rather than a refreshment.
With in-game rewards and reinforcement distributed at such a quick and fastening pace, especially when compared to the real world, are we in danger of losing an increasing number of our society to virtual games? At the time of writing this article, I can even cite a text from my friend, who took the day off work sick in order to play League of Legends. Some may downplay the event; perhaps offering cases themselves where they have done the same, but doesn’t this conflict with the work ethic of our ancestors, who often worked in harsher conditions for less pay? With the UK having jobless statistics numbering around 2 million, I find such an action incomprehensible, although it may be the rewards found online are of more benefit and satisfaction to my friend than those presented through work.
Whilst I don’t agree with such a scenario, I can understand it. Perhaps due to the increasing difficulties of the current economy, and the strain it is placing on many families, personal rewards in the real world are few and far between, with most of us having to sacrifice our ambitions in order to pay bills, buy food, and ensure we sleep with a roof above our heads.
With a lot of young people presented with a bleak future therefore, it’s far easier for said people to lapse into the reward-reinforcement system of gaming, than face the harsh realities of the real world, especially when support given is minimal at best.
How often are we told at school, or by our parents, that our hard work now will pay off in the future? Imagine the same concept, but within the world of video games. After completing the first mission, you are told by on-screen text that sometime in the near future, you will have access to the next mission due to your hard work, although you wont know where or when it will take place.
Our modern society likes immediacy and visualisation of rewards, something which isn’t clear during education, and at the age of 23, isn’t even clear for me at its conclusion. I’m currently working for a local newspaper for free, in the hopes that I will land a career at the end of said work experience. The government won’t support such actions through our benefits system, as they would prefer me to be in work (regardless of my own goals or ambitions) as soon as possible, whether in retail or fast food. To the Big Man, it does not matter, as long as I am paying taxes.
As a result, I face a dwindling pot of money, where in the next week or two, I will be hit with the realisation that I too, must give up on my dreams in order to grab whatever job I can, so that I can scrap from day to day just to get by. Even with a 1st Class Honours Degree. For some, the hard work will pay off, for others it won’t.
In gaming, everyone is a winner.