Let’s start by setting the record straight about a few things: Addiction (to anything) is harmful for your mental health, physical wellbeing and emotional development. It is also really likely to piss off those nearest and dearest to you. Playing games can be addictive; some games are more likely to induce addiction than others.
That doesn’t mean that gaming is bad for you as some facets of the media would have us believe. It is certainly on a par with television, radio and reading in terms of how beneficial or how harmful it could be to us. We must take our own experiences from the things we do for pleasure and find a balance that is healthy for us in our own lives.
Contrary to some recent reports which have been based around prohibitively small sample groups, invented from hearsay and popular mythology or misdirected via biased starting points, there is no conclusive evidence for gaming causing mental health issues. There is, however, evidence that those with mental health frailties are more susceptible to the addictive properties in video games. Similarly, they are more susceptible to the addictive properties of alcohol, gambling or narcotics.
So how do people become addicted to gaming?
How many times have you heard a video game advertised or positively reviewed using terms like “compulsive”, “addictive” or “addicting”? Can you imagine if they advertised vodka in the same way – “This vodka is so great you’ll need to keep coming back for another hit, it’ll get you totally off your face!”?
It just wouldn’t happen because we have come to understand that excessive reliance on the pleasurable feelings that alcohol can induce is harmful to us. In time we will most likely reach the same conclusion with video games – it is perfectly healthy, beneficial even, in balance with other aspects of life but a dependence on it is unhealthy.
Those addictive properties in video games are the things that make them fun for us all to play. The sensation of achievement and the system of reward are what keep us going back to the games we play. The vast majority of us can return to a game on our own terms but occasionally (and more often than you’d think) the compulsion to return to the game becomes stronger than our ability to resist it. That is the point when we become addicted.
So it is a limited problem but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem. While governments fund recovery for alcoholics and gamblers those addicted gamers are more likely to be subjected to ridicule than rehab.
Please bear in mind that addiction (of any type) leads to the ruin of lives. Many people lose their jobs, homes, families and friends because of their addictions and gaming addiction suffers from this no less than alcoholism or drug addiction. So what do the addicts do while they wait for the governments to modernise their thinking? They probably play World of Warcraft and wonder where that pizza delivery guy has got to. Seriously though, it falls to the volunteers to help those afflicted with addiction and to the addicted to help them-selves.
This brings me neatly to the reasons I wrote this article. I was sent a link last week to the Online Gamers Anonymous (OLGA) website by someone who probably (and, it turns out, correctly) expected that I would be amused at the religious overtones ingrained in their “12 steps” which are adapted from the Alcoholics Anonymous program (although they do have an atheist & agnostic program too). What I was not expecting as I loaded up the OLGA site, preparing for some sarcastic and obtuse mockery, was to find myself sympathising with those people who share a common interest with me and yet have lost the ability to balance that interest with other pursuits.
I have known people with addictions to alcohol, gambling and drugs and yet my first response to a website set up to help addicts help themselves was the expectation of amusement. This was simply because of the thing they were addicted to. I am ashamed to admit that I was fully expecting to laugh at these people simply because they were addicted to the thing that I manage to maintain a casual interest in. That was my problem, and one I quickly got over.
Those of you who regularly read the things I write will know how disdainfully I look on those mainstream journalists who use video games and gaming as a go-to excuse for all the world’s ills. I think it’s lazy and ignorant and betraying of your readership to just throw all the difficult problems in a story into the easiest box. I think that a readership deserves a balanced view and at least some research before a story is thrust upon them.
That is why when I set out to write this article I knew I would have to leave most of my cynicism behind me. In the process of doing so I have realised that, far from being a topic for sarcastic amusement, this is a serious problem with serious consequences that we should all be addressing as a community.
According to the lovely Liz over at OLGA there is a general acceptance amongst the gaming press that there is a problem. She told me that most gaming journalists are pleased (as I am) that there is somewhere for people to go to when their pastime turns into an addiction. She was also, perhaps surprisingly, complimentary of the mainstream press, stating that overwhelmingly she is contacted by them because they know of someone with an addiction to gaming and wanted to warn others of the dangers.
I’m sure we all know of instances when cynical mainstream journalists go too far in their “warning of the dangers” and end up peddling the demonization of gaming but that doesn’t mean that there is not a problem. It just means that the problem could be handled more sensibly with a more balanced view and a fairer hand.
As Liz at OLGA pointed out to me, the problem concerns excessive use of video games and that can be equated with excessive use of anything. Balance is healthy but excessively (or obsessively) using one substance, one leisure pursuit or one of anything is not good for us. Addiction to jogging is harmful, addiction to sex is harmful and so, I would argue, is the addiction to single religious doctrines. Yet we, as a society, encourage all of those things in moderation for a happy and healthy existence. Gaming is no different, it is not inherently bad for us but it has the potential, as with all things, to develop into an unhealthy obsession.
Hopefully reading this article has opened your eyes to the problems and hopefully it will lead to a greater understanding within our ranks as gamers. I believe that if we can understand and empathise with those who suffer this addiction we can help to overcome it and in turn we will overcome the negative attitude many in the mainstream press have towards those of us who casually enjoy the hobby. We can show the world that far from being a group of unsocial, uncaring and jaded miscreants we are capable of the compassion and understanding that they are yet to find in this matter.
I’d like to thank OLGA for talking to me. If you want to visit their site click here. OLGA deal with all sorts of gaming addiction, not just online or MMO addiction.