Game-oholics Anonymous

January 31, 2009 | Posted by Jonny Richardson

Welcome one and all, and be prepared. This article jumps around like a one legged man in a hopscotch tournament, and deals with such diverse elements as fear, surprise, psychology and a ruthless namedropping of David Hume. It doesn’t apologize to anyone -sorry about that.


Gaming is as real and serious an addiction as any other. Anybody who denies this is quite clearly a twazzock, and I’ll not put up with them. While addiction isn’t necessarily going to leap out and possess anybody who so much as glances at a screenshot of World of WarCraft, it is a bona fide issue which will only deepen in severity as games develop in complexity.

Before going on any further have a quick, reassuring pat on the head. This isn’t going to be another long winded article about the ‘dangers of addiction’, articulated entirely through links to news stories featuring Crazy McJoe, 16, who blew up his tree house and shot his buddie because he wasn’t allowed to play Nintendo Dogs on his DS. Instead we’re going to get a first hand account of gaming addiction. From me.

Ever heard the expression “Know thy enemy”? I believe it’s applicable here. By not knowing what we’re getting into by playing certain games, it’s easy to lose yourself within them. The definition of a video game is: “n. An electronic or computerised game played by manipulating images on a video display or television screen”. This suggests a linear, one way experience. We need entertaining, so we’ll untangle the controllers, pop in the CD and play. After the play bit, which can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 32 hours (before death starts to kick in), we switch off the console or PC, and leave. That should be the end of it. At least, in theory.

Alas, sometimes the proverbial streams cross, and we find ourselves arriving abruptly at a famous creek without the correct rowing apparatus. Games are played by us. What the people most susceptible to addiction don’t take into account is that the games are designed to play you.

Now sit on the carpet children. It’s story time!

Once upon a time…

I was a full blown gaming addict between the years 2000-04, utterly intoxicated on the poison that is the original MMORPG, Origin Systems Ultima Online. On top of schooling and sleep, I was getting at least 6 hours a night, maxing out to about 8-15 hours per weekend day. While these numbers often fluctuated as wildly a flag on a really, really windy day (411mania ‘Simile of the Year’ Candidate, 2009) and may even seem tame at first glance; remember that addiction isn’t the feeling you get when you’re indulging in whatever drug you’ve picked – it’s the horrible feeling of dependency you get when you’re away from it.

My dependency came to guide my every action. When I was away from the computer, all I ever wanted to do was to rush back and log on. I’d make up excuses to avoid leaving the house, not meet up with friends, or to come home early from trips. On holidays I took note books and spent my free time writing down tactics, plans and fantasising about perfect character stats. Reading that last sentence made me burst out laughing for how stupid it sounds, but the sad thing is that it was true!

My problem was only made worse when I was made a member of staff on the server I played on. UO then changed into an obsessive race to (somewhat unprofessionally) show up my fellow staff members for being the lazy bastards that they were, by doing as much as I humanly could to make the sever more fun for players. An unhealthy portion of my early teen years were spent wandering the fictional kingdoms of Lord British.

Ok – I admit, I didn’t have to steal from shops to fuel my addiction or kill anybody as a result. I was an addict however, who caused a lot of grief to close friends and family. Pretty cool, huh?

Now seems an appropriate time to try to answer the question: Why do we get addicted to video games?

Tonight on ‘It’s the Mind’, we examine the phenomenon that is…

“I had the one armed bandit fever!”

Video game addiction is a psychological addiction. A lot of parallels can be found between gaming and gambling addiction. For instance; both are forms of entertainment which reward a certain type of behaviour. With gambling machines, players are rewarded with flashing lights, praising text and evocative sounds when they win; the chink-chink-chink-chink of a crap load of coins hitting the metal winnings tray would be an example of this. The gambling machine is playing the player – conditioning his/her behaviour by praise and scorn in the correct situation. Some machines have mocking text (“TRY AGAIN NEXT TIME, DUMMY!”) or even spoken dialogue which baits the gambler into pulling the lever once more, to try to prove a point to the insolent machine.

