Panel on Game Addiction

At the Austin chapter’s January ’03 meeting, Peter Freese moderated a panel of speakers discussing the issues surrounding the concept of game addiction. Much of the 1.5 hour discussion covered massively multiplayer online games, but single player and off line games were discussed as well. The panelists were Damion Schubert, of Wolfpack Studios, Carly Staehlin, of NCsoft Austin, Mike McShaffry of Glass Eye, and Dr. Vagdevi Meunier, Staff Psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin.

Discussion Points

What is addiction?

In lay terms, to understand addiction, it is useful to make this comparison: Passion versus Addiction.

Passion draws you to something; it increases the value of activities in your life; it increases your energy, your motivation, your creativity. You feel expanded, revitalized, and passionate. Addiction takes away from your life; it reduces your motivation to do things outside of the one activity. The hallmark of an addiction is that it takes away from your life. It makes you feel compulsively involved. You feel a compulsive desire to move towards that thing, where compulsion is being driven by some external thing rather than being driven by something internal; by your own internal creativity.

In strict technical or medical terms, scientists differentiate between:

1. Excessive use of something;
2. Dependence on something, behavior dependence, when you continue to do something despite external factors that tell you it’s wrong. “My wife keeps yelling at me to stop and I know it is bad but I don’t stop.” “My grades keep falling but I keep doing it.” “I’ve missed work 3 times this week but I’ve done it.”
3. Addiction to something, which is supposed to be physiological; cocaine is addictive because over time my body begins to crave cocaine whether or not mentally or psychologically I actually want the cocaine. Things labeled as addictive should have the physiological component. The opinion is that this is where the whole idea of computers being addictive becomes problematic.

Do the behaviors of game playing fit the description of addiction?

Overall, the panelists had consensus at least on the idea that people can become addicted to games, or that aspects of games can be addicting. However, the panelists didn’t find a consensus on whether it is a fact, and even if it does exist, whether it is really that bad. For instance, Damion suggests that all hobbies are addictive and one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a game designer is that their game is “addictive”. But, unlike the passive entertainment of something like television, at least gaming offers users the ability to be very active in taking part in the entertainment, making decisions, and getting feedback from the system and that can be rewarding.

Mike agreed that games are addictive and cited a particular study done in 1999 that showed PET scans of people playing a gambling game. The scans showed increased levels of dopamine in the brains of the players, and based on earlier correlations made between increased dopamine and other forms of addiction, the study suggests that game playing is also addictive.

Dr. Meunier informs us that these issues aren’t well known yet, even in the scientific community, and that dopamine production occurs during many types of repetitive activity, particularly repetitive activity that becomes increasingly more difficult or complex. She told us that she has issues with these kinds of studies because the control of what is actually causing the increase can’t be separated from the vehicle; that we don’t know for sure that the computer itself had anything to do with the dopamine increase. The doctor also amused us with the following, “If you had an autistic child banging their head against the wall over and over again, you might find increased dopamine. Does that mean that the person is addicted to banging their heads against the wall?”

Carly mentioned that using the term “addiction” when it comes to a game or game development should be used carefully. Calling something addictive that is simply really fun for a lot of people, or has barriers to exit, or generates an investment in the world for the user can be misleading and inaccurate. We should reserve that term for when we really mean addictive and use other terms when we describe development or design desires. Further, pretty much anything in the world can become addictive. And when developing a massively multiplayer online role playing game, which tends to mean creating a pretty full virtual world, means that we are essentially recreating a number of different types of activities, each of which could be potentially addictive for someone. She would have us consider the behaviors separately from the game itself and to deal with them separately.

Considering “sunk cost” or “cost benefit” when it comes to games and addiction.

Mike introduced the concept of “sunk cost” to the panel and audience. He told us that there’s a factor called the “sunk cost” fallacy, of which there’s a really great definition of on the Gambler’s Anonymous site, which states that when a player who is addicted to gambling loses a lot of money, they believe that it is more important for them to continue playing because of all the investment that they’ve already made. With MMOGs, many people believe that every hour that they spend in these games helps to build their sense of worth and with everything that matters to them within that game. And by playing that extra hour, they are less likely to stop playing because of the sunk cost. Mike then asked Dr. Meunier to speak to the issue.

She agrees on some level, but brings up a word of caution: “We’ve started to say that MMOGs that have this quality or that quality are likely to be addictive and other types are not. I know people – I work at the University of Texas, I work with students, I also have a private practice and one of my specialties is Internet addiction, so guess who I see a lot of? One of the things I’ve found is that anything can be addictive and I know people who’ve sat in front of the computer and become addicted to Tetris! What you are calling “sunk cost” I call “cost benefit” and a person goes through sort of a cost benefit analysis, and this is true of any kind of addiction. Initially the benefit can be great because you feel like you’ve discovered something that allows you to feel great about yourself. With online gaming, one additional factor might be you are not only sitting privately and feeling good about yourself, but you might also have a hundred people saying, “Dude! You are the best!” And how many places in our lives do we hear that? And so the benefit is huge and the cost may be low in the beginning. But the two begin to meet and the point at which they meet is often where a lot of people who are addicted begin to become self-aware that they are addicted. In terms of what you were talking about, Mike, you look at the investment that goes into playing a game like EverQuest, it does in fact take a lot of time to learn it; it takes a lot of time to get up to a certain place; to be of a certain social class, if you will, in the game. So if you were to get away from it, you would have to start back at scratch. That is something that I would call the “cost benefit analysis” that the person would do. The “sunk cost” is just another term for a similar behavior. I really agree with that.”

Has the way that games are designed changed at all over the last decade as a result of developers understanding play patterns/habits, etc?

Damion tells us that online games are alternate realities and are “alternate realities that are designed to make people feel powerful and successful and witty and fun.” He recounted a story from when he worked on Meridian 59 about a player who, unable to walk in real life, had a full, complete, and unhindered life in the game and got a great deal of satisfaction from that. This opportunity in online games, along with a game mechanic of older online games that encouraged people to play hours upon hours to gain levels and loot helped to create players that just simply spend too much time online. He says that this problem of spending too many hours in the game isn’t just a problem for the gamer, but also for the company. Several issues compound this. Players who spend too much time online tend to be quite adversarial with the developers, expecting more and more content all the time and becoming more and more agitated with the developers. This relationship between developer and audience isn’t great when it is taxed this way. The company also is spending significant money on bandwidth usage of players who have this pattern. That isn’t the greatest either. But, as time goes on, developers are beginning to look at both the negatives for the company as well as for the players under these old school design practices and are starting to think about how to solve these problems while still creating fun, compelling gameplay.

Is there a difference between the ways people get hooked in an online game versus an offline game?

On one hand, people get hooked into online games very differently than how they get hooked in offline games – the hook in online games is the other people. Damion suggests that the reason that people play online games so much is that the person who in real life is shy and quiet and nerdy can suddenly seem witty and charming if he can type fast enough. This is a very attractive dream to a lot of people. That is much more attractive than the reality that they have to deal when they go to school and get beat up and get their lunch money taken away.

Dr. Meunier agrees that some people will get addicted to anything and just happen to fall into games. And that it may be true that some people don’t want to play 10,000 hours because they get too exhausted. But, she tells us that psychologically, something happens to what appear to be perfectly normal people when they get into certain gaming environments. As a mental health professional, she’s asking the question, “What is this tapping into?” She speculates that we all have aspects of ourselves that feel like gaps; that we have an actual self that we live in our face to face world where we’re sort of doing okay, maybe not with the best job or best spouse or girl or boyfriend, etc. And this is the actual self-image. But in addition to that, most of us carry around in ourselves a kind of ideal self-image or potential self-image. Some of the games that seem to be addicting for otherwise perfectly healthy people tap into the potential self-image and is helping them to actualize it. That’s what is problematic about an online environment because one can literally live out their ideal self.

She tells us a story, “The first person I met in an online community, in real life, he was coming off the bus, and he couldn’t look me in the eye. And he couldn’t think of one thing to say to me. So we sat at this local cafeteria for an hour staring at each other and trying to think how we were we ever going to finish this date, so to speak. We both raced out of there to go back to our dorm rooms and we were chatting away with each other in 5 minutes and we have a million things to say because online he could tap into his ideal self.”

