« Games with a purpose | Main | State of Play / Terra Nova Symposium »

Dec 03, 2006



The gaming "addiction" problem gets tons of coverage in various media. The descriptions of various problem always feel short sighted and needing of relevant discussion rather than fingerpointing. A perspective I would like to have added to the debate is the motivational forces which influence the gamer side of the debate.

The "Real World" is for the first time beset by competition. From the perspective of someone who is halfway through school both the virtual and the real may be contesting for time and attention in a way which adults cant relate to well. The Real has some benefits, the Virtual has others. What type of things do you learn from the Virtual world that the Real world wont let you play with?

My own answer to that question would be "Right side brain" kinds of things. The Real world is too much Left side. To reverse the trend where gaming is a problem the real world has to find a better balance between both sides of the brain or the virtual worlds will keep on luring a bigger and bigger chunk of humanity into problematic situations.


Wolfe, if you by "right side brain things" mean something about creativity and expression, are you sure this is why people flock to games?

WoW for example seem to me a definite left side brain place, where every action is rational and calculated - the metaphor of a "beautiful spreadsheet" has been made before :)

(I know some people go there to roleplay, but still - i'm talking about the "great unwashed teenagehood" here)


Wolfe wrote:

The "Real World" is for the first time beset by competition. From the perspective of someone who is halfway through school both the virtual and the real may be contesting for time and attention in a way which adults cant relate to well. The Real has some benefits, the Virtual has others. What type of things do you learn from the Virtual world that the Real world wont let you play with?

Just keep in mind that the virtual world is a subset of the "real" world.


"Are online games detrimental, addiction-feeding?"

The question is indeed loaded, but it's easy to un-load. Substitute in "alcohol" and you get: "Is alcohol detrimental, addiction-feeding?" The answer is "For some people, yes, but the great majority of adults are able to enjoy alcohol reponsibly without suffering any detriment whatsoever."

That said, I think we also have to admit that MMORPGs are a unique entertainment in that currently they reward the investment of time above all else. Television does not get better the more you watch it, new TV shows are not unlocked after you've watched 450 hours, and shows end on the hour or half-hour. Although I imagine one could become addicted to television (and other entertainments), it's not designed to keep one watching in the same way MMORPGs (always-on, exponential grind, carrot/stick, etc.) are designed to keep one playing.



Very good work, thanks for taking the time to find the source material, and to document what is going on so well.

In my own experence the people saying these games are addictive have so little knowledge of either games or addiction that its impossible to have a discussion with them.

That said your material is a very good start.


This is a great look at some of the challenges facing researchers and the media with regard to what we call addiction.

If you're interested in reading more on this, my thesis on Gamasutra used one criteria for addiction in order to take a look at some of the things that people playing excessively actually prefer doing in game.

This is a topic that deserves a lot more attention, and I applaud Nick for focusing on such a critical area.


Yes, I think must of us could agree that this question could never be answered in a quick sound bite.

Personally, I frequently wonder if this great attraction that so many of us feel goes much deeper. I wonder if it has something to do with a fundamental difference in the (hmm perhaps hard to explain clearly right now) expenditure of human energy. When you compare playing a game like WoW to many peoples every day work experience you see something dramatically different if you conceptualize both as a kind of labour. On one hand you have an often disempowering, alienating loss of human capabilities and on the other something very deep and where you can fully realize your investment over time. Combine this with a huge group of other people engaging in this environment in a similar way and I think you get a dramatically different type of community interaction and social experience.

This is just a small piece of the puzzle but I think its an important one.


Of course a MMO isn't as addictive as, say, illegal drugs that actually replace the receptors in the brain and cause withdrawl symptoms, but they are as addictive as many other things in real life. Can scientists and passionate writers become addicted to their work? yes. Can bodybuilders become addicted to working out? yes. Like all addiction, it should be treated by addiction specialists and concerned family members and friends. I don't believe there's anything special about MMO addiction; rather, it's a convenient way to generate buzz about a story or idea. The way a MMO developer should answer Nick's question is that like many things in life, people need to be responsible about their online gaming. Just like a person shouldn't spend ten hours a day in the gym, a person shouldn't spend an unhealthy amount of time in an MMO.

Of course a MMO isn't as addictive as, say, illegal drugs that actually replace the receptors in the brain and cause withdrawl symptoms, but they are as addictive as many other things in real life.

It's funny, and it's a hard call to make -- but I think my addiction to online worlds starting with a dabble in a mud or early efforts like Clan Lord (shudder) and Doom/Quake deathmatch to the micro-universes of Everquest, SWG, WoW, etc. were actually a worse way to spend my life that the several years I spent "wasting" my life with partying, drugs and alcohol.

