WoW Wednesday: Addiction

First, let me say I’m not entirely sure that video games are an addiction.  But I’m not ruling it out.  If gambling can be an addiction, then perhaps video games can be too.

Yesterday, my husband sent me this article about how video games are designed to get people addicted.  It’s a little reminiscent of the tobacco companies’ knowing that their products were addictive.  The article notes that game designers often exploit the brains natural motivation and reward receptors, so that gamers are compelled to keep playing to get to the next reward.  I wrote about reward and motivation myself without a single nod to the fact that the tweaking Blizzard does might, in fact, be intended to “get people addicted” to the game.  Instead, I applied the in-game reward system to my real life, noting that I like small rewards along the way, so that, in order to get myself through an arduous task, I should reward myself with a little something along the way.  Progress tracking was another important motivator that I could apply to real life.

My ability to step outside the game, to recognize what it is doing to my brain, probably separates me from the people who play games for days on end, even to the point of death, for a virtual reward.  These people have lost touch with reality.  And the question is, did the video games cause that or was there something in their psyches already that led to this disconnect.  Would those same people have been driven to another addiction or problematic behavior if video games had not been available?  In fact, this Time article notes that the problem of video game addiction among teens in South Korea may be due in part to long work hours and pressure put on kids to go to “cram schools” at night.  Video games provide a way to relieve stress.  It could have been drugs or alcohol.  Some people just take that stress relief too far.

MMO’s like World of Warcraft do encourage long hours of play.  Running a dungeon can take at least a couple of hours.  A raid, even longer.  I remember the first time I picked up a dungeon guide and the estimate it gave for one dungeon was 2 and a half hours.  Whoa, I thought, I don’t have that kind of time.  Well, things have changed a bit in the game and dungeons can now be run in a half-hour, though raids still take many hours, often spread out over multiple days to complete.  But at least you can play for an hour or so and then save your raid and try again another day instead of having to do it all at once.  Still, most people I know don’t hop on for an hour and leave.  Most log on at the end of the work day and are on until bedtime.  That can be a more than four or five hours.  If you do that every day, is that an addiction?

Look at it this way.  If someone has a couple of drinks every day, they aren’t necessarily alcoholics.  I’m no psychologist, but I know that alcoholics can’t stop at one drink, and they often can’t go a day without a drink (even if they tell themselves they won’t drink).  I once thought I was an alcoholic in college, so I vowed that I wouldn’t drink over winter break.  I was seriously worried that I’d want to drink.  As it turned out, I didn’t want to drink and I went around to holiday parties drinking Dr. Pepper, and felt fine about it.  So, if you can’t go for a day without playing or can’t stop playing after an hour because you need to go eat dinner, you might have a real problem.  And actually, better video games than alcohol or drugs.  At least you’re less likely to harm others or yourself (despite some scary news stories, it really is rare).

For the record, I haven’t played WoW in three days.  Real life has gotten in the way.  As it should.

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5 Replies to “WoW Wednesday: Addiction”

  1. I’m not sure where I stand on the addiction metaphor. But I don’t think the Korean example clarifies my thinking. Because, as you point out, when stressed, these kids are turning to video games in the same sorts of ways they might turn to drugs or alcohol. And you know, relentless video gaming might have some of the physiological effects as drugs and alcohol. But on the other hand, video gaming can have some of the same positive effects as alcohol has at a party.

    American culture at least has had a fear of “unnatural” brain stimulation for a long time. Amusement parks a la Coney Island used to freak people out, especially when women started going there in large numbers on the weekends (the standard book on this is Eight Hours for What We Will, which is about women’s embrace of pink collar jobs because they could then use the wages to do whatever they wanted, with minimal parental supervision). TV addiction still gets us all worked up.

    Maybe this reflects a sort of biological fear about the next stage of evolution. It’s not that being increasingly disconnected on a societal level from nature WILL be bad for us as organisms, but that our current organic selves tend to want to be in nature, and the transition is hard.

    Not that, at an individual level, video gaming or the artificial interface means you’re not going outside. But at a societal level, when we turn to screens to de-stress instead of to parks, it does seem reasonable to assume that that will have an effect on the brain’s evolution over time. And positive or negative, that’s going to feel scary.

    Addiction metaphors may just be the language we use to talk about the fear of change.

    Then again, I’ve seriously considered sending our modem to work with my spouse, because I struggle so badly with an inability to limit my access to the internet. I haven’t even tried WoW because I know how much difficulty I’d experience in limiting my time. (Also because I’m scared of being a newbie.)

  2. Funny you should post this today. This morning, my husband was upstairs talking to our daughter about the history of the crack cocaine epidemic while she put on sunscreen, because she had skipped that step on her previous trip upstairs in order to run down for five minutes on the computer.

    For her, we are talking about addiction because the interactivity and small, frequent rewards of her virtual pet site are leading to “just one more minute!” and “do I have to eat dinner now?” and skipping sunscreen. We have various ways of coping which are moderately effective, but we are also trying to help her understand why she is so drawn to it in hopes that she’ll be able to make good decisions when we aren’t over her shoulder.

    Jody’s perspective is also very interesting — I think it’s true that this is a major change in our human socialization and de-stressing patterns, and I don’t think we need prohibition, but some thinking and some limits.

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  4. There’s a lot of controversy out there about different levels of addiction. Psychological vs biological, for example. Thomas Szasz, for instance, offers one serious critique. I can’t admit to following this in its depths, since they race away from my professional expertise. But I do follow memes, and it’s clear that internet addiction in general, and gaming in particular, are memes with staying power.

    Ironic to read this as I think about returning to WoW…

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