Can Digital Games Create A Dependency?
Late in 2001, 21 year old Shawn Woolley shot himself to death in his apartment. He was an EverQuest addict, clocking up to twelve hours a day inside the game’s expansive online world. Shawn had epilepsy, and would often have seizures directly linked to the time spent staring at his brightly-lit computer screen, yet he would continue to play. He quit his job and he would ignore his family just to advance his character in the never-ending game.
An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “A psychologist diagnosed [Shawn] with depression and schizoid personality disorder, symptoms of which include a lack of desire for social relationships, little or no sex drive and a limited range of emotions in social settings.” However, these problems matter very little in a virtual world, a fact that inevitably caused Shawn to take shelter within its walls. He created a character that allowed him respite, causing his psychological issues to disintegrate each time he entered this ultimate escapist universe.
Shawn’s mother is now attempting to sue the game’s developers, claiming that Sony is directly responsible for his clinical addiction and eventual suicide. It is unknown as to the true reasons Shawn took his own life, however his mother suspects that a within-game event caused his breakdown:
“Elizabeth Woolley remembers when her son was betrayed by an EverQuest associate he had been adventuring with for six months. Shawn’s online brother-in-arms stole all the money from his character and refused to give it back. “He was so upset, he was in tears,” she said. “He was so depressed, and I was trying to say, ‘Shawn, it’s only a game.’ I said he couldn’t trust those people””
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, March 31st 2002)
But of course for Shawn it wasn’t only a game, it was his raison d’être. He devoted his life to play, and was in a state of immersion as deep as anyone might ever hope to achieve. Shawn was not the only one to have experienced such dependency on the online game, in fact EverQuest is referred to by certain of it’s 450,000 plus users as NeverRest or EverCrack, in reference to it’s perhaps inherently addictive qualities.
So how can a game be addictive? Digital gaming cannot be physiologically addictive in the way that opiates, caffeine or nicotine can be, because there is not a direct physical link to the gamer’s neurology. Although physical dependency to gaming cannot by its nature occur, games cannot claim to be entirely safe either:
“Psychological addictions are a dependency of the mind, and lead to psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addictions can theoretically form for any rewarding behaviour, or as a habitual means to avoid undesired activity, but typically they only do so to a clinical level in individuals who have emotional, social, or psychological dysfunctions, taking the place of normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained.”
(‘Addiction’, Wikipedia, 10 December 2005)
It is highly likely, then, that Shawn was indeed psychologically dependent on the game. But is his mother right to prosecute, given Shawn’s neurological issues? It is important to remember that although it is never the intention of a game developer to create an addicting piece of software, there is certainly the need to create a game that rewards repeat plays. This ensures that the game will be a commercial success. In the case of monthly subscription games like EverQuest it is commercially sensible that gamers remain interested for several months and pay as such. There is a great emphasis on hooking new players and keeping current players captivated. This is done by adding new and exciting content, allowing for alliances and clans to develop, and to design a never-ending game. Gamers can of course choose to exit play, but why should they when the game experience promises to get even better? A game’s success is based on how fun it is to play, not how addicting it is. The two are simply quite hard to distinguish.
There is a fundamental difference between gamers that are addicts and gamers that are just highly engaged.
The immense majority of gamers will not develop psychological addiction to digital play, but are certainly likely to experience a milder form of compulsion that keeps them playing. This is not because games are addictive, but because games can be incredibly fun. It is very hard, then, to distinguish between those that are highly engaged with a game: that is to say they are immersed; in the flow; and experiencing a reward-based benefit from continued play, and those that are psychologically addicted to a game: that is to say they are not just immersed but entrenched, not just in the flow but fully empathetic to their avatar; and whose greatest benefit of play is the gratification of their psychological dependency for yet more play.
