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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Ending Thoughts

The word "addiction" is loaded. It would be naïve to say otherwise. While there are more nuanced ways to use that word, such as differentiating between "being addicted to X" versus "X being addictive" for example, this is seldom the case when online games are dealt with. And people who use that term are deliberately setting themselves up for resistance. If they really wanted to help people understand how complicated the problem is, if they really wanted to reach out to the people who are having these problems and actually help them, there are other more neutral ways of saying the same thing. People will resist the label "online gaming addiction", but no one would argue that some players spend too much time in an MMO, that sometimes players develop dependencies to an MMO and the dependency can cause a severe impact on their work and relationships. And most importantly, that these people need help.

It would also help to acknowledge that oftentimes, other factors such as depression, low self-esteem, mood disorders, high stress, or traumatic events such as unemployment or marital crises can make a person more susceptible to developing a dependency on a variety of potentially destructive behaviors, including playing online games. It would help to mention that behavioral dependencies in general share many common features and predisposing factors, and that creating loaded terms for specific technologies can make it harder for people to understand and help resolve the problem when the rhetoric focuses so singularly on the technology. And finally, it would help to mention that behavioral problems seldom have simple and single causes, but rather are typically produced from and sustained by a variety of inter-related factors. It doesn't really help anyone when the entire issue often boils down to simplistic "yes/no", "good/evil" stances in media reports.

I would argue that with our current social paranoia, using the term "online gaming addiction" is a rhetorical strategy for implying a lot of conceptually misleading things. It is a strategy that asks the audience to take on a simplistic view of what online games are, a strategy that plays to the fear-mongering of the news media and parental concern with video games and the internet. And ultimately, it is a strategy that in fact makes it harder for everyone involved to understand and help people with very real problems (particularly parents and therapists who know very little about online games). The label "online gaming addiction" encourages people to associate the underlying problem with the technology rather than (and in addition to) the person or their circumstances. It encourages people to ignore the therapeutic and enabling potentials of MMOs. It asks people to assume that MMO experiences are always limiting and unsatisfying. But the fact of the matter is that it's much more complicated than that. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there is a huge difference between stating what is logically true and what is conceptually meaningful. And I would argue that you can't understand and help people with two legs if you only think they have one.

See Also (more recent articles listed first):

- A Q&A with a Theapist
- A New Disorder is Born
- Problematic Usage
- The Seduction of Achievement
- Addiction
- Understanding MMORPG Addiction


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


An excellent article, I think a lot of the concepts presented apply to "alternate society" situations as well, like the SCA, Live action role play groups, or other re-enactment groups.

People become addicted not to the game...but to escapism. The ability to choose to be something that you're not in "Real Life", be it a Baron, Guild Leader, Level 6 Magi, or a Civil War Captain.

Posted by: Tyg on December 3, 2006 4:47 PM
We don’t blame the child fashion industry for deliberately designing cute clothing that attracts pedophiles.

I'm certain I have seen criticism of the child fashion industry for slutting-up youngsters... not in reference to pedophilia, though.

Posted by: Jeff Freeman on December 3, 2006 10:28 PM

It's excellent to see someone expressing interest in the underlying cause of an addiction, instead of just the addiction itself. Debating why a specific form of entertainment is or is not addictive, is about as rational as arguing over what cough-suppressant to give a Tuberculosis patient while ignoring the need for antibiotics.

The addiction is a problem, but it's also a symptom. It's more effective to treat the cause than to treat the symptom.

Posted by: Carl Eric von Kleist, IV on December 4, 2006 2:07 AM

The article is right to note the fact that there is a big problem.

It could more clearly condemn those who dismiss the problem with such poor arguments as 'I play and I'm not addicted so it's not addicting'. I guess we can toss out gambling addiction too, since most gamblers avoid it.

The article could say more on what the addiction is; it's not simple, IMO.

The games are designed to provide rewards; not just the trivial awards that winning a hand of cards with friends, or even winning a single player RPG win, but the kind of rewards that keep people playing for months and years, all paid.

My guild in WoW raids several hours every friday and saturday night, and most other nights. Asking people to spend that many nights in the game clearly has a real draw to it, and one that can easily be a problem.

The game makers have a financial need to pull people in that way, and it has ovelap with addiction; just as gambling casinos would like to get the money without the addiction problems but they're inter-related, MMORPG makers have the same issue.

One example explaining the draw is that laboratory experiments show that the most addictive way to get rats to push a button for a reward isn't to give them a reward every time they push the button, but to reward them randomly. It makes the rats compulsive in pushing for the random reward.

Almost every MMORPG uses the same mechanic for this sort of random reward - as you kill many, many things, there's a small chance a very valuable item will be found each time. The same mechanice is used in games like the highly addictive Diablo 2, as well; in fact, the game largely becomes about killing the bosses thousands of times in 'runs' to try for the rare items.

There are other elements as well.

Posted by: Craig on December 4, 2006 12:48 PM

Even though I've also pointed out the behavioral conditioning principles at work in MMOs before, I would caution against emphasizing those game mechanics too much because every video game since Pac-Man has employed behavioral conditioning prinicples.

I think MMOs are unique because they're compelling at a more socio-cultural level, but as I mention in this article, the empowerment issue gets very complicated.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 4, 2006 1:32 PM

I think this is a very necessary and interesting article - hope you've gotten it published numerous places.

I also think that it portrays the subjects of addiction, work and play in the real world vs. in the virtual world and cultural bias much more clearly than your essay on work and play (I forget the exact title), which fell somewhat prey to the widespread simplicity of opposing real=wholesome with virtual=unwholesome.

Posted by: Astrid on December 5, 2006 2:49 AM

It was great to see an article like this. The inundation of articles and papers pointing out the harmful addiction of MMOs is aggravating at best, especailly when the vast majority pretty much are taking the slightest hobbyist behavioral traits and using them as an indication of psychological addiction.

A cautionary post/blog from someone respected in the community was long overdue.

Thank you.

Posted by: Loktofeit on December 5, 2006 4:50 AM

In my opinion, it's not the MMOs that are addicting but the social context. People have the opportunity to function in a world that is designed to extrinsically reward effort and provides clear goals and means to attain them that are attainable by the average player. Contrast this to real life where much of what happens is out of the individual's direct control and you can see the appeal.

Another draw of MMOs is the ready access to a wide-range of individuals for social interaction. People are brought together by the game content to work together to accomplish tasks and meet goals. We know in real life that relationships are generally built as the result of common interests and goals. However, finding those opportunities outside of the work environment, in which relationships are often complicated and undermined by corporate culture factors, is becoming increasingly difficult. MMOs provide a more accessible means to connect with people who share common interests and goals.

Another factor which contributes to the draw of MMOs is the invisibility factor. People who have good hearts and fine minds but do not meet society's standards for attractiveness (or are handicapped) are able to communicate and develop reltationships based on their inner qualities without external appearances prejudicing people's willingness to get to know them.

Finally, the cooperative nature of the activities such as crafting brings to mind the "old style" communities (guilds) in which everyone's skills were needed and contributed in order for the community to survive; everyone had a place and value. More than any other factor, I believe that it is people's need for community that draws them to a level that can be interpretted as addiction to MMOs.

If real-world society provided opportunities for individuals to have meaningful goals and clear ways of obtaining them, more control over their own fates, to make connections with people with similar goals and interests, to be accepted for their personal qualities without physical appearance being a detractor, and the opportunity to experience and be part of "community," MMOs would not have the appeal and so-called addictiveness that they have.

Posted by: Victoria on December 5, 2006 7:54 AM

I like that this article takes the time to note that the word "addiction" is a loaded term, and that those who employ it in this context are doing so to evoke a particular reaction. This rhetorical technique is common in both politics and in the media. All readers would do well to be wary of it.

I recently read an essay by Mark Twain called "What is Man?" In it he proposes that the human brain is just a simple machine, and that it's entire purpose is to act in a way that best contents our spirit. As such we'll always act in a way that best satisfies us.

From that perspective, a person who's addicted to a given thing will choose that thing for the satisfaction it brings, whatever the form it takes, and whatever the cost it bears. The satisfaction derived from indulging the addiction outweighs all other concerns, be they work, family, or even health.

Most people act in a balanced sort of way, as seeing to your work, your family or your health typically brings great satisfaction to a human. For a person with an addiction, though, there are no alternatives - nothing pleases quite as much, so nothing is as important.

I concede that there are players out there for whom these statements are true. Yet I still get agitated when people, particularly non-gamers, identify games as "addictive". The games have no way to physically alter us, nor to shut off certain neurotransmitters, nor to strengthen the response from others. If our games interest us at all, it is because playing them provides some measure of satisfaction.

An unrelenting craving for that particular type of satisfaction is what causes addiction - not the mere fact that a given thing satisfies. Addiction (in this case) seems intrinsic to the person.

Posted by: Brian Kern on December 5, 2006 10:45 AM

While I love this article and found it amazingly interesting and compelling I think you're missing/ignoring a big part of the problem with MMO dependency. Your arguments assume that the media is ignoring the underlying problems in favor of blaming the visible culprit, the games, but this assumes that there is in fact another cause of the addiction, something bad in a person's life that makes them choose a fantasy world instead.

In my experience this just doesn't sync with the people I know who've developed problems. Yes, there are many people who already had social problems, but I think if anything that's because gaming in general can be linked with social awkwardness. The thing about MMOs is that they aren't just sucking in the "nerds" or whatever you want to call that kind of social outcast who was addicted to FF3 back in the day, it's sucking in EVERYONE.

People from all walks of life only have to try MMOs (especially WoW from what I can tell, but I'm sure all MMOs have similar effects) to risk becomming debilitatingly focussed on the game and its fantasy context. Yes, you could always find something in a person's life that could be considered another cause, but the fact is that without exposure to the game the problem would not have arisen. Saying that there's always another factor is as misleading as saying it's always the game. Whether it's the sole reason or not, if it acts as the catalyst for developing social and financial/educational problems then it seems like we should treat it as a dangerous experience to be exposed to. Further, for me at least, the massive number of people who express almost instant improvement in their lives after quitting indicates that it is not their lives themselves but their lives in comparison to the instantly gratifying epic fantasy worlds that seems dreary. The fact that game dependency is positively correlated with a shift in ideology towards "game worlds are as valuable as the real world" does not mean that that opinion was already held by dependent gamers, but can easily be chalked up to the wearing effect that playing a game for 8 hours a day can have on one's mind and opinions.

Remember that all drugs have on some level a potential therapeutic purpose. From heroin to marijuana to lsd, all have been used medically and have been abused by some because of addiction and dependency. As a society we choose the ones that are most likely to damage ones life as a whole and discourage their use because it is so consistently destructive. It may sound simplistic to frame it in this way, but single-player fantasy games are the marijuana of gaming, while MMOs can only be described as its cocaine.

(full disclosure: I am a recovering addict of WoW, you can say that addiction is not what I suffer from but my daily struggle dissagrees with you. I have managed six months and hope to hold out forever. If anyone is reading this and trying to quit remember that it is possible, you can do it and your life will improve in ways you can't imagine now.)

Posted by: jeremy clarkre on December 5, 2006 10:55 AM

An excellent article and it expresses many of the questions I've had about news stories and articles that portray online games as if they were a drug. One thing I question though is the implication that these games are disproportionatly appealing to people in intolerable life situations or dead end jobs. Many of the people I have gamed with online, including some of the people who may play "too much" are professionals, college students, parents etc and many have other hobbies outside of their game. In short, they are people with "real lives".

It may be that people whose lives are frustrating or boring outside of the game are more likely to display patterns we would call "addictive", but I do not think that anyone has yet tested this hypothesis. It would be interesting to look into it.

Posted by: Erica on December 5, 2006 11:31 AM

Thanks for presenting the other side there, Jeremy. The people who've never had any sort of problem at all see gaming as non-addictive by default, while those who've overcome a problem or who are battling the effects of addiction present games as (potentially) devestating and overwhelming.

This is an example of why the issues surrounding gaming addiction have become polarized in the media - the issue is most often represented by the elements at each extreme (the "no chance" crowd versus the "we had problems" crowd).

We must always be wary of addiction. It can lie in wait to ambush us in the most unassuming guises. Why, this very website has shown me that I'm compulsively attracted to experimental psychology. I used to play games in the evening; now I'm reading case studies, journal articles, and looking at the correlations between sex and age as applied to the results of a survey.

Posted by: Brian Kern on December 5, 2006 11:35 AM

Hi Jeremy - Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm not arguing that there's *always* an external factor, as much as people typically do not consider any other factors at all when discussing the problem that is frustrating.

Another thing that I should have stated more clearly in the article is that there isn't one kind of online gaming problem, but that different people develop problems for very different reasons.

And finally, I don't think it's the case that MMOs are appealing to everyone. Many FPS gamers find MMOs boring (because of lack of instant gratification). I think the universal appeal of MMOs is often overstated when discussing this problem.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 5, 2006 11:43 AM

> Another thing that I should have stated more
> clearly in the article is that there isn't one
> kind of online gaming problem, but that different
> people develop problems for very different reasons.

I think this could equally be said of drug addiction. While certain elements are consistent there are always underlying tendencies that nurture the dependency or encourage reckless behavior (whether that's jumping from pot to coke or joining a raiding guild even though you know you don't have time for it). Thus the media, in comparing the two, is justified in making the connection. The main difference is that the socio-economic situation of gamers is different from those most affected by drug use. As you mention in your article, it's suburban angst that can be interpreted as the culprit in many MMO dependency cases, but how is that different from urban or rural poverty as a motivation for drug addiction? Sensitivity to the other causes of addiction is important, but I don't think it deminishes the catalyzing action of both MMOs and drugs on the lives they affect (would these problems have been blown out of control in the same way had the individual never tried drugs or MMOs?), nor does it refute claims that the games are effectively, and for whatever reason, dangerous to the lives of potential players.

> I don't think it's the case that MMOs are appealing
> to everyone. Many FPS gamers find MMOs boring
> (because of lack of instant gratification). I think
> the universal appeal of MMOs is often overstated
> when discussing this problem.

On some level discussing the feelings of FPS players towards MMOs is like comparing the way a cocaine user feels about heroin. The chemical and psychological realities of FPS gaming are a mess of their own, and someone accustomed to that kind of action is already inhabiting a mental space different from the general population (I guess they're lucky because they're in a way immune). What I was implying is that the social element of MMOs combined with the low learning curve for enjoying them (if not for ultimate pwnage) gives them an appeal to individuals that have never gamed before because they are less afraid of screwing up, especially if playing with friends. This obviously isn't bad in and of itself (hey, they're getting into a whole new hobby that was always innaccessible to them before, good for them!) but combined with the potential dangers of dependence/addiction, I see it as a dangerous new market for a potentially dangerous lifestyle.

p.s. I think your trackbacks might be broken (I tried the link in Firefox and Camino and got 404 errors in both).

Posted by: jeremy clarke on December 5, 2006 1:29 PM

While I agree with the notion that addiction is a fundementally loaded term, there is definite possibility for pathological use.

The fact is that while MMOs can be therapeutic, the very act of logging on regularly can be a contributing factor to the problems they supposedly help with. As with Mr. A, being online may help with self esteem issues, but at the same time it isolates the user from the real world, and that seperation results in alienation, stigma, and a host of other things that hurt ones self esteem.

If someone's working at wall mart and playing MMOs 12 hours a day, they may be playing games because wal-mart is not soul-satisfying work, but playing the game means they don't have time to search for something more.

To put it another way, a cancer medication that cures brain cancer but causes leukimia would never be sold. Something that cures the common cold but leaves you with a cough and a runny nose wouldn't make it to the market. Either or isn't the right approach, but Both-and put everything in it's right place, either.

In the end, I think that it's silly it is ignore people's personalities when examining the "addictiveness" of a social setting. But it's just as silly to ignore the simple fact that the games are *designed* to be addictive. The game teaches you to be better at the game: they condition your responses, habitituate your playing, coopt your social networks, embed themselves in your routine. They are *designed* to get you playing, and keep you playing. That fundamental fact cannot be denied, after all, who ever heard of a company announcing it's new MMO, who's main feature is you'll get tired of it in a month or two?

The comparison to football and the like seems valid, but there is a fundamental difference that seperates the two activities. The rules of football are more or less set, and there is no corperate entity directly profiting from "football addiction". The NFL does not have researchers designing varients of football that increase it's appeal and they don't earn money based on how much time you spend kicking around a pigskin.

Companies that make MMOs have a mandate to make their games deeply appealing, and having players obsess or engage in pathological use is actually to their benefit. Consequently, any theraputic or beneficial side effects are just that: side effects. When the game is designed to be a bad thing (something which eats as much time as possible), looking at the up-side is just silly. It's sorta like saying "well, AIDs sure is a terrible disease, but at least it's making people remember to use condoms".

