The Soapbox: Gaming addiction isn't about games

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|08.13.13

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The Soapbox: Gaming addiction isn't about games
It's better not to feel it.
When I was 21, I was miserable. I was stuck in a long-distance relationship with someone I couldn't trust and could barely see, I was stuck with no real career opportunities, and I had my entire lifestyle ripped away from me unexpectedly. I felt like I was willing to climb, but I didn't see any handholds out of the pit I was stuck in. The only thing I looked forward to was the end of the day, when I could crawl into a game and let my actual day-to-day life evaporate into memory.

I wasn't an addict. Barely.

This isn't a plea for sympathy; all of this happened years ago, and it's not where I am now. Things got better. This is a talk that we need to have about addiction because the few times that addiction gets brought up, it's addressed by people who seem to have only the vaguest grasp of the games involved. Addiction isn't a result of game mechanics or playstyles or subscription formats or anything else. It's a result of people.

I freely admit that the study I just linked to you was conducted by doctors who have devoted their lives to studying addictions and how they work. I just grew up in a family of chain-smoking alcoholics. My grandfather, my father, and my uncle all died as a direct result of their addictions, and most of that side of my family has struggled with addiction at one point or another. I didn't drink alcohol until I was 23 specifically because of growing up in that environment. Why? Because when I was younger and (let's face it) more ignorant, I thought alcoholism was a product of the drink itself.

These were not sent to my father on his 21st birthday.For those of you jumping to the end, it turned out that my first alcoholic drink did not send me into a sudden tailspin that ended with my licking empty shot glasses to quell the shakes. While alcohol was the chemical of choice for my father, the alcohol itself was just a tool. The Jack Daniel's Distillery did not produce an elaborate campaign designed to make him feel as if his life had been a failure and he had screwed up his relationship with every person who mattered, nor did it give him mental issues he was unable to solve. By the time alcohol was specifically causing some of his problems, he was already addicted.

Addiction is about being stuck, hurting, helpless, and frightened. And you plaster over it with something that doesn't necessarily fix it, but it does make it hurt less.

Maybe you drink until you pass out. Maybe you run away into a game. Maybe you eat and eat and eat. Whatever you do, you do it until pleasure is gone, thoughts about your life are gone, until everything is gone except your addiction. You let it burn into you until you can't feel anything else. It always starts as something fun, something that lets you relax despite your anxieties or that makes you feel better about yourself, and then over time it becomes more and more integral to your happiness.

If you've never been at the bottom of the barrel, that's good. But it means you aren't familiar with what it's like to be constantly on the edge of starvation, homelessness, or both, stuck in a rut so deep that the only way to get out is with money you don't have and can't save. Or stuck in an unhappy relationship for any number of reasons -- afraid you can't or won't find another partner, unsure if you're good enough to attract someone else, or maybe even in love with someone who doesn't love you back.

All right, this isn't a great situation, but it's better than working at the gas station.When your life is awful and you don't have any paths out, escaping in fantasy is endlessly more pleasant. Suddenly you can step away from the whole damn mess. In a fantasy world, you look however you want, can be whatever gender you want, can even divorce yourself completely from the real world if it hurts too much. No one has to know your name or face or anything else. You can work in a place where all of your hard work matters, instead of being stuck spinning your wheels over and over. Everything is geared toward rewarding you.

The people who become addicted to video games are never beautiful people with fulfilling jobs and rich family lives outside of the game. They're people trapped and unhappy. They're looking for something.

Games certainly make this easier, at times. After all, you're not going to be left with track marks or a ruined endocrine system after you've been playing Final Fantasy XI every waking hour for five months. But the long-term effects are still harmful. The problem is that what makes these games addictive is, well, a big chunk of what makes them fun in the first place.

How long you spent on a quest isn't the important element, just the rush of completion and the flash of a reward. Making quests half as long, as the study suggested, just allows the people addicted to the game to clear twice as many in a given play session.

Your friend isn't addicted to a game because of the game itself; he's addicted because he's miserable and has only one way out that works. No one wakes up in the morning, takes a shower, and decides, "I want to try being a hopeless drunk for the next several years," or concludes that heroin sounds like a grand time, or starts logging into World of Warcraft with the intention to never log out again.

Anyone who has an alcoholic friend or family remember knows what it's like after the monkey is finally kicked -- suddenly your formerly drunk friend is now smoking. Or he's drinking dozens of cups of coffee. Or he's found religion. Treating the substance as the real problem papers over the root cause and addresses a symptom. If your friend with a miserable life is unhappy, cutting his access to games will just give him the motivation to seek out some other stopgap solution.

It's not about games themselves; it's about having a life that makes the fantasy feel endlessly more pleasant. And addressing that is a lot harder than addressing games because it means dealing with people on individual levels, trying to unpack what caused this aimlessness in the first place, figuring out how to assemble a real life that's more engrossing than the escape.

That's true for everything, from alcohol to cough syrup to heroin to MMOs. It's just a lot easier to treat the symptom.

That got depressing, didn't it? Here, listen to some Macklemore.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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