The truth about videogame addiction
8th Nov 2009 | 08:00
Just how harmless are our gaming habits?
Does gaming addiction exist?
Have you ever succumbed to temptation and had "just one more go?" Do you find yourself playing games and then later realising you had other things you should have been doing? Like sleeping, to take an example entirely at random…
Almost all gamers will have tasted that peculiar guilty feeling of having played one hour or level too many at some point. The question is: when does it become a problem?
Is it the point when you've not done the dishes for a week? When you've skipped the pub to stay in front of your screen? Or when you die? And there have been deaths.
Last year, a Chinese gamer reportedly died of heart failure after fifteen days of heavy gaming in a cybercafe, while a Starcraft player in Korea apparently died after a non-stop fifty hour session. These individuals are part of a growing number of people who have managed to play themselves to death. And unfortunately, deaths mean sensationalism.
Feeding the tabloids
Tabloid headlines gorge themselves on this kind of stuff. These tragic events are just a handful of instances among millions, perhaps billions, of gaming lives, but they're easily exploded out of all proportion by the hype-seeking missile of cheap journalism.
Indeed, the menace of gaming is a spectre whose true shape is unclear. We really don't know much about long-term gaming, or what it might be doing to us. And we'd argue it's this lack of clarity that's actually our biggest enemy; ignorance about habitual gaming is now a major issue for gamers, and for society at large.
On the one hand, we're seeing reputable British newspapers unquestioningly – and unhelpfully – reporting that playing games is akin to being on drugs. On the other hand, we're seeing very little being done to figure out what games mean for human lives.
But that can't last forever – sorting the facts from the fiction, the lies and hysteria from the genuine problems is going to be a crucial task in a world where gaming is fast becoming the dominant leisure pastime.
We should make two things clear at this point. Firstly, there is no professional agreement on the status or nature of videogame addiction. Contradictory studies and reports have been published and there has not yet been an accepted official diagnosis of the condition in the UK or North America.
What nearly all medical professionals do agree on, though, is that there has not yet been suitable research into the subject.
Secondly, excessive use of videogames is hurting people. There are many self-proclaimed addicts, and plenty of incidents of excessive gaming where people's relationships, working lives and health have suffered. Some, albeit it astoundingly rarely, have even died.
Is over-use addiction?
So, it's undeniable that there are problems related to over-use of games. But whether this constitutes addiction, in the sense that a heroin addict or alcoholic is addicted, is where the problem lies for ongoing research.
Thus what we are faced with is a subject that has not been suitably researched in a climate of fear about addiction. Our jumpy response to that word can cause us to attribute addiction to almost any habitual activity. So, let's take a look at what we do know.
Over the following pages, we'll talk to an expert in the subject of habitual gaming, examine what addiction might really mean in the context of gaming and look at what the potential physical effects of prolonged exposure to videogames could be.
The wrong questions
The idea of videogame addiction has been misshapen by the way that studies trying to identify and understand the problem of obsessive videogame use have been undertaken.
Many psychology studies are simply phone or internet interviews, and they often try to apply criteria for gambling addiction – a related, and yet clearly very different problem – to gamers. These studies also rely on impersonal surveys of large numbers of randomly selected gamers, rather than talking to individuals – a risky tactic that can skew results by asking the wrong questions.
To understand this problem better, we talked to Neils Clark, the author of the recently published Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects, and questioned him about the lack of useful data.
"There are a lot of problems with the numbers that are being thrown out there," says Clark, "huge problems with how we are getting data on game use and gaming behaviour. The questions that researchers ask don't necessarily consider how we play these games.
"One of the flags for addiction was the question: 'do you think about the game when you are not playing?', which of course you do if it's an involving MMO. Of course you'll be preoccupied if there's some guild drama going on or something. A phone survey is probably going to throw up results that are not useful in making a diagnosis. They conflate normal play activities with addiction and that's going to produce gibberish."
