Gaming: How Much is Too Much?

A recent critical article about addiction to MMORPGs got me to thinking. Well, honestly it first ticked me off considerably. Anything that aims some nouveau criticism at RPGs by any stripe always raises my ire. This is the kind of stuff we dealt with in the 80's with D&D. It's just that the Satanic abuse craze has been replaced with the codependent/ADHD personality, I'm causing my kid to be screwed up stage. This psychological mumbo-jumbo is the same quackery that told us violence in cartoons made kids more violent. Uh, wrong! The problem has always been that it takes decent research about a decade to address the half baked sensational claims thrown around.

"My Son is Addicted to MMOs!" Makes a much better headline than No direct correlation exists between increase in addictive behaviors and MMOs. The fact is you can be addicted to anything. Chocolate, Sex, TV News, Double Ply Toilet Paper, Pornography, Texting, Church Choir, Internet Surfing, Booger Picking, Zit Popping, Monday Night Football, Cow Tipping, Hair Pulling as well as Video Games. Let's face it humans are an addictive species. Addiction is a complex human trait and not easily pigeon-holed. But true addiction is rare. Just look at all the people who drink alcohol and those that are actually alcoholics. Approximately 1.2% of America is known to be alcoholic while 54% of America self report drinking on a monthly basis. Sure, some factors are more addictive than others, and a few are highly addictive. Just as some people are biologically more prone to develop addiction than others. But condemning a substance/activity on the grounds of addiction is a highly charged accusation.

The Addiction Center lists the five most addictive substances known as:

  1. Heroin
  2. Alcohol
  3. Cocaine
  4. Barbituates
  5. Nicotine
We are all in agreement that there are substances that are harmful, such as those listed above, that rarely have sufficient reasons to even use, with the possible exception of alcohol. That being said, food itself, which we are evolutionarily geared to seek out, can provide a reward/satisfaction response akin to drugs, especially those which provide high carbohydrates. This makes even cookies, candy, soda, and breads potentially addictive. Let alone substances like caffeine, which have stimulant properties which also cause an addiction response in us biologically. 

However, sometimes the very act of eating itself, and not necessarily the food being eaten, can be addictive. This is called compulsive eating, and falls into what are commonly called behavioral addictions. Behavioral addictions are non-drug activities or behaviors that we engage in that can be addictive. These kinds of behaviors are sometimes called natural rewards. Doesn't sound nearly as ominous when framed in this way, does it? However, another key component of behavioral addiction is that we engage in these activities and behaviors regardless of the consequences to our well being socially, psychologically or financially. In other words, the definition of addiction is doing something compulsively or obsessively without regards to other aspects of our life.

This is the real stop light we should heed. How much is too much? Well, if these behaviors are having a negative impact on some critical factor in our life, our family, our marriage, our schoolwork, our job, or our financial stability, just to name a few then we have become addicted and it is something we need to seek control over.

But can we say that something like MMO's or video games, or the internet is "more" addicitve than other substances or as addictive as other substances. Well, there is a way to make these comparisons, but it is helpful to understand why things become addictive in the first place. Addiction is generally a reward response involving the neurochemicals in the body, like dopamine, that become involved in the learning-motivation pathways. Basically put, very basically in fact, our brain realizes some pleasure and learns that that thing is good because it gives us pleasure and we want and therefore seek out more pleasure through the thing that provided the pleasure in the first place. We can easily see these sorts of pathways building in response to drugs, and behaviors like sex, food and exercise. However, are we dealing with the same thing in video games?

To a degree, yes. But the learned behavior for reward seeking is complex as is the stimulation response that occurs to things like interaction with the internet and video games. I will admit however, especially with online games, there is a ratio of difficulty to reward, frequency of reward and the programming of games to get people playing and keep them playing. Such a calculus also figures into in game purchases required to continue the stimulus response behavior. There are also factors like visual stimulation, and rate of change to visual/cognitive content that is carefully paced to retain attention. And the bottom line is that there are a lot of powerfully rich companies involved in making sure they get and keep our attention and reward us just enough, but not too much, to keep us playing and interested. In this way yes, video-games and their interactive cousins MMOs can be engineered even to provide a potentially addictive response in some people, and develop these responses in those not so strongly inclined.

However, like many addictions, some are predisposed to display addictive behavior regardless of the mode of addiction. Others are much less inclined. No matter how much I've really wanted to "get into" video games, for example, I just get tired of them after about 15 minutes or so. I'll come back to them, but they just don't quite do it enough for me to become addicted. Others, I'm sure, are very different. I also have drunk alcohol in the past, but it never really turned my crank. I rarely have the desire to drink either and in fact am a non-drinker now. However, I also used to smoke about 25 or more years ago. I quit when I was about 23. However ... I still dream about cigarettes, I still crave cigarettes occasionally, and love the smell of cigarette smoke. And I don't consider myself particularly prone to addiction.

So, addiction it is not a simple issue. It is very real, and something to be aware of in our lives. Anything can become addictive. Whether one thing is more addictive than other, depends on a number of factors and again is a complex issue. I am not however, one who believes we should jettison all things that could become addictive, or even be afraid of them. For instance, if we are going to get down on MMOs or video games for being potentially addictive, let's get down on Sex and chocolate as well. And we've all been down that road :-) The fact is, if anything is interfering with your life negatively, evaluate yourself and that thing. Make choices and strive for balance.

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