What is really the harm in game addiction? Should we even worry? What are the costs? Are there any benefits?

Damion reminds us that there are benefits to gaming, including exercising one’s critical thinking, reflexes, etc and that too much of anything can be harmful. The bottom line is that you have to be responsible for yourself and your own actions.

The panel then turned to discussing the legislation issues surrounding the topic, citing recent legislation in the House of Representatives in the US that intends to make betting online, in the US, illegal. Mike says that the real harm is that if the political winds of change begin to believe that this particular activity is harming families, harming communities, there will be people in congress who will legislate all games out of existence. That’s the real harm for Mike. Damion agrees and asks more game developers to speak out and stand up against some of the accusations leveled against us.

But the issue of legislation isn’t only in the US and game developers who make games for the global market need to be sensitive to the global reaction to the idea of game addiction or the societal impact of gaming, as Carly reminds us. The impact of gaming in a country like South Korea, with a highly dense population in one major city, of which a huge number actively play online games, is more intense and more focused than in the US and as a result, has made the top issues list of government committees much more quickly. Companies are adopting new features and systems that help players and parents monitor themselves in order to satisfy ratings boards that have huge influence in the structure there.

The panel also briefly mentioned that there was a law passed in Greece recently that made playing games online illegal, with the intention to prevent online gambling. Interestingly enough, the law wasn’t written to exclude non-gambling types of gaming – so all gaming became illegal.

Aside from the legislative and governmental ramifications, Dr. Meunier describes the costs of game addiction and why we should worry about it through a fun anecdote and shares two more psychology terms to help understand the issues behind online addictions, “Narcissistic Self-Stimulation” and “Feelings Management Technology.” She says, “My 3 year old daughter can spend as much as 3 hours a day kissing herself in the mirror. We think this is cute and it is cute. But, it is almost analogous to a 35 year old sitting in front of the computer playing Acrophobia. Acrophobia is a game of creating acronyms with 4 other people. Everyone just praises you and tells you how fantastic you are all day long for the acronyms you can create. How different is that than kissing yourself in the mirror? We call this “Narcissistic Self-Stimulation”. For a child, it is developmentally appropriate. But for an adult, psychologically speaking, there is a problem here. Getting into a pattern of this behavior can cause a person to become less likely to deal with their problems with other people, less likely to want to tackle new challenges in other parts of their lives because it will be easier always to go online to manage feelings. And that is one of the hallmarks of addiction. I call it FMT, which means it is a “Feelings Management Technology.”

“Managing feelings through strategies that increase dissociation is a problem. Dissociation between your actual self and your ideal self is a problem. Dissociation with real world events by not dealing with them, but by trying to deal with them online, such as having trouble with your boss at work, not dealing with your boss at work but choosing to complain about him while you are online with others… this is not a healthy strategy when it becomes the exclusive strategy. We must consider what the costs are of developing a global community that is high on self-stimulation and what we are promoting for adults as coping strategies.”

What kinds of things could be done by developers of online games or other types to help with this issue?

The panel had varying degrees of agreement about these various suggestions, but everyone could consider at least one of them as being valid and helpful in dealing with the topic of game addiction.

1. Speaking out against accusations.
2. Include monitoring features into games to help players and parents watch their time or repetitive behaviors.
3. Public Service Announcement Broadcasts in the game world that remind players to take responsibility for certain needs like eating and taking care of pets.
4. Providing monitoring features that track the patterns of addictive behavior.
5. Collecting “emergency contact” information used to alert a close friend or family member of a user who might be exhibiting standard patterns of addictive behavior.
6. Utilizing reward mechanisms that compel and engage the user but are not as addictive.
7. Provide compelling, intense, exciting experiences that require minimal time investment and less frequent, less consistent return visits.

Are there people who are at more risk than others to game addictions?

In general, the panel could agree that certain types of activities or games might be more or less addictive to certain types of people. Research from a decade or more ago tended to find that males became addicted to the thrill, competition, and one-up-manship of shoot-em-up style action oriented games. Women, on the other hand, were found to become addicted to more role playing games, or social games with some chat component – becoming addicted to the relational component of being online. Recent studies are showing that women are just as easily becoming addicted to the thrill, competition based games and more men are discovering that online relationships are less difficult to manage than real life relationships and may therefore be more prone to become addicted to them.

