Digital Vices: What is video game addiction, and how can it stop?
Before we all get used to the Xbox One...
A brief history of the game...
One evening in October of 2012 between semesters, I committed a sin that would affect my life for years to come. This little misdeed would go on to affect many things in my life such as a loss in sleep, personal guilt and more importantly my relationship with my then fiance.
I bought an Xbox 360.
I swore to my gal that it wouldn’t get out of hand and I had control over myself and I even tried to get her into it- thus included a controller for her. We tried playing a few games like Mortal Kombat, to which she just sort of sat there and mashed buttons while I learned every character move and combo. She finally just gave up and left me to fight against myself or the computer. Despite my best efforts to include her, it was no use. My newest vice had already begun and my free time was now taken away. College homework was finished hastily, I was groggy at work, the apartment got messier and stayed that way; it was a mess. There were days at work or at school when all I could look forward to was getting home and turning on my Xbox.
All this came as a complete surprise to me, as video games were a familiar pastime but that pastime was over a decade old. When I was younger I played video games often. I owned a Super Nintendo, a Sega Genesis, and eventually had a Sony Playstation. In those days, video games had a very “pick-up-and-play-it” nature about them that allowed gamers to do just that, pick up and play. There were many long winded games that required saving your progress in the game, but almost all of them were linear enough to only allow one story and one goal in mind. Getting your character in Legend of Zelda from point “A” to point “B” could prove time-consuming, but at that end of the day all you did was save the princess and get the “tri-force”. This one-way route to gaming made the hobby of playing casual, unless you simply had nothing else to do you could put down the controller and move on. In spite of this (or maybe because of it) my experience as a gamer has an enormous gap that spanned over a decade. I skipped an entire generation of video games that included systems like the first Xbox, the Playstation 2, and the Nintendo Gamecube. Maybe it was the monotony of games, maybe it was adulthood taking over and giving me new responsibilities, perhaps I felt like video games weren’t presenting anything new to play in that timespan; I’ll never know why I stopped gaming in those days. Eventually, the Super Nintendo was gone, the Sega was sold to a friend, and The Playstation One was given away.
Mortal Kombat... in HD!
While I took a break...
I did, however, have a passe interest in PC gaming. I spent a lot of time in front of a computer while my dial-up connection would struggle to connect me to the Web. There isn’t much to do in that time so I would put on a great PC game like Doom or Half Life. Regardless, this wasn’t a big deal; these games had a way of letting the player go when he or she (more likely “he”) wanted or needed. What made those games easy to turn off was the same reason I turned them on: they were more of the same thing over and over again- but the RIGHT same thing. Walking your digital self around, shooting every NPC monster in every hallway or room was, and still is, immediately satisfying.
I remember when the Xbox 360 was unveiled in 2004, showing off a game system with capabilities matched only by the most expensive PCs (That is, PC’s available at that time). Sony up-ed the ante as well with the Playstation 3 thus killing DVD’s with its Blu-ray format, and Nintendo showed off an innovative side with the motion-controlled Wii-mote. I stood back and let these three rabid dogs of electronic entertainment claw each other's’ eyes out, while I took my time to make a decision. From an outsiders point of view, watching games become immersive and look as vivid as they do was interesting, and stirred an appreciation that people in art museums get while looking at a Monet. Games now looked realistic, vivid, violent, and could even bend an imaginary world without me having to... use my imagination like one would have to do back in the days of Super Mario Bros when Mario looked like a stack of legos. And when I had heard that Mortal Kombat- one of my all-time favorites of the 1990’s was remade and re-released- you bet your ass that this 90’s kid wanted relive it.
Where addiction starts...
It was ok, Mortal Kombat is simple enough and easy enough to pick up, play, and put away. About one month later, a friend of mine and my then fiance were getting a little... inebriated. While most people pass around bongs, strange pills, or needles while under the influence, we’re nerds- we pass around video games. This friend of mine showed me Skyrim, the game that I had heard about for years as the pixelated replacement to Dungeons and Dragons.
Holy shit, what happened while I was away?
I remembered guiding Link from Zelda from one castle to another, one forest to the next. Gamers my age could recall massive open worlds in Final Fantasy where no matter how much exploring you did, you were always the good guy that saved the day. And Maybe we could get alternate endings with games like Mortal Kombat, but never were all these great elements of gaming combined so well and with such thought in mind to making the adventure your own as well as can be seen in Skyrim. Creating a character that looked like Conan the Barbarian that could wield destructive magical powers and fight for the good of the kingdom; this sounds like every nerd’s wettest dream.
