The Impact of Online Gaming
Some wonder what the long-term impact of the increasing extent to which we socialize over the internet will have on real-life social connectedness and interaction.
As noted in previous articles on this topic, social media has provided new ways in which to feel bad about ourselves through increasing opportunities for negative social comparison based on manufactured and enhanced versions of other’s lives; while also providing new means of initiating and maintaining friendships and romantic relationships.
Another realm of entertainment through social media is the fantasy worlds and avatars which people create and “live” in. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, also called MMORPGs or MMOs, are games in which a very large number of people interact with one another through a virtual world.
The use of them has skyrocketed from less than a million subscribers in the ’90’s to over 13 million worldwide, over 7 years ago. One of the most played is Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (WoW), which has over 6.5 million players worldwide, most of whom play 20 to 22 hours per week.
Online Gaming vs. Real-Life Interactions
These games provide spectacular, immersive adventures and riveting storylines that keep people coming back for more. Players become invested in their roles because they are based on psychological and emotional human needs: cooperation; commitment; achievement, the pursuit of wealth, power, and knowledge; and, most importantly: constant interaction and reaction.
The head of a gaming software association stated succinctly why many people may be drawn to such games: “In the hypothetical world created by such games, they become confident and gain satisfaction, which they cannot get in the real world.”
Second Life, which came out in 2003, is a game where residents interact through avatars and can, as the title of the game suggests, live out a secondary more or less human experience through an entirely virtual world. It offers the potential for that ‘second chance at life,’ where you are able to take all the risks and grant yourself all the endowments you are deprived of, or unwilling to develop, in the real world.
But how does this all translate to the real world? Can real life ever measure up? And what are the consequences of total immersion into these fantasy worlds?
Escaping Real Life Through Video Games
In some ways, this is the perfect anecdote to FOMO, because you don’t care what you’re missing out on in real-life when you’re getting your social fix entirely online in a controlled and perpetually stimulating environment. The appeal is justified.
Most of the monotony and drudgery of real life (i.e., taxes) is edited out, our fantasies and imaginations are allowed to run wild (i.e., zombies, unicorns, Amazonian avatars), sped up to allow for maximum life experience (i.e., the rise an fall of civilization), and the most existential dilemmas are either averted or explained (i.e., multiple lives, parallel realities, and alternate dimensions). Real life is much less interesting and, ironically, becomes increasingly so as you neglect it by playing games.
This has all led to increasing concern that, like gambling, pornography or any other psychological stimulant, these games have the potential to thrill, engross and completely overwhelm their users. Begging the question: can gaming become addictive?
Can Gaming Become Addictive?
Some scholars suggest the effects (or symptoms) of video game overuse may be similar to those of other proposed psychological addictions. Video game overuse may be like compulsive gambling, an impulse control disorder.
In 2007, the American Psychiatric Association reviewed whether or not video game addiction should be added to the DSM-V and concluded there was not enough research or evidence to conclude that video game addiction was a disorder. However, just as how not every person who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic, due to the fact that the addiction manifests as the result of an underlying biological propensity; pathological gaming behaviors are more likely the product of underlying mental health problems rather than the inverse (Ferguson, Coulson, & Griffiths 2011).
All addictions have their basis in the behavioral feedback loop derived from constant rewards and reinforcement. Research on video game play, conducted at Stanford University School of Medicine, found evidence that video games do have addictive characteristics. Furthermore, one MRI study found that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video game play.
Griffiths (2010) proposed that addiction has six components: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse. Psycho-social dependence may revolve around the intermittent reinforcements of fulfilling the human desire “to belong,” provided by the game, in a much more ‘intoxicating’ format than that which real life has to offer.
This has led some scholars to speculate that the social dependence that may arise from video games occurs when the interaction with players online “become more important for gamers than real-life relationships.” However, there is substantial scholarly and popular criticism of this characterization of gamers.
Over-Exposure to Screens
Another concern regarding over-exposure to what has come to be known as “screen time” is the potential for contributing to such disorders as ADHD. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1.5-2 hours a day maximum of screen time, and some research suggests that children who are exposed to more than that are more likely to show signs of attention issues.
This research has also received criticism, again, because many such problems have been found to be the result of underlying mental health problems rather than anything unique to gaming. So might some people with underlying psychological issues be more prone to developing an excessive interest in gaming?
The Daily Telegraph (2008) reported on a study by Dr. John Charlton, whose research supported the idea that people who are heavily involved in game playing may be nearer to autistic spectrum disorders than people who have no interest in gaming. Food for thought. Many psychologists and scientists who research Autism are now exploring social role play through virtual experiences in order to strengthen social deficits.
Deaths Associated with Excessive Game Use
Another harrowing fact is that there have been a number of deaths associated with excessive game use. There have been deaths in China, South Korea, Vietnam, Canada, and the U.S., which have been associated with excessive uninterrupted amounts of time spent playing video games.
These range from people dying from exhaustion, starvation/malnutrition, cardiac arrest, and seizures; as well as death by proxy, for example, a child died from malnutrition while its parents raised a virtual child online in internet cafes. One teen committed suicide in front of a game he had been excessively and concerningly playing.
In 2005, 10 people in South Korea died from “game-addiction causes,” including one man who collapsed in after playing an online game for 50 hours with few breaks. In one extreme instance, it was reported that a 17-year-old boy would play for periods of up to 15 hours, skipping meals and only stopping when he blacked out.
Many rightly noted that some of these devastating losses of life were more the result of bad parenting than video games.
Fascinating to me is the emergence “HIKIKOMORI,” which from Japanese translates to pulling inward, being confined, and social withdrawal.
The word refers to reclusive male adolescents and men in Japan who live, more often than not, in their parents’ homes; not coming out of their room, playing video games, and having sustenance brought to them by their parents. They cease interaction with the outside world and seek out social isolation and confinement for years at a time.
It’s an interesting sociological phenomenon that is more than likely cross-cultural when cultures have access to such resources. Hikikomori has come to the psychological world’s notice due to their high rates of suicide.
The New Yorker ran a great article on a Japanese monk who was reaching out to this population to help them out of their rooms through social support groups.
Art Is Eternal, but Life Is Short
While there is not enough research to support that video games are inherently addictive, usage may become concerning when participating in a virtual reality takes the place of some adaptive activities (personal hygiene, eating, sleeping, spending time with friends and family, or school), if you play to avoid real-life interaction as opposed to for entertainment or socialization, and/or if you’re no longer having fun and you can’t stop playing the game.
Most likely, a lot of what is experienced through gaming is more stimulating and therefore, in the behavioral sense, rewarding. However, this only mimics the “reward” for achieving these sensations in the real world; so strive to gain them authentically. While art is eternal, (real) life is short; make sure to live yours.