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Parsing video game addiction

The Hawk Eye - 7/1/2018

July 01--Now that the World Health Organization has classified video games as a mental health addiction, I can finally seek treatment.

I jest, of course. I got the mental health treatment I needed nearly a year ago -- a mix of therapy and medication to help me overcome crippling depression and anxiety. But as skeptical as I am about classifying any hobby as a mental health disease (the American Psychiatric Association has yet to deem gaming a disease), I don't believe the distinction is totally without merit.

Unfortunately, the classification seems to put the onus on the players, rather than the video game publishers. I did the same thing when discussing this issue last year. People are responsible for their own choices, and much like a talented author who hooks their readers with skillfull story-telling, game developers are supposed to get us hooked. That's what we want -- a hobby entertaining enough to warrant superfluous spending.

The interactive aspect just makes the endorphins feel that much sweeter.

"Video gaming is like a non-financial kind of gambling from a psychological point of view," said Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University. "Gamblers use money as a way of keeping score, whereas gamers use points."

Profiting from addiction

Unfortunately, gambling for real money has already wormed its way into mainstream gaming. That's how one player ended up spending $15,000 on digital items in "Mass Effect 3." At least one of the developers of the game was horrified by the story. The publisher, Electronic Arts, didn't say a word. They just took the money.

Now that game publishers have developed a taste for those endless cash streams, it's getting worse. In 2015, major game publisher Activision (responsible for "Call of Duty" and "Destiny") filed a patent for a system designed to push players toward buying in-game items.

Much like game that drives it, the system plays on player psychology, designed specifically to make gamers want the in-game items their new teammates have. It's an advertiser's dream, feeding the already powerful endorphin loop of extended gaming into the even more addictive psychology of gambling.

Activision's response boiled down to, "We haven't used this system in any of our games...yet. It's exploratory."

Nature of addiction

Calling some types of video games more addictive than others is disservice to the vast differences in the human brain. The games that addict me may mean nothing to a pro gamer looking to improve their skills, and vice versa.

I've always been a story junkie myself, inherently drawn to games that weave narrative with game play. Much like a book or movie, I expect an endpoint that allows me to move on to something else. These kind of single player experiences are notoriously difficult (but not impossible) to monetize beyond the initial asking price, which is why many large publishers have stepped away from the genre.

I attach no ego to my minimal gaming skills, and fortunately, that makes me a harder target. Talented, more obsessive gamers aren't as lucky. They spend hundreds of hours in a single online game, investing their free time in a living, digital world. Most of these games aren't exploitative. But some are, and kids usually can't tell the difference. Not until their parents' bank account is empty.

Symptom or disease?

A 2016 Oxford University study estimated .5 percent of the general population has a gaming addiction. It's not the number of hours you play that matters, the study argues, but rather, how it affects your life. There's plenty of folks who have lost their entire lives to gaming addiction, and it's not pretty.

But I can't help but wonder if gaming addiction is symptom rather than a disease. Most of those diagnosed with a gaming disorder suffer from anxiety and depression, just as I did. But as my condition worsened, my appetite for video games diminished. It wasn't just games, either. Movies. TV shows. Trips to the theater. Everything I used to love to do felt too taxing. I preferred to mope.

Not everyone reacts to depression in the same way, of course. Many gamers throw themselves head-long into the hobby at dire times in their lives, playing 12 to 14 hours to escape the pain. My coping method was watching hours and hours of old pro wrestling -- the only form of entertainment my distracted brain could make sense of.

I may be the first man on earth to suffer from a pro-wrestling addiction.

Point is, it's all semantics. At the heart of every addiction, including substance addiction, lies a root cause, and that's what doctors are looking to treat. Obsessive gaming can be a road-sign to a serious disorder, but it is more likely an outlier.

Ironically enough, I'm playing more now than I have in the past decade, my mind finally free to embrace my favorite pastime. It's a type of therapy supplement, endorsed by my doctor, who suggested I play video games to relax.

I've never been one to disobey doctor's orders.

___

(c)2018 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

Visit The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa) at www.thehawkeye.com

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