I recently went through some sort of life change where suddenly virtual worlds can not hold my interest, with the exception of talking about them of course... but now that I look back at the 4+ hours a day I would spend playing these games I'm hard-pressed to be able to list much value for the time spent.

Sure, I made friends. But where are they now? If I'm not in the game they want to play, they not only don't call but to a certain extent they no longer exist. And since I don't want to play MMOs, none of my friends exist.

But with drugs, sure there were a couple points where I theoretically could have died (and no rez, either), I ruined my health (which regenerated) and actually lost friends to a variety of little deaths -- but I still know some of those people, the experiences were genuine (and completely unscripted) and had a lasting effect on my personality and character. I recall so many moments with clarity and vividness.

Not as much with games, except a few things.

My point? I think it is fair to say that games are addictive -- and I wouldn't be totally sure that they don't alter your brain chemistry in some way. Of course some (likely most) people can enjoy them without them becoming a negative addiction (unlike a positive addiction, like coffee)

But I would also say that people who say games are not as bad as drugs might actually have it the wrong way around. =)


Illovich, many good points. If you meet online friends in person that might change things a bit, but even then you suffer from not necessarily having RL shared interests. Maybe the more narrow universes that attach themselves to external cultures (not only creating a shared culture existing solely in game) fare better.


Great pieces Nick, and a wonderful and cogent presentation of some of the issues around why people play and how they are perceived, and now, labelled. As we've chatted about, I'd even take your perspective on how these interactions can be positive even further, and suggest that our fascination and enjoyment of these games isn't happening in a vaccuum - play is compelling because we crave experiences that are positive. If we crave play, it's because there's something, or a variety of things, going on that's positive - especially in simulation interactions, we're learning social skills, confidence, and in general furthering our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world we find ourselves in... possibly the #1 human activity. I think it's the meaningful exploration of social and personal identity, and the often positive growth as a result, that makes these things so darned fun. In some sense, I sort of think that's what fun is.


Yes, MMOs are addictive and possibly more addictive than any other media or recreation.

First, to compare MMO addiction to alcohol addiction is unfair. MMOs are addictive because events are transpiring while you are afk. The bottle isn't drinking itself while you are at work. This is the pull of online games - what are you missing when you are not logged in?

MMO addiction, while different than drug addiction, is just as dangerous because of lost time. How many hours have we lost due to gaming?

I'm willing to bet that the number of PhDs not earned due to online gaming is greater than the number of PhDs not earned due to illicit drugs.


To be clear, I offered alcohol addiction only as an example of how game addiction is subjective. While it's extremely unlikely that I'd ever become an alcoholic, for a variety of reasons, it's much more likely that I could become addicted to MMORPGs. Similarly, I guarantee you my mom will never get hooked on an MMORPG (maybe a MOMRPG...hmmm).

In traditional Dateline NBC style, the media (and the word-of-mouth it generates) tends to inflate corner cases into epidemics, when it's probably a minority of gamers who have the propensity to become addicted, and a minority of the minority who actually play games to the detriment of all else, just like alcohol (enjoyed by many, abused by few).


Dave: "MMOs are addictive because events are transpiring while you are afk."

Got data?


Just a side-note on starting the piece with a mention of heaven and hell: in the quote you cite, there is no mention of it. There is a mention, however, of the Promised Land, which for Moses would have been what we now see as, partially, modern-day Israel.


Lurker here, have enjoyed reading Terranova for over a year now, and feel compelled to post on this thread because it is a subject I've thought about quite a bit.

Regarding Tom Hunter's query "got data?", it seems moot: as someone who is periodically addicted to World of Warcraft, my perception that events are transpiring while I'm away is enough to bring my mind back to that world, and it is often difficult to pull myself away enough to really focus on other tasks.

Checking my Friends list provides some personally relevant data: I notice that others' levels are increasing, and feel compelled to keep up.

If it were only a single-player RPG, I know that events can be occurring, if only I were to start playing. I also know that the world will wait. In a MMORPG, roughly the same thing can be found if you do not care with whom you associate; the dynamic world still waits. As soon as you value specific relationships, though, so long as you're not logged in there is increasing probability that that world is moving along without you. Throw in Auction House timing and Orgrimmar buff-loitering and you've got an addictive recipe.

Not data, though, just a single case and conjecture.


Comparing MMOs to drugs is irrelevant, since obviously MMOs lack the biochemical element that is the basis for substance dependency. Behavioral addictions are more apt a comparison.