Games are designed with the same conditionings in mind. The goal of any game is to be played. Think for a second about the HUGE amount of achievements in almost every modern game. Ever stop to think why they’re included? It lengthens the game twofold. For example, MMORPG’s have rewards for killing, let’s say, a hundred Dire Squirrels. This is a stupidly pointless and genocidal task – but people spend hours doing it – just because the challenge is there! Games constantly throw obstacles at the player, which must be overcome. Perhaps the reason people become addicted to MMORPG’s more than any other game is because there’s no end to the challenges. You can never complete or win the game; it always has something else for you to do!

Scottish philosopher David Hume once asked what the nature of man was. In a significantly less profound way, I’m asking what the nature of games are.

My answer; “to reward obsessive behaviour.”

Nature/ Nurture

I was recently talking to a friend about Cocaine; a drug she’d tried for the first time at a party. I asked her if she was worried about addiction, to which she replied: “Oh, I don’t mind taking it – I know I won’t get addicted because I don’t have an addictive personality.” While deserving of a slap to the face with a kipper for sheer stupidity, she does raises a point in our discussion. If games reward obsessive behaviour and the dangers are so real, then why is it that only a few of us fall into gaming’s addictive embrace? Are some people more prone than others?

Personally, I can pinpoint a factor which, if not responsible for creating my problems, certainly helped exacerbate them. Ultima Online came to me on speedy wings lightning wheels a jaw grindingly slow 56k modem when I’d just moved from England to The Netherlands with my family. I initially hated Holland, and rejected it. So to some extent, my life in UO was a way of burying my head deeper and deeper into the sand.

It’s extremely hard to determine cause and effect, not only with me, but with others too. Is addiction to games a response to some hardship or unhappiness in real life, or does addictive gaming cause the real life problems? I’ll happily sit on the fence and tell anybody who’ll listen that the two go hand in hand.

If social factors don’t drive us to addiction, is there a case for arguing that gaming addiction is something predetermined in our not-quite denim genes? Research is beginning to point toward the fact that addiction to certain drugs and food may be biological.

Is there a gene for Halo 3 addiction somewhere? – Don’t be ridonkulous!

Ultimately games are about achieving something, be it a simple quest to save the universe single handed, or a personal goal to teabag everybody on the server without dying. This drive is a competitive, obsessive characteristic. Depending on your circumstances and skills, this’ll be something you either embrace or dismiss.

I’ve limited what I’ve talked about here, because I could honestly go on and on and on. Games condition us. They play evocative sounds – when an enemy dies, the levelling up (ding!), or the sound of a completed quest. They incrementally allow us to improve ourselves – better looking gear, better stats, move moves etc. We haven’t touched on how easy socialising is online, and how close-knit communities and bonds can form. Just know that each of these is a factor which intertwines to make a potentially addictive experience.

I want to make one thing very clear though: games are never to blame for addiction. Nobody forces anybody to install, buy or play a game. It’s the job of the player to be responsible for themselves. It’s also testament to the skill of developers, and the power of games that people can become engrossed with them to the point of addiction.

We’ve come a long long way together.

History is a useful tool. You use it to examine how things have been, so you can predict how things will be in the future. If we look back on how video games have developed since Pong (1972), it’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way. Games are becoming more interactive – we have touch screen, motion sensors, voice sensors and near real looking graphics. It’s exciting to think what’s on the horizon. How will games be in 5 years? 10? 25? 50?

As games get more realistic and increase in complexity, will they become more addictive?

Let’s assume that virtual reality (VR) will drop by in about 10. I believe truly that this is the way the industry will eventually turn. We’ve all experienced another world through the eyes of a character or floating strangely behind the head of a character, but the time will come when we experience it with our own eyes. Imagine being able to talk with NPC’s, being able to feel the breeze, taste food. It’ll be ultimate immersion. Yet if people are susceptible to the relatively tame experience we have on offer today, how will they fare against this kind of experience?

Taking things one step further, if games developed to such an extent that virtual reality could deceive our senses in every way; what implications would this have on society? Would need to work? Why be miserable and experience a dull world, when you can have an interactive electronic world inhabited by millions where you’re your own master?

Ye Gods! The only solution is to burn all technology, and hide atop a mountain hut in Finland. I’ll meet you at the Fjord. I’ll bring the Huskies, you bring the badminton rackets!

Till next time.


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Jonny Richardson
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