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In The Habit

Written By mista sense on Tuesday, December 7, 2010 | 7:28 AM

So, a report that aired on the BBC about "video game addicts" is basically bullshit, right? I didn't see it, but that's what everyone seems to be saying. Of course, "everyone" would get their panties in a bunch any time it's implied that video games are anything less than a perfect, virtuous and ideal use of one hundred percent of your time. That's why John Walker's RPS piece, being fairly measured, is my favorite response to the documentary.

Of course, even the largest and noblest of media outlets can't resist a sensational angle, which is why the "games addiction" phenomenon can be so exciting to folks like the BBC. In the '90s, it was all about "internet addiction", remember? However, it's more than sensationalism that makes the angle a little problematic. It's that video games are here getting stuck into a larger social problem: The psychiatrizing (allow me to use a made-up word) of everything, and the excessive abuse of clinical terms to explain away coping difficulties or to compartmentalize larger life problems into their own individual symptoms and syndromes.

Think about how many times you've used clinical terms over the past few years. You're addicted to True Blood; you're "a little OCD" about doing your dishes, you're "depressed" about your sports team losing, you're "having a panic attack" about running late to work. Of course, in the vast majority of cases, you are not actually. You're exaggerating. Maybe because every other nightly news ad is a prescription drug commercial, making the idea of widespread disease frighteningly normal. Maybe because your world is so crowded with the noise of social media and awareness of mass culture that you feel you need to use hyperbole to be heard.

Who knows. But when we talk about "addiction" to non-chemical things, there's a very significant difference between "a person is unable to stop repeating a behavior because they suffer extreme emotional and/or physical stress when they try" and "a person refuses to stop repeating a behavior and denies it is harming them." The former is addiction. The latter is someone who's just failing to develop as a human.

The type of people in this documentary, people who play 20 hours a day of WoW until their relatives become concerned, are not addicts. They're just losers. And if they didn't have WoW, they'd probably be doing something else to the unhealthy exclusion of all else.

That being said, I continue to be alarmed by some gamers' refusal to even examine their play habits. Defensively, they claim, "would people be complaining if I read books for 20 hours a day? What about film buffs who spend all their time on movies?" People would probably be complaining, yes. But guess what: Game designers create compulsion loops on purpose. They want you to feel invested in goals and satisfied by achieving them. That's not inherently harmful, but maybe it is to vulnerable people?

News flash: The metric of an online game's success is how many hours people are spending playing. Engagement metrics are how projects get funded and remain commercially viable. It is in the designer's best interest to make sure you stay playing, that you keep coming back. Again, that's not to say "people are designing addiction" or "making games people will want to return to and enjoy for long periods is wrong." It's just to say that it's irresponsible to ignore this fact, if you want to have a reasoned say in any "addiction" conversation.

So maybe "game addiction" is an of-yet unsubstantiated concept. But those defensive gamers aren't doing anyone any favors by vehemently rationalizing the fact they push buttons all day to the exclusion of all else. They just make normal gamers look bad.

People die in Chinese internet cafes, of exhaustion or starvation, bottles of pee under their desk. What's going on there? We're going to have to have good answers to these questions as games become a bigger and bigger part of society, so I hope auto-apologists develop an interest in being ready.

[Since people complained in comments: I should probably clarify that I am not categorizing psychological addiction as people who are losers that just don't do anything else with their lives.

I'm saying that psychological addiction is an actual problem, not just people who don't see anything better to do with themselves than play video games and refuse to try. There are plenty of people who have legitimate psychological dependencies on games or other behaviors.

But let's look closely at the issue instead of just calling someone with no life an "addict." The over-diagnosing of American society leads a lot of people to complain that they are "addicts" as an excuse to make a developmental failure or laziness into a real problem. A large number of people would rather claim they have a "condition" than deal with life; it's like when people are dangerously obese in the absence of a medical cause and, shrugging, blame their genes without addressing their diet.

the thing i'm saying here is that psychological addiction to games is likely to be a genuine issue that is not able to be correctly examined because of all the people who use clinical addiction as an excuse for their failure to nurture an emotional life, and because of all the people who are so defensive about their focus on games that they don't want to look at or talk about the issue. if you are an addict or have known one, as i have, this is what should offend you, the aimless firing of the word into an important discussion.]

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