And gibberish can be dangerous. Talk of videogame addiction frightens people, especially when gaming is so widespread, and it can even cause gamers to doubt themselves when they really don't have a problem at all.
Dr Richard Wood at Nottingham Trent University points out that the socially propagated idea of videogame addiction is causing problems all on its own. In his paper, The Myth of Video Game "Addiction", he writes:
"Some people are being mislabelled addicts by concerned parents, partners or others when they have no problems with their game-playing behaviour… Some people who are concerned about their own behaviour… end up labelling themselves as video game addicts."
So, gamers are panicking and then self-applying this label, when in reality their behaviour bears few of the hallmarks of genuine addiction.
The gamers with a problem
However, there are people with expertise and solid credentials who also label themselves as having issues of problematic use. Neils Clark told us that he ended up researching the subject precisely because of his own spiral into problematic use of games.
"I've always liked games and I did pretty poorly in college, because I was playing so much Counter-Strike," says Clark. "I got into doing really well at the game and that was never really something that challenged my functioning too much. I would play for eight hours and be late for class, but it was never a huge problem.
"It wasn't until some friends of mine got into Star Wars Galaxies in my year after college [that things got problematic]. I was living with my parents and I was just playing more and more. It got to a point when I was playing twenty hours a day. Think about what that means: you are sleeping for about an hour a day. You're so tuned into that world, and so excited about it, that you're thinking about it and drinking another latte, rather than doing anything else in life."
What Clark identifies in his book is something he has detected in his own life, which is a common escalating behaviour of gamers. It is a side-effect of the way in which we make time for playing games. We carefully prune activities out of our everyday life until we are left with large, uninterrupted blocks of time where we can be left alone with our games.
Understanding how we prune our motivations to make time available for gaming is one of the most important subjects related to habitual over-use of gaming.
Shift in lifestyle
Clark has observed that problematic game use doesn't tend to simply click in because of a particularly addictive game, it comes about because of a gradual shift in our lifestyle. We erode away the time we have for other activities in favour of gaming.
Gamers with problems are those who have pruned their life too far and thus lose the motivation to deal with other issues, such as relationships, jobs, school, or personal hygiene. Usually, these gamers only need to take a step back to recognise these problems and redress the balance.
Unlike addicts of hard drugs, for example, gamers only need to stop playing for a short while for the problems to evaporate. Indeed, Clark was able to do precisely that and it was this experience that has allowed him to cast doubt on much of the research undertaken so far on this subject.
Clark's own unique perspective – as well as detailed research – has helped him understand when clinical and academic research has failed to take into account the other discipline's findings, or when they both failed to comprehend gaming as an activity undertaken by real people.
His insight is into the actual experience of gaming and the way we play: the way any of us sink time into gaming. He now believes that the term addiction needs to be replaced when talking about gaming.
Another aspect of gaming that is often not considered, or not even understood, says Clark, is the way in which it is tied to social embedding. When your friends are gamers, you're probably going to play to fit in. When you're involved with MMOs, where dozens of other people are going to be playing regularly and relying on you turning up to help with organised events, well, the commitment increases exponentially.
People outside the game generally won't understand that, either, and could well see it as a sign of addiction. What it is, instead, is a new kind of social behaviour, and one that's not well understood – responsibility to virtual relationships.
But there's another issue here: the claims that games are chemically addictive. These claims centre around dopamine; the chemical our brains release when we're enjoying something. Thus when games are fun, a lot of this chemical gets released, which reinforces our pleasure in the gaming process.
As we produce more and more of this chemical from longer bouts of gaming, so we become used to having that wave of pleasure. If, we come to rely on gaming for that stimulus then we'll start to experience a craving for games.
But there's an even deeper issue here – anything that releases dopamine in the brain is likely to reinforce brain maps, which are the paths of neurons that build up when we repeat an activity. As you play more and more games, your brain rewires itself to become better at playing them and, more importantly, it begins to expect that you'll play them.
