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According to a colleague of mine, addiction, or dependence, is defined by the inability to use a substance, or engage in certain activities in a controlled way. The hallmark of addiction is continued use (or engagement in said activities) despite negative consequences. If the behavior causes problems (with the law, in employment or in school, in important avocational activities, or in relationships, especially family relationships), then many professionals think of it as addictive.

Does "addiction" necessarily mean "physical" addiction? The thinking on this has changed due to recent research in brain imaging and neurochemistry. What the studies show is that the brain is stimulated, and relevant neurochemicals are released in the same ways, whether it is a substance or an "addictive" activity, such as gambling or sex.

Certainly, substances such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine, are physically addicting, meaning that the part of the brain involved in pleasure sensation comes to expect them, and the absence of them, once those parts of the brain are "trained" to think they are coming, causes physical and emotional upset (ie withdrawal). But the more important and interesting process is that, whether it is cocaine or gambling, the brain is stimulated in the same way. Thus the classic distinction between "physical" and "psychological" is a distinction without much of a difference.

Whether videogames can construct and reinforce the same neural pathways that cocaine and gambling produce for some people, I don't know. But I would not be surprised -- simply because any pleasurable activity, constantly reinforced, will do the same thing.

Why should gaming affect some people in this way but not others? We don't know, just as we don't know why some people are more vulnerable to various other addictions. In my experience, some habitual videogame users, like other addicts, are expert in rationalizing their own behavior (recent example: I haven't failed out of college for the fourth time because I spend 5 hours per night raiding in WoW) and often resist seeing the impact on their lives and those around them (my parents aren't disappointed, my girlfriend won't leave me, and this won't have any effect on my future.)

Why One Gamer Does It

I have known for a very long time that I use WoW as an escape from the ills of my life. I picked up WoW as a Freshmen in High School, at that time my sister was causing outright turmoil in the house on an almost daily basis. There was constant shouting and slamming of doors between her and my mother. It was a very embarrassing thing when I would have a friend over to have to shut my door simply to muffle the sounds of fighting; even then when the yelling would begin there would be a very awkward silence between my friend and I.

This had been going on much longer than then, my sister had been out of control since my 7th grade year of middle school, and even to this day it still feels like that storm of chaos continues to rage (albeit much quieter than it used to). From drugs, to running away, to stripping, to prostitution, to attempted suicide; that girl has kept my mother and I on edge for more than 7 years. The stress of it all was driving me to the breaking point of emotional sanity, then like a miracle I was introduced to WoW. I had been told many times before by teachers I would confide my trouble in at school that the best thing I could do was remove myself from the situation. Being still far to young to simply move out there wasn't much I could do. When WoW came along I found that ability to remove myself from the chaos. No matter how much the fighting would rage outside my bedroom door all I had to do was keep on questing.

I've no doubt in my mind that WoW was what has kept me sane. I have found over the years that as my emotional stress increases my time logged in game also increases, and when the stress lifts I cut back. Now in my third year of college I am transferring to a university 3 & 1/2 hours away, finally moving out of the home haunted by an overbearing sense of tension, the tension that any moment some aspect of my sister's life will come barreling through the front door; shouting, screaming, and cursing at whatever stands in her way. As the day when I move out draws ever closer I find myself needing WoW less and less. No longer do I need it's support to be emotionally stable.

As a child I needed WoW to act as my defending shield against emotional trauma I had no idea how to handle. Now I can put it aside with a sense of closure and move on to bigger and better things.

Good grief I need to find a shrink

I found your story touching and profound. I'm sorry you had to go through such hell growing up but glad you found a refuge in WoW. I don't think you need a shrink, because I think you understand what purpose the game is serving and have been able to function outside of it and progress in your life. Better yet, you are finding you need the game less as you contemplate escape from this truly horrible situation.

I can say that you might benefit from a decent shrink. It's clear to me that you are a survivor, but survivors often find their coping skills can become problematic in other areas of their lives. If you find that what you have been through limits you in your ability to work and love, consider getting some help - it can make a huge difference.

Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.

Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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