Over the past decade I have spent time researching the excessive playing of online games like Everquest and World of Warcraft (WoW). If you have read one of my earlier blogs, you will see that I view addictive behavior as any behavior that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g. improving your highest score, beating your friend’s high score, getting your name on the “hall of fame”, mastering the game) or extrinsic (e.g. peer admiration).
In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for gamers to play endlessly. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people, this may lead to addiction where online gaming compromises everything else in their lives. However, playing excessively doesn’t necessarily make someone an addict. A few years ago, I published two case study accounts in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction of two males who claimed that they were gaming for up to 80 hours a week. They were behaviorally identical in terms of their game playing, but very different in terms of their psychological motivation to play.
The first case was an unemployed single 21-year old male. His favourite online game was World of Warcraft and that since leaving university he had spent an average of 10 to 14 hours a day playing WoW. He claimed that WoW had a positive influence in his life and that most of his social life was online and that it increased his self-esteem. He also argued that he had no other commitments and that he had the time and the flexibility to play WoW for long stretches. Gaming provided a daily routine when there was little else going on. There were no negative detrimental effects in his life. When he got a job and a girlfriend, his playing all but stopped.
The second case was 38-year old male, a financial accountant, married and had two children. He told me that over the previous 18 months, his online playing of Everquest had gone from about 3-4 hours of playing every evening to playing up to 14 hours a day. He claimed that his relationship was breaking down, that he was spending little time with his children, and that he constantly rang in sick to work so that he could spend the day playing online games. He had tried to quit playing on a number of occasions but could not go more than a few days before he experienced “an irresistible urge” to play again – even when his wife threatened to leave him. Giving up online gaming was worse than giving up smoking and that he was “extremely moody, anxious, depressed and irritable” if he was unable to play online. Things got even worse. He was fired from his job for being unreliable and unproductive (although his employers were totally unaware of his gaming behavior). As a result of losing his job, his wife also left him. This led to him “playing all day, every day”. It was a vicious circle in that his excessive online gaming was causing all his problems yet the only way he felt he could alleviate his mood state and forget about all of life’s stresses was to play online games even more.
I argued that only the second man appeared to be genuinely addicted to online gaming but that the first man wasn’t. I based this on the context and consequences of his excessive play. Online gaming addiction should be characterized by the extent to which excessive gaming impacts negatively on other areas of the gamers’ lives rather than the amount of time spent playing. For me, an activity cannot be described as an addiction if there are few (or no) negative consequences in the player’s life even if the gamer is playing 14 hours a day. The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from it.
Despite the potentially negative side of online gaming, there is lots of evidence suggesting that gaming can have very positive effects in peoples’ lives. The immersive and dissociative experience of gaming can also be very therapeutic and help people deal with every day stresses and strains. Our research shows that many gamers love the fact that playing games leads to time loss. This is more positive than drug use, drinking alcohol or other activities like gambling. Simulated environments online also allow people to explore their personalities (e.g. gender swapping) and test out boundaries, something that would be difficult to do offline.