Are MMORPGs "addictive"?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn our discussions of violence associated with video game play, we've frequently noted that there appear to be different effects depending on the type of video game. Some games are more violent than others, and some games reward violence while others discourage it. All this has an impact in terms of real-world behavior and attitudes. Some games have positive effects.

One type of game -- one of the most popular types, in fact -- hasn't been studied nearly as much as the traditional arcade-style game: massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. One of the studies of this type of game seemed to find that players weren't more aggressive because the games foster cooperation between players.

But we've also heard -- and seen, with Jim's game-play, that MMORPGs like World of Warcraft can be more engaging and distracting than other games, sucking away hours and hours in seemingly endless online quests. Even if it turns out these games don't promote violent behavior, is it possible that they have other detrimental effects?

Joshua Smyth recruited 100 college students to play one of four randomly-assigned video games free for a month. They played the games on their own time, in a campus "game laboratory" (or in an arcade for the arcade group). The only requirement was that they play the game for at least an hour a week. The arcade group could play any of the games in the arcade; one group played Gauntlet: Dark Legacy on a PlayStation 2; one group played Diablo II on a computer, and the final group played the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. So did the type of game had any impact on how much the games were played? You bet it did -- here are the results:


The MMORPG group spent significantly more time playing Dark Age of Camelot in the final week of play than any of the other groups spent playing their games -- an average of 14.4 hours! Remember, these groups were randomly assigned, and there was no difference in game-playing time among groups at the start of the study. But even if the students spent more time with the MMORPG, that doesn't mean they're addicted to it. Were other aspects of their lives affected by this increase in game-playing? Yes, they were. Take a look at this graph:


Sleep quality was significantly worse in the MMORPG group than the other groups, and the participants said the game interfered with their academics (although their actual academic performance didn't suffer compared to the other groups). Yet the MMORPG group was significantly more likely than the other groups to say they planned to continue playing the game after the study was complete.

So is this behavior addictive? Smyth doesn't offer an assessment, but the fact that the MMORPG appears to be negatively impacting several areas of these students' lives -- and that they continue to play on despite this -- suggest it might be. But once again, we must be careful when generalizing results such as this. Just one MMORPG was tested, so we can't say whether these results apply to other games. What's more, the students clearly were getting some benefits from the game, building an online social network that was valuable to them. Despite these caveats, to me it's surprising that such dramatic results occurred even when groups were randomly assigned to the games. Maybe nearly anyone could get "hooked." Which is why I'm not especially interested in getting started.

Smyth, J.M. (2007). Beyond Self-Selection in Video Game Play: An Experimental Examination of the Consequences of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Play. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(5), 717-721. DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2007.9963

More like this

This is an image from the video game Asheron's Call 2 (source: Does playing such a game, involving regular practicing (albeit in a virtual environment) of repetitive, violent acts, increase our general level of aggression? A recent article in New York Times says no, citing a study by…
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…
Although not all games are equal, there's plenty of evidence that playing some violent video games can cause aggressive real-world behavior. Sites like offer popular games whose sole point is to play the role of a hit-man or even to torture animals. Over 85 percent of video games…
Carmageddon 2 (source: Gamespot) is a gory racing game where players control drivers with names like "Max Damage" as they tear through city streets mowing down pedestrians and forcing competitors into bloody collisions. The game settings can be adjusted so that running down innocent bystanders…

i kinda question the study tho cuz diablo II is dated, which might explain lack of play and gauntlet just blows for lack of a better term. so it seems the mmorpg would at least have more engaging content to offer players which might explain the higher engagement.
but i'm biased. i don't think games are anymore "addictive" than any other escapist activity people choose. it has more to do with addictive personality factors already in play rather than any deleterious quality inherent in the games themselves.

I dont think you can really say much based on the sampling of games chosen. I think you would really need to use more than one type of game in each genre (at the very least) to get any meaningful results.

That said, as a player of an MMORPG, I can say that I have seen players who cross that line into addictive behavior. These people usually seem to have other issues going on in their lives which make them more likely to become addicted. MMORPGs give you the chance to be someone else (the hero, the villain, the powerful mage etc) and to craft an online persona. Some people hide behind these characters they create, and it can go to unhealthy extremes.

Addictive as hell. Much of it can be attributed for the game time required in each game. The rewards/failures in arcade and console games are much more immediate than MMRPGs. And in MMRPGs there is the inherent desire to better the other players. Not to mention the ability to make 'long term plans' that tie you to the game even more.

I went through my spate of online gaming. Broke it only after I pretty much realized the above.