It goes without saying that this game had me in its iron grip, and my casual pastime was now taking hours away from my life. Not only did I learn a reason why I didn’t play video games for almost a decade prior, but also... my girl really hates gaming, not just playing them, but the whole idea of being sucked into something that is hard to shut off. Before I knew it, those simple games that were very pick-up and play genres were met to a match by the immersive open world epics that take months to complete. And these are the kind of games that you’ll tell yourself: “Oh I’ll just play for a half hour.”. Next thing you know, it’s four am and you’ve accomplished nothing in that game.
This casual hobby or pastime becoming more and more of an addiction, I was not surprised in the least to know that my case was quite typical. In fact, video game addiction is now considered a real problem that is taken more and more seriously. Sure, we won’t be seeing A&E’s “Intervention” do an episode on Xbox or PS3 addiction anytime soon, but one has to ask themselves... is it coming? And what can be done when it happens?
What is it?
Many people define this addiction to just merely playing for long hours, but the addiction speaks more to the actual need to play regardless of anything. Is a project due? or speech? Doesn’t matter. Is the house a mess? Who cares, the gamer has a level or quest to finish off. But video game addiction is actually not new and existed in another time of history- even before TV’s to play games on existed: An addiction known as Pathological Gaming as defined by the Illinois Institute for Addiction recovery in their report on Video Game Addiction published in 2009 , a need for gaming not too far from the days of gambling or excessive card playing. This very addiction still exist today, as many people still have gambling problems, or just can’t skip the weekly card game with “the guys” without feeling like they’re missing something. But whereas gambling addictions carry players into the need for gaming in the chase to make easy money video gaming addiction is more about the player wanting to escape reality.
Fantasy games like Skyrim became my digital escape of choice because it allowed me to take part in a world I could never be in: fighting dragons, casting spells, recovering artifacts, and other adventures that if I attempted in real life they’d lock me away. The real world sucks, and Skyrim, as well as other fantasy games, play to the free spirit in all of us that would love to get out from our homes, registers, or cubicles to pursue a quest. And this isn’t just my epic fantasy that explains my enjoyment for this that’s lead to my obsession. Many others have this and it’s extended in other genres, like being part of a military unit in Call of Duty. It’s like when we’re children and we had to use our imagination and pretend our plastic guns were the real thing and the jungle gym at the playground was our military base. We don’t have to use our imagination now, Playstation has us covered.
This newfound addiction to Xbox-ing was fascinating to me, even if it was terrible. My grip on reality was looser, and I looked at things in the world stranger. I didn’t just get dressed for work; there was now a little ghost in my mind that picture my clothes had an “armor rating” of 2, a “value” of 50 gold, and “weight” of 3. It became desperation when faced with the dilemma of whether to it was worth it to miss hours of sleep or just save my progress and get some sleep. It was almost hilarious to having feelings of irritability when I had to put life before gaming, and feeling withdrawals because I wanted to play so badly. This the kind of behavior of someone on a serious drug, not just a “casual interest in playing” as I had tried to justify.
Symptoms may include:
But to further explain this addiction I found an interesting study by Author/Psychologist Ryan VanCleave published in Psychology Today Magazine in 2010 when he examined a patient in the article anonymously named “Johnny”. Poor Johnny. He had many symptoms of addiction but the ones that make the most correlations to the average meth addict or alcoholic are the ones that can raise the most eyebrows...
Let’s look at Johnny:
Johnny craves more game time, no matter how much he's already played.
There is never enough to do, and games like Fallout will keep you glued for hours.
He suffers from chronic dry eyes.
Staring at the screen will do that and those symptoms sounds like what most drugs do to eyes.
He sometimes doesn't shower or change clothes for days.
Most drug users don’t, more especially when the addiction gets out of hand.
He gets extremely upset if someone says he might have a problem with video games.
Ever hear the denial of an addict yelling “I’m fine! I don’t have a problem!” ?
He rarely leaves the house because he feels like he's missing out on something that might be happening in the games.
Online games like World of Warcraft have made it easy to revive people of sunlight.
He spends his entire allowance on video game hardware and software.
Hardcore drug addicts often lose incomes to their addictions as well.
He sometimes skips doing his chores to keep gaming.
I’ve done that- the dishes will be there when I come back, right?
When he's not at the computer, he's irritable and snappy.
A reaction often shown in methamphetamine addicts that have been with the drug for a prolonged time.
Based on what my studies into this suggest to me, there is another symptom these games produced. A concept I have called “inducing depression”. The boy “Johnny” in this study was quoted saying:
"It's depressing to know that I'm 18, 300 lbs., single, unemployed, friendless, and eternally tired."
An addiction that manifests itself in someone physically, and mentally in its effects- just like most illicit drugs.
