Seeing all the hysteria in the media about "video game addiction," a gamer might be inclined to deny that such a thing even exists. The idea does seem to fit the stereotype of an out-of-shape loser living in his parents' basement, doing nothing but playing World of Warcraft all day, just a little too closely. What's more, the American Psychiatric Association decided not to add it to its next diagnostic manual because there's not enough evidence for it.
But regardless of whether it merits some kind of official recognition, game addiction is a real thing. Numerous people have reported that overuse of video games has affected their personal lives, game developers often prey on the easily hooked using the same techniques that casinos do, and several formal studies have identified problematic trends and risk factors. There's no reason for a panic, but there's plenty of reason to be concerned if you find your life being controlled by the games you play.
Anecdotes aren't a particularly strong form of evidence, but it's troublesome how easy it is to find people whose lives have been harmed by their game addictions—just try typing "I'm addicted to video games" into Google. A few clicks later, you'll be confronted by players who game in every second of spare time they have, and even many people who blow off real responsibilities so they can play more. One hallmark of an addiction is that people continue the behavior even though they don't want to, and many of the people you'll find are asking for help. Even some game journalists admit that their habits have hurt their personal lives, sometimes up to the point that they were passing up sex so they could finish up an in-game achievement.
To be sure, a wide range of gaming activity can be perfectly normal; game addiction isn't merely a function of the number of hours spent playing. Some gamers play a few hours on the weekends, or play on their smartphones while they're waiting for the bus, while others of us play a lot more without issue. The average American watches 34 hours of television every week, or almost five hours a day, and it can hardly be considered abnormal if someone would rather spend that time playing games. I certainly prefer Fallout to 2 Broke Girls. But because they are interactive, games have ways of getting us hooked that television shows don't.
If you've ever played an RPG, you know how the leveling system works: At first, you level up rather quickly, but as the game wears on, it takes longer and longer to earn each new level. There's nothing wrong with this in principle—as it happens, we human beings find this reward pattern pleasing. When we're told we're doing great at first, it boosts our ego and helps us stick to it. Then we're willing to work harder for future rewards. This is what makes RPGs feel so good to play: We feel like we're accomplishing something meaningful every time our character improves. Other game genres do the same thing in different ways; early achievements come easy, but beating the game might be a real challenge.
But the same pattern that gives us a sense of momentum—levels one through ten were such a rush; I can't wait until eleven!—can make some people lose track of what's important. And developers—especially MMO developers, who need players to keep paying subscription fees for months on end—know how to create that pattern. They have studied in detail how to dole out rewards in a way that keeps players coming back, always tantalized but never quite satisfied.
It's the exact same thing that casinos do—hand out rewards at the pace that maximizes profit. On the one hand, the reason it maximizes profit is that it feels good, meaning that in a certain sense, game developers and casinos are serving their customers in the best way possible. On the other hand, for some costumers, what starts out feeling good can sometimes morph into a compulsion. In other words, the techniques that make a game "like crack" in a good way to most of us can make games like crack in a bad way for a minority of us.
Fortunately, as bad as addiction can be, it's never destiny; throughout history, countless alcoholics, gamblers, and drug addicts have managed to quit their vices. Various studies have identified risk factors for game addiction, and treatment is available to people who can't quit by themselves.
Research throughout the world indicates that about one in ten gamers shows signs of "pathological" addiction, meaning that gaming is interfering with their ability to function in everyday life. With a stricter definition of "pathological," the number may be as low as three in a hundred.
Studies have also identified risk factors. As is the case with gambling, men seem to respond to the rewards of gaming more strongly than women do. And some experts believe that game addiction is primarily a symptom of other psychological problems; people who are already anxious or depressed may be more prone to game addiction.
As with any problematic behavior, video game addiction can be treated through therapy, self-help, and support groups. Those who find themselves shirking their responsibilities to get another hour of "screen time" shouldn't hesitate to do something about it.
Again, there's no reason for a panic. Most gamers don't become addicts, and the experts are divided on how to define "video game addiction" and even whether it exists. But there's no question that, for some people, gaming can become something it shouldn't be: an obsession.
Date: April 20, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*