With the exception of violence in video games, there are few subjects in the gaming community more polarizing than the idea of video game addiction. From people shrugging it off as a new feature of our modern culture to people dedicating entire websites to the movement of stopping it, there's no doubt that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. There is, however, a very thin tightrope that is walked upon while discussing this subject. There's an apathetic side to this issue and a very hyperbolic side to it, and it's very difficult to talk about anything in between without swaying to one side. Not being a wordsmith, I will surely end up teetering towards both poles within this piece, as there is no real right answer or solution. Video game addiction has been labelled as a myth, an urgent problem, and possibly everything in between, but what is the real story behind it? Why has it become such a widespread phenomenon, and how it just so divisive?
When I was 14, I received my first Call of Duty game for Christmas. With this gift, I also received the ability to play a video game online for the first time in my life. I was extremely thrilled and immediately went downstairs to start my online experiences. With all of the variables and unlocks, I didn't know where to start, and I obviously wasn't very good at the game, so I spent a lot of time in my basement trying to improve and unlock everything that I could. When I got home from school every day, I would promptly flock to my dark basement and drain myself of vitamin D. On weekends I would spend eight, nine, ten hours playing Modern Warfare 3 in attempts to get better. I would wake up, head to my basement, and before I realized I just went negative for 139 games in a row, it was 10 PM and my day had gone completely by. Being 14, I didn't really notice that this was, perhaps, negatively affecting my life, as well as the lives of my parents. As exaggerated as it sounds, I actually did begin to avoid plans with my friends in order to improve at the game. After about eight months to a year of maintaining this trend, my parents confronted me about the fact that I was spending time with nobody besides the television in my basement. They didn't tell me I needed help, or that I had some kind of problem; they merely asked me to spend an hour or two with them instead of with my Xbox. This deeply affected me, and for a while I cut off playing the game completely. After a few months, I began to play again, but I learned to better manage my time and maybe not let poorly simulated warfare consume my life. I began to hang out with my friends again, and I stopped putting my parents on the backburner for Call of Duty.
The point of that long-winded story is that I acknowledge video game addiction is a real thing and that it can be problematic in some cases. I didn't experience anything harrowing or groundbreaking, but I essentially wasted an entire year of my life trying to get better at a game that I didn't even find all that good or fun to play. I just wanted to crush my opponents and unlock everything, and I didn't have a whole lot of fun doing this. While there are definitely extreme cases of video game addiction, I don't know how much license I can give to the idea of video games taking over this generation and future ones. It's easy to spread propaganda around the internet and claim that video game addiction is ruining the mindsets of children, and sure, I'm not going to totally discount that statement. I feel like that is the minority, however, as I haven't met anyone that's addicted to video games to a crippling degree, to a point where their schoolwork is suffering and they are totally disconnected from their parents or friends. It's much easier to spread around the extreme cases and induce fear-mongering in parents so they can prevent their children from playing video games at all. It's very agenda-oriented, and perhaps you can say the same thing about what I'm writing.
I'm not trying to discount the other side, however, and say that video games cause no problems. In my example, I'm very happy someone told me that I was spending way too much time on my Xbox instead of letting the habit fester, because I could very well become one of those extreme examples. I do think this an issue that needs to be addressed, albeit significantly more lightly than it has been. I don't believe cutting children off from video games entirely is the right solution, or if scolding them for enjoying their video games is going in the correct direction either. As I stated above, there are hardly any right answers to this problem, because there is no one case that will apply to all of them. There is no universal solution. I do know that radical solutions that are openly hostile and aggressive will not work, because a teenager who has just discovered their own rebellious spirit is not going to respond well to aggressive authority. I was, basically, given an intervention, and nothing but support and kindness from the people who I had been ignoring for nearly a year. Describing video game addiction in this kind of light makes me come off as someone who recognizes this as some actual psychological phenomenon and problem and that I am, perhaps, taking it far too seriously, and maybe I am. The way I see it, though, is that if there is some aspect of someone's life that is dominating their time and restricting them from enjoying life outside of that one setting, is that person leading a healthy and productive lifestyle?
So, what exactly causes such heavy video game addiction? From my experience, I just wanted to improve my K/D the most I could, and I wanted to have absolutely everything unlocked, and I spent months upon months attempting to achieve this end. In a multiplayer experience, the idea of being better than your competition is a very strong influence. It's basic human nature to dominate your adversaries, and nowhere does this seem to be more present than in a multiplayer video game. This is obvious, go into a Call of Duty Search and Destroy lobby and you will immediately hate humanity. Introducing the idea of person-to-person competition in a video game is a really effective mechanism to keep the player invested in the experience without having to create further gameplay. On the developer side, multiplayer in a godsend. The creators only need to develop a certain set of maps, weapons, and static elements in order to formulate the multiplayer worlds, and then when the players inhabit it, the experience is endlessly dynamic. No two games are going to be the same, and because of this, the addictive nature of multiplayer really flourishes. Combining the fact that everyone wants to win along with the fact that no two experiences are going to be identical makes for some startling implications.
In other games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto V where multiplayer experience doesn't really end at all, there is little incentive for the player to stop their shenanigans if they are already hooked. These two games don't really have level caps or a place where items are no longer unlocked. World of Warcraft has so many expansions and so many impossible challenges to hurdle that one player would have to spend years trying to complete them, and there is no one place to stop. Once you get bored of the game, Blizzard adds new things to it so that you continue to play it. In addition to this, the game has a very sneaky, almost sinister way of subjecting the player to entrapment. Entrapment, for those that don't know, is a psychological phenomenon in which one person invests a lot of time/money/resources into something, and because of this large investment, the person has to continually make use of this "something" so they feel like the investment was valid. If someone is spending hundreds of dollars on World of Warcraft, they are going to need to believe that money is going to something that will be worth it. Given that people are desperate for domination, do you think that dedicated Warcraft players are going to be obtuse about how they spend their money? If throwing money at a game is how they will be able to win at it, of course players are going to forfeit their cash. Spending money over the internet is so easy, and the idea of not physically seeing your money go into the hands of someone else removes a lot of gravity from spending. In this way, World of Warcraft manages to consume a player's time and their resources in such easy fashion that there's no way it's not doing any tangible harm.
Grand Theft Auto V is a lot less sinister, though it's still inadvertently pretty susceptible to the same criticisms. Although there are plenty of microtransactions available to the player in this game, they are not nearly as apparent, nor as malicious and transparent. The incredibly expansive world the player is given makes for some very dynamic gameplay as well, as well as the fact that there is endless money to be made and no level cap. This is the kind of entrapment that the player is susceptible to, however. If the player invests enough time on becoming a very high level or getting a lot of money, they are going to feel the need to do something with that status. In addition to this, the fact that there are so many unlocks available, be it car parts, gun attachments, camos, clothing, or whatever, there is almost infinite gameplay to Grand Theft Auto V online. It would be very easy to become addicted to the large world and the plethora of possibilities it presents, especially with how dynamic it is with races, team play, and other matches. When taken to the PC platform, mods make the experience quite actually infinite. Modding the game and playing God makes it even more difficult to quit the game, and it could easily rope in a player if that aren't wary.
I'll even make Minecraft an example. Minecraft is pretty simplistic in its gameplay, but its world is quite actually infinite and the materials and things you can build follow suit. Creativity is a difficult thing to pass up, and if you are the type that loves to shape and built things, Minecraft addiction might be easier than you think. Sure, the game might not have many straightforward objectives to present to the player, but then again, any open-ended game that sprawls out so far isn't supposed to. The less objectives you present to the player and the more physical space you leave them with, the greater the temptation to customize the world. This isn't a bad thing by any means, sandbox-oriented games are by far my favorite, but there comes a point where an objective becomes totally absent and the point of the game is to become addicted to it. Using Free Mode in Minecraft presents the player with no objective and leaves them to their own device, which is perfectly fine, but there is a lot of potential to spend far too much time playing around with Free Mode. There is a multitude of variables present within the game, all of which are given to the player in infinite amounts to simply be expendable. Again, being given the ability to play God and control a world, no matter how blocky and pixelated it is, is devilishly tempting for the average person to participate in.
Gaming is used, first and foremost, as an escape for people. Gaming provides an alternate universe that ceases to be fake in the mind of the player and is there to absorb them in the experience. There are people in this world that feel like they aren't in control of their own lives or that they are missing something from their existences. Putting them in control of an entire world (or a very dominant figure) gives them an incredible amount of validation, even if none of it is real. Throwing someone who feels like they aren't in control of their lives into The Sims and giving them total control over entire cities will provide an enormous escape for them; perhaps one that they will never want to leave. Putting a meek, weak-minded person into the driver's seat of Grand Theft Auto V will provide for some disturbing results in order to balance out the act and give their life an equilibrium. To someone who feels like their life is missing something, why would they ever want to leave that one part of it that gives them fulfillment and validation? In my case, I felt like I was ignored by peers and unloved, when in reality I had two parents trying to reach out to me and friends that wanted to spend time with me. Instead, I kept thinking that if I give myself enough online validation, I will compensate for my own perceived shortcomings, instead of facing the fact that I was wrong head-on. Video games, as an escape, can be a problem if they stop being an escape and become the perceived reality instead.
In the mobile gaming market, addiction is profoundly worse. Smaller games that are vaguely competitive make for some surprisingly dedicated players that refuse to quit. Clash of Clans is a potent example, as it's a pay-to-win endeavor that consumes an incredible lot of the player's time. The game, in fact, punishes the player for not playing by letting events continue without their presence. If they are not playing, their progress and investment is completely subject to utter destruction, and that's where entrapment comes back into play. If a player has spent hundreds of dollars in order to protect a settlement, then they are not going to let it be destroyed while they stood around helpless. This is as malicious as video games can possibly get, and it's all for the sake of making money. Using these methods to invest a player's time into the game and then subsequently abusing that investment to squeeze money is acutely malevolent. Even basic games employ pay-to-win tactics to get the player addicted, like the Candy Crush series of games. Elementary gameplay is combined with microtransactions, leaderboards, and slightly competitive play in order to hook the player and make them want to win, and then giving them options to pay to win faster and easier is nothing short of coercive persuasion.
You might be thinking to yourself that I, too, am fear-mongering and trying to make games and their developers appear to be sinister to prove a point. I'm not saying that the cases I described above are definite or universal, but they are definitely possible, and they do exist. With games becoming more expansive and less objective-oriented, there's no way that addiction is going to slow down. With the introduction of mobile gaming and microtransactions, the idea that developers can make tangible piles of money from creating minimal gameplay and pay-to-win tactics is simply despicable. Video game addiction is a very present issue, and I don't mean to sound like a concerned mother when I say that. I am all for people enjoying video games, perhaps even into excess, but there comes a point where it has to stop. Investing so much energy into a video game simply isn't worth it, especially with some developers existing only to employ sinister methods into squeezing money out of unsuspecting players. There is a place where it becomes too much, and it becomes a substantial problem for the player and everyone in that person's life. Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic of me to outright say that video game addiction is a problem, but I want you to picture something: Imagine me playing Modern Warfare 3 in my basement, wearing only boxers, screaming at my mom to bring down Doritos and Hot Pockets for me to eat, and that's how I live my life. How glorious and relaxed does that really sound?
The Touchy Subject of Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction is nothing new, and it is certainly a polarizing subject. Within this article I attempt to explain my view on the topic...
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