So what happened to Shawn to get him in this state? Of course his schizophrenia played a large part in blurring the boundaries between his reality and his virtual world, but is that to say the casual gamer might never become so dangerously immersed? Could the magic circle ever wholly absorb a person? DeKoven (2002, p. 33) gives an account of Huizinga’s (1970) magic circle:
“[A] device to which we have access in order to keep the game going is the boundary that separates the game from everything else around it. Because there are boundaries, there are ways to get out of the game when you have to. Play is a voluntary act. You can’t play if you aren’t willing to. You can’t play if you feel you are obliged to. No game or toy can guarantee that it can make people play. You gotta be in the mood.”
Of course, for those that are addicted to gameplay, they are always in the mood. But then they aren’t really playing in the Huizinga sense. Gameplay must be voluntary, so for those that are playing purely to satisfy a compulsion are not really playing. Try telling that to the legions of EverCrack junkies. What are they really doing, if not playing? Salen and Zimmerman (2004, page 452) offer an account of Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) remediation theory that may help us understand the true mind state of the immersed player:
“Media operate according to a double logic. On one hand, media participate in… immediacy, the ability to authentically reproduce the world and create an alternative reality. At the same time, media also remind their audiences that they are constructed and artificial, a characteristic that Bolter and Grusin call hypermediacy… All media combine these two processes into what they term remediation, an experience of media in which immediacy and hypermediacy co-exist”
So the immersed player experiences the game in a state of remediation: aware that they are playing, yet suitably attached to a game not to disrupt the magic circle. These EverCrack junkies know they are playing, because they experience hypermediacy. An addicted player might experience a game purely as immediacy, where his life within the game unfolds as his reality. If this were true, then a game can never be accused of forcing an addiction, rather the onus is on the player to continually perceive gameplay in remediation. Players like Shawn that have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction are therefore more prone to psychological addiction. It can be suggested that the boundaries between reality and the game world suddenly dissolve when both the gamer’s propensity for addiction and the amount of gratification meet midway. That is not to say developers should hold back on making their games less rewarding, or better than reality, but perhaps that games should have better warnings for those who are less conscious of themselves as players.
Game ‘addiction’ is a relatively new thing. Before the invention of the home computer, and later the console, there really wasn’t much to be done on one’s own. Before interactivity there was just ‘activity’: reading; watching television or films; one-way communication with an entertainment medium. Then came the technology that changed ‘alone-time’ forever, in the process giving those anti-social types an excuse not to go outside and play with the other boys. The hardcore gamer was born, and with them new worries of digital addiction and stories of mind-numbing, brain-washing and the dumbing-down of the youth generation. Hardcore players are more likely to report their full engagement with a game, sometimes to the point of their realities shifting and their emotional drives realigning to the needs of their virtual representatives within a game.
What we see in the behaviours of hardcore gamers is not addiction, but engagement. Digital games are not addictive, although players may show characteristics of a dependency on them. Games are built around one core concept: ‘What would be fun for the player?’ As games get better and more realistic, it becomes easier to forget that we are really playing at all. The magic circle must be reinforced if it stands a chance of surviving intact against the next generation of ultra-immersive games. Gamers can only be protected from psychological addiction to these games if the notion that they are ‘just playing’ is constantly reinforced. A player’s double-consciousness should actually make play more fun, because the magic circle can remain unbroken. Developers would do well to remember that games are supposed to be fun, and the easier they make it to retain a lusory attitude, the more people will realise games are a safe medium after all. Developers are dependent on a good reception, and if they play things right, there won’t be any more blood on the keyboard.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
DeKoven, Bernie (2002). The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. 3rd edn. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club. Retrieved 11th November 2005 from http://www.deepfun.com/WPG.pdf
Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online (March 31st 2002). “Death of a Game Addict” Retrieved 13/12/05 from http://www.jsonline.com/news
Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Wikipedia (December 10th 2005) “Addiction” Retrieved 13/12/05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction
Poole, Steven (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade
Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001). The Ambiguity of Play. Boston: Harvard University Press