To understand this idea, it's best to look at the work of people like Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist who wrote the book The Brain That Changes Itself. The brain, says Doidge, is not a fixed piece of hardware like a computer, but more like a muscle that can be moulded to suit a variety of different tasks by being exercised.
In other words, the brain is malleable and can be radically changed through use. So profound is this malleability, or plasticity, that repetitious game-like therapies have been developed to help rewire brains. These therapies are then used to assist people with learning difficulties and even ameliorate some of the symptoms of conditions like autism.
It's a radical frontier for neurology. Of course, if game systems can be used clinically to reshape brains, we have to wonder what excessive use of games for entertainment might be doing to our grey matter.
Clark, who quotes Doidge in his own work, observes that "the thing about brain plasticity is that the connections in our brain are competitive, so learning something really well in a game – what is that competitive with? There are game therapies that we could champion, but games could also promote bad learning."
Are games teaching our brains bad behaviours?
This raises a fundamental issue for game design: could games with repetitious elements be teaching our brains bad behaviours? Perhaps.
A number of people – most notably indie game designer Jonathan Blow – have claimed that the reward structure of games such as World Of Warcraft lack positive rewards for learning or puzzle solving, instead simply giving us more numbers as we get through higher levels.
But it's arguable that this isn't bad until it becomes tied to excessive use. What Doidge's book about brain plasticity demonstrates is that almost any complex activity – such as learning to play a complex videogame like WoW – counts as vital exercise for the brain. When the brain is forced to master a new and radically different ability, the effects can be startling.
People in their eighties rapidly regain mental agility when forced to learn a new language, which can see their mental age roll back by twenty years. This is all thanks to the way the brain develops new connections to cope with this kind of complex mental activity and the same could well be true of videogames.
However, this only happens the first time something is learned by rote. Continue to reinforce the brain map over and over, and, well, you won't see any further improvement. And this is where common sense prevails: games can be beneficial, as long as they're balanced out with other things in your life.
Don't sit and play the same game for months on end and then expect to get a bigger brain: go and find antidotes to gaming, and make the complex mental activity of gaming part of a rich life. Indeed, the skills you get from gaming can even be put to use elsewhere in life.
Famed New York surgeon Dr James Rosser, one of the pioneers of keyhole surgery, insists that his trainees play four hours of games like Super Monkey Ball every day. This kind of hardcore gaming is a key part of his Top Gun-esque academy for micro-surgery trainees.
"You have to be a Nintendo surgeon," Rosser told Wired magazine, as he explained how gaming skills can extend into real life value. Clark agrees on this point: "All that time I spent playing games, I've been able to railroad that into doing other things. So when I was working on a Masters degree, the time was suddenly there. I started working on a thesis about addiction and I was putting the time I'd spent playing games into studying time. Gamers come up with all these strategies for large uninterrupted slots of time that they can spend on gaming, and that transitioned really well into being able to spend time researching."
This is not something that can be said of chemical addiction. There is no comparison between our dopamine rewards and the hard chemical dependency of drugs. The assertion that gaming is like being on drugs is therefore false, and does nothing to help us understand the true nature of problematic game use.
For Clark, gaming is neither good nor bad, but simply new, unexplored and often misunderstood. What's important is that we keep things in perspective. Headlines that decry the number of addicted World Of Warcraft players are not helpful – in fact, they're based on such a flimsy definition of addiction as to be little more than scaremongering.
As Clark points out: "The truth is that to diagnose a gaming addiction, you need to have a clinician talking to that gamer on a one-to-one basis." And even that clinician will have a lot to learn before he can make an informed judgement about the subject.
Gamers are a relatively new breed of people and we have to examine how they think and act if we're to understand the values and issues in how they spend their time.
"I think there is potential out there for gamers," says Clark. "There's something to be said for the way we think, and the way we game, that can define our lives. It just depends whether gaming leads us to do awesome things, or to waste time."
Which of those is true of you? Well, that's something you can definitely decide for yourself.
First published in PC Format Issue 232
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