GDC 2007: Game Addiction


We met in one of the smaller rooms in the sprawling Moscone Center complex. We took our seats around the long, round table, reluctant but ready to face the specter of our sins. As the room slowly filled, we began to talk. We didn’t share our names, but we did share a secret. Many of us, it would seem, were game addicts. And we were there to face our problem.

Among the assembled personages were game developers, psychotherapists, researchers and academics. People from all walks of life coming to grips with a growing problem plaguing this industry. What good may come of our sharing was unknown, but we had to talk about it. Had to face it.

All of the events described in this story are true. Only the names have been changed. The question? Do game developers know they’re creating addicting entertainment?

“It’s on the radar that there are extreme players,” said “Tavo”, a game developer. “But I wouldn’t call them ‘addicted.’ People use the word ‘addiction,’ when what they really mean is ‘engaging.'”

“I like to use the term ‘avid,'” said “Gertrude,” a teacher from Poughkeepsie. “I’m an avid reader, but I’m not addicted to books.”

“These games go on indefinitely,” said “Bill,” “They’re really approaching the texture of real life. If someone has a need to play, they’re going to play no matter what.”

“This is something intrinsic about gamers themselves,” said “Scott,” a scientist studying the effects of videogames on the human brain. He then related an historical anecdote about the supposed threat of “novel addiction” in the nineteenth century. Women were caught up in the wave of reading trashy novels and accused of neglecting their housework, or abandoning their children. “Are we just transitioning to a new way of play and just haven’t figured out how to self-regulate?”

“I’m an avid reader too,” said “Jenny” a psychotherapist specializing in compulsive behavior. “But I never behaved [when reading] the way I did for the two years I was playing Lineage II.”

Jenny was introduced to the game by her adult sons, and used the game world as a method of socializing and interacting with not only her sons, but many other new friends as well. She also used the game as a tool to help others. Others who found themselves in the grip of an addiction similar to hers.

“People would ask me for help,” she said. “They would say they had a brother who was suicidal and asked if I cold call and help. I’d say, well it’s going to be the elf from the game calling, not me. And I won’t charge you.”

“I’m not sure to what degree a game company can be expected to monitor usage,” said “Frank,” CTO of a company making its first MMOG.

“To what degree does the cable company regulate your TV watching?” Asked Tavo. “They don’t. It’s just another media.”

“There are elements of these games that resemble addiction,” replied Frank. “If we interact in worlds that have connections to the real world on some level, how is that not real?”

“We have to acknowledge that the medium is fundamentally different,” said Bill.

“What’s different,” countered Scott, “is that these worlds have a real impact. People can go and become ‘more’ in these worlds.”

“Most developers I work with,” said Tavo. “don’t see it as their problem. We’re just making a game. If you have a problem, that’s your problem.”

“I’m a developer for World of Warcraft,” said “Louie,” who had until this point kept his peace. “When we made some changes [to the game] in response to [certain problems], did the changes get executed because of concern for players or because there was an element of the game that wasn’t fun?

“What we wanted to address was that if there were players [with problems] that was less of a concern [than] a direct result of a gameplay mechanic that required them to [play for long periods of time].”

Louie’s admission was greeted with quiet murmurs of thanks, and as our time came to a close, we all agreed that this was a problem we could not solve in one day, but that it would take years. But nobody shredded their game disks on the way out the door, and I have a sneaking suspicion that quite a few of us planned to play later – without an ounce of regret.

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