I have first-hand experience of the way games such as WoW can be so engaging that entertainment becomes a way of life. Which leads me to the question: was my partner an addict?
If so, was he any different to the thousands, if not millions, of gamers across the world spending what some would deem “excessive” amounts of time online managing virtual farms or defeating dragon gods intent on destroying the world? Were all these people addicts, too?
It seems currently that anything pleasurable we do to excess is described as an addiction – from the traditional drug addictions to behavioural addictions such as shopping, gambling, sex, eating and even reading.
The addiction narrative regularly features in popular culture. One gamer even made a documentary about his “bittersweet” journey through WoW. In Real Life (see below) is Anthony Rosner’s personal look at the effect of what he saw as addiction to the game.
But there are dangers in this kind of self-diagnosis. Identifying oneself as an addict may mask the alternative causes of problem-gaming including, but not limited to, social anxiety and depression. Some gamers are even at risk of addiction becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Problem videogaming does not fit neatly into our existing understanding of addiction – indeed, our understanding of the neuroscience of behavioural addiction is very limited and mostly focused on gambling.
Unlike videogaming, gambling has been described by Professor Don Ross at MIT as a basic form of addiction. The combination of reward and failure in gambling tasks disrupts the balance between the mid-brain dopamine system (which encourages reward-seeking behaviour) and our ability to control this behaviour through the pre-frontal and frontal serotonergic system.
A recent survey of the academic literature on internet gaming addiction makes the following point:
while a minority of game players do experience symptoms normally associated with addiction including mood modification, tolerance and salience, it’s unclear in most cases whether an individual’s apparent addiction is the cause of these symptoms rather than a symptom itself of another (co-morbid) disorder they may have, the most common being depression.
The scope of games and gamers is partially the limiting factor to our understanding of computer game addiction. It could be said there are as many types of games as there are types of gamers, and the research is yet to reflect this adequately.
The supposed “average” gamer is not who he or she used to be, and the tasks games present players with are growing increasingly complex and varied.
To view games as either helpful or harmful is far too simple. Though there might be links between violent media content and aggression this hasn’t been proven, and there are reasons to argue that games could provide a great array of psychological and physiological benefits.
Violent videogames such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are considered most problematic because of their violent content. But it’s actually the “simple” games, such as Angry Birds and Bejeweled that are most similar to gambling.
They balance failure with reward in a way that takes advantage of neural systems associated with pathological gambling.
Other games are more complex. The epic fantasy role-playing game (RPG) Skyrim provides a sandbox (open) world in which players can do almost anything, from saving the world to catching butterflies to clearing out dungeons for loot.
Gamers are given control over their in-game character, the goals they achieve and how they achieve them. This is somewhat different to a traditional addictive substance or behaviour that does not necessarily offer the range of new skills and tasks associated with cognitive development and collective action.
We’re all in this together
Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as WoW employ a large social component.
Gamers come together and engage in complex teamwork and collaborative behaviour to achieve goals, developing wide networks and strong relationships. Players often know each other in “real life” and even when they only know one another via the computer screen, their relationships can be committed and meaningful.
This is not to deny there are potential problems that can result from excessive gaming – such as antisocial behaviour or, in extreme and rare cases, death. This was seen in the tragic case of a child in Korea dying while her parents played Second Life.
So did my partner play WoW to excess? In my opinion, yes: he played the game to the detriment of other parts of his life. But that doesn’t mean addiction is the only, or best, way to think about his behaviour.
The playground of videogame worlds is decidedly different to the playgrounds of the past, for better or for worse.
The bottom line is that more informed and substantial research needs to be done into problem gaming. In the meantime, describing “excessive” gamers as addicts may simply do more harm than good.