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Video Game Addiction Whiz: I'm a Gamer Too

The Aussie PhD student who produced headline-grabbing evidence that video games are addictive tells The Fix about her work—and her own love of gaming.

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Metcalf relaxes with "Heroes of Newerth."
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By Chrisanne Grise

11/30/12

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As widely reported earlier this week, research by Olivia Metcalf, a 27-year-old graduate student in Melbourne, Australia, has provided groundbreaking evidence that video games are genuinely addictive. But concerned gamers can rest assured that she's not making an all-out attack on their habit: Metcalf, who conducted the research as the first part of her PhD program at Australian National University, happens to be a big video game fan herself. “I've been playing video games since I was a young child,” she tells The Fix. “They were a fantastic part of my childhood.” And not only her childhood: "I enjoy playing all sorts of games—when I get time!—action, adventure or strategy. Probably Heroes of Newerth would be my current favorite." While she was a psychology undergrad, however, she saw some of her friends affected by excessive gaming, and that's when she became interested in the subject. “I was surprised there was such little research and so much controversy,” she says. “Ultimately, I just wanted to know the answer to: What is excessive gaming, from a psychological standpoint? So I did a PhD on it!”

Metcalf’s experiment showed for the first time that excessive gamers, like heroin, alcohol and gambling addicts, have “attentional bias”—meaning an inability to stop thinking about their habit in order to focus on other tasks. While some games are more addictive than others—Metcalf says games that are endless and have complex reward systems are usually more addictive than games with defined endings, due to the repetition over time—the research suggests that personal factors make the most difference. “In my opinion, it is those individual factors that contribute to excessive gaming far more than any inherent ‘addictive’ properties of a game,” says Metcalf. “Personally, I believe that working out those individual risk factors and targeting those individuals at risk of excessive gaming or excessive gamers themselves is a far more effective way of dealing with the problem than to start with the games themselves.” Now that her work has garnered so much publicity, she hopes it will win more credibility for the field. “Excessive gaming hasn't always been treated seriously by the public, the media or science," she says, "and that's a real shame, because anyone who is a gamer or knows a gamer would be aware that excessive gaming is a real problem and deserves serious academic investigation.” She plans to conduct more research in this area as her studies continue.

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