When I started playing World of Warcraft I think I was "addicted" to an extent. It was exciting and when I was able to learn new abilities/get new gear/enter new areas I felt like I was making progress. Now that I've been playing for a bit I'm actually a bit bored. There's a lot of running around trying to get experience to complete quests only to find that you need even more experience to complete the next set and things get a bit repetitive. I'd be interested to see how players react after playing for longer periods of time (months, years?) and whether interest falls off after a certain point.

"but i'm biased. i don't think games are anymore "addictive" than any other escapist activity people choose. it has more to do with addictive personality factors already in play rather than any deleterious quality inherent in the games themselves."

So you think that it's a coincidence that all of the students randomly assigned to DAoC had addictive personality factors, while those assigned to other games had less of one? Is that based on other studies, or some other evidence?

It's possible it was the quality of games that caused this effect, but from my experience, MMORPGs do take up more of my time than any other type of video game. I have played Diablo II, WoW, Everquest 2, a number of sports sims (Madden, MLB, NHL, etc), some PS2 games, RPG (like Kingdom Hearts) or not, and a number of N64 and Wii games (Smash Bros, Mario Kart, etc.). I like playing all of them, but I no longer have WoW installed on my computer (I did the same with EQ2 a few years ago) because if I play it, I spend less time doing other things that I like, such as playing guitar and reading. Even though I like games like Smash Bros and Kart as much as WoW, I spend far less time playing them, and still trade off time between playing them and doing other things.

This is an interesting article but I must say I have a hard time believing that a game can have adverse effects on a person. I believe that it has to do with what personal choices the person makes. Maybe I'm wrong but I think the individual is to blame and "addictive" is a very relative term in relation to games.

By timberwolfblues (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

"I'd be interested to see how players react after playing for longer periods of time (months, years?) and whether interest falls off after a certain point."

More personal anecdote: My interest in those games went in and out. I went through a few cycles of playing and not, usually about 4-5 months to a cycle, before finally quitting completely at the beginning of the first cycle that occurred after I graduated from college. However, I have a friend from high school who still plays MMORPGs daily, and has since EQ1 came out.

One aspect that isn't often discussed about MMORPG's is that it's a persistent world that never ends. Consoles and arcade games you shut it off and it remains at your last save, or you just start over. With online games, if you are part of a guild, something is always going on and you'll feel left out if you stay away for too long. You'll miss a good raid, you'll miss out on items, maybe a particular crafter is only on at a certain time of day, etc. It's that persistence that keeps you coming back. When playing with others, it's difficult to leave during a raid if you are an important class like a healer or tank. You may leave people in a lurch which may damage your reputation.

I have spent over a year in Second Life (non-goal-oriented user-created online world). At first, I found myself driven to be online a lot for whatever reason. But then I realized that most of the time I spent was aimless and a distraction from the rest of my life.

Now I have a few weekly discussion groups I attend in the evening: a political forum, a fairy-tale book club, and a philosophy cafe. I find it to be a great way to interact with people and exercise my brain without having to spend what little cash I have on going out. I forsee this medium being ever more popular with lower-income people for socializing, and perhaps could be used as an educational tool, or a way to maintain long-distance relationships with loved ones.

I have to agree with poster #1 on pretty much everything. Both Diablo II and Gauntlent are pretty much a grind all the way through. That's alot less entertaining when there is a set end to the game, unlike in MMO. The only of those games I enjoyed when playing them(and I have played all 3 of the named games) is DAoC. Guanlant games are really arcade games, anyway. That's where they started out and any consle game ever made from them never did well.

To have a balanced study, the Consle gamers should be playing Halo 3 or GTA4. They also should be givin online capablities, since a majority of time spent playing games by consle gamers is with friends or online, over sevices like X-Box Live. The PC Gamers need to be playing a newer game, as well. While neither Mass Effect nor Bioshock were PC exclusive, the non-MMO PC gamers generally play games like those. They also play FPS games, but they may edge into territory of MMO, since those are played online as well.

Such a study really only test play time when spent online or offline, since the massive majority of gamers will play online, wether it be in an MMO or FPS. Changing game play and competition are always going to make online gmaers play more. As for wether it is addictive or not, it really depends on the person. There are people who drink, but are not alcaholics and even a few 'casual smokers' out there that only smoke cigeretes when hanging outside a bar or at a party. Some people are mor prone to falling for things than others are, and honestly, ANYthing can be addictive. You have compulsive eaters, obsesive compulsives, and even obsessive masturaters. The existance of a small portion of people who partake in one thing or another becoming 'addicts' should not nessacaraly mark something as addictive.

I'd argue that Diablo's age makes it a poor choice, (I still love the game), what makes it a poor choice is that it's typically played over, with other people. Admittedly only 8 people can be in the same game at the same time, but it's got the "ORPG" part down, if not the "MM" part (although thousands of people still use, I don't really know what the dividing line there is).

The increase of gameplay might be due to the fact that you're paying 10-15 bucks a month to play it. I don't know about you, but if i'm paying for something every month i tend to play it a lot more than if i just pay 50 bucks for a game that will last me a week.

One month? Research to test the addictiveness of MMORPGs with the sample period of one month?

That's.. broken.

By Idlethought (not verified) on 30 Jun 2008 #permalink

Social games are not comparable to non-social games. It's not that I'm addicted to World of Warcraft, per se. It's that I have friends who expect me to be there and help them with quests. I can't just leave in the middle of the quests, either.

You might as well ask if staying in a boring meeting at work for an hour indicates an "addiction" rather than thinking of it as a commitment to a social group.

To "play" a social game is partly to play and partly to socialize. Which of those activities is actually driving the behavior?

Beyond the obvious problem with the experimental design of controlling for the quality of the game, did the experiment take into account total time playing video games? If the number of hours spent playing games doesn't increase substantially (beyond the the required 1 hr for example), then the game didn't change the propensity to play video games and its usage may be interpreted in terms of a quality-based substitution, with differences reflecting the relative enjoyability of playing the games, not a significant behavioral change.

At a higher level, this analysis runs into one of the persistent problems with the the science of addiction; there is not a scientific definition of addiction. The original pharmacological meaning is obviously inapplicable in this case and much of current usage of the term and the current usage is ill-defined and contains subjective, value-based criteria.

The behavior that is being looked at here is time usage - all the other variables (academic performance, socialization, sleep, etc) are functions of it. But that isn't the only element - the same time usage changes occur whenever someone discovers an new and enjoyable activity - upon starting dating a new person, I know that my non-date related socialization goes down, and my academic/professional obligations take a back seat - are new girlfriends addictive? Would students' willingness to taking a new part-time job, which would cause the same shifts in the subject mean that money is addictive? The second part of the definition seems to be a normative judgement about the relative merits of two activities - if I'm currently doing A and would rather do B instead, B is addictive if the researcher doesn't think I should be doing more of it. There's an adequate vocabulary to describe preferences in value-neutral fashion - the proliferation of "addictions" seems to be sneaking value judgements about preferences into science. Without the value judgement, there is no distinction between addiction and preference.

This could be disregarded as a symantic quibble if the concept of addiction had not taken on huge clinical significance - these value judgements aren't just describing research, they're being codified into diagnosic and regulatory criteria.

Despite all the complications of the study, especially concerning the semantic problem with the word "addiction"... it's still measuring something very real that would likely be replicated in more rigorous studies.

I have been a gamer my whole life, and MMORGPs are the only games I've ever experienced a psychological "detox" withdrawl.

I don't think it's the same dopamine-reward mechanism of addiction as, say, smoking or food or sex. But it's *a* type of addiction.

And why I quit those games is -- it took a while to realize this -- in an MMO, 10 hours feels like 1 hour of normal console/PC gameplay. It's not uncommon to literally spend 2-3 hour just waiting for members of your guild to gather up and organize for group exp'ing. Followed by 5 hours of grinding. The whole game experience is rather aimless, but we tend to overlook that while we actually play.

I spent quite a bit of time two summers ago on an MMORPG. When I say quite a bit, I mean enough that my wife found it worrisome. What was going on? In order to fully explore the game, you had to level up. Leveling up was time consuming. There were aspects of the game that simply weren't available to low-level players.

And then, ironically, when you leveled up, nothing really changed, because the missions got harder.

When I finally got to level 50, I kept playing for a while, and so did my peers in the game, but we all slowly drifted away over the course of a few months once we'd gotten to the highest level.

I think there is a habitual aspect to it that is harmful, characterized by pizza delivery missions that you need to do in order to get experience. MMORPGs without pizza delivery probably wouldn't stimulate as many hours of game playing, and probably wouldn't make as much money for the company selling them. Making an MMORPG that remains engaging over time without the obnoxious leveling-up process would require a lot more creativity and development time, and thus cost.

The bottom line for me is that I don't think you can really generalize about this. I think the things that cause the seeming addictive behavior are actually driven by economics, and aren't inherent to the game itself. It's entirely possible to have an MMORPG that would not stimulate seemingly addictive behavior. It would just cost a lot to develop, or not make much money per user.

