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Can We Talk About Video Game Addiction Without Judgement, Please?

Given that we live in a world with real and destructive addictions—drugs, alcohol, hoarding, and even sexual addiction, I have to wonder if we ought to cast games being “addicting” in a positive light. And yet we often hear this line repeated, “you HAVE to play this game, it’s so addicting, you won’t be able to stop!” I understand why game companies design systems that will keep players coming back—they want to give people a product that will provide lasting entertainment. But should we not be a little more critical about games’ “addictive” qualities? While acknowledging the value of games keeping our interest, should we not also not also be wary of systems that are designed to sink their hooks into us a little too deeply?

Several years ago, I remember reading Russ Pitts review of Sim City for Polygon. This review has stuck with me all these years later because of how glowingly he spoke about the game’s addictive qualities and because I still see people describe games this way today:

From the pleasing sounds of every various button press, to the satisfying way various parts of your city connect, then come to life (then die and come back from the dead), every element of this game has been perfectly and patiently engineered to engender an endorphin rush of accomplishment. . . . In a nutshell, it is the heart and mind of the SimCity games of days gone by, but more beautiful, ready to seduce away your hours until you are a rotted husk of the person you used to be. If it charged by the hour, you’d sell a kidney. I wish I was joking.

I don’t mean to single out Pitts, I’ve been a game critic for almost 10 years now and I am confident I have read dozens of similarly worded reviews. And in further defense of Pitts, it’s important to note that he wrote this 5 years ago when there was very little concrete research about “videogame addiction.” Even today, in the wake of the World Health Organization adding “gaming disorder” to the 11th International Classification of Diseases, there still isn’t much clear cut science on the topic.

We who love video games should love ourselves and our neighbors enough to help one another learn to maintain a healthy relationship with them.

How we talk about games matters

Most often when people talk about being addicted to a game they really just mean they like it a lot. Whenever I have spent too much time playing a game, I have blamed myself—I thought I was too invested or too lacking in self control. However, that isn’t the way Pitts talks about Sim City. He says every element of the game “has been perfectly and patiently engineered to engender an endorphin rush of accomplishment” and to “seduce away your hours until you are a rotted husk of the person you used to be.” Pitts, a thoughtful game critic, wasn’t simply referring to how compelling the game was:

As for how satisfying the experience is as a whole, take this example: I missed a meeting. And it was my meeting. During the course of one play session, I literally became so absorbed in the experience that I lost all track of time and played through an entire afternoon, oblivious to the fact that a meeting I had scheduled approached and then passed. When I returned to my work station many, many hours later, I greeted my overflowing email inbox and the raft of polite (but concerned) inquiries as to my whereabouts with a serene, self-possessed calm. As if, whatever troubles the world might throw at me would be of little concern next to the travails I had experienced in West Pittssex.

Then, after a brief, but furiously energized bout of desk work, I went back to SimCity and did it all over again.

I would hope that we would all agree that missing a real life meeting is not a “good” thing. I am not saying that Sim City is to blame, but I do think the way we talk about games needs to change with regard to “addiction.” As JP Lebreton pointed out in a tweet, if a friend were to say “hey you really need to try this vodka, it is SO addicting,” we would be concerned for our friend and maybe even a little reticent to try that particular brand of vodka.

Perhaps it’s time to come up with other words to describe what makes games like Sim City so interesting that we want to keep coming back to them, but more importantly we should consider whether we are willing to explore the ethics of systems designed to usurp our time. When game critics hear horror stories about people dying at internet cafes after playing inordinate amounts of League of Legends or read headlines like “I Almost Lost My Son to Fortnite”, we talk about setting personal limits, the necessity of self control, and importance of involved parenting. But we rarely talk about the design of the games themselves. Perhaps this is because we want to protect games from government regulation and want game developers to be free to design how they see fit. I think we, as critics, are sometimes too protective of our medium, too afraid that people who “don’t understand” games are going to ruin them for all of us. This fear is keeping us from doing our jobs. As it stands, we are encouraging developers to keep giving us games that take more from us than they give.

At the very least, talking so glowingly about a game violently getting its hooks into us can’t be entirely healthy. When Pitts wrote this review, he was getting paid to play and write about video games, so he could tell the people who waited for him to show up at that meeting that he was busy “working.” But for the vast majority of people, missing a meeting could mean missing out on a promotion, missing an important deadline, or worse.

I realize I am waffling a bit on this subject. This is because I don’t have all the answers and because I realize that there is a fine line between compelling and exploitatively addicting.

What qualifies as addiction?

I realize that something being compelling doesn’t make it de facto addictive. I also don’t think that Pitts was actually addicted to Sim City, at least not an any clinical sense. It’s important to note that what we often refer to as “video game addiction” would actually more accurately be described as overuse or over-indulgence—something for which we don’t really have clinical categories or much research to cite. According to Dr. Rachel Kowert, author of A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, to be classified as addicted one would need to meet all the criteria of addiction—she cites 6 criteria: salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse—for a sustained period of three months. I suppose my point, and I know Kowert and most psychologists would agree, is that we probably shouldn’t wait until we or our those close to us meet all the criteria to speak up. We who love video games should love ourselves and our neighbors enough to help one another learn to maintain a healthy relationship with them.

All it took in this instance was this one conversation, but I wonder how many gamers out there don’t have anyone to talk to about these things.

Even if the percentage of those actually addicted is quite small (and survey of the current research would indicate that it is, probably somewhere around 1% or less of the entire gaming population), the sad reality is that some people do find themselves addicted. And those who find who do will find very little professional help that isn’t inordinately expensive. We need to learn how to have conversations with ourselves and with our loved ones that might help them and ourselves avoid heading down that path. While very few people are actually addicted, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a much larger percentage of the population that maintains some degree of an unhealthy relationship with video games. I’ve experienced this firsthand.

Let’s talk about overuse

I once wrote about how Minecraft sunk its hooks into me in an unhealthy way—I didn’t get enough sleep, was late to work a few times, and was inattentive to the needs of my wife. I blame myself more than I blame Minecraft, but I have heard enough similar stories about people who got really into Minecraft that I do its worth considering if there might be something about that game’s design and my engagement patterns that that made it fertile ground for overuse.

Minecraft might not be the best example because I know many people play it responsibly and socially, but we know that many games today are built upon reward loops that keep gamers coming back again and again at regular intervals. We know that Fortnite utilizes a complex system to keep players earning v-bucks or conversely spending actual money which plays on its player base’s fear of missing out. We also know that the loot boxes found in many games are essentially slot machines that train our brains to long for better and better rewards because better rewards are always possible. This is called “variable reward ratio” and it causes us to engage more consistently. As Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness has pointed out this is essentially the same reward system Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner famously used in his experiments with pigeons. Skinner gave lab pigeons a lever they could push in their cages that would occasionally reward them with food. What he found was that when there was only a chance to be rewarded, pigeons pulled the lever far more often than they did when it was a guarantee.

Mobile developer Zynga is notorious for using variable reward schedules in their design, specifically to keep players hooked. This is what Farmville was based on. I will never forget the time a Zynga developer bragged to a friend of mine about how a new addictive game they developed was visibly hindering the productivity of their studio. While many people don’t play Overwatch primarily for loot boxes, this is the same psychology is implemented in that game. It is my conviction that these kinds of rewards are much less rewarding than more intrinsic rewards like playing to foster community, to explore new worlds, or even just to relax and have fun.

As a critic and an image bearer, I feel its my responsibility to start conversations about how we engage the games we play and why we keep coming back to them. Furthermore, I think if gamers really love their medium of choice and their neighbors, they will join in this conversation with an open mind. I realize I am waffling a bit on this subject. This is because I don’t have all the answers and because I realize that there is a fine line between compelling and exploitatively addicting.

I recently found myself diving deeply into Bloodborne, a game that I personally think is brilliantly designed and an incredibly interesting experience. Some of you may not care for Bloodborne‘s dark subject matter, but nonetheless it’s one of the most resonate game worlds I’ve experienced. I say all this to make clear that I think Bloodborne is a great game. It does, however, have a carefully design reward loop that can sink its hooks into players. Thankfully, when this started happening to me, I remembered back to my experience with Minecraft and decided to have a conversation with my wife about what I was doing. As a result of that one conversation I was able to go back to Bloodborne with some simple guideposts in place to engage the game more responsibly without mindlessly bowing to its virtual rewards. All it took in this instance was this one conversation but I wonder how many gamers out there don’t have anyone to talk to about these things.

Let’s love ourselves and our neighbors enough to speak up

Games like Sim City, Fortnite, and Bloodborne should be praised for piquing our interest and engaging our mental faculties but we shouldn’t rejoice when games take more from us than they give in return. The older I get, the less interested I am in replay value. I want to know whether a game is going to add value to my life. If a game is going to take up large portions of my time, I want it to challenge my thinking, educate me, or teach me empathy for others. I want it to do something for me not just to me. But if a game is merely exploiting my lack of self control, I just can’t get excited about that anymore. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way.

So let’s take an honest look in the mirror and make sure we aren’t neglecting to ask for help or to help those around us who need it. Let’s do our best to lay our preconceived notions and knee jerk reactions aside. Let’s start talking more about addiction. Perhaps more importantly, let’s start talking more about how we might help one another develop healthy patterns of media engagement and what those patterns look like. I am not the first to ask this question but with the small amount of influence I’ve been given, I simply want to join the few who’ve begun the chorus and ask:  Can we talk about video game addiction without judgement, please?

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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