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The Trouble with "Addiction"

I think the wikipedia entry on "game addiction" is very telling. While you would think the entry might at least cover several genres of video games, the only genre it names specifically is MMOs. More interesting is that for over a year the neutrality and factual accuracy of the entry have been debated on the discussion page, but very little has changed. Comments such as the following are typical of the background discussion.

I've added {{disputed}} and {{POV}} tags to the article. Honestly, I don't think it can be salvaged at all, although that doesn't mean we should VfD it, as there ought to be an article on this subject. However, this article is a great example of exactly how not to write a good Wiki article. Junjk 19:37, 31 July 2005 (UTC)

What the wikipedia entry shows is that it's not easy to talk about "online gaming addiction". This is partly because "addiction" is a very loaded term. And it bears emphasizing that "addiction" is a very complicated concept. Some things, like coffee, cause physical addiction, and most people who drink coffee are technically addicted to coffee, but few people think of that addiction as a bad thing. On the other hand, marijuana is not physically addictive, but people can become psychologically addicted to it, and that can become a bad thing. Some people say they are addicted to knitting or the TV show "Lost", but most of them are neither physically or psychologically addicted. They just use that word to imply how much fun they have with their hobby. But just because some people can become psychologically addicted to shopping or golf (or other idiosyncratic and bizarre activities) doesn't mean that these activities are addictive for everyone. Finally, falling in love is also a kind of addiction that can both enable some people while completely disabling others. In other words, the same addiction can be good for some people while being bad for others. And just as an illustration of how casually we employ the metaphors of addiction in our news media, a recent news report of a scientific study found that "the simple act of talking triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high". In short, women are addicted to talking.

To say this issue is complicated would be an understatement. But I want to say the complications are conceptual rather than factual. Here's what I mean. If I said "the President of the United States has one leg", that statement would actually be factually accurate. It also turns out the president has half a brain. While these statements are semantically misleading, they are both logically true. And I think the same thing is going on with the discussion about "online gaming addiction". What's clear is that there is a real problem. There's a great deal of evidence that some MMO players spend so much time playing MMOs that other parts of their lives (work, academics, relationships) are severely impacted, and that they have trouble accepting they have a problem and controlling their play patterns. On the other hand, the simplistic framings and perspectives that dominate the media on this issue are somewhat misleading. And much of this is due to how loaded the term "addiction" is how it shapes discourse around online games. When shallow comparisons between online games and cocaine are made, what's left out is the other leg. And I would argue that if we really want to understand the nature of the problem (and actually help these people), we have to understand the bigger picture.

Notes: For more on the differences between physical and psychological addiction, see Lance Dode's "The Heart of Addiction". For a fascinating perspective on love, see Deborah Tennov's "Love and Limerence". For an interesting take on the difference between "being addicted to something" vs. "something being addictive", see Neils Clark's Gamasutra article.

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Posted on November 30, 2006 | Comments (60) | TrackBack (0)

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