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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Rational vs. Pathological

Another assumption in the "addiction" rhetoric is that the real world is wholesome and fulfilling while the virtual world is impoverished and limited. There are several problems with this assumption. First of all, there are many sociological texts that describe how the real world can be limiting for many people. For example, consider "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich or "Teenage Wasteland" by Donna Gaines. Gaines' book is particularly insightful in pointing out why suicide can become a rational and attractive decision for suburban teenagers who feel trapped in social structures of unsatisfying options they can't escape. While it would be nice to think that the real world is perfect for everyone, this is simply not the case. There are many people who, for a variety of reasons and circumstances beyond their control, have very limited options in life. Some of these people may find leadership and affiliation opportunities in virtual worlds that they don't have in the real world. Please note that I'm not arguing that this makes online worlds "good" or "wholesome" or that this means people in these cases are living in a healthy and fulfilling manner, but I am trying to point out how complicated these comparisons are. Specifically, the question we need to ask ourselves is this. Until the world is a perfect place for everyone, is it actually pathological for some people to prefer being in a place where they have social status and respect?

Ted Castronova has also made the same point in his book "Synthetic Worlds":

For some people, Earth is where they really ought to spend their time. For others, perhaps the fantasy world is the only decent place available. Unfortunately, we have no studies that go into any detail about the daily lives of synthetic world users, so we cannot really tell whether they are addicted, or just making an understandable choice (pg. 65).

The broader social issues become clearer. When the virtual world becomes the only decent place to live for some people, is it their fault for making a rational choice or is it our collective fault for perpetuating social structures that produce unsatisfying living conditions? Is the online game simply an "addiction" for these people?

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

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