When people think about gaming addiction, the first image that usually comes to mind is that of the “sad” gamer who stays in all day to play videogames. Plenty of media outlets have parodied this stereotype, such as the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” where a high-level character (who is actually an overweight loser) terrorizes the show’s young protagonists in the world of Azeroth; the only way to defeat him is to devote all their time to the game and become overweight losers themselves. But acne and obesity aren’t the most universal signs of game addiction, nor are they the most interesting. Certain habits crop up in the minds of many gamers that indicate a high level of obsession, if not always addiction. Some of them are benign and others far, far stranger.
First, there are the almost subliminally small tendencies with which all gamers are familiar. Some even wear these curious behavioral tics with pride, like battle scars or unlocked achievements. Perhaps the most amusing of these behaviors is the uncontrollable twitching (often in the facial muscles) that indicates intense concentration. The twitch manifests itself in cases like turning the controller as though it’s a steering wheel in a racing game, or flicking the controller upwards when Mario jumps. For non – gamers, these behaviors seem curious, even silly. But among gamers, the common perception is that the more weird habits and rituals you have, the more experienced and devoted to gaming you are.
But the truly addicted player develops tendencies that are far stranger than mere controller movements. One example is that of the person who becomes so “sucked in” by a game that he starts to interact with what would is essentially a one-way communication system. This can range from verbally pumping yourself up for a large boss fight to smack-talking the A.I. One example comes from a guy in New York who whispers to his opponents before killing them. He sees a soon-to-be victim crouched behind a wall, the tip of his Kevlar helmet just barely visible. He zooms in for greater accuracy and aligns his crosshairs on the black hemisphere. Finally, he breathlessly caresses the unsuspecting victim with heinous words: “I got you now … staaaaay … good girl.” Bang!
Then there are the game modders. Modders are ostensibly altruists of the highest order, looking to prolong and improve everyone’s enjoyment of a game. But just as often, they’re addicts who’ll do anything to keep playing the game they love. Take, for example, the ’90s classic Doom. The game was adored by hundreds of thousands of players, and to this day it still has a devoted fan base. But pore over the numerous maps and mods created by players using the game’s engine, and it becomes clear that these players have made the transition from adoring fan into addict. One mod I came across featured an extended maze which appeared to have no exits – an apt metaphor for obsessive game modding if there ever was one.
In the quest to quench boredom, players often turn to in-game improvisation (commonly referred to as “emergent gameplay”). Level editors and tools like Garry’s mod often facilitate this type of exploratory play. Already ran through Crysis twice? Build enormous piles of exploding barrels in the game and watch them tumble. Had your 50 hours of fun with San Andreas? Figure out a way to precariously balance motorcycles on the tops of buildings. It’s not as disturbing as aforementioned sniper example, but these exploits can be just as strange when viewed in the original context of the game.
The pinnacle of disturbing emergent gameplay is the “suicide gamer.” A suicide gamer is the guy who picks up the rocket launcher during a Deathmatch, runs into a room full of other players, points his weapon downwards and says goodbye to his legs. From personal experience, I find this type of player to be most common in games where the boredom threshold comes after about an hour of team play. However, suicide gaming isn’t confined to FPSs alone. Sure, there’s an element of “ants under a magnifying glass” experimentation, but hundreds of videos showing drowning Sims suggests an entirely different phenomenon. To put it another way, at what point do a few random car crashes for fun turn into an entire videogame series called Burnout?
The point of these examples is that the line between addiction and normalcy is often a blurry one. One person’s emergent gameplay is another person’s strange obsession with car crashes and watching people die. As strange as some of these behaviors might be, they’re easier to swallow than the notion that a line can be drawn in the sand separating the addict from the merely enthusiast. For me, the important thing is knowing I can quit anytime I want – right after this last headshot. Good girl …
Dean Sherwin is currently a freelance journalist living in the Republic of Ireland. He specializes in gaming and motorsport. He can be reached at dean_sherwin[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk.