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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Cherry-Picking Addictions

As big as the stereotypical jock vs. nerd divide is in high schools, there are a great deal of similarities between football and MMOs. They are both social activities that take place in a cordoned-off portion of the real world. In these virtual worlds, different rules come into play. Players take on fantasy roles that only have functional meaning in the fantasy world. They are awarded points for arbitrarily-defined tasks. Cooperation and competition play large roles for players in both worlds. And it isn't uncommon for players in both worlds to develop significant relationships with others they have played with.

On the other hand, there is a tremendous difference in how people interpret tragedies that occur in these two worlds. High school and college students on football teams regularly die during practice (1, 2, 3), but their deaths are dealt with by the media with a very holistic perspective. The media questions whether the coach set an unreasonably exhausting regimen. The media questions whether the parents saw warning signs. They ask whether the school reviewed the coach's history thoroughly when the hiring was made. They wonder why the school mandates year-round practice that necessitates training in the hot summers. They ask whether the team physicians condoned the exhausting practices despite the individual's particular health idiosyncrasies. And in no time during all this does anyone suggest that football is addictive and caused the deaths. This is because that statement would be na´ve and simplistic.

When people die during or after playing an MMO however, it is typically "caused by an online gaming addiction". The wikipedia entry on "game addiction" lists several of these "notable cases". Even in cases where the person suffered from depression and other mood disorders, an "addiction" to the game itself is primarily blamed for the deaths. As another example, Kimberley Young's discussion of Internet Addiction Disorder implies that marital affairs that occur online are primarily the fault of the Internet, rather than having to do with personal choices. Why is it that explanations are complicated and holistic when it comes to football, and so simplistic when we talk about online games? Part of the reason is that football is too mainstream and too low-tech to be a tool for the media to instill paranoia with. No one is afraid of a leather ball.

We pick and choose what we label "addictions" in other ways too. For example, pedophilia is a kind of "child addiction", but no one blames children for causing the addiction. We don't argue that children are accessible, controllable, and cause excitement and thus cause "child addiction" (analogous to Kimberley Young's ACE model of Internet addiction). We don't argue that molesting a child causes dopamine increases and is physiologically reinforcing over time. We don't blame the child fashion industry for deliberately designing cute clothing that attracts pedophiles. We also don't blame shopping malls for kleptomania. I would argue that the level of social acceptance for technologies, objects, and people influences how likely we blame them in analogous scenarios, and how likely we take on holistic as opposed to narrow perspectives in trying to explain the problem.

To argue that the application of "clinical addiction" on to different behaviors is somehow an objective scientific process is to ignore the fact that all social institutions are embedded in cultural and financial frameworks that shape their beliefs and actions. Many embarrassing "mental disorders" have been included in the DSM in the past - being gay used to be a pathological behavior. Whether a novel behavior tied to a novel technology qualifies as an "addiction" is anything but a simple matter.

Note: It also bears pointing out that chronic pain and debilitating injuries have become routine for professional and college football players. Massive doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, along with knee and hip replacements, prolong a player's career temporarily while increasing the chances of a debilitating injury in their weakened state. It is ironic that this spectacle occurs in the same society that instead complains about virtual violence. How is it that we can complain about virtual violence while cheering and encouraging debilitating violence on TV and in stadiums? (see Edward Tenner's "Why Things Bite Back" for the risks of intensification in sports)

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

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