Virtual Addiction: The Hidden Dangers of Online Gaming
Can Online Gaming Be Dangerous?
Authors Note: I wrote this paper several years ago for a class. I chose the topic because a friend was suffering from gaming addiction. Please watch out for your family, your spouse, your significant other and your friends. This can happen to anyone! Please spread the word and become familiar with the signs of gaming addiction.
You wake up groggy. The clock next to your bed reads 7:04 am. You were only able to sleep 3 hours since you went to bed at 4 am. You’re scheduled to go in to work at 8:30. Since you have about an hour before going in, you rush over to your computer and start playing EverQuest. It’s now 8:01 am; you’re making so much progress, killing characters and gathering objects that you decide you really would rather game then go to work. You call your boss and tell him that you woke up very sick this morning. “Again?” he asks, “One more sick day from you, and I’m going to have to let you go!”. You go back to your computer and continue to play. A glance at the clock on your computer desk brings you back to reality. It is now 2:38 pm. Oops. What meant to be an hour or two of gaming has yet again turned into another binge. This is the life of an online video game addict.
Addictions to Internet games, particularly massive multiplayer online role-play games (MMORPGS), have emerged as a threat to public health—a new epidemic. Although they pose no direct physical danger, they take a toll on the mental well being of players. This disease is as equally debilitating as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Consequently, addictions to these games have ruined lives as they disrupt family life, distract students, and compromise jobs.
Although some video games provide benefits to society, when used as a tool to engage children in the classroom, or train soldiers on urban warfare, the positive impact of these programs are negated as soon as one considers the potential damages. Proper use of games requires the responsibility of the gamers and the marketers. Software developers should reveal the potential dangers associated with the games, like how the games have a possible addictive nature. Perhaps these programs need to have labels that warn of possible health consequences. The labels would be similar to the labels that law requires tobacco companies to place on their cigarettes. Public awareness should encourage members of society to be aware of the personal consequences of excessive gaming.
Dramatic examples of the gaming danger include the tragic death of a 9-month-old child. In 2001, Tony Lamont Bragg placed his son in a closet, so he could play the game “Everquest”. His priority was his game, and when he finally thought to check on his son after 24 hours, he found him lifeless. Today, Bragg is serving a fifteen-year term in prison, after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. [i]
In 2002, 21-year-old Shawn Woolley committed suicide while in front of his computer. He did not leave a suicide note; rather, online game Everquest remained on the screen. While admitting that her son had other psychiatric problems that may have led to his suicide, his mother, Elizabeth Woolley, still blamed the game for enhancing her son’s other mental problems. At the end of his life, Shawn Woolley continually clocked over 12 hours a day on his computer. Woolly attempted to sue game developer Sony Online for neglecting to place warning labels on their games. [ii] Since her son’s death in 2002, Wooly has founded and maintained a website, Online Gamers Anonymous, http://www.olganon.org, where gaming addicts and their friends and family can find support.
Another suicide includes of the death of a 13 year old. In 2004, Zhang Xiaoyi died after he jumped off of a 24-story building, re-enacting a scene from the online game “World of Warcraft”.[iii] In 2005, a 28-year-old South Korean man died of heart failure after playing the game “StarCraft” for 50 straight hours in a gaming café. His only breaks were to use the bathroom and take quick naps. [iv] An addicted gamer in Shanghai was convicted of murder after killing another gamer who borrowed and then sold a virtual object within an online role-playing game (RPG). [v]
These cases represent the perils of extreme addiction to online gaming, however, there are dangers which are not as obvious. There are many records/instances of divorce, job loss and failed academics.
This addiction seems to be most prevalent in adolescent boys. A study conducted by the Psychology department at Iowa State University suggested that gaming addiction is a larger problem with male adolescents. The study also reported that addicted adolescents were more likely to display aggressive behavior and do poorly in school. [vi] These trends highlight the negative impact these programs have on society.
It is estimated that nearly 4 out of every 10 adults play video games,[vii] Why is it that some people can play games and not become addicted, while others feel the need to play for excessive amounts of time? Not everyone is at risk for addiction to video games. Addictions can be triggered by both psychological and physiological reasons.
