Friday, August 31, 2007

Experts say addiction to video games is real

Parke Dieckmeyer's addiction began his freshman year of college. To feed his habit, he found himself skipping classes and staying up all night isolated in his dorm room.

Things got so bad that during finals week, he asked his resident assistant to lock up the source of his addiction so he'd be forced to study. It wasn't alcohol or a crack pipe that had to be hidden away. It was Dieckmeyer's computer.

He was addicted to video games. “I would even have dreams of being in the game,” he said. “It invades your mind.”

Fostering obsessive behavior

Addiction to video games, particularly the online interactive variety, is a growing phenomenon that affects people of all ages and professions.

Though not officially recognized as a medical condition, game addiction has fostered a tidal wave of anecdotal evidence about people who shun families and careers to devote huge chunks of their lives to games. More academic evidence is cropping up, as well as clinical treatment programs.

Dieckmeyer, now a 25-year-old Web developer, would spend six, eight or even more hours per day playing. Starting out with first-person “shooter” games like Counter-Strike, by his senior year he'd moved on to World of Warcraft, an MMORPG — massive multi-player online role-playing game.

In these games, players create characters they control in a virtually limitless world where they team up and interact with other players. Often set against a sword-and-sorcery or science fiction backdrop, MMORPGs have no traditional ending. Players strive for months or years to make their character more powerful and vanquish mighty foes, only to see expansions of the game broaden the horizon ever further.

It's the very open-ended nature of these games that makes them so appealing and, critics say, likely to foster obsessive behavior.

“The game manufacturers, especially in WoW, have built the game to make people put in time,” said Dieckmeyer. “If you're not putting in hours and hours and hours, you're not going to enjoy the game as much as people who do put in the time.”

Dieckmeyer continued playing after graduation, even after getting a job and marrying his high-school girlfriend, Christina. At one point, he realized he was spending a quarter of his waking hours playing World of Warcraft. He tried quitting, but soon resumed.

Christina said her husband's constant gaming was a source of contention. She was annoyed that their socializing had to be scheduled around his gaming. They fought about it occasionally, and she teased him about buying one of the “Warcraft Widow” T-shirts readily available on the Web.

Then Christina found out she was having a baby.

“Once I got pregnant, I joked with him, ‘You've got nine months to play the game, and then it's time to stop.' I guess I pressured him a little bit, but he made the decision mostly on his own,” she said.

“Granted,” she added, “he waited till the very last minute until the baby was here.”

Brynn Dieckmeyer was born five months ago, a few days after her dad gave up World of Warcraft. Though he never sought treatment, Dieckmeyer looked at models of alcohol addiction and decided he had a problem.

“I quit the game because I had a child. I could see it impacting my life in a negative way. It would take away from my lifestyle and family,” he said.

The decision to stop playing can be a watershed moment in gamers' lives — evidenced by the hundreds of videos posted on YouTube by people quitting MMORPGs. Often set to hauntingly beautiful music as players delete their characters, they are digital diaries filled with lamentation for the time spent in-game, as well as boastfulness about their virtual accomplishments.

Dieckmeyer says he'll avoid MMORPGs from now on. He still plays video games but limits himself to console gaming like Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, where the games tend to be more action-oriented and have definitive conclusions.

He admits the temptation is still there, especially when he talks with friends, most of whom still play World of Warcraft. It's not unlike, he said, an alcoholic on the wagon hanging out with his drinking buddies, nursing a ginger ale while eyeing their gin-and-tonics.

Almost like alcohol addiction

Liz Woolley believes the alcohol comparison is appropriate. Active in Alcoholics Anonymous as a recovering alcoholic, she built her Web forum for gaming addicts, On-Line Gamers Anonymous, using the same basic tenants and 12-step recovery program as AA.

Woolley, of Harrisburg, Pa., squarely places the blame for game addiction on the companies that manufacture MMORPGs. Because most of these games require a monthly subscription fee — generally about $15 — on top of the purchase price, they can be hugely profitable.

“Those new games, they're virtual worlds. They were created by the gaming companies to be addictive. They have staffs of people with degrees in psychology to make them as addicting as possible,” Woolley says. “People do get hooked in, and they get their mind taken over.”

Woolley says her son, Shawn, started playing Everquest, an early breakout MMORPG, at age 20 and soon became withdrawn, sullen and resentful of any urging to quit. Within three months of buying the game, Shawn had lost his job and been evicted from his apartment.

In November 2001, Shawn fatally shot himself while sitting at his computer. Liz found him dead on Thanksgiving Day. The game was still running. “That was his little message,” Woolley says.

She said Shawn had been playing regular video games for a decade and never had a problem with them like he did with MMORPGs.

Coleen Moore, coordinator of resource development at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in Peoria, Ill., says the interactive nature of these games is a huge draw, to the point that gamers eschew real-life relationships for virtual ones. MMORPGs allow someone struggling to establish a career or interpersonal relationships to take on the role of a dwarf warrior or undead sorcerer who's revered by other players.

“That's the high that allows them to kind of create their own persona, and be the person they maybe want to be, or the fantasy that they have about what they want in their life,” Moore says.

Bob Appelman, who studies game design at Indiana University, cited a student survey done last fall of heavy Warcraft players. Rather than experiencing isolation, many reported feeling enriched by the esteem they gained from other players.

“They felt empowered, whereas in the real world they were just followers,” Appelman says.

Moore's institute began treating Internet addiction in 1996, and in recent years has seen a spike in gaming problems. The game most cited is World of Warcraft, likely due to its popularity — more than 8.5 million players worldwide.

Officials at Blizzard Entertainment, which manufactures World of Warcraft, did not respond to requests for comment. But the company has highlighted its incorporation of parental controls that allows parents to schedule when and how long children can play.

In June, the American Medical Association rejected a proposal to recognize video game addiction as a psychiatric condition on par with alcohol or drug abuse.

But President Ronald Davis called for more study of the problem, and told the Associated Press that the AMA “remains concerned about the behavioral, health and societal effects of video game and Internet overuse.”

Durwin Talon, an associate professor who teaches video game design at IUPUI, tells his students to seek a balance where people really want to play their games, but without an obsessive need to do it all the time.

“The philosophy ... is that you should have a ‘back door' for people who play your games to hit ‘Save' and have their lives back,” Talon says. “You never want them to get into a situation where they're constantly playing these games, and they don't feel like they can leave.”

source: Gannett News Service

author: Christopher Lloyd


Tom495 said...

I just wanted to say that I agree that WoW is an addiction. I have played the game since launch and I have tried to stop many times but I always end up playing it again. But thinking about it I don't mind so much because I would be doing a lot worse things with my life, like drinking or doing drugs all the time. With WoW at least I'm still interacting with real people and a lot of my friends play it so it makes it easier to talk to them which is really nice actually. Just something to think about.

Cory115 said...

I also believe WoW is an addiction. I played for about a year and a half, then decided to quit and dedicate more time to making music. I still sometimes miss playing, but will never play again.

I think this website sums it up very well. They say that you get addicted to the "feeling" that WoW gives you. It is a cyber-social life and people attain difficult goals to achieve in the game, which they like.