This game is addictive

Age of the Geek Column

Are video games a health risk?

That's been the headline for as long as I can remember. Every few years it seems that somebody tries to rile up the population with fears about how video games will cause the downfall of society.

It happens with all popular media. Before video games it was the movies that had the puritans clutching their handkerchiefs in fear, convinced that the talking pictures would lead to moral decay. Even the printed word hasn't been immune. Comic books of the 1950s created a moral panic that lead to the creation of the Comics Code. Mere decades before that, the ability to mass produce cheap paperback books stoked fears of flooding society with "pulp smut."

Then, of course, there's music, where every artist from Elvis Presley to Eminem has had nervous parents shaking their head at what their children listen to.

Video games have taken their lumps in this cycle, most recently with news that the World Health Organization (WHO) intends to officially recognize "Gaming Disorder" as a disease. Particularly as an addiction.

Naturally, the gaming community isn't terribly happy about the designation. After decades of being labeled as "murder simulators" or worse, nobody is terribly excited about giving hysterical pearl clutchers another avenue of attack.

Well, let's take a look at what the WHO actually has to say.

"Gaming disorder is defined in the draft 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences."

Yeah, that seems fair. Now it's not uncommon to say that "this game is addictive." I've lost more than a couple nights of sleep in the thralls of a new title over the years. Binging on a compelling new game for a couple days is a far cry from a legitimate addiction, but the latter does happen as well.

After all, it's not like such behavior is unheard of. Anybody that's heavily played an MMORPG like "World of Warcraft" has probably come across at least one person who takes the game far too seriously. I've personally seen a marriage fall apart as the grind for purple loot took priority over maintaining a healthy relationship.

On the more extreme end of things, every so often you'll hear a story out of Asia of a gamer literally playing until they die. Multi-day gaming binges aren't uncommon in the East's various internet cafés and occasionally that exhaustion takes a fatal toll.

More recently, the popularity of microtransactions has introduced an additional avenue of potentially self-destructive behavior. Free-to-play mobile games in particular are designed around attracting "whales," players that invest disproportionate amounts of money into the game to stay at the top of the pack. In an ideal world, this business model allows everybody to play the game to some extent, paying whatever they can afford. But we don't live in an ideal world and not everybody that whales for a game is in a financial position to do so.

Anybody that plays these games enough to participate in the gaming community will inevitably see posts from a player looking to get rid of their account, or merely saying farewell, upon recognizing that they've invested more money or time than is healthy for them and it's becoming a problem.

Of course these are the extreme cases, and the WHO recognizes that much.

But does that really make gaming an addiction?

Yes and no.

When talking about addiction, we generally think of drug addiction, where the body becomes chemically dependent on an external substance. With opioid addiction quickly becoming a national health crisis, it seems inappropriate to throw gaming into the same basket.

On the other hand, addiction is actually defined as a disease of the brain characterized by the compulsive engagement of rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences. And yeah, that's right on the money.

Anybody familiar with game design knows that games, particularly modern games, are heavily reliant on Skinner Box techniques, conditioning players to play longer. Much of today's game design is based on completing a repetitive task in search of a reward, which floods the brain with pleasure causing chemicals, encouraging the player to continue playing.

In "World of Warcraft" new players very quickly gain their first level, resulting in a glowing explosion of light around their character, a musical fanfare, and a notification that all of their stats have just gone up. Everything about leveling up makes you want to do it again, even as the amount of time you need to invest gradually increases each time you do so.

Most games employ these tactics at some level, particularly online games that depend on having a certain amount of active players at any given time. While most people can enjoy these games for what they are, there is a small portion of the population that dives too deep.

Mobile games have taken these techniques to a more insidious and destructive step. From "Candy Crush Saga" to "Fire Emblem Heroes," everything about these games are designed around urging the player to spend real money on whatever it is they offer as a reward.

Every trick and manipulation long honed in casinos is at work in these games, from the bright flashy colors and music to the suspense of seeing if your "investment" will pay off big or leave you wanting more. If gambling addiction is recognized, it's no small wonder that gaming should be when it utilizes the same practices.

On the other other hand, online games and mobile games are only part of the gaming environment. There are plenty of games out there that don't string along players with endless grinds for epic loot or risk them compromising their financial stability for one more roll of the virtual dice. Nobody will ever go broke because they put too much money into "Mario Odyssey" and the only risk that "Cuphead" poses to a marriage is if the couple tries playing it together.

So while certain areas of gaming absolutely pose a risk for people pre-disposed to addiction, it's not accurate to say that gaming as a whole is dangerous. It's just too big to fit in a box like that.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and can quit playing games whenever he wants. He just doesn't want to.