MMOGology: Addiction and you

A WoW addicted Wretched in SilvermoonA few months back I caught a report on NPR discussing whether video game addiction was an actual addiction. The guests on the show all agreed that it was a real phenomenon. There was even a former drug addict who called in and confessed that quitting his game was harder than quitting heroin. Although no specific game or games were mentioned, it was apparent that the caller was addicted to a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

Since gaming is a maturing form of entertainment that has only recently merged into the mainstream it seems a popular target for non-gaming journalists seeking the next sensational story. It strikes a nerve with me when the press uses the word addiction in the context of video games because it carries a sinister connotation. It darkens an already gloomy perception of a hobby I love. Games have already been blamed for shootings and desensitization to violence. Now gamers have "addict" to add to our list of perceived sins. There seems to be an element of society eager to demonize gaming for whatever reason. Regardless of mainstream media misperception, video game addiction; especially MMOG addiction, is an oft recurring topic in the gaming community. So are MMOGs really addictive? If so, what elements make them addictive? If they are addictive, what should we do about it?

To start with, most non-physiological addictions require an element of pleasure. For a video game to be attractive and compelling it must be fun. Fun means different things to different people and great MMOGs cater to a variety of entertainment tastes. Some people love the competitive element of PvP. Others love creating their own objects in a virtual world via crafting. Whatever the form of entertainment, the game mechanics must be rewarding and enjoyable. They must feed our desire to "feel good now": to be rewarded frequently, to satiate our curiosity and desire to explore, and to generally do things that make us happy. To keep people entertained for long periods of time (to keep those subscriptions active), an MMOG must have enough content to keep players interested, and great MMOGs have content by the truckload. To experience all of this content, you must invest time into the game.

There is no denying that playing an MMOG is time consuming. Part of the reason why is because there is no real "end" to an MMOG. Most single player games have anywhere from 10 to 40 hours of playtime; usually leaning to the lower side of that range. MMOGs, on the other hand, last as long as you'd like to continue playing them. Even if you reach the highest attainable character level (if such a paradigm exists), it is often possible to continue with activities exclusively available for high level characters, or, to create alternate characters in addition to your main character. In fact, some would argue that the "real" game doesn't begin until you've maxed your character's level. So with most MMOGs there is a big time commitment. But that time commitment could be spread out over a long period of real-world time; unless there's a driving force to level up quickly. In most MMOGs, that's usually the case.

There is typically some degree of pressure that drives us to level up as quickly as we can. This pressure obviously doesn't exist in a vacuum; it exists because of the community of players with which we interact. Unlike single player video games, online games have an element of competition inherent in them due to their social nature. We desire to stay near the level of our friends so that we can continue playing together. We desire to obtain virtual property ("loot") that is better than our friends or rivals. We desire to best our rivals competitively in those MMOGs that support player versus player gameplay. We may even have a desire to win the heart of another player. All of these social pressures to excel and outperform one another are truly more associated with the community of players themselves, the virtual society, rather than the vehicle in which it manifests itself, the game. Game developers work to make their game as compelling as possible to keep the virtual society entertained, but one of the reasons that people devote a sometimes unhealthy amount of hours to MMOGs is due to the pressure players create themselves to succeed in "winning" the game; however winning is defined.

The heroin/gaming addict I mentioned earlier confessed to spending 10 to 12 hours a day playing his game. He said that it had a detrimental affect on his life because his daily functioning was impaired by his compulsion to participate in the game as often as he possibly could. His real-world romantic relationship suffered as well as his job. By all accounts, this man was truly addicted to a game because he had a recurring compulsion to engage in an activity that impaired his daily life. He was psychologically addicted to playing a video game.

So are MMOGs addictive? They are fun, they are time sinks, and there is peer pressure to succeed. MMOGs contain elements that, when working in unison can cause those with addictive personality types to be caught in an enjoyable, rewarding world that might be more fun than real life – and they might not want to leave as a result. So, yes, I believe MMOGs can be addictive. But before we demonize MMOGs and burn our copies of World of Warcraft let's step back momentarily and look at the larger picture of addiction. Life is chock full of addictive opportunities and almost anything pleasurable can be addictive. People have addictions to alcohol, food, gambling, sex, love, caffeine, and even work. Pick your poison; there are so many great choices. Rather than chastise video games, which, when played in moderation are a fun diversion, we should chastise ourselves for our lack of discipline.

There's a great children's book with a lesson on addiction, among other things. The book is a collection of short stories called Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel. One of the stories is called "Cookies." Here is an excerpt:

Toad baked some cookies.
'These cookies smell very good,' said Toad.
He ate one.
'And they taste even better,' he said.
Toad ran to Frog's house.
'Frog, Frog,' cried Toad, 'taste these cookies that I have made.'
Frog ate one of the cookies.
'These are the best cookies I have ever eaten!' said Frog.
Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another.
You know, Toad,' said Frog, with his mouth full, 'I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.'
'You are right,' said Toad. 'Let us eat one last cookie, and then we will stop.'

Shortly after this scene both Frog and Toad continue to eat cookies uncontrollably. Eventually however, they discover something called willpower and conquer their addiction.

Some addictions are psychological and some are physiological. Some addictions are more powerful than others. I don't mean to trivialize addiction or those who have suffered through addiction. However, if society continually caters to feeding our urge to "feel good now", regardless of what we do to feel good, than it seems we will continually be challenged to make good decisions on our own; to attempt to live life in moderation as best we can, and to exert a degree of willpower. Sure, we all fall down along the way. We're all n00bs at some point. That's OK as long as we pick ourselves up and learn from our mistakes.

Video gaming addiction is possible and is real, but, generally speaking, it is not as life threatening and scary as sensational media would like us to believe. Beating it seems to boil down to self-control, relaxing, and enjoying it as the hobby it is. Unless you're a professional gamer I guess; but then you're a work-a-holic.
This article was originally published on Massively.