Are you here because you want to learn more about game “addiction” (compulsion) for yourself or on behalf of a friend? Make sure to check out my note at the end of this post.
It’s not too often that I manage to work myself into a real rage about a BBC News article, mostly because BBC science reporting is largely well done. There are flaws, but nothing is so bad that I feel I have to take it personally. So it was a huge surprise today when I ran across this article on the BBC Wales site;
Online game firms need to do more to prevent addiction say researchers
The article’s only short, but each new paragraph drew me to a brand new level of rage. you can read the editorial that the article is based on here. I’ll do my best to summarise the salient points;
- Research has found that approximately 10% of the population of gamers (uncertainties apparently not quoted) are “having real problems” or are “pathological”.
- Therefore game manufacturers, especially MMO producers, should stop making their games so addictive.
The article is reporting opinions of researchers as if they are fact. The article that they report on is an editorial which clearly denotes it as opinion (even if the opinions are supported by some selection of evidence; this in itself is no indication of truth). Researchers are just as likely to be wrong on a contentious issue as any other person, and oh boy is this issue contentious!
Why is this Area Contentious?
Put simply; it’s not currently established that such a thing as “videogame addiction” exists. As the authors of the editorial put it, “there is significant disagreement on whether pathological gaming can be conceptualized as an impulse control disorder and/or a behavioural addiction such as pathological gambling”. That means that you simply cannot talk about gaming addiction. It isn’t a “thing”.
Addiction implies that the action itself – the substance or activity – is inherently capable of overloading the way you feel rewarded for doing things. Games, even MMO’s, don’t seem to have been demonstrated to do this. To put it another way; “addiction” has a very specific meaning that is not appreciated by the use of the word in general conversation. One cannot be “addicted”, for instance, to paper – it’s the same with games.
What is true is that some people – 10% of gamers if the numbers are accurate – feel like they are reliant on their games to get through life. Does that make them addictive? Not necessarily! Instead, taking a cue from Extra Credits’ series on the subject(1 2 3), let’s talk about game compulsion!
“OK so if we can’t talk about addiction then why are we talking about compulsion instead? It’s the same thing!”
No, it isn’t. While addiction specifies a very narrow set of processes, compulsion is a much broader, less stigmatised and less well understood by the public category. Consider this; obsessive compulsive disorder is a compulsion – a person feels compelled to, for example, polish their shoes every hour. It’s not an addiction because it’s not necessarily rewarding. As someone compelled to do something, it doesn’t have to be a reward which is driving you to do whatever it is. This is where I think game compulsion is different from an addiction – game compulsion isn’t done with reward in mind.
Consider the following;
Alfie is a child of an abusive relationship. Alfie tends to have bad days at school because he’s trying to deal with his home life, and then comes back to his home life (which makes things worse). Alfie feels the need to escape, and it happens that he has a game that he likes playing – let’s call it Unreal War : Shattered Plans, for the sake of argument. Alfie likes the game because he plays in a group of people who tend to appreciate him and who are largely kind towards him. In the game, he plays one of many heroes who work to save people in trouble and repel an opposing race of aliens which will enslave them.
I don’t think you’d blame Alfie for being happy to play his game all night, since stopping would start to bring back thoughts of home life again.
Sleeping is hard when you’re unhappy or stressed, so playing for most of the night is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It minimizes pain. Having not had much sleep, Alfie will then go to school and not be able to pay attention properly – his mind will wander and he’ll start thinking about Unreal War : Shattered Plans again. After school, he goes home and he’d love to sleep or relax – home life doesn’t allow this so he has to find a way to escape again. Since he spent all day thinking about his game, he goes to play it again. He stays up all night.
Can you see how the cycle repeats? It’s not necessarily due to the game itself – it just happens to be a cheap and easy way to escape from real life pain. And here’s where the real kick is – on it’s own, the game would be perfectly innocuous. Combined with an external push like I have described, Alfie feels compelled to play his game because he feels it’s the only way to escape. You can substitute any reason you like – bullying, stress, an awful job, abusive relationships, anxiety disorders, family or friends with substance abuse problems, family death, not fitting in at school, depression, suicidal feelings, anything.