Until the design itself changes, until a company finds a way of making money without demanding time itself, MMOs are by their very nature flawed.

Posted by: Graeme Hill on December 5, 2006 2:18 PM

I am having a hard time swallowing some of what has been written above.

I game, I socialize while gaming, I also spend many hours NOT gaming. I guess what he wrote is an example of the 'anti-gaming' end of the spectrum.

If I want to spend money to entertain myself on a game, does that make the game evil? I could very easily spend money on say.. golfing, that is a game, it takes money to play, and it takes time. Does that make golfing a bad thing?

Golfing is a form of physical exercise, gaming is a form of mental exercise. It is all a matter of perspective, I guess. Both cost money, take time and can be social.

Gaming is here to stay, and depending on a persons viewpoint it is horrible or wonderful. Thankfully it is a personal choice. I don't want those who hate gaming to be forced to game, and I don't want to be forced to quit gaming because someone else doesn't like games.

Games should be treated like any other hobby. Played with moderation and keeping in balance with the other demands in your life. If anything becomes more important to you then your family, your job or your bills, then there is a problem.

It seems too convient to place blame on any hobby that might cost money or takes time to do. There are always underlying factors that were there before the problem started.

Not all gamers are mindless drones that throw money at a company without thought. I wouldn't even go as far as saying that not many are. There are always people who take it to extremes and become addicts. That is true of various types of collectors, shows on TV and so on.

Address the individual, don't generalize and point at an object and say "The object is the problem!"

EEK, I started to preach, but I do think I have a valid point.

Anyways, that is my two cents

Posted by: Lisa on December 5, 2006 3:08 PM
Jeremy said: While certain elements are consistent there are always underlying tendencies that nurture the dependency or encourage reckless behavior (whether that's jumping from pot to coke or joining a raiding guild even though you know you don't have time for it). Thus the media, in comparing the two, is justified in making the connection.

Jeremy - I think we're largely in agreement. I'm not arguing that substance abuse problems aren't complicated (as Shavaun also goes into in the Q&A article). The problem is that very few people have the holistic understanding of behavioral dependencies that you have. If the media had the nuanced perspective of dependency problems you have, I would agree that they would be justified in making those comparisons. Unfortunately, that degree of nuance is seldom seen when the media reports on the issue. Thus, when they make those comparisons, there is a great deal of slippage.

Jeremy said: Sensitivity to the other causes of addiction is important, but I don't think it deminishes the catalyzing action of both MMOs and drugs on the lives they affect (would these problems have been blown out of control in the same way had the individual never tried drugs or MMOs?), nor does it refute claims that the games are effectively, and for whatever reason, dangerous to the lives of potential players.

For the record, I never argue that games aren't part of the problem. But I do want to point out that most behaviors and acitvities are potentially dangerous to users when not done in moderation (including online games). And behavioral dependencies can tether on to a large variety of activities (including online games). It's that generality that is missing in most discussions of this topic.

But I think, here too, we are in agreement. What frustrates me is that the scope and generality we're laying out here is often not there. As I mention in the article, there are constructive ways to use the word "addicted/addiction", but important conceptual distinctions need to be made and those are seldom made in media reports of the issue.

(I had to close trackbacks for spam reasons unfortunately a while back.)


Graeme - Of course, for some players, games are more destructive than therepeutic, but it would be unfair to claim that this is the case for all players. Nor do I argue that games are always better for people than real life. You're creating an unfair "either-or" dichotomy here.

It also bears mentioning that all consumer and media products are "designed to be addictive". All companies want you to be loyal with them. And as I mentioned to my earlier reply to Craig, MMOs are most compelling at the socio-cultural level (rather than the conditioning level), and that's where the empowerment issue gets complicated.

And by the way, football is the most profitable team sport in the world. There is a lot of money in football. And oftentimes, coaches and managers will inject massive doses of pain-killers to an ailing player just so they can keep playing. Also, unlike your assertion, MMO companies do not earn more money from someone who plays 100 hours a week than from someone who plays 1 hour a week.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 5, 2006 3:18 PM

I recently kicked my addiction to Guild Wars. After looking back I try to realize what made it so fun. Was it the adventure to slay the final boss? Was it the want of unique items for my characters? Was it the quest for skills to be able to be more effective in the game? It was all of those. After beating the final boss (before the new area in Nightfall opened up) and getting all the unique items and skills I wanted, I wondered why am I still playing this? It was boredom and a way of relaxing. There was no social aspect to it other than talking to my guild mates who I'd probably never meet and fighting in PvP. I have friends in the real world and picking them over the guild mates is a decision I didn't have to think about. PvP wasn't that great, especially when compared to playing a game with friends. I look back at the goals I had in the game and I realized that in 5 years, this game world will probably be dead and all that materialistic stuff I got in game would be worthless. I'd rather complete goals in real life and do things that I can talk about with my friends, family, girlfriend, etc. that we both understand and are interested in. Football is a good comparison to MMOs, but at least they have a social aspect in real life when they play. Those addicted gamers need to look up from their computers and find a different way to spend their time socializing before they lose loved ones. I almost did.

Posted by: Calevenice on December 6, 2006 9:26 AM

>Those addicted gamers need to look up from their computers and find a different way to spend their time socializing before they lose loved ones. I almost did.

While it is true that people should pay attention to the "real world", what makes the real world any better than the online world? Isn't reality what you make of it?

People say real life is fleeting and you should enjoy every minute of it, but that is the same with the online "worlds". They will not always be there, and you may want to experience something you will never be able to experience again. Example:

Some of my most fun memories have been from playing Ultima Online back in '99. Yes, it isn't reality, but I made several friends who have stuck with me through the game, and are still in contact when I quit. The experiences I had were very satisfying, and even now, years later, I still remember my first UO house, first friend, very first dragon kill, et cetera. The world was not the real world, and I'm sure I missed out on some things in the real world while I played a few hours each day... but if I spent the time in the "real world", I would have missed out on some lovely and/or hilarious in the alternate world.

I think it is a personal choice, to be honest. Living in the other world, 24/7, is a very bad idea: even though you get social interaction and obtain goals, you have nothing to show for it but your memories and feelings. However, who can put a value on memories and feelings? Only yourself.

Posted by: PDragunov on December 6, 2006 10:24 AM

Thank you very much for this fantastic article, it is probably the best attempt of a conclusive description of the actual problem that mass media around the world has with this issue. Especially the way that you lay out comparisons with other "addictive" activities is in my opinion a very strong argument that sheds some light on the deliberately negative image that online games receive in the press. Now I just need to make them read this :-)
Again, thank you!

Posted by: Matthias Schreck on December 6, 2006 5:43 PM

In fact I know many people are playing the game because their real life is crappy and they are able to gain respect and social status online.

The problem is, playing the game does nothing to improve their real life situation, and in some cases does make it worse as they let go problems they should be dealing with and escape into the game.

I also wonder, if we had online games in ancient times like we have now, would we have a Mona Lisa? A Stary Night? A purloined letter? Or would these unhappy geniuses have poured their energies into excelling at Everquest instead?

Posted by: Ruby on December 7, 2006 12:05 PM

Ruby - I just want to point out that many people who we admire as geniuses now were thought of as crackpots in their own times. Galileo was persecuted because his thoughts went against the mainstream dogma. Marx was in poverty and his works weren't well-known until after he had died. Their parents, partners, and friends probably encouraged them to do something more productive, but failed.

You're also assuming that activities in virtual worlds are inherently meaningless and pointless. But considering that Anshe Chung has a net worth of over 1 million from selling fashion goods in Second Life, and some people pick up many leadership skills in games like WoW, it's not clear that online gaming is any worse than golfing or playing chess in the physical world. Should we tell the people who play golf in their leisure time to find something more productive to spend their time on?

You're also assuming that everyone who plays online games just gets sucked in forever. That's also not true.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 7, 2006 12:54 PM

Just in response to the earlier post- I know there's good money in football, and there are definatly individuals who act in an unscrupulous manner when it comes to practice hours, painkillers, steroids and all the rest. And you are right to blame the individuals, not the sport.

That said, I feel there is a fundamental difference between an estabilished game (granted, one with new traditions and marketing twists each year) and a type of game that is continuously being redesigned to make it more apealing.

