Video Games: The Ups and Downs of a Virtual World
What is it about video games that draws players in, and in some cases dominates an individual’s daily life more than their real life? The media often portrays the problem in a way that blames video games themselves for the rise in video game addiction. However, the issue really goes much deeper than this.
Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction is often portrayed by the media as the new addiction plaguing the modern generation. It should be noted, however, that in the most recent rendition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the DSM-V, video game addiction was not listed as a diagnosable mental disorder. Internet gaming addiction is most frequently discussed, as seen in many case studies of people dangerously foregoing such necessities as sleep and food in order to keep playing games. Countries in Asia are the most seriously impacted by incidents such as these. In 2005, a man in South Korea died after playing an online game for over 50 hours. HBO has aired a documentary called Love Child which follows a couple who neglect their biological child to live in a virtual world.
Video Game addiction is like a substance abuse addiction, with an added element. Substance dependency is well known for its stimulus-reward mechanism. While many substances we partake in today (like alcohol, sex, or coffee) have significant chemical rewards for our brains, not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic. The chemical response only scratches the surface. The real devil behind addictions is often its seductive ability in helping people escape reality.
The same can be said, possibly even more so, for video games. Most of the research on video game addiction focuses on online gaming addiction. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are recognized as potentially causing players to form crippling addictions, as shown in this documentary done by Anthony Rosner. Scientists postulate this is because of the added social element to games (as well as the other factors). Online games allow players to enter a virtual world, while interacting with individuals in real life. This blurs the lines between the virtual world and the real world, adding that extra social element to an already enticing experience. 1
Many researchers looking at risk factors for developing video game addictions have identified psychopathology (mental illness) and social interaction factors (poor family relationships, low self-esteem, social anxiety) as among the top highest predictors of developing an online video game addiction. 2 This suggests that the social aspect of the game allows players to fulfill their need for social interaction and acceptance despite conflict at home or lack of respect due to a mental illness.
Researchers have identified two different motivating factors behind seeking social interaction through online gaming. Those who simply want to have fun and connect with others have a significantly lower risk of developing addictions than those who wish to escape their current reality. 3 Other researchers in Korea and Germany have found similar findings confirming that escapism is a high risk factor for developing a gaming addiction. 4 5
While the media often spouts this as an epidemic, many studies have shown that the number of gamers addicted is relatively small. 6 On top of that, reports have shown that these numbers vary quite a bit depending on the various parameters used to define what internet gaming addiction actually is. 7 What we do know is that addiction is not a black or white issue. Some individuals may show mild dependency while others show heavy dependency. The risks shown here could apply at least minimally to any gamer, online or offline. The issues raised here should cause concern or at least curiosity for how virtual realities hook us, and what that says about our life values.
For the purposes of this article, the word “addiction” will be used in its colloquial sense. I suppose “real” is being used in a colloquial sense as well. Without going into much detail, it should be noted that significant strides in physics have revealed how the “real” world is much less physical than it is often perceived as. The famous physicist, David Bohm 8, even goes so far as to suggest that we are actually living in a hologram. With this in mind, it makes even more sense that minds could so easily be drawn into virtual realities.
The Reward System
Many people are familiar with the concept of substance dependence. While there is no chemical substance given to us by the game, video games do elicit a chemical response within us. Video games are more than a substance, however, making the issue more existential than other kinds of addictions. The question explored here is why this might happen. Unlike life, which humans have adapted to, the video game world is adapted to the human brain. In the “real” world, some people simply have the cards stacked against them, while others have it easy from the beginning.
While the “rags to riches” stories might have fooled past generations, many are waking up to the realization that will power alone cannot always bring a hard working individual out of poverty, or into the fame they desire. In the game, the main character is put into a world designed to bring the player to the point where they are guaranteed to be a high enough level to beat the main “boss” or challenge in the game. No one ever plays a game, even a difficult one, wondering if winning will ever be possible (obviously there are a few exceptions to this). This could contribute to the escapist phenomenon discussed previously. Uncertainty is not very marketable. For most games, if the player practices they will win, plain and simple. Games are created by minds familiar with the common wants and desires of players, and are tailored to those specific needs. It takes the juicy bits of life, and packages them into something perfectly matched to a player’s abilities and desires.
In real life, individuals try to “level up” in many ways. People want to get older so that they can participate in more mature activities, like being able to buy certain water based beverages, or qualify for that senior discount at Arby’s. They want more money for that house or car that is better than the one they already have. They want more knowledge and skill so as to experience more of the world and get that promotion they have worked so hard for. While life might leave someone burned out after years of working hard with no results, video games carefully pace rewards to constantly reinforce the player to continue working towards goals. Many game theorists have written papers concerning that magical ratio of difficulty versus reward that keeps players hooked. One does not need to know the formula to understand just how enticing leveling up can be after playing a favorite game for a few hours.
Many Behaviorist Theorists starting with B. F. Skinner have proposed the idea that individual behavior can be explained through the stimulus that caused it. 9Any behavior not currently caused by an immediate stimulus is a “learned behavior”. While this gives us one piece to the puzzle of addiction, it completely disregards humans as autonomous agents. Though video games guide a player’s actions, the ability to choose how to direct the main character might possibly be the most tantalizing aspect of the game.
Possibly the juiciest part of the video game is the ability to act out the fantasy of being the hero. This has been around since the beginning of storytelling. The human race simply cannot get enough of heroes, whether it be the story of Beowulf, Ulysses, or Luke Skywalker. Most of this stems from the desire to be the hero. Games can make this more of a reality for individuals. While stories try to formulate characters that are generally relatable, games let the player shape their own hero, making them extremely relatable. For instance, the popular game, Borderlands, allows the player to choose a character that fits their fighting style.
You can choose to pick the kind of fighter that likes to barge in and blow things up, or the kind that likes to attack with stealth from a distance. For those interested in the Hero and other archetypes, a wonderful article has been written by another author here at The Artifice that delves into this topic in much more eloquent detail than I could. A player who is actively participating in the story rather than passively taking it in, can feel more ownership in the successes of the story. Video games help embody this “hero” persona we wish to be, making the ideal more tangibly real. Even though it is still virtual, the simulation is more vivid and enticing. The hero’s journey gives players the need for control, excitement, and a heightened status all bundled up in an adventure with the mind at the steering wheel.
Skyrim is a great example of this. The player hears over and over that they are the only one who can save the world from the coming doom. The hundreds of “side quests” available to the player help them choose which types of skills they want to enhance, allowing their character to develop a distinct personality in the game. Even though the main character often has to go through certain actions for the story to continue, the hero feels more real because their skill and achievements have been molded and directed by their own hand as much as or more than the creator of the story.
How Real is Real?
Considering all of the similarities between video games and real life, one could go so far as to say that these virtual realities are much closer to home than we like to believe. Most people could probably name someone they know who is addicted to life in the same way we could be addicted to games. The recent movie The Wolf of Wall Street, outlines someone who becomes addicted to the pursuit of money, regardless of the amount he actually has. In certain parts of Asia, where internet gaming addictions are much more common, attitudes towards work also tend to be more “obsessive”. People are known to throw themselves into their work, spending long day after day trying to “level up” and get that pay raise or promotion. Maybe it is easy to blur the lines between fiction and reality because fiction can be incorporated into real life so seamlessly one can hardly tell the difference. A great example of this is the game, The Sims. Unlike other games which feature extreme adventure or fantastical scenarios, many versions of The Sims put players in a world extremely similar to their own.
They do fairly normal things that we do in the real world. The difference is that attaining money and valuables in the game is more predictable and grants the player more certainty of success. (Whatever happened to awesome games like Oregon Trail?) Taking a step back from the fame, money, and power leaves a gaping hole in the meaning of life. Even though video games have an end that the player works for, most players would say that the main reason they play is not to win. There is something to be found in the excitement of struggling against the odds, failing and trying again, and growing in strength through perseverance. The trouble comes from not being able to see past this to the big picture. This is when players become hooked, because this is all that they see to invest in. Seeking money, fame, and power, either virtually or in real life, is not inherently bad. The problem is that it will feel empty when lacking the greater context within which everything resides. When we are finished with the game of life, our money, status, and influence with be gone. What is left?
The End of the Game
Many lives are lived progressing to the next “level”. Hopefully this article does not devalue these life experiences in any way. Video games are a pastime that allow players to test themselves with cognitive challenges that far exceed that needed for most forms of entertainment. This article is looking only at what happens when players get hooked on the pursuit, and lose sight of the big picture. To understand why anyone could get hooked on video games, it is important to explore why people get hooked on life. Why do some people obsess over gaining expensive possessions or getting that promotion to the point where all other life is basically excluded? If all of this goes away when the game is done, does that not mean the same thing for life? Maybe that is why people have difficulty when attempting to stop playing; they are afraid to die.
Death does not happen when your character dies, death happens when you stop playing. This of course, is not a real death, but a metaphorical one. What dies is not the actual person, but their idea of themselves as the main character. Each individual has their own personal story, but in someone else’s story they might simply be listed in the credits as “bystander number 3”. Each person can be the hero of their own story, without needing to be the hero of the world. When each of us can let go of our superficial needs, we can enjoy games both virtual and real in the context of the big picture. We are all important in our own ways, and leveling up in World of Warcraft is then seen as one goal, rather than an ultimate goal, allowing it to take the sideline to more important things like finding meaning in life and enjoying sincere relationships with loved ones.
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- Hyun, G. J., Han, D. H., Lee, Y. S., Kang, K. D., Yoo, S. K., Chung, U., & Renshaw, P. F. (2015). Risk factors associated with online game addiction: A hierarchical model. Computers In Human Behavior, 48706-713. ↩
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- Koo, H. J., & Kwon, J. (2014). Risk and protective factors of internet addiction: a meta-analysis of empirical studies in Korea.Yonsei Medical Journal, 55(6), 1691-1711. ↩
- Rehbein, F., & Baier, D. (2013). Family-, media-, and school-related risk factors of video game addiction: A 5-year longitudinal study. Journal Of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, And Applications, 25(3), 118-128. ↩
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- Bohm, D., & Nichol, L. (2003). The essential David Bohm. London: Routledge. ↩
- Slife, B., & Williams, R. (1995). What’s behind the research?: Discovering hidden assumptions in the behavioral sciences. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. ↩
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