Anders Sundnes Løvlie’s blog about locative media, computer games and electronic text

Are computer games addictive?

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The question above might sound like a no-brainer to anyone who has ever achieved their all-time high score in Tetris at a point in time when they should much rather have been doing something else, such as studying for their exams or setting up an academic blog. But then it depends a little what kind of meaning you put into the word ‘addictive’ – is it accurate as a clinical diagnosis? When does something go from being a tempting way to kill time, to be something that actually takes control over your life and forces you to seek help?

One Father Raymond J. De Souza recently mused, or I guess I should say ranted, on this topic in an opinion piece on the Canadian news site nationalpost.com. Himself having experienced the dangers of Tetris during his college years, he now sees videogames as “the crack cocaine of the electronic world”, and offers his readers the following advice: “Don’t play video games. Don’t own them. And for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t buy them for your children.”

It’s incredibly easy to denounce and make fun of this kind of simplistic media panic, so I figured I should try not to. It is too easy for media scholars to simply observe that there is no hard evidence to support the idea that computer games are harmful, and then avoid dealing with the question.

Here in Norway an official support phone dedicated to gambling problems has recently registered a sharp increase in calls concerning a different kind of game-related problems: Youngsters who spend so much time playing online non-gambling games (mostly WoW) that they get problems in school, or drop out completely. So far this year they have received around 150 serious calls of this kind. This is not a lot, but Norway is a small country; if the same per-capita proportion is applicable to the US, that would mean around 10,000 cases there annually.

(I have this information from a story in the newspaper Dagsavisen, for those of you who read Norwegian. Interestingly the journalist claims that the time difference between Norway and California is 15 hours… however the rest of the article appears to be more accurate. :))

Of course, me and my fellow game/media scholars can point out that this is still a very small number compared to the vast number of gamers who don’t experience this problem. Another official survey shows that 96% of the gamers spend less time playing online games than the average Norwegian spends watching TV (2,5 hours a day). And of course if a few gamers come to rate their presence in a virtual world above their daily life in the real/physical world, one should probably start by looking for a problem in their real-world experience.

However, those arguments can be applied to a number of mildly addicting things: Alcohol, for instance, is enjoyed by a large number of people who are not alcoholics. And drinking problems are probably often triggered by other things than alcohol itself. Even so, and even if most of us want the freedom to have a drink now and then without being either banned from church or submitted to psychiatric review, it wouldn’t be responsible to dismiss the dangers related to alcohol entirely. Or TV, for that matter. Or blogging.

I guess neither a priest nor a humanist like myself are among the ones who are best equipped to analyze a problem which might be closer to psychiatry or social medicine. Certainly, we (media scholars) should use our knowledge of media history to point out the dangers of meeting youth/pop culture with unfounded media panic. But our argument is probably strongest if we also remain humble towards the possibility of a real (albeit quite marginal) problem.

The statistics quoted in the Dagsavisen article come from two reports:

Synnovate MMI’s report on “Game habits and gaming problems in Norway”

Call statistics for the Lotteritilsynet help line for gambling problems, 2006

The number of calls in 2007 was provided to the journalist by Lotteritilsynet officials.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to an interesting interview with Jonathan Blow over at Gamasutra, in which he claims WoW is unethically designed (read: addictive):

The WoW Drug

He clarified, “I’m not saying [rewards are] bad, I’m saying you can divide them into two categories – some are like foods that are naturally beneficial and can increase your life, but some are like drugs.”

Continued Blow, “As game designers, we don’t know how to make food, so we resort to drugs all the time. It shows in the discontent at the state of games – Radosh [NY Times reviewer, ed.] wanted food, but Halo 3 was just giving him cheap drugs.”

“The game industry is chasing bigger player base, and we’re exploiting them in an unethical way,” Blow asserted. “We don’t see it as unethical because we refuse to stop and think about the magnitude of what we are doing. You can smoke, have fast food, and play World of Warcraft sometimes – when you talk about these things at a societal level, it becomes a societal problem.”

[…] Blow believes that according to WoW, the game’s rules are its meaning of life. “The meaning of life in WoW is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”

“You don’t come away from WoW with that in your head, but that comes through subtly and subconsciously,” Blow added. “It’s like advertising and brand identity. People identify with their activities – same thing with games, people are products of their origins and their environments. We’re giving them these environments and helping to determine what they’re going to be.”

The whole interview with Blow, whose last name probably shouldn’t be commented on in this context (but I couldn’t help it), can be read here: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16392

Many thanks to Christian McCrea for pointing me to this interesting statement from a game designer. Like McCrea, I don’t think this is a fully developed critique of what we are talking about, and the issue of media panic is probably still the one that primarily needs to be addressed. However, I think it is certainly worth considering what it is that makes some – very few – teenagers spend unhealthy amounts of time inside virtual worlds.

Written by Anders Sundnes Løvlie

Monday, December 17, 2007 at 19:15

Posted in Computer games

Tagged with ,

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