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The Three Heads of Videogame Addiction
by Enrique Dryere on 10/11/09 02:44:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article is a brief overview of three possible mechanisms of the much disputed game addiction, and particularly how they apply to MMORPGs. While these elements may be present in games, you will notice that none of them are exclusive to games. Videogames work off existing mechanisms of addiction as they are purposefully designed to appeal to the natural patterns of our behavior.

Andrenaline Junkies - Pass the Code Red Please

The effects of the fast-paced competition offered by first-person shooters is well documented. It can spike adrenaline and increase testosterone levels. In this way it is not dissimilar to engaging in extreme sports.

There's a certain drive, stronger in some than others, that compels us to seek out these danger and competition. Gaming provides a safer alternative, at least physically, to intense sports like football or extreme activities like sky-diving.

Cautious thrill seekers, which despite the apparent paradox seem to exist in abundance, will find the synthetic tension and danger present in many games absolutely intoxicating. While those who crave the rush provided by fierce competition will find it in abundance in the videogame aisle.

Escapists - Anywhere but Here

What fan of fantasy hasn't occasionally entertained the dream of visiting the world Tolkien created in the Lord of the Rings? But aside from throwing on your mother's bathrobes and running around passing gibberish off as Elvish with like-minded friends, there was little more you could do than read the books again or watch the movie.

It's this form of desire that partially drives reenactments, renaissance fairs, and Star Trek conventions. What card holding member of the Trekkie legion wouldn't give up his or her mundane life for a chance to travel the stars on the Enterprise?

Now you can actually enter the world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings Online. Thankfully, with technology limited as it is, LotRO may provide an experience that is even more limited than the one you get by donning bathrobes and wrapping foam around PVC piping. May God have mercy on our meek and yearning souls when this is not the case.

Another aspect that makes MMOs dangerous to escapists is that often time what drives us from reality is precisely what calls us back: loneliness. Yet the cyber-worlds of MMOs are filled with other real human beings, who can often prove more interesting than those around you in reality.

In my experiences, I've met people from all corners of the globe, from Canada and Brazil, to Australia and Russia. I've grouped with students, CEOs, engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and slackers. Perhaps I was escaping the heterogenic society in which I lived, but I was arguably only trading one social circle for another -- one that exists on a medium to which we are not yet fully accustom and therefore move to discredit.

Escapists who are seeking to avoid human interaction altogether will also find the world of MMOs appealing, despite the fact that they are "Massively Multiplayer." Most modern games are design to welcome solo play. Some have even gone as far as to call them Massively Single-player -- and there may be some truth to that.

Whether you're looking to meet new people or simply avoid human contact, MMORPGs have got you covered.

Achievers - Workaholics Beware

Workaholism is not a technically accepted psychological affliction, but you don't need to be a shrink to spot it.

What drives a workaholic's obsession for work? Certainly, a degree of escapism is present. What better way to avoid the rigors of social life in a socially acceptable way than to let oneself be absorbed by work? But there's more to workaholism than that.

The workaholic could choose to hide in their basement rather than the office, so what separates them from the shut in? Most workaholics cannot stand leisurely inactivity. They are wracked by the sensation that they "should be doing something." Temporary relief comes only from the satisfaction of accomplishment.

The mechanisms of achievement and accomplishment can be quite potent. There are many who derive their sense of worth from work. Achievement can give us a sense of purpose -- a reason to rise in the morning.

Reward systems in MMORPGs take this fact into account. The successes of today will yield benefits tomorrow. This relationship can help occlude lackluster gameplay. As soon as a player tires of a game without continuity and permanency of gains, there may be no reason for them to continue.

With entertainment removed, games can be reduced to nothing more than wastes of time. Yet the persistent world of the MMORPG might coerce players, and often does, to slog through the mire of mid-levels to reach the promised land of the endgame.

The rate at which these relationships occurs is of great importance, a topic I brushed in a previous article. Gains in MMORPGs occur faster than in reality, making them more effective at reinforcing certain behaviors from the player.

Workaholics beware of the MMORPG. As soon as the veil of triviality is drawn back, and gains within the game become important, you will find it difficult to hoist yourself from your chair.

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Bart Stewart
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There's a theory that personality/behavioral styles have a "regular" and an "extreme" version, and that personality disorders are the extreme versions of what are otherwise normal behavioral preferences.

The regular/moderate version of a personality style (as the theory goes) allows individuals to function effectively in the world; they are able to adapt their behaviors to manage the variety of challenges thrown at them by life. Persons whose personality styles have become highly intensified, however, can have severe difficulty dealing with the world in any way other than the one style they favor, rigidly trying to apply the one style they know to everything they encounter.

(Source note: a good example of this theory is presented by John M. Oldham, M.D., who contributed to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed. Oldham, who has written papers and at least one book on this subject, favors a personality model consisting of fourteen styles, each of which has a "normal" version and a clinically dysfunctional version. For example, the normal Self-Confident style, when it takes control to the exclusion of other styles, is expressed as Narcissistic personality disorder. The Conscientious style becomes the Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, and so on. Oldham's complete list is discussed from the perspective of the Solitary style at .)

I mention all this to wonder whether addiction to a game could be one form of expressing an extreme version of one of the "gamer" styles. If I may be permitted to update the three proposed styles slightly:

Gamist (Achiever) => Overachiever (need for security)

Experientialist (Killer) => Adrenaline Junkie (need for action)

Simulationist (Explorer) => People-Escapist (need for logic)

Narrativist (Socializer) => Reality-Escapist (need for drama)


Neils Clark
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What's interesting about this perspective on gamer motivations is how similar it is to Bartle's original 4-pack. Bart, you bring them up: Achievers, Killers, Explorers, Socializers. Nick Yee, in his statistical research, actually extended these to include Escapism.

These are useful for game design, or for beginning to wrap our minds around motivations, but we're all also impossibly unique. What I glossed over in that post (thanks for linking it, btw), is the idea of psychological and physiological immersion.

I think that adrenaline is physiological. It's a draw that games can definitely satisfy. But there's a lot going on, besides, that can keep people playing without their conscious awareness. The photorealistic experience of TV, for example, is processed the same as regular experience. Books can pull people in for a dozen hours - using only abstract symbols on tiny pages. MMOs mimic the texture of reality (see Thomas Malaby's article 'Beyond Play.') Our attentional system gets overloaded just by stuff on the pixelated side of the screen. That's not addiction, but it can cause problems when we don't understand it. Fail to understand it for long enough -- addiction might become the right word for what you're doing.

But there's the psychological also. There are a lot of competing ideas on why gamer brains like their games. I think that escapism and workaholism (Bartle's achievers), are part of just one perspective: the player archetypes perspective. There are also motivational theories, such as Agency theory, which was hocked as a business solution by Rigby and Ryan in an article for gamasutra. There are theories of culture, and the effect of a community - Florence Chee's stuff on Wang Tta is fantastic to learn more about that. I personally like Descartes - we talk about a game's empowerment - but I lay some added garnish onto that thought in my book. But seriously - most theories dealing with gamer motivations do capture something. And they're usually things seen as legitimate in older mediums.

But the satisfaction they bring can bring out the dopamine, one key chemical in motivating behavior. We'll have a lot harder time controlling that wash (or creating tools that may help), as developers and gamers, if we don't understand those non-addiction draws. And ultimately - knowing this stuff feasibly helps people to understand games critically.

Thanks for the post