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As the Worlds Turn: Get your fix

As the Worlds Turn: Get your fix
Adam Schumacher
Adam Schumacher|March 3, 2008 7:00 PM
My therapist keeps telling me video games are addicting. She says they provide brain stimulation very similar to narcotics or a very productive afternoon of watching the home shopping network. They will grab hold of your very soul and whisper vile thoughts straight to your subconscious telling you things like 'Forget the garbage, it can take itself out' or 'Shower? Who needs a shower?'

I'm just kidding. I don't have a therapist.

I do wonder, however, about this draw, this interest that turns to desire. With so many games out there, presenting different worlds, different rules, different ways to play, what is it that grabs hold of players and, for some, doesn't let go? One thing is certain: it grabs hold of both male and female gamers. The big question we hear often today is "Are video games addicting?" We're probably not going to definitively answer this question but we'll have fun laughing at doctors and crazy politicians along the way!

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In a recent study released by Stanford Medical, it became apparent that male brains behaved differently than female brains when presented with a simple game. They could have saved a great deal of money by simply walking down to the nearest game store and taking a peek in the window, scientifically, of course. They would have seen a room full of boys, and men, bouncing off the walls and clawing at each other as they take turns shooting aliens, each other, or law enforcement agents, as certain crazy lawyers would have us believe. If there are any girls in the room, they are either mildly walking around the store doing some calm, collected shopping or they are simply there to support their gamer boyfriend and trying to justify their relationship. Unless, of course, some Frag Dolls are present. But those, as they say, are the exception rather than the norm. I am generalizing this scenario and this might not hold up under the notion of the "scientific method" but it gets the same results. Documenting the effects of gaming on the brain is nothing new. Differentiating between the behaviors of the genders is something worth noting.

I think the study could examine this difference the genders and expand it further. The game they used to create their study was rudimentary at best. I would like to see this study conducted with an MMO as the test condition. With so many different goals, so many different aspects to any single game, the results would probably be all over the chart. Think about it in these terms: In any given MMO, you could spend a great deal of time shopping, changing your appearance, and chatting with friends. Was this a night playing WoW or a day at the mall? Is this why MMO gaming seems to transcend genders so completely where other genres (i.e. first-person shooters) fail? Let's keep digging.

Fun with numbers
The National Institute on Media and the Family, an organization that doesn't always find a lot of support from gamers, published a study examining game addiction in adolescent boys and girls. Their study was a clever way to point out that video game addiction is connected to violence. This can be the case if you ignore the role of gender in the study, which, as the Stanford study illustrates, plays an important role. If you take a look at the study, which I suggest you do, you will find a graph showing the percentages of Addicted to Non-addicted gamers by gender. Granted, the total number of male addicted gamers was greater than that of female addicted gamers, it is very apparent by the chart that the ratio of Addicted to Non-addicted gamers was higher among females. So, in essence, if you are a female gamer, your odds of being classified as "addicted" are greater than if you are a male gamer. Going by sheer numbers, the number of addicted male gamers is higher than addicted female gamers but that is simply because there are more male gamers. When the study turns its attention to violent behavior, the gender is dropped from consideration and we are left with simply an Addicted to Non-addicted comparison. I'd like to see the study where they put up violent behavior as it relates to gender. Do boys get in more fights in school as girls? I'm no high-falutin' Ph.D. psychiatrist but I think I can peg that one. Unlike the Stanford study, we are not told what games the test subjects play. There may be a adolescent male gamer addicted to Barbie Horse Adventures that gets in plenty of fist-fights at school but that would be for an entirely different reason.

The voices in my head say I'm not crazy
The American Psychiatric Association is considering video game addiction for inclusion in its Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is apparently the "master-guide" of mental disorders and the next one won't be published until 2012. I think simply labeling it "video game addiction" is missing the point. Again, let's change perspective.

Why do you play the games you play? Look at your video game collection, your PC titles and your console games, if you have any. Look at your gaming history. What games, over the years, have really gripped you? Only a few of us out there would have only have games of a single genre. That usually isn't the case. So if our tastes cover different genres, what is the common, connecting factor of our interest? This might take some thought so I'll give you a minute.

Ready? Good. I took a long look at my collection over the last week. I realized that there is indeed a common factor among my taste in games even if they differ in genre and core gameplay. I like complexity. RPGs offer complexity in their systems as do MMO games. However, other games, like the Gran Turismo series, offer a tremendous level of complexity once you get into tweaking the individual specifications on your vehicle of choice. Character customization, regardless of game genre, offers complexity. Complex systems must just be my thing. Might be why I have a Masters in Computer Science.

Other players might find their collection filled with skill-based games. This might be your FPS but it is also very prevalent in MMOs as well. You know when you're in the midst of a very good gamer. Their macros are precise, their tactics are perfect, and they type in lightning-fast l33t. Others might cite a good story for their collection of RPGs and their hankering for MMO goodness. You'll find many of these players on the RP servers or dressed up like a cartoon-gone-wrong at gaming conventions.

However, there is one more factor to consider when we look at addiction, gender, and MMO gaming. What do we do with "games" like Second Life? (I use quotes around the word "games" because I have a hard time categorizing Second Life as anything specific.) Is SL more of a game or a social experiment? It can be both but it seems to draw more on the latter than the former. SL can be played for hours upon hours with little to no violent activity included. Where does this fall in the correlation between video games and violence? Where does this fall in terms of video game addiction? What is actually the addicting factor? Is it actually addiction?

When I'm faced with the question of video game addiction, I often wonder how often people say "You know, that kid reads too many books. We need to call a shrink and have his head examined." You don't hear that, at least not often, but we seem to get a dose of that weekly on local and national TV news when it comes to video games. The point that is often overlooked is that excessive behavior, regardless of the behavior itself, is detrimental to your well-being. But that isn't media-panic worthy. I know that this will eventually stop once the gaming generation is the one running the TV stations and writing the news. When the Whitehouse is home to an avid gamer, the panic will subside.

Take your meds
In the meantime, should video games get lumped into their own classification of addiction? I don't think so. There are too many factors that go into each game that it would be unfair to the game development community as well as the gamers themselves to simply mesh them into one easy diagnosis. If someone is addicted to Second Life, are they addicted to social interaction? Does a person who talks or texts on their phone for eight hours a day no less addicted to social interaction? Is the MMO gamer who spends hours upon hours grinding for those new boots any less addicted than the person who can't stop buying shoes? As more and more girls and women become gamers, let's re-examine the studies correlating video games to violence and make sure gender distinction is included in the mix. If we are going to start discussing government legislation of video games, people need to stop looking at the FPS games and look at all games and their real-world equivalents.

Do I think there is no such thing as video game addiction? Sadly, I do think there is such a thing but I don't think it relies on the game. It relies on the mechanic the player is addicted to. That is what needs to be addressed. The game itself is simply the pill they take. The reason they take it is far more important.

Once we start to address that, the focus will fall from the video games themselves and will be placed where it needs to be and the people who qualify as "addicted" will get the help they need. In the meantime, game on, just don't go all crazy on us.

Suggested Reading:
Stanford Medical Study
National Institute on Media and the Family Addiction Study
Document suggesting the addition of "video game addiction" by the American Medical Association

The failed "Family Entertainment Protection Act"

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