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Gaming Junkies: A Look at Video Game Addiction
by David Tierney
Posted: Jan 23, 2015
Run around. Battle. Attack, attack, attack, run around, battle, run, battle, run, battle, repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the obvious way to describe much of my own early days of playing through the Pokémon and Final Fantasy series. I poured hours of my life into each franchise, from Pokémon Red to Final Fantasy 10. For the most part, I remember enjoying myself, but when I look back at the hours I spent grinding away in battles, I can't help but ponder over the question, "Was I addicted?"
Addiction. The word is classically synonymous with alcohol, smoking, gambling, and hard drugs. Today, however, we’re beginning to see blatant hints of other addictions right under our noses. In fact, some forms of entertainment openly and proudly proclaim themselves as such, with many mainstream TV box sets being advertised as something to 'binge on'. Gaming is no different, and while praising immersion seems understandable, many advertisements and reviewers heap praise on a title for having 'addictive' gameplay, and we're unlikely to even bat an eyelid at the word. Of course, this nonchalance could just be because they're clearly using the word in a broader sense and not as the malevolent term associated with substance abuse, but it does leave some food for thought.
In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, decided that enough evidence existed to propose the potential disorder of video game addiction as a "condition requiring further study". Looking through scientific studies on video game addiction, many – while still in their infancy – make reference to the difficulty in classifying non-substance addictions; basically, how do we know when something that is vague in its harm is addictive?
Playing something in excess, some will argue, is no different to loving to watch TV, read or go to the gym, in that there's no direct adverse effect on the individual. However, the fact is that many addiction centres have begun to cater for those who are addicted to games, and in South Korea, camps have opened for addicted children. So there must be something that’s causing people to believe they and others are hooked, as well as some signs that people are using to spot what they class as video game addiction.
As a starting point for looking for symptoms of video game addiction, researchers tend to turn to the DSM, and its classifications of disorders relating to substance abuse and problem gambling. While substance abuse is used for broadening the criteria examined, gambling seems like it’s in the same ballpark as gaming. Gambling has always been something which, without using any addictive substances, has been shown to keep people hooked.
Many similarities to pathological gambling are present in gaming: gamers may end up abusing finances, playing games beyond the point of enjoyment, or being distracted from important life situations. We need to be aware that we can get hooked, before it gets out of hand. In numerous cases, though, it already has.
There have been many examples of tragic events caused due to video game addiction. In one shocking case, in a South Korean man died from cardiac arrest in 2005 after playing Starcraft for 50 hours straight. There have also been tragic deaths due to neglect, and major damages caused because of anger due to in-game losses. One could argue that these drastic cases are down to the individuals having some alternate cause, be it external (e.g. a tragic death) or internal (e.g. depression), which led to their extreme case of addiction.
Despite what the media circus may proclaim, these tragedies are extremely rare. But this doesn’t mean that gaming isn’t addictive. Most people probably don’t have their addictions broadcast on television, and we probably won’t even see the gamer who’s addicted. They won’t be sitting on the street corner, begging for money so that they can buy the latest Pokémon. But they could be indoors for a whole day playing Candy Crush, or even on the train to work, staring, in a zombie-like state, at their PSP.
In terms of the amount of gamers who are addicted, many scientific studies claim around nine percent. As an example of what they typically find, I make reference to a two-year longitudinal study published in 2010 in the scientific journal, Pediatrics. In this study, it was found that greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence, and greater impulsivity seem to act as risk factors for becoming a pathological gamer – whereas depression, anxiety, social phobias and lower school performance seemed to act as outcomes of pathological gaming. However, along with many other studies, there's reference made here to the fact there is still a long way to go in order to fully understand pathological gaming.
Many experiments compare gaming to gambling, and while they can be quite similar, there are many ways in which video games can look at gambling as their evil and corrupt distant cousin. As an avid gamer, I’m always eager to point out that gaming has multiple benefits for the player. Some studies show an increase in sensory motor skills, improvements in using the English language, and increased mental flexibility. Players can learn about teamwork, and make friends from far-off countries. We can observe the beauty of games that are striving towards artwork, and become engaged in gripping, thought-provoking stories. As a medium of entertainment, it equals and surpasses many other forms, and therefore comparing it to gambling can be seen as simplistic; we need to look at its uniqueness in order to work out part of why it's addictive.
Immersion is one aspect in which games can conquer all other forms of entertainment. In a game, players can start to feel a sense of control over a contained world due to directly controlling their character or environment. This control makes you, as the player, feel wins and losses as though they’re your own. We invest our lives to create communities in which we compete and co-operate with real world people; perhaps making friends, or even life partners. In particular, MMOs have embraced this, where playing with others is almost a necessity. While these factors all make games more enjoyable, they can also lead to a slippery slope in which – despite the fact you may not be wasting money, or getting any direct adverse health effects – you are beginning to replace the physical world with an electronic one.
This blurring of worlds could possibly be attributed as the cause of some of the tragedies at the extreme end of the spectrum seen in news stories. In another well-documented case in South Korea, a couple’s baby died due to neglect because they were too busy raising a baby in an online video game. We must be careful, therefore, to recognise that the gaming world isn’t real, and be capable – when needed – of taking ourselves out of the vacuum that is an engaging game. When we control it, immersion allows us a temporary escape; it allows us to lose ourselves in spectacular worlds. It's an admirable characteristic of gaming, and I highlight it in particular contrast to one other trait of gaming; one which has taken on a more malevolent tone, especially as of late.
Many major gaming titles utilise paid transactions, allowing players to download more content for a certain price. This content can be poorly implemented (ala Oblivion's infamous horse armour) or add tremendous value to the original experience (seen most recently in Mario Kart 8).
In contrast to these paid DLC packages, there's the free-to-play model, which attracts customers with its initially complimentary download – then urges them to pay small amounts of money to make progress or add more meaningful content to the game. In many cases, you're given a bare-minimum amount of content and are constantly faced, in-game, with opportunities to progress simply by paying. And, if you eventually decide to go cold-turkey, you'll be constantly emailed incentives to return. It’s typically small games and mobile applications that have served as the birthplace for this type of manipulation.
Farmville, Candy Crush Saga, and a host of other online games make a good portion of their money from that minimal (or not so minimal) amount of players who pay money to progress further. Similarly to the likes of the Lotto, many of these games hide themselves behind bright colours and fun sounds, while in reality they’re out there to make money, and – purposefully or inadvertently) – exploit addicts.
You could argue that all games are out there to make money, but as I said above, many free-to-play games use seemingly sneaky psychological tactics and incentives to keep you hooked. A hilarious episode of South Park quite recently highlighted this issue, comparing boring, ill-made games to gambling and drinking. The model of free-to-play games is something that narrows the gap between gambling and gaming. But why should all video games suffer the label of 'addictive' for what they do?
This brings it down to something as simple as terminology; an overarching statement that 'video games are addictive' is too broad. If we compare it to something as essential eating or drinking we can draw parallels: people drink alcohol and become alcoholics, but this doesn't make us put an age ban on drinking water. We can extend this comparison, and acknowledge that not all drinks cause the same amount, or type, of damage, e.g. sugary drinks corrode your teeth. Also, there are many healthy drinks, like smoothies, that are good for you. In terms of games, these are reminiscent of the likes of Journey (you know, that game for the PS3; it’s exquisitely delectable, and works wonders for your skin).
So, in summary, some games tend to be more plausibly capable of creating addicts, while others don’t, and singling gaming out as a whole is to be overly harsh. Video games are a wonderful, budding form of entertainment, which allow for some truly unique experiences. But, we shouldn't let our passion for the industry blind us from the pitfalls it sometimes digs.
We must be rational, and applaud or dispute the study of video game addiction on logical, rather than emotional reasoning. We should also be hopeful the topic is studied more, because, at the moment, research and experiments are still in their infancy. However, taking from personal experiences, and current scientific studies, I definitely believe it's possible that games can be addictive. -DT
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