Yes, by this logic, all consumer products are designed to be "addictive". Purely from the perspective of motivation, the people who make Mars Bars taste so good are just as culpable as the people designing grouping systems that encourage more play. However, I would argue that the latter group is more successful, and the effects of their success are more harmful. In other words, I won't argue that all consumer products are meant to be addictive (they are), but to my mind that's secondary to how successful they are, and what comes as result of their success.

Finally, I'm aware that there it's the social motivations more than the conditioning that make these games "addictive" (and also empowering and theriputic). However, through the use of game mechanics, social motivations can be engineered almost as easily as conditioned responses, so it seems a moot point.

I'm also intensely aware of the thereputic effects the sense of empowerment and the like, but I put it to you that the people who gain such things from an MMO seem to be those who are most sorely lacking them in the real world. The game gives themn what they need, but it doesn't help them aquire it in the real world, and the fact that they already have it in the MMO saps their motivation to try.

All that said? I don't have your data, your expertise, or anything else. I've now read almost every article in the project and continue to be fascinated. I would definatly qualify myself as a problem user for WoW, in the recent past, and I'd lump many of my real life friends into that category, so I come from a perspective that paints MMOs in an unflattering light. Your site provides an invaluble resource for research, though my own bias and personal experiances probably cause me to look at the same data in a different light.

Posted by: Graeme Hill on December 7, 2006 1:00 PM

Fantastic Article!

Ruby it is not always true that playing the game does nothing to improve a person's real life situation. It helps develop skills such as typing, map reading, computer literacy and hand eye coordination that can be very useful in today's real world (and helped me get a significant boost in salary). I know several people who are now happily married to people they met in game, and I know I myself have several fulfilling relationships with people I met online. In some cases it can make a situation worse. But in some cases it can make that situation better.

Posted by: Welegu on December 7, 2006 1:00 PM

It really does boil down to the individual. Generalizations drive me nuts. I am a 'gamer' that is a generalized term. I love to game, that makes it individual.

I have never had problems socializing in 'real life'. I definately don't while gaming. I play WoW about 20-25 hours a week, some classify that as being 'addicted' which is not true.

While working I don't think about what I am missing. When I get home, I clean my home, feed my family then and only then do I look forward to logging into my passtime. My husband and daughter log in with me.

We game together as a family. We may be computer dependant. We do however talk about what happened during our days, laugh and talk with our other friends who are online. Sometimes, we even stay up a bit late because we are all having a good time.

We also go to movies together, go exploring together, hike together, visit our different friends. I find the games far more stimulating then turning into a couch potato, not speaking and just staring mindlessly at a TV screen. At least when we are online, we talk to our friends all over the world at least 3-4 times a week, for a tiny sum of 15 dollars a month. That is far cheaper then calling them 3-4 times a week.

It is the rare individual who makes it thier life. They sink into the game and have no care of how thier 'real lives' are being affected.

The media articles that I have read seem to focus on those that have fallen into the addiction. It attracts readers, I guess.

I just ask that we be seen as individuals, not some group of underachievers and addicts.

Eesh, I ramble too much

Posted by: Lisa on December 8, 2006 1:32 PM

"Are online games detrimental, addiction-feeding?"

Every MMORPG on the market today requires that you invest time to advance. That's true of all games, of course, but MMORPGs are unique in how much time they demand, and the recipe they use to do it. There are several advancement mechanics that implement this time-for-progress conversion: item rarity, intermittent reinforcement, exponential XP/PVP/reputation grinds, purely random advancement (see: crafting in DAOC), and the conclusion-free persistent world, to name a few. MMORPGs seduce players to continue playing to a degree other games do not (or cannot). With a list of tricks that long, MMORPGs don't seem so innocent.

As for the anecdotes about the benefits of the virtual world....for every disabled, introverted, high-schooler in northern Saskatchewan who comes out of his shell to triumphantly lead 39 of his closest Internet friends through Naxx, you can probably find a dozen players who log on every night and grind away despite deriving little to no enjoyment from doing so. They continue to play, and they clearly don't like it. I don't know if that's addiction, but it sure is sad.

Posted by: Todd Ogrin on December 8, 2006 6:03 PM
Todd said: With a list of tricks that long, MMORPGs don't seem so innocent.

Todd, you're conflating "fun", "engaging", and "addictive". Schools are also "designed to be addictive" for 16 long years via a whole host of seductive behavioral conditioning principles. Just because something was designed to be engaging doesn't mean it's a detrimental activity.

As to your second point, I'm afraid that stating imaginary statistics as facts doesn't contribute much to the discussion.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 8, 2006 6:48 PM

I'm certainly not conflating "fun" with "reputation grind," or any of the other items in my list because, frankly, those mechanics ultimately result in tiresome, repetitive timesinks. That, however, is a different story.

You defend MMORPGs on the basis of all the good they can do, and you reassign to outside factors the responsibility for people playing too much.

Some people allow their lives to deteriorate in various ways because they dedicate so much time to playing online games (for whatever reason). At the same time, and despite the good they may do, most online games have practically no respect for a player's time. I can't help but see two sides of an equation there.

I think it's vital to defend online games from media hyperbole. However, it's equally important to understand how the games we're defending may indeed be complicit in the self-destructive behavior of their players. At worst, we're prepared for the argument. At best...well, maybe we'll get better advancement mechanics than "go kill 2500 skeletons, see you in 3 weeks."

Posted by: Todd Ogrin on December 9, 2006 9:44 AM
Todd said: You defend MMORPGs on the basis of all the good they can do, and you reassign to outside factors the responsibility for people playing too much.

It's a little more complicated than that. I argue that online games are seldom the only factor in a gaming problem, but I never argue that online games are never part of the problem.

I'm glad that you presented a more balanced perspective in your second post. Your first post was much too easy to interpret as being one-sided.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 9, 2006 11:37 AM

I am a 64 year old man who has spent 8-16 hours a day, most days, on the computer and the Internet since 1993. Am I an addict? Well, take out 6-8 hours of worktime because I work on the 'Net. And subtract the time that I spend online with children, grandchildren & friends who live in other states. Don't count shopping for presents. That still leaves considerable game time. But, admitting the fact that I work, play, shop and socialize on the Internet misses the point: I am a citizen of the Internet. I live on the new frontier.

My health is good, I am happily married, I attend family get-togethers, contribute in face-to-face business meetings and serve on one or two boards of directors every year. But, admitting the fact that I live a normal, productive life misses the point: Normal activities are moving onto the Internet.

Mr. Yee is exactly right. We are better served by focusing on the specifics of individual cases where Internet use contributes to inappropriate behavior instead of reacting to misleading labels. Blaming the Internet for any addiction is like blaming Los Angeles for crime.

Posted by: Gary Deckard on December 11, 2006 6:43 AM

Coming late to this comment party, but I would like to add that I will agree to some extent with the arguments presented here, but I also think there is some value in acknowledging the “danger” of MMOs. My impression from this article is that the author is a very smart person who really doesn’t want MMOs to be viewed as “bad” and thus spends a great deal of time deconstructing non-physical addictions as not “real addiction.”

Clearly MMOs provide social spaces that, for many varied reasons can lead to behaviors that are self-destructive for the individuals involved. My definition of addiction includes a few key features – compulsion, sense of need (psychological or physical), and some sense of the destructive nature of the behavior.

Speaking as an anthropology PhD, avid MMOer, and someone whose marriage was greatly harmed when my ex-husband became what I consider “addicted”, I ask why there is such reluctance to discuss this in terms of addiction? Some spaces and behaviors are more amenable to “addiction” - gambling, sex, etc. These specific social spaces and behaviors provide an especially welcoming and powerful context for people to refocus their attention. As with any type of addiction, the fact that someone is addicted to something does not imply that there aren’t external factors that caused or at least encouraged a person to start snorting coke, gambling away their kid’s college fund, or playing an MMO upward of 20 hours a day.

Addiction is always the symptom, not a cause in my opinion. Even physical addictions are often initially fostered on purpose. So, why the reluctance to admit that MMOs are well suited to foster addiction? I clearly see the positives of playing an MMO, I have fun, it relaxes me, I’ve got a great social network, it is an enjoyable hobby. To say a behavior can be addictive doesn’t negate the positive potential of that same behavior.

Posted by: Jen DF on December 16, 2006 8:09 PM

Hi Jen - I think in a room of people with non-polarized mindsets, it is possible to use the term "addiction" constructively, with all its nuances and complexities in the way you did in your comments. The problem is that this balanced complexity is oftentimes missing when the media reports on this issue.