So it’s easily seen that people should take this seriously, as we are a country that worries a lot about mental disorders like depression, physical health “epidemics” like obesity, and economic ills caused by lost income to addictions like games and gaming addiction contributes to all these problems.
South Korea views this problem as social and not just a personal psychological issue. In March of 2009, PBS reported on the country’s use of 200 counseling centers where over 1,000 trained specialists guide minors and their parents to cut off internet and gaming usage times after 3 hours a day. This documentary report covered not only internet usage, but also online game play.
Solutions. Whether necessary or not...
While this addiction is fairly new and the treatment options in America are quite sparse, it’s not ignored by the mental health community. Morningside Treatment center in Newport Beach, California provides the simplest treatment plan that boils down to one simple word: Abstaining.
Their treatment focuses much on the idea that personal communication with others face to face far exceeds anything you’ll find in the virtual word of online gaming. People who have been in the program have been noting that they now view the computers just as they’re supposed to: as a tool. It’s not an easy adjustment, because many users will find themselves having to focus on caring about themselves again after being in the stranglehold of gaming. It’s embarrassing to know that you were actually that weak to something that seemed as innocent enough as a video game, because when someone thinks of the word “addict” their mind puts together a far darker picture. We see addicts on TV as staggering, puking, cursing, foul, smelly, diseased, dying or otherwise spiralling down the drain. This program of recovery isn’t catering to those kinds of problems; it’s dealing with people and a problem where the biggest downside is a wasted life.
On a personal note I must ask: are these games even that much fun? Sure they’re time consuming, but I work full time and I’m in college... I can’t waste time. Sure, they can be fun, but not after 10 hours. It’s not fun wandering around aimlessly until 5 am in the land of Skyrim just because I’m on a quest that eventually sidetracks me everywhere. And If I want to communicate with people, I can think of better places than a battlefield in Call Of Duty, where I get called every racial slur in the book. It sounds pretentious, and maybe a little corny, but life is still awesome and far more important than what you’ll run into on a map in Call of Duty.
What about "The Others"?
Is there a need for America to open more recovery centers for this particular addiction, or have this addiction remedied at current treatment centers? The answer is very yes and no, to put it simply. Recovery centers are for people trying to curb problems like meth or freebasing moon rocks. Sure, Americans are very addicted to videogames and it’s robbing us of valuable time and money, but what about...
You all know what I am talking about. The other forms of electronic entertainment that take hours from our lives. Pinterest has become the digital opium of the female masses of almost any age, and with a vast pastel cornucopia of crafts and decorating, it eats away hours of a day. Facebook is the pixeled herion of self-absorption, becoming a full-time hobby for those of the “me, me, me generation” as it proves only to be the largest photo album of the things no one cares about. Youtube can suck away an entire lifetime in its ridiculous cloud storage of endless cat videos and auto-tune songs; without this, people couldn’t find anything funny or cute. Imagine the pandemonium that could ensue the day all that crap stopped working.
At least videogames present to its players more substance; gamers get to be involved in a story, a plot. We get introduced to being a character. We see a setting, a world that is artistically intriguing, and not only do we interact with that world, but we can live vicariously, and as wildly as we’ve always wanted. So how does video games get thrown under the bus so easily, while Facebook, Pinterest, Twilight, and other artless crap gets a free pass? Is it because of the violence in many video games?
Perhaps, but that’s a different story for a different time...
A Brief History Paused
Just pause the thing and talk to somebody!
So the solutions to this problem of addiction are quite simple and work almost perpetually for me. Counseling close with someone and abstaining from excessive use. I got married last month, and no Xbox achievement window flashed over my head to remind me of how awesome that event was. I care about my life more than I care about whatever the hell I am in the middle of in Skyrim. And thank goodness my gal isn’t into gaming and that I care about our communication with each other. Otherwise, I’d be stuck at home, alone, and in front a screen- like poor Johnny.
Van Cleave, R. (2010, November 11). Why Johnny Can't Stop Playing Video Games | Psychology Today. Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unplugged/201011/why-johnny-cant-stop-playing-video-games
Video Game Addiction Treatment Center| Morningside Recovery. (n.d.). California Rehab Center | Drug Addiction Rehab | Morningside Recovery. Retrieved February 2, 2013, from http://www.morningsiderecovery.com/addiction-treatment/video-games/
Video Games Addiction. (n.d.). Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. Retrieved from http://www.addictionrecov.org/addictions/?AID=45
Special thanks to the Angry Joe Show visit his website at http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/bt/aj/ajs
Further thanks goes most to my beautiful wife Kristen. Thank you.