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Ryan G. Van Cleave, Ph.D.

Ryan G Van Cleave Ph.D.

A Virtual Cataclysm Is Coming. . .or Is It Already Here?

"We have to bring them in and keep them addicted"

When Google released a free version of Pac-Man this past May, the American workforce lost $120 million thanks to lost productivity. The new World of Warcraft expansion, "Cataclysm," might cost America many times that when it releases on December 7 since plenty of Warcraft's 12 million diehard gamers will play hooky in order to binge-game. With sales estimates of 3 million in the first day alone, there'll be a lot of hack-and-slashing going on.

While it's a real financial problem that each release of a blockbuster video game costs our country millions through lost productivity, the more serious issue is one that America is loathe to acknowledge, let alone do anything about. Video game addiction.

Canada, China, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea all have many video game addiction treatment centers (China and South Korea each have several hundred). The U.S.? We have a handful. While South Korea is enacting a ban that keeps under 18 gamers from playing past midnight, 1/3 of U.S. teens have a gaming console in their bedroom, and many of them admit to playing long after parents go to bed. And while many countries (Australia, Brazil, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Thailand, and the UK, among others) ban specific violent video games, the U.S. is apparently fine with games likes Rapelay, V-Tech Rampage, and Operation Pedopriest, which are all as offensive as their titles suggest. But video game violence is admittedly a whole other topic entirely. We'll get to it in a different post.

I'm not blaming the game makers for the global epidemic that video game addiction has become, but let's be realistic here--they're no more concerned about their customers' health than is McDonald's, Philip Morris, or Anheuser-Busch. Each is out to (a) sell products, (b) make money, and (c) keep their jobs. At a recent game developer's conference in Cologne, Germany, Teut Weidemann, the design lead for Settlers Online, even told his peers that "we have to bring them in and keep them addicted and make them keep playing." With the video game industry bringing in more than $40 billion a year (according to figures in the new book, FUN INC.), they're clearly doing pretty well by preying on our many weaknesses. Like Weidemann reveals, they do it on purpose. I should know, after all--years ago, when I was hired to write the script for a new video game, I was given a specific list of the psychological triggers to include in character development and the overarching narrative.

The game makers have a term for this effect: sticky. A particularly sticky game, like World of Warcraft, is something you're thinking about while you're out, say, mowing the lawn or munching a McRib. The game "sticks" to you via numerous psychological and emotional ploys. Throw in a few structural hooks like a variable rate of reinforcement, and it's no wonder that a phrase which turns up often on www.wowdetox.com (a volunteer-run site that has catalogued more than 50,000 testimonials from people trying to quit World of Warcraft) is "Warcraft steals your soul."

Video game addiction is no joking matter, but to admit you have one is to invite ridicule. No celebrities claim it. It's not hip or counter-culture cool. It's like the lame-ass cousin of real addictions. But considering there are as many as 15 million video game addicts suffering in our country right now, the last thing we need is another super-sticky game without some accompanying public awareness. That'd be a true cataclysm.

So whether the idea of having the first level 85 goblin makes you woozy or not, here are a few things you need to know. (1) The Sun reports that 1 in 3 British men would rather play video games than have sex with their partners. Make it a new game, and 75% will now choose the game. (2) 3 billion hours a week are spent playing online video games. (3) A 2007 Harris poll found that 23% of U.S. youths (age 8-18) said they felt "addicted to video games," and 44% claimed their friends were addicted.

Regardless, December will be a good month for Blizzard. 12 million subscriber accounts at $15 each. 5 million (or more) copies of Cataclysm at $40 each (the collector's edition is $80). Throw in some merchandising rights and other spin-offs, and they'll easily rake in half a billion before we ring in 2011.

But what's really at stake here isn't money--it's freedom. Too many people in the U.S. and abroad are enslaved by a video game addiction. To be so profoundly disempowered is one of the worst fates imaginable.

So say "yes" to Cataclysm on December 7th if you choose, but be sure to say "no" to video game addiction, too (even if you'd prefer to label it an "impulse control disorder").

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