In interviews with journalists, as hard as I try to present a balanced perspective, they will sometimes only quote me as saying "and Nick Yee says that 40% of gamers consider themselves addicted to an MMO" (see here). In the linked Washington Post article, when someone is quoted as saying "I think the game companies are nothing more than drug pushers", it gets hard to return to productive discourse. This is typical of news stories on "online gaming addiction". Very little nuance. Very little complexity. Mainly the usual "online games are addictive" mantra. Seldom in these articles are positive effects mentioned at all. And this has been the case with the majority of articles on "gaming addiction" over the past 6 years.

It's not that I don't think there's a very real problem, but I think the term "addiction" easily leads to the casual and simplistic reporting and thinking on the issue. And it's important to remember that the choice of words can shape a discourse. Could we expect rational discussions of laboratory animal testing if we referred to it as "torture"? Could we expect rational discussions of religion if we referred to it as "brainwashing"? And it's the same thing with online gaming. Words that are logically and technically correct can still be incredibly misleading and mangle the discussion. And with the current cultural paranoia with video games, I just don't think using the term "addiction" encourages constructive discourse.

Posted by: Nick Yee on December 17, 2006 11:42 AM

First let me point out that I agree with many things said in this article and I admire the research you've done thus far. But I have some serious problems with some of the things you've said here:

1. "When people use the term 'online gaming addiction', they are encouraging others to think of online games as a kind of physical substance. This is a rhetorical move that asks the audience to ignore everything about MMOs except that they are like alcohol or cocaine."

2. "When the media and others use the term 'online gaming addiction', they are asking us to ignore all the ways in which an online game is different from an ingested substance.

3. "Creating labels such as 'online gaming addiction' gives us the illusion that we've identified a new problem in our society instead of talking about the real and chronic problems in the world we live in."

4. Almost the entire last paragraph.

I don't believe any of these assertions to be true.

About the safest and most accurate thing you can say about people who use the phrase "online gaming addiction" is that they probably believe that there are people addicted to online games. I use the phrase. I tell people that I was addicted to an online game four years ago (an FPS by the way). I don't think, by stringing "online", "gaming", and "addiction" together without a context, that I am saying anything to the listener/reader other than that I believe online gaming addiction exists.

I think all these insinuations about people using "online gaming addiction" as a rhetorical device are taking your article down a notch. And it almost seems like you think the word "addiction" is more negatively connoted than it really is. Yes, like terrorism, like love, the word "addiction" is extraordinarily subjective and I would contend that, like these other words, nobody could form a definition without holes, or without disagreement from someone. But that is the nature of language. I don't think using the phrase "online gaming addiction" is part of any problem here, in the sense that using other words in place of "addiction" would help anything. It seems a bit unnecessary to use another word in its place just because its replacement may be a less loaded/subjective term. Suppose we use the word "problem" instead. Well, "problem" in this case is far too vague, and it carries its own baggage of subjectivity. Besides, I can't think of a more accurate term than "addicted" to describe someone who plays online games so much that they lose weight, stop going to school/work, stop talking to their family, and isolate themselves all the time.

I think, the real problem you're concerned about, in terms of using "addiction", is that some people may not understand that with addiction, there is a spectrum of severity. But let's keep in mind that using the word probably won't make everyone think or assume that the addiction is so bad that people will start stealing or killing to play online games any time in the near future. I could very well be wrong about this, but I don't think most people define addiction as strictly a chemical dependency. Looking at the 1 and 2 quotes from you, it almost seems like you believe either A) that most people define it as such or B) that addiction should be defined as such. If B is the case, we have a simple disagreement, but if A is the case, then I encourage you to find this out for yourself, perhaps with some surveys. I think, when it comes down to it, some people will play online games so much that it interferes with important parts of their life. I define this as addiction and believe this to be mostly independent of public perception of technology, the Internet, and video games. I don't believe that if we keep using the phrase "online gaming addiction" that years from now people will be saying, "online games are bad, mkay?" in that Mr. Mackey voice. It's certainly understandable that one might be worried about the misuse of the term in the media in the event it causes people to draw such connections/comparisons, because really, the harm drugs can do to a person are beyond comparison to what an MMO can do. But, like I said, I believe the real problem to be with the media's misuse of the word, and the misattribution of fault/blame by people with an innacurate understanding of addiction, not with the word itself, as I still consider it less loaded than you do. I guess ultimately, what I'm saying is, people have misconceptions of addiction in general, such that, like you said, they may not understand or consider the complexities of the situation. But I believe this problem has more to do with the ubiquity of the fundamental attribution error, and, well, ignorance about certain topics at hand. I think it would be appropriate to maybe rewrite a sentence like:

"The label 'online gaming addiction' encourages people to associate the underlying problem with the technology rather than (and in addition to) the person or their circumstances."

into something like this:

"When hearing the phrase '[noun] addiction', people may associate the underlying problem with the [noun] rather than (and in addition to) the person or their circumstances."

I guess thinking back to the U.S. Temporance movement, not a lot has changed in terms of how some people want to solve certain societal problems.

I didn't mean to harp on the only things I disagreed with, but I felt it was worth noting. I found the article to be an interesting read and will try to find some of the books you mentioned, as this particular subject interests me greatly.

P.S. Sorry for the length of this comment. It's probably longer than your article.

Posted by: Casey M. on December 28, 2006 12:39 AM

After reading the comments here an idea suddenly came up in my mind.

What if nature has allowed us to be addicted? What if because wars and genocides are mostly the thing of the past nature produced a way to make survival of the fittest work? Addiction will be the next counter-population growth factor and eventually getting rid of the genes that cannot overcome real life problems and challenges.

What if addiction is one of the steps toward evolution of humankind?

I'm not saying this is a good thing (counter population growth) but just saying the possibility.

Posted by: on January 19, 2007 6:22 AM


there's a study on the addictive attributes of mmorpgs at the Charité - Humboldt University of Berlin. So far, "clinical addiction" could be applied to excessive gaming as test subjects seem to show physical withdrawal symptoms (due to prior dopamine increases).

You're comparing some of the mechanisms in mmorpg to Skinners concepts and state that - basically - gamers are "trained" to stay online. So, in a sense, they are being addicted.

The type of addiction with MMOs might possibly be more adequately compared to the way people are "addicted" to cults and sects. To user your paraphrase from page 3 to make the point with MMO addiction: "Would you rather live in the US or in Azeroth?" One can be addicted to a social space and disregard other social spaces.

Posted by: Ahmet Emre Acar on January 23, 2007 6:12 AM

Ahmet - I think we need to be careful with loose analogies. For example, schools also use behavioral conditioning principles - they "seduce" children to slave away on tedious homework, but no one claims that schools are "dangerously addictive".

And of course, a romantic relationship is a "cult" of two people, where in the infatuation phase, idolization, compulsive longing, and withdrawal symptoms (complete with dopamine increases) occur. But even in these cases, we don't ask them "Would you rather be with your romantic partner or your parents?" and diagnose them with addiction if they choose the "wrong answer".

Just because an experience/person/space is designed to be or inherently compelling doesn't make it "bad". And the same activity (such as being "addicted" to love) can be highly destructive for some people and highly enabling for others (or both at the same time). In general, I think much of the current discourse on the issue of "gaming addiction" is conceptually lacking.

Posted by: Nick Yee on January 23, 2007 10:32 AM

I agree with Nick on the issue being conceptually lacking. Because as i stated on one of the other threads; depending on the individual playing the game, it could either be something positive rather then negative. It's all about circumstances and the smallest factors and how well one manages to not let that escapism consume them.

Posted by: Jin on January 23, 2007 2:13 PM

i believe the fact that the comparison between cocaine and MMOs are not shallow. since the effect of an addiction is similar. given that you are trying to minimalize the intensity in the criticism against MMO, understanding that MMORPGs are the most addicting games out there. Plus, psychological addiction should be taken into a more serious level because it causes physical aspects as well.
if you're psychologically addicted to the game, you will be naturally wanting to be sitting in front of the computer, playing the game. thus causing computer addictions. which is semi-physical because it is an physical activity.
addiction to MMO is simple, it needs to be removed because it can be fatal.

Posted by: anonymous on January 28, 2007 6:33 PM

Under that logic, cars also need to be removed because driving can be fatal. "Addiction" is anything but simple.

Posted by: Nick Yee on January 28, 2007 7:57 PM

The discussion is almost identical to the discussion of drugs. Someone states it's dangerous and addictive and 2000 junkies defend the behaviour with socrating inquiry.
What is "real"? What is good? What is beneficial? What is dangerous?

