I love video games. Hell, I was raised by Mario, Luigi, Sonic, and Yoshi and eagerly anticipated every new upgrade of the Nintendo console. My parents understood, they were of the Atari generation and saw video games as harmless fun on a rainy Florida afternoon, and perhaps even “good” for improving hand-eye coordination. I played outside like any normal kid, had friends, did schoolwork, grew up, and went to college. However, video games followed me through all of it. And while I don’t play much anymore, a new Final Fantasy game or a Wii demo at Best Buy is still capable of raising my blood pressure.
So, to an extent, I can understand the minority of gamers who become enthralled in the imaginary world inside a PS2 or computer. Video games provide not only an outlet for stress release, but also a completely controllable, escapable universe where the player is the center of the universe. The goals are clear and well-stated. Usually personal advancement is as simple as being tenacious (or buying a good strategy guide). Did you die? Well, just restart the game or restore to the last save point. Its experience without consequence, ultimately egotistical, easily achieved, and mimics the feelings of happiness and conquest of “real life.”
And when integrated into “real life,” video games are positive. Yet an increasing population of gamers are going overboard in time spent gaming, and their personal and professional lives are suffering. Perhaps the biggest offender, or easiest scapegoat with its 8 million players, is World or Warcraft (WoW). Are people *really* becoming addicted to WoW, and if so, how does video game addiction compare with more traditional forms of addiction (drug abuse, etc)?
So what is WoW, and why is it a particular target for video game addiction? WoW is an online universe which is constantly being updated with new characters, new monsters, and new quests. The highest level character attainable is currently Level 70, which takes a MAJOR time commitment to achieve. Add to this the huge online world filled with an infinite number of campaigns to beat and items to acquire, its not hard to imagine people spending a lot of time in this virtual world, even to the point of neglecting their real lives. In fact, a lucrative industry exists in China etc which builds up characters and then sells them for a profit, or generates money in the WoW world which it sells for real money in the real world. A top level character can net thousands of dollars, and represents hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Video game addiction of this variety has a name: massively multiplayer addiction (MMA). Its starting to become a serious issue among mental health professionals who see these patients, and several treatment facilities in Washington, Beijing, and the Netherlands have been set up to treat it. In an extreme case of MMA, a child died of neglect due to the inattentiveness of her WoW-playing parents. China has even set limits on how many hours a person can play WoW.
The specific of MMA is controversial and under-studied due to its perception as either 1) a harmless way to entertain oneself similar to TV, or 2) not a “real” addiction and therefore not worthy of psychological attention. However, behavioral addictions, like to gambling or sex, have been recognized as true compulsions which follow much the same story as a drug dependency. They exhibit drug-seeking behavior, elation at its receipt, withdrawl in its absence, and neglect of other interests which interfere. Ultimately, this kind of behavior, as with a chemical dependency, may require treatment in the form of behavioral modification and therapy.
It is hypothesized that obsessive gameplay activates the same brain pathways as more “traditional” types of addiction such as cocaine or nicotine would, specifically the release of dopamine in the reward pathways. It would be quite interesting to conduct an fMRI study on a WoW player during times of active gameplay (especially before/after and during times of reward in the game) and during a timepoint when the gamer has been deprived of the game for some time point. Activation in the reward regions of the brain (perhaps the nucleus accumbens?) as evidenced by blood flow might give some clues as to the neural effects of addictive game play. There also exists a substantial genetic component to susceptibility to addictive behavior–anecdotally you’ve probably heard of some people becoming addicted after one cigarette/drink, or the person who uses some drug recreationally without craving it. Genetics may dictate that some people may be more resistant to excess dopamine, however virtually no one is immune to addiction.
Research into this type of compulsion is new, and the implications are broad. The gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar one, and the perception of the products is crucial to whether parents are willing to dish out the dough for expensive and on-going games. A quick search of PubMed lead to disappointing results, the few hits were published in less that impactive journals which relied on self-report techniques. However, those who might argue that video games are all roses have their heads in the sand; any pleasurable activity can become addictive if repeatedly abused to the point that a person’s self worth becomes dependent on that activity. The ensuing studies into the mind of the addicted gamer will be both interesting and necessary, as games, and gamers, aren’t going anywhere.