I've been playing World of Warcraft for years, and I see a pattern in my friends (and guildies) who play. First, when they just start out, they spend lots and lots of time in the game. This might be seen as "addiction" -- they will lose sleep, try to level quickly, read lots about the game. They are enthusiastic. And then, at some point, it no longer has a hold on them. They've reached max level. They mastered their character's class. At this point, they either move on to other things in their lives, or stick around (if the friendships they gained are strong enough to make the game rewarding). But their behavior could no longer be categorized as addictive.

Do crack addicts lose interest in crack? Sure, they build up a tolerance, but this is losing interest.

I think addiction is the wrong construction here.

It's very simple, you don't really need a survey study to tell you the answer. Diablo II (and I'm sure WOW, others) uses a variable ratio reward pattern, with rewards of variable sizes. To make an analogy, think of a t-shirt manufacturing plant that awards seamstresses random-sized rewards after making some random-number of shirts. This type of schedule, due to its highly addictive and effective nature, is illegal in many industries. It's not surprising that the same sort of reinforcement schedule would cause addiction in game players.

'but i'm biased. i don't think SOCIAL games are anymore "addictive" than any other SOCIAL escapist activity people choose.'

I'm someone who's generally easily addicted to 'shinies' because of the social interaction, and while as I know I'm not the norm among addicts, I really doubt the games would be even half as addictive if they didn't both provide social interaction and what Greg in #19 mentions. IIRC studies have shown that the random reward/punishment method is why there's superstition in the world, as well as the learning pattern that's hardest to unlearn.

Is anybody else bothered by the graphs in this article? The lines connecting the data points that go across the "spectrum" from arcade to MMORPG are ridiculous. They imply that some sort of continuum of video games exist, when obviously these are just loose, convenient categorizations. A much better way to present the data would be a series of bar graphs.

The charts could just as easily be showing the level of complexity of each game type. People want to achieve certain goals when engaging in any game, get to the next level, acquire that jewel, build that house, meet that contact. Different game types have different timescales for goal acqusitition, often due to the complexity of their design, but also due to factors such as the MMORPG's realtime setting. As noted by others, without controlling for issues such as these there's very little we can learn from this work.

By Richard Osborne (not verified) on 01 Jul 2008 #permalink

As far as I'm concerned, this study shows that Dark Age of Camelot is more appealing, and can take up more time than the other games.
Nothing in this data supports the claim that MMORPGs are addictive.

By JohnLocke (not verified) on 03 Jul 2008 #permalink

First, I don't get the separation between console/computer. IMO what makes MMOs addictive is the social experience. Maybe the different resulst in console and computer were more due to the game than anything else. The game being played counts a lot.

And here's the thing that bothers me: so people spend time with their MMORPGs, but if they were not playing it, would they be doing something else? Would this something else also have an effect on the person's life?

A google search for "addicted to WOW" or "world of warcraft support groups" seems to generate enough substantial hits that it seems like addition to MMORPGS (like WOW) is not uncommon. Apparently there's a "WoW Widows" support group (!?)

Oh of course MMORPG's are more addictive. Thats like making a study that asks "Are computer games more addictive than Tic Tack Toe?" MMORPG's have much more content that regular console and arcade games, so its only logical that a person would spend much more time focused on it.
As for MMORPG's being addictive, anything so complex is bound to take up a lot of time. Take any sport for example. I've seen people destory their lives, loosing sleep and missing school work among other thing, over sports like football or baseball. But do we disencourage these athletes? No! We give them big flashy jobs and lots of money.
All this article is, is nothing but Anti-gaming propaganda. Furthermore, the obvious use of the wrong type of graph to trick less intelligent people ("Oh no, the trend is obviously going up, we have to stop this now!") is more than enough to make me disregard this articles credibility.
I really think people are blowing this whole issue out of proportion, and this article really doesn't add any value what so ever.

I agree with Alex, who commented above.

It's time more folks admitted that all this interest into the negative effects of video games is a demonstration of an ugly bias.

Where are the studies into TV addiction? Where are the articles discussing the correlation between competitive sports and violence, sexism and poor academic performance?

I'll confess that I spent much of my spare time as a teen playing an early text based MMO. I loved the intense strategic thinking that the game required, and the other players - a brilliant group of academics and professionals from around the world did so much to further my education and keep me sane in the small, sleepy town where I grew up. I owe much of my success today to those early days gaming, and I hope that my children will make me a proud "gamer mom". ;)

Right on Alex!
At last someone is talking sense.

The misuse of data collected in such 'studies' is a pet hate of mine. There is no trend. It's about categories. Some categories will score stronger than others for various reasons. End of.

By RJ Howard (not verified) on 18 Jul 2008 #permalink