I probably sound like a midwestern conservative republican but your arguments more or less prove the thesis for me.

"Under that logic, cars needs to be removed because driving can be fatal".

Are you seriously that confused?

"What if addiction is one of the steps toward evolution of humankind? "

It probably is you know, but what does it help me when my friend gets lost in lala-land buring his bridges in front of himself.

"This is typical of news stories on "online gaming addiction". Very little nuance. Very little complexity."


"It's not that I don't think there's a very real problem, but I think the term "addiction" easily leads to the casual and simplistic reporting and thinking on the issue. And it's important to remember that the choice of words can shape a discourse. Could we expect rational discussions of laboratory animal testing if we referred to it as "torture"?"

Yeah, thats certainly the way to go. Find another word for it. Something complex, something noone with less than a masterdegree can relate to or understand. That will clarify the issue.

But hey, discuss away and rejoice when you finally find that perfect definition and the concensus term. In my view your thought process is just as disattached from the real world as the poor bastards who can't control their MMOG behaviour.

In my mind it's all quite simple (simple minds = simple solutions). If MMOG affects you or your friends, spouse, kids, pets in a bad way, meassured by real world performance, it's not a good thing. If you despite that don't have it in you to quit then there's a problem. Then you need help. If it qualitfies as an addiction or just a "psychological reward systems disfunction", or whatever the people who rejoice in intellectual discussion calls it, is not that importan.

But hey, discuss away and rejoice when you finally find that perfect definition and the concensus term. In my view your thought process is just as disattached from the real world as the poor bastards who can't control their MMOG behaviour.

(mildly moderated for inappropriate language)

Posted by: Noname on February 6, 2007 3:55 AM

Noname - Please be careful about quoting things I didn't say in-between things I said. I never made the "evolution" statement.

But of course there's a problem. And of course people suffer from negative consequences and need professional help. On the other hand, there's a world of difference between that understanding and the argument that "addiction to MMO is simple, it needs to be removed because it can be fatal". The latter is the simplistic argumentation I'm against. I hope you can distinguish between the two.

And I think a term like "online gaming problem" gets across much of the same idea without anywhere near the amount of cultural baggage. Is that a term you think you'd need a master degree to understand?

For practical advice on how to deal with friends/family with gaming problems, see my interview with Shavaun, a licensed Family and Marriage Therapist.

Posted by: Nick Yee on February 6, 2007 9:49 AM

No, I have no problem understanding the concept of "online gaming problem". However I do have some problems understanding the practical importance of using that defintion instead of "gaming addiction" or "online gaming addiction" or "computer game addiction".

In my mind it's like having a fire in your house and when you call the fire department they ask:
- Sir do you have a minor-flame, major-flame, confined minor fire, a spread minor fire or a major fire?

You may think by defintion you get a clearer view of the problem, but I believe that defining terms and subterms makes the debate loose focus. It becomes a discussion about the terms of Addiction vs Online Gameing Problem, and such a debate, in my mind, will not do any friend, relative or kid who needs help any good.

Thanks for the link though, there's some info that I really can use. That information speaks to me.

PS. Sorry if my language offended you.

Posted by: Noname on February 9, 2007 2:09 AM

Regarding Nick Yee's concern with the power of words vs. Noname's indignation at Mr. Yee's concern:

I doubt that Mr. Yee is starting a crusade against the use of the word "addiction" in conjunction with what is obviously, and almost universally, perceived as a social problem. Mr. Yee does not appear to be trying to sidetrack the discussion; he is merely stating a concern with the usage of a word that may obscure the problem.

Keep in mind that the media is also trying to induce dependency in its followers, just as the games do. The media people twist words all the time for they understand the power of words. The choice of the word "addiction" over the word "problem" is deliberate and aimed at those who will take umbrage, who delight in their righteous anger.

When the power of the word "addiction" wanes, as it will, the media people will find another word to satisfy the addicts need for righteous anger. Mr. Yee is "merely" voicing caution for the benefit of those who want to investigate the issue with due diligence.

Posted by: Gin Lee on February 18, 2007 6:29 PM

I think Nick Yee is actually almost completely "missing the point" here, perhaps due to coming to this "debate" extremely late in the day, and seemingly becoming interested in it whilst examining virtual worlds like Second Life, rather than Massively Multiplayer Games like World of Warcraft.

My problem with this article is that it completely and totally fails to address the addictive "mechanisms" within most conventional MMORPGs, the whole Skinnerian "lever-reward" business, which I was rather expecting to be the primary focus of the article.

Many games use these mechanisms. However, there's a big difference between most MMORPGs and conventional games - Conventional games end at some point, usually within 12-40 hours of commencing play, depending on the game's design, amount of content, player ability, and so on.

I mean, we have the following mechanisms:

Continual reinforcement - In MMORPGs this comes in many forms, from "loyalty" rewards, to "rested XP".

Fixed Ratio/Variable Ratio rewards - These are the mainstay of MMORPGs. Fixed ration rewards are things like items gained from quests or faction grinds, Kill X mobs (where X is often a truly gigantic number), and eventually you'll get reward Y. Often you'll have to then repeat the process to "collect the set". Random dungeon loot drops are a great example of Variable ratio rewards. There's no certain reward, but the more you keep pushing the level, i.e. running the dungeon, the better your odds of recieving the reward.

Fixed and variable interval rewards are timer-spawned mobs which drop good loot, and so on.

I'm going on too much, I feel. There are many other mechanisms, but what I'd suggest is very different in MMORPGs (rather than virtual worlds), to say, American Football or the like, is that the player is continually presented with the opportunity to press levers and get rewards, and that this continuous reward mechanism, often known as "grind" in these games is extremely effective in convincing certain people to play the games constantly, particularly if their real life is not rewarding.

This sort of thing is why people called EverQuest "EverCrack", not because of the social elements, but because of a game design that encouraged behaviour that certainly resembled, at least in appearance, conventional "addiction". I find it mystifying that Mr Lee doesn't even attempt to address this.

Posted by: Alex W on March 1, 2007 4:10 PM

Hi Alex - I've dealt with the behavioral conditioning mechanisms in the past actually. And I want to point out that my focus (over the past 7 years) has always been on EQ-clones rather than worlds like SL.

Over the past years, I've written many articles on this issue and my views have evolved somewhat over time (in chronological order):

I'd argue that understanding gaming problems is more than simply understanding the behavioral conditioning that goes on. And if this is the first time you've seen this site, please feel free to look around the accumulated material:

Posted by: Nick Yee on March 1, 2007 4:55 PM

This is why I used the term "problem video game playing" as a substitute to the yet clinically explored "video game addiction" in my thesis on the topic.

Even without a background in scientific research, it is hopefully clear that as "video game addiction" lacks any kind if clinical back-research to establish it as unique, it does not yet exist, and using the term is baseless and contains no reliable meaning. We hardly know anything - risk factors, co-morbidities, maintenance factors, longitudinal fluctuations, even the range and intensity of the actual problems!

As it stands, according to the DSM the closest diagnosis to "video game addiction" is an impulse control disorder, a subset of behavioural disorders, and there is little to no evidence to suggest "video game addiction" deserves it's own criterion, let alone is perpetuated by the technology itself.

I don't believe there is even enough evidence to establish a case for online game playing to be any more problem-inducing (or beneficial) than almost any other hobby/recreational activity. Problems with gaming do exist, but it is unlikely that they are any more common or dangerous (or in academic terms, their epidemiology) than problems associated with any other hobby. The research is simply too infantile to establish a case for anything, let alone paranoia; and it is likely that if large-scale problems were arising, clearer signs would be present.

Posted by: Daniel Loton on March 6, 2007 4:06 AM

One thread of argument I see among the people who are, for lack of a better term, "pro addiction model", is that they believe people whose lives are not going well should not be playing, instead, they should be just somehow making their life better. There seems to be a desire to believe that merely trying to have a better life will make it happen. This is not borne out in reality. Our society is set up so that there will be a large class of people who basically work as drones. I am intelligent and hard-working and friendly, yet now, as I approach middle age, I find myself in an unfulfilling dead end job with no savings, few friends, and a biological family so dysfunctional I can't tolerate talking to them. Due to some complex circumstances I had to move cross-country several years ago and have never been able to establish a social status in my new location. When I log into my favorite MMO, however, I have clear goals that I can accomplish, and more importantly, people who are excited and happy to see me. Very few people in real life seem to care if I even live or die, no matter how nice I have been to them. Why would I not want to go hang out online?
To say I could go out and just somehow "improve my life" so that I would be more attracted to doing things in the real world is something I find insulting. Do you think I've never tried? Before playing MMOs I didn't have some fabulous life that I just threw away. I just came home from work and made dinner and took care of my small child and put him to bed early and then sat around the house with no energy or capability of going anywhere since I can't leave him at home alone and don't have a lot of money for going out anyway.
I don't neglect my child or call in "sick" to work to play MMOs. My free time should be spent doing something I like. I like playing MMOs. There isn't a whole lot of other things in my life I can do for pleasure or entertainment. This isn't my fault and I really don't have a lot of options for changing this circumstance right now. Please refrain from acting like I am somehow sick in the head or lazy and unmotivated for spending a lot of time doing what I enjoy.

Posted by: Older Gamer Gal on March 14, 2007 7:31 AM

Soy de Argentina,y estoy realizando mi tesis de grado en psicologia sobre este tema. Quisiera saber si estas publicaciones estan traducidas al español o donde puedo conseguir su libro y/o investigaciones completas, aunque esten en ingles, para poder traducirlas y trabajar con ellas.

Posted by: valeria on March 23, 2007 1:38 PM

I'd like to consider something you brought up about the moderation of time. I find it very interesting because I am currently playing WoW and find that it is virtually impossible to advance your character very far by playing in moderation.

Tonight I will be going out with my girlfriend, last night and monday night i did the same. I'm in a guild that is raiding karazhan, and in order for me to get the items to upgrade my character I would have to be there early for every raid every night of the reset in order to play with them. If you don't show up you get cut our of the loop or raiding rotation, and then you log on out of the blue and want to go to the raid...and they would be wrong to take you because you don't show up as often as others do, hence would contribute less with the items you're getting.

Then you show up every night and the item from boss X/Y/Z doesn't drop that week, so you have to come back next week etc... I know not all players play to progress, but seeing the game's end game content, where all the interesting lore, beautiful areas, and challenging encounters are is a matter of getting geared for it. The most beautiful and interesting dungeon pre-expansion, with intricate encounters and gorgeous artwork, was Naxxramas, which I never went to and will never see. A genius piece of game designed thrown at a pack of ravenous raiders.

And the arena system that they implemented, if you think you can get good items with minimal time investment, forget it. I have a 2v2 and I was playing regularly for 3 weeks with a guy, then I stop showing up for 2 days, and what does he do? Freaks out and pick another partner because I wasn't there and he didn't think he would get his weekly arena have to keep showing up, getting better, working on your spec, on your stam gear etc etc. These games Nick cannot be played in moderation. I am trying and failing, not only because the goals I had set are suddenly unattainable, but that the less I play the less interesting it becomes.

The reason for this is that the game is interesting so long as you have a good relationship with the people you play with. When you get out of the dependance and look at it as an outsider you recognize how fickle the relationships people build with each other can be.

You are right in saying that MMO's can be used as a crutch but are never the sole factor responsible for excessive play, however what you fail to mention is that MMO's are designed to be played excessively and as a result, your suggestion of playing in moderation is a tad confusing/misleading. If you want to play something on occasion and in moderation and still draw something meaningful and final from it, you may as well just play a single player game that has an end, and is finite.

MMO's cannot be properly digested in moderation, they behave rather like divine beings that demand allegiance.

Posted by: Max on May 9, 2007 11:52 AM

Max said:
"The reason for this is that the game is interesting so long as you have a good relationship with the people you play with. When you get out of the dependance and look at it as an outsider you recognize how fickle the relationships people build with each other can be."

Same thing in real life. When you look at people from the outside you see how shallow relationships can be and how the things we value are often put on the wayside due to financial or political reasons. The problem i see with so many of these discussions is people draw a line between virtual communities and real communities. This is a mistake. The real world is gray, not black and white. If we want to solve this problem of people turning to virtual worlds for identity, we have to look at the one we live in. The problem is not how awkward virtual worlds are, it is how similar they are. Online worlds are not random quests and random rewards, they're goal oriented and socially driven. They're driven by the same forces the real world is driven by - that is why they're so effective at retaining their population. If we want less people being involved in virtual communities, we have to make real communities more appealing. Doing anything else is simply dumbing down the population and mining it like the pharmaceutical companies or the oil companies or whatever else you can drum up. Cultural bias. We're judging the value of virtual worlds by comparing them to our own. That is like judging the value of a peice of art or a beloved memory by its printed price. Sorry, peeps, it doesn't work. If we judged every person in comparison to bill gates or ghandi (pick a holy figure) we'd have a lot of underacheivers and people who just don't cut it. Cultures evolve and people do too. We can't copy/paste what works for one person or one culture and apply it to another as a quick fix. Each culture and person is unique. Life is too darn complicated to be willy nilly about it. Thats probably why we're in Iraq, we forgot that what works for us doesn't necessarily apply to everyone else. And what we want isn't necessarily what everyone else wants. This reminds me of the deaf community. We see deafness as a disability, as something that can be fixed. The deaf community has developed culture. We want deaf people to "fix" themselves because to us it is simply a physical issue. We forget that the deaf culture is very complicated and there is no quick fix because it is not purely physical - it has developed a life all its own. Once we acknowledge that virtual worlds are communities, just like the one on planet earth, we open up a can of worms and NO company wants to open it because of the ramificiations in terms of government/law/taxes/etc. Imagine, if wow or evercrack had to treat you like a citizen, and what would happen, if their server(s) blew up and all your items were lost? What happens, if someone steals your items in the game using a "steal" skill? Who will be held accountable for your loss in time/money/etc? This "addiction" label is just a convenient delay, until the eventuall awareness is acquired that online communities are going to need laws and lawyers and all the good stuff we know and love in the real world. Like I said, a nightmare for a lawyer and for our government! See you in the electron second life, suckers!!

Posted by: jon on June 15, 2007 7:53 AM

Hi, I'm a college student that's played MMO's for maybe 5-6 years now. From my experiences, I'd say that with any system or hobby, there is a potential for abuse. Some people just plain overdo things. I think the main thing that Nick Yee is trying to combat in his article is the issue of "just because some people overdo things doesn't mean everyone is". Often times in articles addressing problematic gaming, the arguments become a bit too one sided. They tend to ignore evidence - such as that the vast majority of people can play the same game and not have any problems. Sure, people can argue that they’d be better off going outside and playing football and living “in the real world”, but the issue stands. Only some individuals will have problems. By the word “problems,” I mean that they lose control of the situation. By my judgment, enjoying an activity is one thing, but being unwilling to stop an activity even when it becomes detrimental to one's overall health and well-being can become an issue.

However, the stereotypical “my son refused to go to ~insert social event here~ yesterday because he wanted to stay home and play games” argument can be misleading. It ignores the underlying reasons for why the kid would prefer to be with his online friends or in a virtual world. It also makes the judgment that somehow going to the social event would be preferable, and similarly the argument that the "real world" is intrinsically better. In some ways, this is true. However, there are plenty of meaningful experiences that people can find on mmo's and to disregard this is near-sighted.

Conversely, there are indeed cases where kids and adults alike would be better off stepping back from the computer and taking a walk outside. Playing a game -or doing any other activity- all the time isn’t healthy from a physical perspective (same with watching tv or sleeping all day). Studying all day too, you'd miss out on a lot that life has to offer. As with anything, it all comes down to balance. There will always be some people who can manage their time effectively and others who can’t.

Lastly, I'd also like to make the argument that games are designed to be time consuming, but not necessarily "addictive." As someone in the discussion pointed out, the company doesn't make more money from you playing 16 hours a day compared with 20 minutes a week. They receive the same amount either way. If anything, they'd probably enjoy having people just signing up and then never using the service - that way they wouldn't even need to pay for the server costs. Unfortunately for them, that's not the case. Instead, there is a lot of competition in the gaming industry. But I guess what it gets down to is that the only thing that a company needs to be concerned about is how to make you continue to pay that amount month after month after month (no matter what new games come out). The answer lies in that they have to make it fun and compelling, but they also have to make sure you don't complete your goals too soon. I'd probably even argue that people who play all the time go against a good business model - often times people will get tired of a game once they've completed everything and quit.

All in all, I’d say that “addiction” depends a lot on the person and the individual circumstances, and also what you define “addiction” to be.

Posted by: Lara on July 12, 2007 7:20 PM

Nick - have you seen the AP article that came out today that the AMA wants to have Game Addiction included as a psychiatric disorder in the upcoming DSM V (diagnostic manual)?

Posted by: Laura on July 25, 2007 7:53 AM

That's why I have been mostly referring to this phenomenon as "obsession" rather than addiction. The compulsion to play is a far better description than trying to redefine addiction in the context of online gameplay.

While it's honorable to believe that people should be able to choose where they want to spend most of their time, we tend to forget that human beings are actually physically bound to this particular realm. I strongly disagree with the idea that people have a right to seek a better virtual life for themselves if they aren't happy in this one (unless they are constrained by physical / psychological disabilities) - we have responsibilities as citizens in this realm to find ways to impact this world positively. Every decision we make (even small ones like going to the washroom) impacts the physical world at large, and to deny this connection is callous and immature. We can play online games responsibly, there are no excuses for why someone should play to the extent of personal oblivion.

Posted by: Jane on July 31, 2007 10:03 AM

By the way, I co-moderate an MMO widow site and do not condone in any way a simplistic “either-or” / “good vs. evil” view.

I'd say most of the members have a pretty good understanding about the issues - those opinions you talk about are typically uttered in the initial heat of anger, frustrations and despair by those who experience first-hand what it means to be deserted on all levels of a relationship. So please give credit where it's due and don't lump everyone into the media / anti-game proponent side either. It is far more important to gain a better understanding of why adults with families and other responsibilities can so be seduced to neglect these and tackle the problems at the root instead of arguing for or against "addiction".

Posted by: Jane on July 31, 2007 10:10 AM

Nick, I think you have a very good point: nobody wants to talk about the boring, unfulfilling parts of real life.

Work is boring for a lot of people. Underemployment is a real drag on your view of yourself: "Is all I'm good for?" you think, filing forms or making telelmarketing phone calls. "I must be a real jerk."

MMOs didn't really happen until I was already old enough/educated enough to get more interesting jobs. But if EQ had come along when I still worked in a gift shop, I know I would have preferred Norrath to real life.

Even without work problems in the picture, "going out" in real life can be extremely boring. So much "going out" is centered on alcohol, and for the person who doesn't like drinking, things get dull fast as your friends get blotto.

And even that's only possible if you are lucky to live near a lot of friends--so many people have moved to the suburbs; you can't just walk over to their places and knock on the door. Is it any wonder so many millions plunk themselves in front of a television for 4-6 hours every day?

Often, in talking about addiction, there's a mention of "an elephant in the room." In this case, the elephant seems to be just about anything except the games. Maybe that's because it's a slightly different elephant in every situation, but it's still there.

In other words, games are a symptom, and I'm really glad that someone is willing to stand up and say it. I'm hoping that in the coming years, the therapy community will try to focus more on identifying the elephant and sending it off to the savannah where it belongs.

Posted by: Gwion on August 29, 2007 11:09 AM

I'm a high school student writing a report on video game addiction, and I continually run into the realization that my report will always seem insignificant to me, because I know that Nick Yee has said it better. I admire your work and your thoughts greatly, and I hope you continue to explore the complex issue of mmorpg psychology.

Posted by: Mark on September 3, 2007 12:37 PM

Fantastic article. It is common sense to me that people who find real life unfulfilling would seek achievement and recognition in the virtual world. My old guild master was a part time cashier at Safeway. In game, he was the head of one of the most advanced guilds in the US. Who would blame him for devoting much of his time, energy, and passion to the game? What would those psychologists and talking heads recommend? Would he be happier or "better" if he spent his free time watching TV and drinking beer?

Posted by: Katherine on November 12, 2007 11:05 AM

Nice article! For all of the naysayers, Nick isn't saying that MMO's can *never* be addictive but he is also saying that being too quick to blame detrimental on the game is also bad. "Video game addiction" gets more attention than being addicted to coffee, or practicing a sport to the point that it destroys the body.
MMO's have marketing tricks to make it fun for people to play and reward them for playing.
Coffee has caffeine, a chemical that is known to make the body physically dependent on it.
Which gets a worse rap?
Someone keels over in an internet cafe due to problematic usage of a game and everyone knows about it.
Problematic usage of caffeine can put someone into cardiac arrest.
The media has blown up the "ebilness" of games and as a result you have parents literally against their child touching a game because it's satanic/addictive/they'll turn into a 30 yuear old loser in the basement. People not being able to moderate themselves is always an issue, but ignoring the why's is what Nick wrote this article about.

Posted by: Lovelace on November 13, 2007 8:55 AM

I'm a bit fascinated by this subject. Addiction is a nuanced thing certainly and even if addiction is not the word to use here I would point out that most successful addiction treatment programs move well beyond abstaining from subtances/behaviours but dwell extensively on the underlying mental state that exists without said abuse and new manners of thought an living to help keep the abuse-preceding emotional disturbances at bay. Could be a bunch of malarky ,but just to be clear , Alcohol addiction groups don't blame alcohol, they blame the alcoholics mental state(often with presumptions that the emotional disbalance preceding drink is an innate tendancy, biological or other, that requires active life long systematic attention to keep in check)..

Put addiction asside though. Let also put asside issues of skinner box variable rewards, and game structures which require very large time commitments to effectively play to reach new game content a few months after it is created. Assume the game is designed to be enjoyed fully with moderate time commitment.

Even if the game designers are careful not to purposely encourage obsessive play and you have a user who is disciplined and sane in their game play (truly only playing at times after doing the dishes, when homework has been completed, spouse visited with etc). .even in this case there is still philisophical problem:

If a game is truly good and satisfying, perhaps even challenging in a way that causes the player to grow mentally and socially... can something too good destroy ones taste for less good things?

I've seen that brushed on this site. More or less~"many games provide consistent rewards fpr effort vs life which can be boring, unjust, or restricted by circumstance'~ . But that point, although a start, sets up a bit of straw man argument by its implication of "false rewards" from the game, and "bleak alternatives" for the user.

Given a difficult yet rewarding game and a young persons life full of potential outlets we still have a danger. The danger that the rewards from the game, (a complex non-skinner box, only 8 hours a week max play game) might fufill hungers for achievement, might reduce the taste of real life endevours.

Hunger for gainfully employing you abilties might be innate...satifying that hunger even in moderate play might reduce motivations that got people to take risks and make extra efforts to change or embellish their real life.

The "taste" reward being dulled would be more like food tasting more bland after being in the habit of eating more spicy food. Or perhaps like how good a restaurant meal tastes after week roughing it in the mountains..or perhaps differences of the perception of the quality of an item compared to what two different people were accustomed to.

It seems to me, that the better games are at entertaining and satisfying , the greater the risk that they will remove motivation and pleasure from , incrementally from outside activity.

There is no doubt that some types of entertainment leave a person more relaxed ready for life after being entertained. Unlike humor, music, or atheltic activity, the morgs seem more focused on providing "satisfation" rather than distraction or ironic perspective.

Well there were good things on this site that deal with attaction to the games and the role of the persistance of the worlds to more tightly bind the activities to certain reward centers. I look forward to reading more..

...but I am wary now now of the idea of an even better might give me too much even if it gave it to me while I was playing moderate hours.

Posted by: shander on December 8, 2007 9:39 PM

I'm trying to eliminate my ignorance of MMO gaming because I've recently had to deal with it more than I'd like to in a current relationship. The person in question is not at all social in real life, and now even more so since he's begun playing one of these MMO's. Now although you've clearly done your research and in doing so, have made numerous good points, I must be adament about arguing that MMO's are psychologically addictive. Because they cater to so many's desire for achievement, false sociality [etc.], because they do this, it is so much easier for those who play them to get 'addicted'. Take marijuana for instance: it is psychologically addictive as well. It may not affect everyone the same [and neither do MMO's] but enough evidence can prove that it's got more than just a 'tendancy' to 'potentially' become addictive.

After thouroughly going over your site, at the end of the day, you sound more like someone who went into your research having something to prove..which may or may not have affected your findings. But it seems a bit odd that a study like 'The Daedalus Project' should produce both positive AND negative results for different variables about MMO's. Most studies produce neither a solid negative result nor a solid positive result.

..but of course that is just my opinion. I'm not completely ignorant to the subject, or a 'non-gamer' I believe you put it. On two seperate occasions I've been sucked into MMO games for good chunk of my time. So, I understand-to an extent-some of the things on your site. But others, are just plain partiality on your part.

Posted by: Concerned & Opinionated on February 1, 2008 12:57 PM
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