Damion suggested that we all read a book called Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Make Believe Video Game Violence by Gerard Jones. The author’s hypothesis is that essentially children need to play where they feel like they can take charge, take control of stuff, and imagine themselves taking control over a world that they have no control over. Parents can benefit by observing what their child plays, wants to be, and wants to act out against.

Carly mentions a National Geographic Television series called Science Times aired a recent episode regarding addiction. The show proposes that people with a lower level of a basic chemical in the brain, dopamine, are more numb to the simple pleasures of the world. When these people interact with something like drugs the chemical rush is so extreme that these people are experiencing joyful feelings for the first time. These people may be the most likely to become addicts of any type. Particularly because coming off one of these highs is so bad for the person that they often will do whatever they can to not feel the down again.

Even with this, Dr. Meunier wants to turn our focus again to asking the question what we are teaching. Are we teaching our children that life should be going from one big rush to another? Are we teaching our society that being bored is bad and should be avoided at all costs? Sometimes life is just boring!

Carly asks Dr. Meunier the following question, “If it is proven that a particular behavior is, in fact, addictive, is that behavior automatically a negative for everyone? If we go with the theory that there is communication without inhibition that allows us to actualize an ideal self-image, can it be a positive that people can learn social skills, and attempt and experiment in a safer way online in order to learn how to do these things better off-line? Is there a therapeutic benefit to the behavior?

Dr. Meunier believes so. She tells us that managing an online addiction is different than managing a cocaine addiction and much more like managing a food addiction. You wouldn’t ask a user to quit a computer cold turkey. With food, they are finding that addicts tend to be using food to control some part of their lives. When the addict feels out of control in other areas of their lives, they begin to control their food intake more, either by taking in more of it, less of it, etc. Likewise, with online or computer addiction, therapists attempt to understand the underlying cause of the addiction and what is going on with the person. Is it a control issue? Is it a lack of social skills or good relationship management skills? The focus with online or game addiction is to help the individual live a balanced and varied life. We attempt to arm people with an array of coping strategies to help them to work out the things they need to solve in their lives. I can deal with face to face challenges and can have online as a component of my community or social life. Note when you are using online as one component of several coping strategies, rather than using it exclusively.

Mike informs us that only about 1% of people who gamble in casinos can be called “addicted.” We have to deal with all this government interference to prevent that behavior for a very small group of people. But, we do it because the social cost of even that very small number of people is very high. The suicide rate, for instance, is very high among addicted gamblers.

Dr. Meunier suggests that for online gamers, roughly 10% are probably addicted. The 10% figure is pretty average for a number of addictions.

What responsibility do game developers have as technology approaches that allow virtual environments to exist that are more real than reality?

Peter paraphrases Dennis Miller for us with this, “When pubescent boys can put on a VR helmet and have sex with Claudia Schiffer online, it’s going to make crack cocaine look like candy cigarettes.”

Mike thinks it will be illegal and Damion thinks it will be our responsibility as developers to ensure it does not become illegal. Dr. Meunier believes that people need to have a basis of comparison for the virtual event versus the real event in order to be healthy people.

Question & Answer Period

Peter turned the microphones to the audience to hear a few questions from the attendees.

1. Is addictiveness an inherent feature of great playability?

Carly answered by describing the fact that games need to have reward patterns that encourage players to go on because that is a standard element of fun. This is basic positive reinforcement for a positive act and is a natural and good thing. In fact, this methodology is used for lots of purposes, including educational development. So it can’t be all bad.

2. What about professional game players and people who are selling things online? How do you distinguish between a real identity and virtual identity in terms of addiction? The fact that people can sell this stuff means someone is willing to pay a lot of money for what is being sold. How does that factor in?

