By Nathan Stephenson, Contributor
Nathan Bock, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says addicts “almost exclusively” seek help after an event of some kind.
In the case of drugs or alcohol, that event might be an arrest. In the case of a behavioral addiction such as playing video games, that event might be a bad test grade or a breakup caused by pathological gaming.
One of the most popular video games that some believe could lead to addiction is “World of Warcraft,” a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). “World of Warcraft” boasted 12 million subscribers at its peak in October 2010. Today, the game has about 6.8 million—a sharp decline in subscriptions, but an impressive number notwithstanding.
Some gamers play MMOs like “World of Warcraft” with intense devotion and compulsiveness; the average MMO player spends about 25 hours in-game per week, and 11 percent of players spend 40 hours a week in-game, according to the article “The Role of Social Motivation and Sociability of Gamers in Online Game Addiction” by Lukas Blinka and Jakub Mikuska.
“With ‘World of Warcraft’ especially, you just spend monstrous amounts of time playing to get these items or basically get better statistics for you character,” said Donald Keyes III, an experienced gamer and former UNO student.
Online forums have emerged for pathological gamers to share their addiction stories, including gamerwidow.com, WorldofWarcraftaholics.org and olganon.org (online gamers anonymous). Moreover, video games are designed to exploit your brain’s reward system; killing monsters, completing levels, winning points and beating games are satisfying. As Week Magazine wrote, “It’s a very simple and primitive part of who we are.”
Three groups of gamers exist: non-problematic gamers, highly-engaged players and gamers at-risk of addiction, write Blinka and Mikuska. Non-problematic gamers play more casually, while at-risk gamers exhibit symptoms of pathological gaming. The middle group is heavily involved in gaming and may spend a lot of time online, but does not exhibit problematic symptoms.
The authors say pathological gamers develop symptoms similar to other behavioral addictions, including withdrawal symptoms (such as being irritable or distracted when not playing), jeopardization of relationships, obsession and “persistence in gaming patterns despite being aware of their negative consequence.” This is something Keyes says he can attest to.
“In college, I still hung out with a lot of friends from high school and we got very heavily into video games and would neglect our studies to play,” Keyes said. “We would get off work and we would come home and we would just play all night and we would neglect to get up for class sometimes.”
Bock says the difference between a highly-engaged player and an at-risk gamer is not the amount of time they spend playing.
“Someone could drink the same exact amount as somebody else, but one person’s an alcoholic and the other’s not,” Bock said. “It’s not about the amount.”
A behavior becomes an addiction when it becomes the priority, and when it makes someone’s life unmanageable, according to Bock.
How social a game is contributes to its addictiveness. Blinka and Mikuska write that “one of the strongest predictors of pathological gaming [is] the use of voice technology.” Voice technology is generally used in more social games. This allows players to intensively interact with others and work together to complete certain in-game tasks.
“If you can build some sort of social construct with it or you can have friends so you can have a spirit of camaraderie going, then you can work toward a thing together and just the social aspect of it becomes a reason to play the video games,” Keyes said. “It can get dangerous.”
In addition to being social, many MMOs allow gamers to create their own characters, and embark on adventures somewhat unique to that character, which may cause players to become emotionally attached to their avatars.
“My friends and I feel compelled to keep playing the game because we already have spent maybe a full month of our lives actually dedicated to playing these characters or getting items on these characters,” Keyes says. “We feel like when the new expansion comes out that we owe it to ourselves or owe it to our characters to make them the best in the realm again and experience the new content.”
A game’s reward system also contributes to its addictiveness. The Economist says, “games that require players to perform an unpredictable number of actions in order to earn a reward can be especially addictive.”
For example, in Diablo—an RPG developed by Blizzard, the same company that developed World of Warcraft—players are awarded powerful weapons for killing enemies. However, there is no set amount of kills that yields a reward; it could be one kill away, or 100 kills away. This sporadic reward system keeps gamers glued to the screen, knowing they may be handsomely rewarded for their very next kill.
Beating a game’s high score is an incredibly addictive pursuit, one that has been around since the arcade games of the 70s—and one that is a part of many games, ranging from simple to complex—on all modern platforms. Gaming your way to the top of the leaderboard is a compelling idea, and even if you top every other gamer’s score, you can always try to best your own. Achieving this can be incredibly time consuming, and keep gamers in their seats.
Additionally, some gamers turn to their digital lives to cope with depression.
“When I get depressed, I seek out outlets to make me feel like I’m valuable,” Keyes says. “That is something that makes video games kind of nice for, but also self-destructive. They make you feel productive, like you matter. Because the whole video game, the whole world that the creators have made is essentially there to satisfy you.”
Keyes says that compulsive gaming can create a false sense of importance within the gamer.
“It’s really an egotistical thing because you kind of become the God of the world that you are interacting with,” he said. “That can give you a feeling of importance and self-worth that is probably false, but exists. So even if you don’t like what you’re doing, you might go to that just for the comfort.”
Treating video game addiction can be especially challenging when it comes to online games—simply because computers have become such an essential part of many people’s lives. Recovering video game addicts who need to access the Internet for school or for work may find themselves logging on to “World of Warcraft” instead.
“I have mixed feelings about it because, yeah, it does make you feel better,” Keyes said. “But that’s probably not the healthiest outlet for depression. You’re probably better off actually producing something rather than getting bigger numbers in a digital system.”
Bock offers a seemingly simple solution: an effective first step in treating addiction is to figure out what the person is hoping to accomplish and how his or her pathological behavior gets in the way of that goal.
“Connecting it to someone’s goals is a great place to start,” Bock said.