Friday, January 25, 2008

Gaming as a problem

A reader, Sare, wrote me an e-mail with a link to the latest Penny Arcade comic on WoW addiction. He asks "Game addiction, does it really exist or is it just a myth? I found myself wondering about this as I sat on my computer and played World of Warcraft for the 10th hour straight trying to get attuned to karazan and farming gold and gems for the guild bank trying to prepare everybody else for it as well."

I think one of the major flaws of the whole game addiction discussion is that people see it too much in terms of black and white: Either you are addicted or you are not. Such a yes/no addiction might scientifically exist for addictive substances like heroin. It doesn't exist for video games or other forms of entertainment, like the fabled TV addiction. The Scientific American says "The term "TV addiction" is imprecise and laden with value judgments, but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon. Psychologists and psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder characterized by criteria that include spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving up important social, family or occupational activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it." The same is true for video game addiction: imprecise and laden with value judgements, but describing something which is nevertheless a real phenomenon. That article also says "That said, we need to be careful about overreacting. Little evidence suggests that adults or children should stop watching TV altogether. The problems come from heavy or prolonged viewing.", and again the same thing is true for video games. The same is *not* true for addictive substances like heroin, where even trying once is likely to start an addiction.

Television and video games both offer escapism. Wikipedia lists among forms of escapism "Principal amongst these are fiction literature, music, sports, films, television, roleplaying games, pornography, religion, recreational drugs, the internet and computer games." and quotes C.S. Lewis saying that "the usual enemies of escape are jailers". The problem is not the exact means of escape, one shouldn't join Karl Marx in condemning religion or Jack Thompson in condemning video games. The underlying problem is some unhappiness with our real lives which leads us to search for something better in a virtual one. Not lucky in love? A romantic novel or movie (or porn if it was more the physical part of love you were after) offers a brighter view. No success in your studies or job? But at least your guild downed Illidan! You're a fat couch potato? Compensate by watching sports all day on the TV. It is evident that all these are just false solutions. After all that you're still lonely, unsuccessful, and fat.

As long as you are aware of it, and don't confuse the false solutions with a real way to improvement, escapism can be fine. Sometimes our real world problems are temporal, and there is nothing to be said against a little escape to help us deal with the pain. Why not be a hero for a while in World of Warcraft after a bad day at work? You just need to stop yourself from the escapism adding to the problem. If you neglect your studies or work because of WoW, or TV sports replaces all of your physical activity, you have a real problem. Only such things are usually gradual, shades of grey, not black and white. You can't take the 10 million WoW players and say 40% of them are addicted, or give any other number, that is just nonsense talk. There are some players that play WoW only very little and if they have nothing else to do, some players that dropped out of school or quit work or left their family to play WoW, and all the shades in between. Most people are somewhere in the middle, where they might have the occasional minor real life problem due to WoW, like a late night playing session leaving you tired and without an ironed shirt to go to work with the next day. And with most of them that varies over time. Just take myself, I lived perfectly well without WoW for 7 months last year, and this week I'm a bit tired because I spent several nights raiding. There will be weeks in the future where I will play very little WoW. The need for escape comes and goes. And for the large majority anything you could describe as game addiction only happens in a very mild and not really problematic form. You could compare it to people that might get drunk once in a while, but are far from being alcoholics. It is better to watch yourself, because the border isn't very well defined, and of course you should avoid the problematic forms of addiction. But saying that a particular form of escapism is responsible and should be regulated against is just targeting the symptoms instead of the underlying causes.

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