Psychologically, there are numerous causes for online video gaming addiction. Those who fit into the group of video game addicts often have similar characteristics, including: depression, elevated stress levels, social anxiety, loneliness, , low self-esteem, and excessive boredom. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS) are the ideal playground for people who suffer from poor self-esteem. Addicted gamers come to find the “game world” a place to create a new identity, a place to find friends anonymously, and more sadly, a place where they can fit in. [viii]
The physiological addiction of video gaming has been compared to that of drug or alcohol addiction. A study conducted by Cherité University Medicine Berlin tested 15 men in the same age group who admitted that gaming had taken over their lives. The men were tested by a “drug memory” test, which is used to show how images trigger cravings in drug addicts. Neutral images are shown to the drug addicts and result in no response. After the neutral images are shown, trigger images, such as a building where a drug had been taken, are presented to the drug addicts. After viewing the trigger images, drug addicts experience cravings for drug use. In the video gaming addiction study, the same test was administered to the group of 15 gamers, but instead of using images that could trigger drug cravings, images were displayed from their favorite computer games. The men experienced cravings, as did the drug addicts, and experienced feelings of desperation to play the games. [ix] A scientific theory of addiction is that a person can become addicted to any activity that brings pleasure. Dopamine, a “feel good receptor” chemical in the brain, increases during times of pleasure. Pleasure, for video game addicts, comes in the form of gaming. Dopamine levels are at their highest in a game addict’s brain during time spent gaming. Sabine Grüsser, of the Cherité University Medicine Berlin, says, “It’s the same mechanism in all addicts.” Grüsser also claims that gaming eventually becomes the only activity in a gamer’s life that can increase dopamine levels and is a physiological explanation for the addiction. [x]
Game design plays an enormous factor in online video gaming addiction. Game developers hire psychologists to create game play aspects to keep their games addictive. With a $10-$15 monthly subscription fee, online game companies want to keep their subscribers as engrossed in the game as possible. The first aspect of game design that creates an addicting experience is personal time investment. Players become too attached to their virtual personas after spending 30-40 hours per week, guiding the character through perils and triumphs. Abstaining from gaming can then become difficult; all of the previous time invested into game play may seem a waste. “Leveling up” of characters is another addictive aspect. It becomes increasingly difficult to gain points, skills, and items, the more time that is spent in the game. It may take only 10-15 minutes to “level-up” a character the first time, but by level 25, gamers can spend 20+ hours just to gain one level. Some areas in games such as “World of Warcraft” have “timesinks”. These locations within the game require many hours in one area to move on to the next quest, reward, or level. An additional addictive aspect of game design is the social interaction between players. Many quests and adventures in MMORPGS need to be completed with the assistance of other players. Players are made to be felt inclusive and important by their gaming peers and then feel the need to further participate. [xi]
Online video game addicts experience a vast amount of symptoms, some more harmful than others, but all are a tragic effect of excessive gaming. Some symptoms of video game addiction include, the inability to predict the amount of time spent gaming and spending over 3-4 hours a day playing online games. Addicts may experience a sense of euphoria while playing, and can experience desperation, depression, or other intense feelings when unable to play. Not participating in social activities, calling into work sick, missing class, lying to friends and family to conceal gaming and neglecting relationships to play games, are serious symptoms of video gaming addiction. [xii]
Many consequences stem from addiction to video games. Physically, health problems can occur, including, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, neck and back strain, seizures, headaches, insomnia, weight gain, weight loss and lack of sex drive. Game addicts normally neglect daily tasks such as personal hygiene. One case of addiction involved a man that wore adult diapers, so he wouldn’t have break away from his game.[xiii] Socially, many families and relationships have been destroyed because of the addiction of a person in the relationship. The website GamerWidow.com was created to offer support to women, and even men, who have “lost” loved ones to the world of online video gaming. Psychologically, some experts say that video games can cause desensitization to violence, which can lead to displays of violent behavior. Financially, effects of addiction can include job loss, because of missed days of work, serious financial debt due to spending money on monthly gaming fees or gaming equipment, and even Bankruptcy.[xiv]
Numerous treatment centers are starting to develop programs that treat video game addicts. In the United States, Boston McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School have clinics that are purely devoted to computer addiction. [xv] Spanning the globe, many other countries, especially Asia, where video gaming is prevalent within the culture, have opened up treatment centers for computer addiction. Support can also be obtained through the Online Gamers Anonymous Website, http://www.olganon.org, where virtual meetings in chat rooms, similar to those of Alcoholics Anonymous, take place. The Online Gamers Anonymous website has adapted the 12-step plan, used by Alcoholics Anonymous, to a 12-step plan for video game addicts. The site also offers tips on how addicts can quit and where they can find counseling offline.
The Chinese government plans to impose limits of how much time a person can spend playing an online game. The plan is to limit online gaming to three consecutive hours at a time; gamers would not have any incentive to play over 3 hours. [xvi] Since the United States of America is not a communistic country, game restrictions like China’s will not happen. One plausible solution to curb video game addiction in the United States, is the mandatory placing of warning labels on games. The labels would be similar to those of tobacco products and would list physical as well as mental health risks associated with excessive gaming.
Another solution would be a moral and ethical choice on the part of online game companies such as Blizzard, who developed the online games “World of Warcraft”, Diablo”, and “StarCraft”or, Sony Online Entertainment, who created the MMORPG “Star Wars Galaxies”. While game developers have the opportunity to limit how many hours gamers can spend playing their games, the industry enjoys a profit of over $1 billion per year. Monthly subscription fees for online games are anywhere from $10-$15 per month, and the monthly income is the primary reason why the games are addictive in design.
The most realistic solution to combat gaming addiction, is to raise public awareness on the topic. A nationwide campaign via television, radio and internet that would alert parents, children, teenagers, and adults to the hazards of excessive gaming would prove useful. Parents should be encouraged to involve their children in other activities like team sports or the arts. Many children can fall prey to addiction because there are not interesting activities to participate in.
With rehab centers opening up across the world, the up and coming epidemic of online video gaming addiction is spreading fast. “Vaccines” need to be administered to the public before gaming addiction takes an even larger toll on our society.
[i] Obsessed EverQuest Fan Found Guilty of Manslaughter
[ii] “JS Online: Death of a Game Addict.”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
[iii] Game Maker Sued Over Child's Death, Iain Thomson
[iv] “Asia Tackles Online Game Addiction”. Reuters
[v] “Asia Tackles Online Game Addiction”.
[vi] “Video Game Addiction Among Adolescents: Associations with Academic Performance and Aggression”
[vii]“ 4 out of 10 Americans Play Video Games, According to Poll”, Michael Hoffman, Dailytech.com
[viii] “JS Online: Death of a Game Addict.”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
[ix] “Gaming Fanatics Show Hallmarks of Drug Addiction”, Alison Motluk, NewScientist.com
[x] “Gaming Fanatics Show Hallmarks of Drug Addiction”, Alison Motluk
[xi] “Understanding MMORPG Addiction”, Nicholas Yee, NickYee.com
[xii] “Addiction?”, Online Gamers Anonymous
The New Addiction
[xiv] Effects listed were gathered from various accounts of addiction found on the Online Gamers Anonymous forum.
[xv] “Study: Video Game Use Leads To Addiction”, Click2Houston.com
[xvi] “China Imposes Online Gaming Curbs”, BBC