Is Video Gaming the End-Boss of Digital Addictions? - Page 2

By Bryan Le 04/22/13

Horror stories and growing alarm that kids are becoming gaming addicts are pressuring experts to make it a medical diagnosis. But some specialists—and a billion-dollar industry—are pushing back.

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World of Warcraft can consume you. Photo via

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Some critics accuse game designers of utilizing sophisticated behavioral psychology research to keep gamers hooked. A famous study of rats and rewards offers a model: When rats are given food every time they pull a lever, they use the lever only when they are hungry. But if the food is given in an unpredictable pattern, the rat remains in such a heightened state of desire and frustration that it keeps pulling the lever until it dies of exhaustion. When applied to games, this random-reward system keeps players clicking—and hoping their next click will be a winner. The video below explains and argues against using this kind of game design:

All the hubbub about games designed according to the lessons of behavioral psychology stemmed from an article by John Hopson, a behavioral psychologist and gamer who is now head of user research at Bungie, the studio behind Halo. Hopson says that his article is widely misunderstood. How often rewards come, and how valuable they are, are always in play no matter what we do. “Many people seem to assume that there are no such contingencies in a game unless they're explicitly added. This is simply wrong,” Hopson writes. “Contingencies are fundamental to all games.” 

Cash doesn't blame game design for addiction so much as she blames the disease of addiction itself. Like all addicts, her clients have a predilection—genetic, family history—and most suffer from a mental disorder, such as ADHD, social anxiety or depression, that makes them even more susceptible. Video gaming becomes their “substance” of choice. “But most significant is that the earlier they start video games, the more vulnerable they are to addiction,” she says, adding that that’s a problem exacerbated by parents who toss their kids their iPhones whenever they need quiet time.

An official DSM diagnosis would emphasize the gravity of the condition. “Everyone will have to take it more seriously and not just pooh-pooh the idea,” she says. “Even the addicts.”

Aaron Delwiche, a professor of video game culture at Trinity University in San Antonio, does pooh-pooh the idea. “Contemporary culture offers many avenues for compulsive and problematic behaviors,” he says. “Sure, you can make a convoluted argument about endorphins and dopamine in an attempt to suggest that there are parallels to physical addiction, but it's just not the same thing.” The CDC reports a 13% problem usage rate among people who drink alcohol, with 80,000 annual deaths, compared to video games' relatively meager 3%. But gaming’s deaths, although rare, serve as horror headlines, he says. 

"Tears came to my eyes. I logged off Ventrilo, turned off the computer and haven't played WoW or anything like it since.”

Delwiche advises that before gaming is medicalized—with diagnoses and treatments in the DSM—there should be an investment in a public-health effort to help people become more aware of how they are affected by the digital revolution. “I think it's clear that something is happening with human beings and our connections to our machines,” he says. He suggests an approach based on harm reduction. “Once someone realizes that we're not trying to abolish the source of their gaming pleasures altogether, they are more likely to find times to interact with us in the physical world.”

But some former gamers prefer abstinence. After moving out in 2007, our Texan WoW player continued his eat, sleep, play lifestyle until one night in 2010. “My daughter called me from her home over 1,000 miles away. I don't get to see her very often and rarely get calls from her,” he recalls. “My answering machine picked up, I listened to my daughter's voice as she left me a ‘Sorry, I missed you’ message. Tears came to my eyes. I logged off Ventrilo, turned off the computer and haven't played WoW or anything like it since.”

Jason, another ex-WoW player, snapped out of his compulsive play by himself. At the age of 15, he was playing for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. At 20, he came to realize that he hadn't created any new, strong memories in years and had slowly become more and more unhappy with himself. “I canceled my account,” he recalls. “Quitting the game caused me to lose 50 pounds, enroll in a serious amount of classes, and touch a girl's naughty bits for the first time.” Despite relapses, by sustaining work on his real self rather than his avatar, he finally managed to wean himself off MMORPGs for good. 

Mental health experts are treating problem gaming with the standard addiction blend of psychopharmacology, psychotherapy and 12-step programs. Cash's reSTART offers clients a way to detox, reversing the effects of chronic sleeplessness, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, by means of cross-training, healthy eating and 12-step talks—and no digital devices without permission!

There is also On-Line Gamers Anonymous, where you can log in 24/7 to chat with fellow self-identified online gaming addicts. There's a list of games reported to be addictive (MMORPGs, like WoW, top the list) and a dedication page that pays tribute to those who have lost their lives to video gaming.

Video games are only going to get more advanced, pushing the boundaries of what consumers want with new high-tech bells and whistles to players chasing that victorious dopamine rush. Game companies envision video games that are so immersive that you don't interface with a controller at all—a microchip in the brain will let you control games with your mind. “The real model we're building is the one in your head, not on the computer,” one game maker says in the PBS documentary The Video Game Revolution

That's something that the game industry and mental health and addiction experts can agree on: It's all in your head. And with research underway to discover more about the disease's effects on the brain, video gaming, like the growing list of other Internet compulsions, is likely to become an addiction as routinely diagnosed as alcohol. Whether treatment for the condition will be more successful remains to be seen.

Bryan Le is a staff writer for The Fix. He also contributes to Games Abyss and edits at Hipolitics.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter