When I sat down late last week to start putting my notes together on this week’s issue of The Revolution I had intended to talk about the big controversial story at that time, a Guild Wars 2 dev being fired for the way she behaved on social media towards a member of that games community. I was taking a break from reading up on the latest developments there when I stumbled across another story that has gotten a surprisingly low amount of coverage. Seeing as my original plan has already been covered from every conceivable angle, let’s shift gears a little this week. Let’s talk about something that is a serious issue that gets overlooked and laughed off: game addiction.
The reason I bring this up is that the World Health Organization has now officially recognized game addiction, or gaming disorder as they have named it, as a legitimate mental health disorder. This is great news. This is the first step in the population at large becoming more aware of a serious issue that will allow people to get the help they need and will also help make more people aware of the psychological manipulation employed by unscrupulous developers and publishers that take advantage of this.
Lets get one thing cleared up before we go any farther. Gaming addiction is, without any doubt, a real thing. I’ve heard some pretty ignant (like ignorant but stupider) things said about that in the past. People have this misconception that it’s just spoiled kids with bad parents or that it’s simply an excuse people make to justify their behavior. If that’s how you feel then you are flat out wrong. Period. That part isn’t up for debate. The world’s leading doctors and researchers out rank your opinions based on incorrect assumptions and articles your cousin shared on Facebook.
So, on to the topic at hand, one question that comes up a lot is how someone becomes addicted to games. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve got a solid enough grasp to answer that one. Games use a variety of mechanics that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. It comes in a lot of different forms, such as rewards from completing in game challenges to sound effects to the achievement systems on most platforms. These, in and of themselves, are fairly benign and don’t really warrant alarm from the vast majority of people. In fact, these are why we play games. Progress, win states, and beating opponents are all legitimate game mechanics and aren’t inherently bad. Where the slope starts to get a little slippery is the intentional inclusion of things like Skinner Box mechanics. As game devs look to find ways to add longevity and reasons for players to continue playing these games, repetitive tasks that offer incremental rewards in a seemingly endless cycle are an easy way to create long term engagement with minimal resources. Hell, it’s half the gameplay loop of most MMOs and a lot of the multiplayer shooters on the market and has been for a long time. Practically anything with a leveling system or power scaling mechanics has to include some variation on this.
The problem begins with brain chemistry and how different people respond to the natural responses to this sort of activity. The chemical reactions in the brain to these sort of stimuli are no different than the reaction to drugs or gambling. The player gets the desired response, the pleasure centers are stimulated, the desire for that stimulus increases while the player becomes increasingly desensitized to the reward, and as the cycle continues it takes more and more playtime and success to get their fix. It’s literally no different than an alcoholic needing to drink more and more over time to keep their addiction sated. It’s fucking terrifying to think about.
It’s even worse when game makers intentionally exploit these psychological “loopholes” to encourage this sort of addictive engagement, especially when they tie it to monetization plans. Game progress being tied to additional spending is a form of manipulation that is so subtle that most people don’t realize why it’s there. That’s why I’m constantly going off on these people. This is a legitimate mental health concern for a growing number of people and genuinely bad people are taking advantage of it.
Getting back on track though, this is a very important and very big step towards correcting this issue. Awareness is a major component in helping curb addiction across large groups and further study will help doctors find better ways of treating people with this disorder. As a community, as large and diverse as gamers are, the more we know about this the better able we will be to help see the early signs in one another and step in.
As per the WHO website, here is how they currently describe the disorder and requirementsts for diagnosis: