I do not subscribe to the belief that video games are inherently bad, addictive, and so on. I believe that like any other tool, they have the potential to be used well or poorly. However, because of the ways in which they’re enjoyable, they tend to tempt addictive personalities–much in the way that some folks get addicted to playing solitaire at work, drinking alcohol, web-surfing, or whatever. It doesn’t make solitaire, alcohol, or web-surfing “evil”, but if you have a problem with addictive behavior you should be careful around things you find addictive. It isn’t the fault of a video game if someone plays it to excess and ignores the important things in their life–it means that person has an addiction problem and needs to deal with it.
Let’s take World of Warcraft as an example simply because it’s my MMORPG of choice. In order to make gameplay enjoyable for long periods of time the game employs a number of methods. It includes a wide variety and large amount of content to explore. It provides activities that can take up large blocks of time at once (raiding, some forms of PvP, chain quests) so that people don’t get restless and bored doing repetitive tasks. For those who find faster, smaller rewards better, however, there are plenty of more repetitive tasks to accomplish. The game provides a vast array of rewards for actions in the form of nifty items and abilities, among many other things. Perhaps the way in which it most appeals to people with addictive personalities, in my opinion, is the game’s ability to deliver frequent new rewards on a somewhat unreliable (intermittent) schedule. This is what makes gameplay so enjoyable, but it’s also extremely appealing to those with addictive personalities. It’s even harder to resist if you find your “real” life to be less than rewarding–for folks who feel a great need to escape their real lives in the first place, having a realm where they feel constantly rewarded for their efforts is extremely seductive.
I don’t think this is a problem with the way in which games are designed. The companies building these games must, after all, design them to be enjoyable. The problem isn’t that they’ve succeeded so well–it’s that there are too many people who either have addictive personalities or need the escape the game affords, and who don’t have the ability to recognize or change this behavior. This is the part of things that needs to change.
I’ve certainly known people who play “too much”. I’m sure some of them would argue with me that they aren’t addicted. In order for something to be classified as an addiction by the mental health profession, it needs to interfere with someone’s ability to function normally in their relationships, work, or day-to-day life. So, what are some of the behaviors I’ve seen that I’d consider indicative of an addiction to video games?
- Work: Obviously, when someone quits their job so they can play more video games, there’s a problem. I’m happy to say I haven’t personally known anyone who did this, but it has happened. I do know people who seem to spend a ton of their at-work time playing, however. I imagine there are jobs where you can do that because you aren’t needed very often, but it’s good to every now and then take a hard look at whether you might be fooling yourself into thinking it’s more acceptable than it is (and whether it might be affecting your job performance more than you think).
- Relationships: It’s normal for a hobby to occasionally take up time you might otherwise spend with the people in your life. This is particularly the case with MMORPGs, which can combine gaming with socializing. My husband and I have good friends we like to spend time with who live more than an hour away–but they’re never more than a few minutes away in-game. Sometimes one of us might stay up a bit late to hang out with them in-game, but it’s more about having fun with friends we don’t get to see very often than it is about the game. You have a problem when it’s the game itself that repeatedly pre-empts the time you’d normally prefer to spend with people you care about, to the point where it damages your relationships with them. The tricky part here is that there are still people who don’t see video gaming as a valid hobby, so they’re unwilling to accept the idea of it taking up any of a loved one’s time the way they might, say, gardening, painting, or reading. You need to find a way to point out to such people that you have a right to your hobbies just as they have a right to theirs, while still making sure that you aren’t, in fact, shutting them out through your overuse of games.
- Day-to-day life: Occasionally fun activities delay our chores–we might put off laundry for a day to go to a baseball game, and putting it off to raid Molten Core really isn’t that different. It’s when this happens repeatedly and constantly that you need to ask yourself why the game is taking precedence over your real life. You still need to upkeep your home, eat right, get some exercise, and hopefully indulge in at least one or two other hobbies as well. If your life has narrowed to this one activity, you need to take a serious look at your priorities.
“Priorities” is the key word here. Someone who plays video games in a responsible manner still has other priorities and treats them accordingly. Someone who’s addicted puts the game above other things that should be priorities, damaging friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, and more all for another quest or a piece of epic loot. There really isn’t much difference between that and someone who puts their drinking first or their porn-surfing first.
Every now and then, if you think you might have a problem, sit down and write out two lists. On one, write out what you think your priorities are. It might be something like, “Do a good job at work; spend time with my wife; read good books; eat better; get more exercise; play Warcraft with friends; paint the inside of the house,” or something similar. Number the items on this list in their order of importance to you. If Warcraft is at the top–before the fundamentals of work, people, and life–you know you have a problem. If you’re at this point, however, you’re probably deep into denial anyway and not the kind of person who’s going to be reading this.
So if like most people you don’t put Warcraft first on your list, then make a second list. This time, look at the last week and write down everything from your first list that you actually spent time on, plus anything else that took up a significant chunk of time. This list might look more like, “Got some work done; had dinner out with my wife; went to the gym once; raided MC and ZG; watched TV; went to a movie.” Now, number these in order of the amount of time you spent on them. If Warcraft-related items come out at the top, then take a good hard look at whether you’re really living according to your priorities–and take steps to fix things if you aren’t. For some people that means quitting the game altogether because they’re incapable of playing “just a little.” For others that just means putting hard limits on how much they play–one raid a week. One night of gaming a week. Set a limit and stick to it, even if you need to get someone to help you by dragging you away from your computer.
There’s nothing wrong with playing video games, socializing online, and spending time on these things as hobbies. There’s even nothing wrong with sometimes giving them a bit of priority–it’s important to do things that are relaxing and fun and that connect us with others. You just need to make sure that your other priorities get an appropriate amount of attention as well.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the people who become addicted to games as an escape because their lives are just that miserable that they’d rather live in a more rewarding game world. There’s a lot of drivel I could spout about the many other ways that exist to escape unpleasant circumstances, most of which are more productive than solely playing video games, but ultimately, each person’s circumstances are unique, and each person has to find their way out themselves.