There are some recent events (especially the Wired newsletter on alcoholism) which made me deal with gaming addiction. At first I would like to state that I am neither a psychologist nor did I study social pedagogic. I did some courses on social psychology and after playing online games such as World of Warcraft and Ultima Online from 2000 to 2008, I think that I have some knowledge on this topic. Due to the fact that game addiction in general is a big topic, I would like to focus on Role Playing Online Games.
Online games in general and Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) in particular do have an addiction making potential. What makes them addicting is that there is no real end. If you play Counter-Strike or World of Warcraft there is no much difference. It is not like playing football, teamed up, and finish 90 minutes later. You can play World of Warcraft the whole night, earning experience and gaining some fancy stuff. It is even better to play this game when less people are online. The content indefinite and wis increased every couple of years. China for example restricted the time, people in their country can spend on playing World of Warcraft. After three and five hours it will be more difficult to level the avatar they are playing. The gamer have to take a five hours break in order to play in a normal way again.
Furthermore, there is a community you get sucked in when playing these kind of games. A clan, guild or team is necessary to become a successful player. Therefore, these communities grow very big. People spend day and night playing, chatting and talking with the other people from their guild. They do become their new social group. Subsequently, the people spend less time outside their room because they have some kind of social interaction via Internet. Increasingly problematic does it become, because their social group in real life will sooner or later break up so it becomes a vicious circle. Additionally, the people within your virtual social society do understand you and are on the same ‘level’. They become your new BFFs. That is not a bad thing at all. I got to know a lot of great people via MMORPG’s. With some of them I am still in contact and they are valuable members of my own real social circle.
Moreover, in these online games you can be who you want to be just by spending a lot of time. It is not that easy but almost. If you consider yourself a loser in real life you can still be the most important, famous and well-know player in the whole game. Again, this is a vicious-circle. Real life sucks, virtual life is awesome and becomes more important than real life because you are someone in virtual life. You are important if your guild cannot go on a raid without you and starts calling you on your cell phone because you are away from keyboard for five minutes, making yourself a coffee. That is ridiculous, but you do not see it this way.
Subsequently, the virtual community becomes important and soon there is no real life anymore which makes it attractive to return to. Another obstacle might be, that saying farewall has to be irrevocable. Otherwise you will find yourself in front of your avatar sooner then you think. Deleting your avatar and saying goodbye for ever to your beloved community can be very hard. Spiegel just did an interesting interview on this topic. Unfortunately for those of you who do not speak German, it is available only in German.
I really do not want to say that everyone who plays these games for more than a couple of hours per day is addicted per se. I know a lot of people who are not and when I go out on a fridays night and see two girls, dressed-up going a party, talking about their WoW chars – I feel a bit weird but know that there is more to it than just an addictive drug. You can also play it for fun, to relax or to have a good time with your real life friends which are unfortunately dispersed over the country/ world.
The point is, it is all about real life. You cannot blame the publishers for making this game. Not all the people playing this game are anti-social or running amok and if they do it is probably not the game causing this disaster. If you have a stable social environment it is highly unlikely to become sucked in. If your social environment is unstable, MMORPGs are not really your problem. You do not run amok because your life is awesome but some pixels scattered some other pixels with a pixeled sword and you like to be one of those pixel piles. Here are other problems which have to be addressed first, and what is a better reward for some schoolkid doing his homework than being allowed to play computer games for one or two hours? Do not see the game addiction as the cause for problems. It might be not but it might be the outcome of other problems you tend to overlook.
Technology might shape us, but it is us who allow them to make us what we are.