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Video Game Addiction: Real or Imagined?


September 12 2010

If you follow news about video gaming, you've probably noticed a growing number of stories related to so-called "game addiction." There is currently a case before the courts in the U.S. where the plaintiff claims that Lineage 2 is so addictive that it rendered him incapable of living a normal life for about 5 years.

Now, while Lineage 2 wouldn't top my list of the most compelling video games, it won't be the first or the last time a game was accused of destroying lives, and placed in the same category as heroin, alcohol, and nicotine. One report out of Sweden went so far as to dub World of Warcraft "as addictive as cocaine." It would also seem, according to the hysteria, that multiplayer games and MMORPGs are more addictive than their single-player counterparts.

Interestingly, "addictive" is often seen as a desirable quality in a game, and the term is regularly used with positive connotations in both reviews and marketing. Nevertheless, it's frequently deployed with its usual negative overtones by those who seek greater regulation of the industry.

Addiction Semantics

Central to this debate is the way in which the term "addiction" is used. For a long time it described a state of dependency on a substance, from which a withdrawal produces distinct physiological symptoms. It was, and for the most part still is, a medical condition which results from the compulsive use of certain drugs.

In recent years, however, the notion of "behavioral addiction" has been growing in popularity, and has been applied to almost every imaginable human activity, including sex, eating, gambling, using the Internet, sports, work, and even shopping. Under this broad definition of the term, any compulsive behavior that has detrimental consequences is an addiction. The implication is that you could become addicted to virtually anything from biting your nails to walking your dog.

Behavioral addiction remains quite controversial, and the debate continues on whether or not it really constitutes addiction. We seem to be on our way to equating every bad habit with addiction. Still, the American Medical Association backed away from calling excessive gaming a formal psychiatric disorder a few years ago, citing a lack of research. Then again, the AMA shies away from the term "addiction" altogether, preferring to use "dependency."

Consider also that, while alcoholism might seem like a textbook case of addiction, there are schools of thought that define it as a disease. Without getting into the details, the theory maintains that some people have a "genetic predisposition" to abuse alcohol. Perhaps, using the same methodology, we will discover that some people are genetically predisposed to become obsessed with video games, and they are actually suffering from a disease rather than an addiction.

At some point you have to wonder if we aren't simply trying to avoid taking responsibility for our actions. Clearly, we're less responsible for a disease than an addiction, and less responsible for an addiction than a habit. If our problems can be shifted onto bad genes or sinister game developers, we don't have to shoulder the blame for our lack of self control.

I'm not a mental health professional, but I would submit that relieving people of responsibility for their bad behavior is not in their best interest. It leads directly to the belief that the behavior, like a disease, cannot be changed or corrected by choice.

Problem Gaming

To those suffering from a disorder of any kind, the semantics are of little consequence. There's no doubt that some people have serious problems with video gaming that cause major disruptions in their lives. We've all heard tragic stories of people losing their jobs, skipping school, neglecting their children, and even committing suicide over games. Like most forms of entertainment, games are enjoyable, and you'd barely be human if you didn't do things you enjoy more than you should at times. There is a point, however, when it becomes harmful, and help may be needed to get it back under control.

The rise in popularity of MMORPGs seems to correlate to growing concerns about compulsive gaming. Certain features of these games can make them considerably more engaging than their offline brethren. They have social elements, they never really end, and they employ reward mechanisms that can have a powerful affect on some people. It's not uncommon to see players endure many hours in optional parts of a game they don't like simply to acquire a certain item for their character. In fact, the lengths people will go to for a virtual item is downright amazing, especially since these items typically have little or no value outside of the game, which itself is something you're likely to grow tired of within, at the most, a few years.

Developers are well aware of all this, and a great deal of thought goes into the reward mechanisms in games. The sheer number of games that now feature in-game accomplishment systems is testimony to how much people enjoy this aspect of gaming. At the same time, I think developers truly want to see people use their products sensibly and with a degree of moderation. Many MMORPGs (Lineage 2 included) now send you regular chat messages telling you how long you've been playing, sometimes even recommending a break.

I've known a few people that have definitely struggled with their gaming habits over the years. The typical outcome, even for the most compulsive of them, is that they eventually get bored of the game, or games in general, and their hours of play drop off dramatically. Their loss of interest can be triggered by something as simple as a guild disbanding, or the release of an expansion. Admittedly, there are more extreme cases that may warrant some sort of intervention.

Legal Implications

Although the terminology surrounding addiction may seem insignificant, how we understand these behavioral conditions does have legal implications. The most obvious of these is that, were game dependency recognized as an official disorder, treatment costs might be covered by health insurance.

Getting back to the Lineage 2 case, suppose that the Courts decided in favor of the plaintiff, concluding that Lineage 2 is addictive and that NCsoft hasn't done enough to warn consumers of the potential dangers of playing the game. Will we then need warnings on almost everything, given the vast assortment of products and services that someone might become psychologically dependent on?

Imagine some of the other fallout that would result from such a precedent. Game developers would be sued for everything from players losing their jobs to players getting divorced. Drunk drivers would file suits against Budweiser, and serial killers would sue Winchester.

The Debate Continues

I expect the Lineage 2 case to get dismissed, but we certainly haven't heard the end of the furor over game addiction. The debate will resurface every time a gamer does something regrettable, at least until people are much more comfortable with games. I'm not convinced that behavioral addiction in general really makes sense, or that it belongs in the same camp as drug addiction. Although little hard research has been done on the subject, several treatment centers for problem gamers have already opened, so more studies about our intimate relationship with video games are bound to follow.

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