The thing about MMOs like Warcraft (as well as plenty of off-line games) is that the gameplay mechanisms are structured as a form of gambling (with time replacing money as the risk). You spend a lot of time failing (no rewards), punctuated by a "good drop" or level increase that advances you; the gameplay itself isn't actually that pleasurable outside of those two rewards. WoW has the same appeal as playing slot machines with your friends, with the added mechanism of getting to move on to "better" slot machines as you play (so you have to play as much as your friends do to stay with them).

I suppose if someone can be a "gambling addict" the same addictive behavior can exist relative to an MMO, since the dynamics are more or less the same.


Well, that's overstating it, I'd say. Slot machines are not about performative skill, for example, while there is a performative challenge in WoW and most similar MMOs. What is more, a slot machine's outcomes don't change if I'm playing it with others, but the outcomes in MMOs do. While I think that well-designed games are quite powerful, and potential sources of "addiction", because of their ability to tap into a fundamentally human drive to engage and accomodate unpredictable circumstances, it's an oversimplification to say that the dynamics are "more or less the same". After all, it's the way that the rest of our lives has all of this already, just more so, that makes these games compelling. And this is also why their effects must be seen in a broad (neither simply positive or negative) light.


One might argue that "skill" is a cost of doing business, like putting the quarter into the slot machine or assisting the main tank; if you can't do that, then you can't play (at least not for long). But maybe blackjack or Texas Hold 'Em are better analogies. Skill + luck + money = payoff/reinforcement.

Regarding "time replacing money as the risk"... The scary part is gamblers have to stop gambling when they run out of money; eventually they just can't indulge any more. For the MMORPG player, every sunrise offers another chance to ante up.


Reading the comments I wonder how many people read Nick's articles.

Hank, I think you have a point, but it hardly makes data moot. I also believe that the "things are happening while your not there" may be a cause, but it is a weak cause. Same with the parallel to gambling.

I am going to try and distill Nick's articles into a sentence or two and say that MMOs can appear addictive because they meet basic human needs. The help player meet needs for social interaction, social approval, accomplishment, increased social status, and many others.

They can appear addictive when a person stops meeting these needs outside of the game environment. But that does not mean that they are addictive, identifying them that way is a mistake, its like saying politicians are addicted to power, Micheal Crichton is addicted to writing or Mic Jagger is addicted to rock and roll.


"Now it may feel more like a minefield -- seductive on the surface, but seeded with subterranean hazards."

A minefield is seductive on the surface?


With so many new "addictions" being reported online recently, my conclusion is that the label “addiction” is becoming so widely used and abused in our society that it is losing its meaning. Not only this, but with the increasing frequency of “blog addiction” and “Internet addiction” horror stories I have been reading about, one begins to wonder what “addiction of the week” will be glorified next.

My 2 cents :-)



how about compulsion?


Thanks for the reminder to check the other article, Tom; I had only read the interview with Shavaun Scott, and just now finished reading Nick's article that delves more into aspects of addiction in regards to MMOs. Plenty to ponder, and for the moment I'll reclassify my potential addiction as more of a compulsion, bordering on obsession. Overall I'd say the personal benefits outweigh the negative aspects, though this particular form of entertainment strikes me as more "tainted" due to the big corporation (Blizzard, here) behind it all. I don't forget, though, that big things start small, and sometimes stay small while still being very appealing. Canasta and Pinochle, for example; a deck of cards is pretty much a deck of cards, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of card games. They do share a gambling aspect with WoW, though; keep drawing, maybe you'll get that powerful item you've been waiting for.


Bob, the MMOs are addictive; they are designed to be.The behavioral addictiveness is based on the generation of biochemical elements and neuronal signals, during the practice of the addictive activity.


Hey guys,

My name is Chris Mazur I am a recently graduated Psychology and Chemical Engineering student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I recently did my undergraduate thesis on video game addiction. I did a study that involved 400 gamers from the hardcore to those who only played a few hours a week. To sum it up I found that video games themselves are not addictive, it is the people who come into the games with different problems. I was mainly trying to see if motives for play or genre was correlated to addiction. As it cam out like so many other studies it is hard for someone to become addicted. There is the barrier issue. The other problem is that the face of gaming has changed. In the past gamers were genre dependent they would build computers to play one game and only one type of game. Now it has become a mish mash of a world everyone tries everything. The main point is that there was no significant correlation of Age, gender, time spent playing, motives, genre, or playing MMO's that made some one more addicted. I will be publishing my study soon I hope. if you would like more specifics email me at [email protected].

My two cents,

Christopher Mazur
Chemical Engineering/ Psychology Class of 2006
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The comments to this entry are closed.