Carly jumped in again with the following, “Remember the difference between passion and addiction. A passion improves your life and an addiction takes away from your life. Someone who is doing professional game playing, who doesn’t have another job, and who is improving their quality of life through the job of professional game playing isn’t going to qualify as an addiction, in my opinion. There are people who probably profess that they play because they hope to eventually get into games and so forth, but are actually addicted, but you would probably discover that their day to day behavior is markedly different than that of someone who really is passionate and not addicted. People who are paying someone else for online content earned by someone else may be, in fact, less addicted. The proof of that could be that they aren’t willing to spend that amount of time and energy on playing the game, but want to have a full experience in it. There is, without a doubt, some kind of buying addiction, but can you assume it is the case for anyone buying “virtual assets”? Probably not.”

Mike says that if they are cashing their paycheck and buying stuff online instead of food, then that is a problem.

3. How involved should we be in legislation about games, or how can we pre-empt legislation?

Damion tells us about a couple of interesting tidbits related to what we can do and how we can do it. As a little preamble, he tells us about Henry Jenkins, author of “Coming up next: Ambushed on Donahue!” which was about Mr. Jenkins going on Donahue and getting slammed publicly. Damion feels that just as the movie industry was considered scary and that it foretold the doom of society by a lot of people in the 40’s, that the game industry will now feel the same types of pressures because we’re the new kids on the block. Damion tells us that much of the defense of the games industry is being lead by the ESA and by Doug Lowenstein, specifically. Damion’s advice is that we just get involved by helping Doug get in front of the public and press. Doug doesn’t want the average game developer standing up to defend games, because many of us aren’t public speakers or persuasive debaters and he doesn’t want us to go off half-cocked on Donahue and get slammed. But we can put our effort into supporting him and his representation of us.

4. Is there any kind of gamer addiction 12 step program?

Yes there is. Do a Google search and you will find plenty of information. Dr. Meunier warns us, however, to be cautious. As with anything you find on the Internet, you should be wary of the quality and usefulness of what you are getting.

5. Why is it beneficial for game companies to make game players play for as many hours as possible? Why is it beneficial to make the game addictive?

Other forms of entertainment media do the same thing. Serialized television is designed specifically to keep you coming back week after week. The film industry understands the value of formula and has gone through decades of iteration to refine it. And when you look at the success of film – those films that are more formulaic tend to be bigger grossers at the box office and those that are more artsy tend to do less business. Game companies are now learning to develop games that keep you coming back, but are less expensive to maintain and operate and are healthier for the users.

The fact is that game companies are established in order to be profit making enterprises. One way to make profit is to look around at what people do and what people like to do. If there isn’t a product, or a plethora of products that already fill a role for something they see, then they make a product for it and sell it to folks. Over the last couple of years and over the next couple, we’ll begin hitting a level of maturity in game development to understand that yes, here is something that people like and want, and we can create a product that stimulates what people like and want – but that the product isn’t necessarily driving the most addictive behaviors. Part of this process is helping the business minds in the game companies understand the value of that and you could say that is where we are at this particular moment.

Closing

Towards the end of the Q&A period, the conversation began to focus on violence in video games and the impact of that on society, war, global issues, etc. Peter polled the audience about having a future discussion on this specific and very important issue. The audience reacted positively to the concept and Peter promised to have something on the topic in the near future. Peter then thanked the panelists and the attendees and sent us on our way.

Related Resources/Links

* Discuss this article in the Violence & Social Issues forum
* IGDA: Violence & Social Issues Committee
* Wired: The Quest to End Game Addiction
* ParentReport: Team Sports and Competition
* Role-Playing and Multi-player Computer Game Addiction
* Computer Addiction
* MotherNature: Tips to Tame the Kid Who’s Hooked
* Death of a game addict
* ZDNet: Games junkies–hooked on ‘heroinware’?
* Jive: But in the end, they’re still nothing more than video games
* Video Game Addiction: Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?
* CBC News: Marketplace on EverQuest
* Ariadne: Understanding MMORPG Addiction

Credits

Thanks to the IGDA’s Austin chapter for hosting such a serious and thought provoking panel discussion. This article was made possible thanks to:

* Carly Staehlin – Transcription and Summary Report
* Rafael Brown – Videographer
* Peter Freese – Video Equipment

A brief summary and pictures from the meeting can be found at the chapter web site.

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