The thing that I don’t want anyone to miss here is that the reason most people fall into gaming compulsion is societally enabled – that means that without the pressures of their local social structure they wouldn’t feel like they had to escape into a game.
But here it’s reasonable to extend the argument – could Alfie not just go outside and fly a kite? Or read books? Or go surfing? Yes, absolutely, if those things are already there and he’s secure and stable in those environments and they allow him to escape immediate social consequences then anything could serve as an escape. What makes games a good candidate for this is that games with an online component have a societal structure which is dissociated from the real-world social structure around each individual.
Of course, game compulsion can reinforce itself as time goes by – by spending more time in-game, one tends to neglect other “In Real Life” (IRL) issues. This causes a loss of investment in society and often causes social problems for the compulsive person, which obviously can drive a cycle of reinforcement. The important thing to note, though, is that most game compulsion isn’t done because the games are inherently rewarding – that implies that the gamers are running towards the games for their own sake. Quite contrary to that, gamers often run away from the real world into games in order to feel safe and secure.
This isn’t a made-up problem.
The fictional character Alfie who I described is a very good representation of how one falls into game compulsion. I know this from personal experience – though my personal reasons for compulsion weren’t the same, the pattern of behaviour absolutely was. So many other people have suffered in the same way, and this is particularly what I wanted to highlight in this post.
Online games are not addictive. Game compulsion arises because society cannot, or will not, spot those people who desperately need support and emotional stability – the young, those with mental health problems, people who feel excluded and those who feel like they can’t fit in, people who are abused or raped or threatened, people who can’t deal with a world that isn’t fair towards them and so often fails to even recognise that fact. Games form a support mechanism for those in need, and do a lot of good for those who need them.
However, they can only do so much; nobody can rely on them permanently. If games have a failing, it’s that they provide too good a support network. This is one thing that really enables game compulsion. As a compulsive person, you feel safest when you’re surrounded by those people who you can confide in and who will support you – people who one might never meet face to face, but who show more personal feeling, more humanity, than many of the people the compulsive person sees every day. In the end, who is the more human; the abusive parent, who makes Alfie cry? Or the supportive but disembodied voice from the computer screen who is a loyal companion to Alfie in-game?
Everybody has a coping mechanism in difficult times, and games are extremely good ones. There is no reason to believe that games are a problem – it’s the social structure which tacitly rewards or normalises bullying, abuse, rape, isolation, abuse of power, and which removes vulnerable people’s sense of agency.
“Game addiction” is an excuse and an insult – the real problem is the way that we understand, empathise with, protect, and recognize vulnerable people. A society which recognizes “game addiction” without any understanding of the motivation or cultural enabling of the phenomenon it even has the gall to misname disgusts me. That is why I’m angry – because game compulsion happened to me, and because in the 8 years since I overcame it nothing has changed. It enrages me to know that there are young people out there in the situation I was in, who will fall to a support network that they shouldn’t have to need, and nobody will even realise that there is a problem.
Game compulsion is a real problem, and it’s rooted in the way you empathise with other people. Yes, you. Everyone. It’s not a joke, it’s not something that can be solved with a law. It’s something that can only be solved by understanding, empathy, and support.
In short: if you want to prevent “game addiction” then start being more human.
If you’re affected by any of the issues in this post, please drop me a line via Twitter, we can talk via email – I’m 100% happy to offer support to those who need it. Alternatively, if you don’t feel comfortable trusting a stranger, I honestly urge you to talk to *someone* about it. Make sure you link them here if you’re having trouble expressing what the problem really is – clear communication is key! The places I’ve linked in this article are good places to read about others’ experiences, all of them have said they will talk to you if you need it. I’d recommend in particular the Extra Credits forums hosted on Penny Arcade. Whatever happens, I wish you only success in dealing with your compulsion. Finally, I want you to know that you are not alone; the world will always welcome you back from compulsion, and there is such a thing as a healthy balance. I promise you that recognizing compulsion is the first step to overcoming it; keep going, everyone who’se ever come out of it is on your side!