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On Therapy and Dependency

Reflections From Gamers

I'll close with a collection of varied perspectives from respondents on this gray area between coping, therapy, and dependency.

As long as the player remembers that a game is a game, and not an alternative to their present lives, then they will be alright. It can be dangerous when one forgets this, because ultimately I do not believe games are real. They are data stored on servers, data that could be easily erased if the company wished it. Our lives are so much more valuable than that. [WoW, M, 19]

Over the summer, I played what for me was way too much. I knew I shouldn't play as much as I did--and at the end of most days I regretted it. I learned a valuable lesson from that though--the game is enjoyable when I control how I interact with it, not when it controls me. [WoW, F, 22]

MMO's aren't the problem, they are just a way for people with other real life problems to escape and forget about them. My advice is to make sure you're happy and content with where you are in life before you touch an MMO. [WoW, M, 25]

I finally figured out that trying to compete to impress a bunch of anonymous strangers online is ridiculous if it means hurting the ones I love. MMOs now are only a form of entertainment for me, one of many, and not my refuge from reality. [WoW, M, 36]

There is a fine line between relaxing with a little gaming, and submersing yourself in a game in order to ignore something that shouldn't be ignored. I don't think this is unique to MMOGs. Some people use alcohol, for others its drugs, or gambling, or sports, or some other activity. It's a human problem, not a specific activity/technology problem. [Eve Online, M, 34]

Did the game contribute to the problem? No. 60 hours a week sitting in front of a computer contributed to the problem, but I could have done that watching DVDs, playing electronic bridge or laying on the couch watching TV. [WoW, F, 51]

Doing something pleasurable when you are feeling down is one way of coping. Of course, it never solves the problems. Of course, it's not meant to solve the problem. Neither does eating a bar of chocolate. But when there's no fun to be had in the real world, sometimes, there is fun to be had in the virtual world. [Guild Wars, M, 29]


Posted on February 17, 2008 | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)


You hear alot of hoopla about how online games are evil creations that suck in normal, healthy people and spit out addicted zombies - and I'm glad this article presented a more logical, less emotional explanation for this "growing phenomenon." I've always felt that excessive gaming to the exclusion of all else is more a symptom than a problem itself, contrary to what most 'gaming addiction societies' might lead you to believe. It's always frustrated me when people say "this game just sucked him in and changed him" - without asking "WHY" did he let the game suck him in? What was he escaping?
Myself - I started playing WoW just before my first longterm boyfriend and I broke up. It was because of the game, in part, I believe. Not because I was addicted or anything...but having online friends unconnected with him and a life unconnected with him let me see how unhealthy our relationship was - helped me to let go. When our relationship finally ended, WoW gave me a place to direct my anger and energies. I think without the game I would have had taken a much longer time to get over the relationship...

Posted by: Marla on February 21, 2008 5:35 AM

A well written article with some interesting perspectives. I am very interested in the positives and negatives of mmo gaming. While it isn't something I like to talk about, mmo gaming allowed me to kick heroin. I've been clean for four years this month, and I still regard it as quite an accomplishment, as most people who start down that path don't come back. Most people I have encountered in life are addicted to one thing or another, it could be something 'healthy' like yoga or exercise, something socially acceptable like caffeine or alcohal, or some dangerous drug or pastime. Having seen what a serious drug addiction can do to a person, I have a hard time believing that an mmo 'addiction' is all that dangerous. While some of the negatives brought up in this article are definately cause for alarm and my sympathy and support goes out to those individuals, it still doesn't rank, in my opinon, with serious, life threatening addiction. In my case, mmo gaming brought me back from the brink, and I believe the theraputic applications of gaming, particularly online gaming, are very much worth studying.

Posted by: bigdogofbria on February 21, 2008 6:45 AM

Is online gaming the "opium den" of the 21st century ?

Posted by: John on February 23, 2008 6:44 AM

Its nice to hear from many people who felt the games gave them transitional relief. Were they the preponderance of respondents or were their answers a minority selected to make varied points?

I am curious to understand if the games habituate people towards expecting rewards and sense of achievement easier than real life actions give those types of rewards.

Does outside life look more dull, less fair, less fulfilling, more of a bother etc after a year of heavy play during every evening after work?

Do the games become a permanent part of peoples lives so they can continually experience game exploration/acheivement stimulus?

If gaming is self limiting, After people have run their course and find the games less interesting do they miss the certainty and fun the games were able to give them at an earlier point? Do they long for something that can't be recaptured?

Is it difficult for you to get a large sample of people who played games heavily then gave them up to try to understand the possible "tainting" issue I am curious about?

Posted by: shander on February 24, 2008 1:08 PM

Shander - Most respondents did describe a way in which the game provided an outlet for a psychological stressor, so the narratives here are representative of the responses as a whole.

With regard to the "tainting" issue, there really isn't much work on the long-term changes in expectations of gamers, but I think it's important to consider the potential positive changes as well. For example, Beck & Wade's "Got Game" highlight some of the attitude shifts in gamers that may be beneficial in corporations and real work.

It's also important to point out that much of school parallels the constant rewards/grinding/certainty that gaming provides, and indeed, many people find the transition from college to their first job quite disconcerting. In fact, some respondents in the past have described how it was online games that allowed them to recapture the sense of progress they felt from school.

And of course, an analogous set of questions relate to movies and TV. Does watching the impossibly perfect romances on TV and movies doom us to miserable relationships? Does watching 24/Lost make our lives seem boring in comparison?

I think you're asking important questions, and they're very difficult questions to answer (for a variety of methodological reasons), but I think it's also important to keep in mind the potential positive consequences from gaming as well as the large degree to which our lives are already shaped by experiences that are bounded and virtual/artificial (such as movies, TV, and schools).

Posted by: Nick Yee on February 24, 2008 2:22 PM

While I agree that dependancy on online games is indicative of other problems, I still feel the design of certain MMOG's reinforces compulsive behaviour.

The one's I refer to in particular are those which couple repetitive behaviour with a random reward. It is the intermittent reward principle, the Skinner Box, so popular with slot machines, that worries me about the nature of some games. It is too close to gambling for my comfort.

Posted by: James P on February 25, 2008 12:37 AM

Thanks for this Nick. It's always complicated isn't it? So many interacting variables between an individual;'s innate personality, psychosocial stressors, the family or systemic factors, and the varied reinforcers and motivators found within specific games. I think people are increasingly aware that it's never a black/white issue. Ideally, pscyhotherapists should attempt to understand the multi-layered motivations, systemic elements, and consequences (positive or negative, short and long-term) for all behaviors their client's are sorting out.

Posted by: Shavaun on February 25, 2008 9:12 PM

It's definitely not a black & white issue! I come and go from WoW in many ways and in a year it's already done so much!

I went through a nasty divorce, a terrible but successful custody battle (I won!), a lawsuit (chalk up another for "the Vil"!), a bankruptcy, and countless other transitions from family man to single dad.

The key, as so many have already pointed out, is moderation. Use the game for its purpose: education and entertainment. For me it's so much more. It's an experiment and a study in economics that helps with my part-time teaching (I study the Auction Houses and their dynamics). It's a way of getting that sense of achievement when work is slow (government work is either full speed or sluggish). It's a hobby that's cheaper than cars (my other hobby)! I've also learned more about computers and programming.

Posted by: Jason on February 28, 2008 9:40 AM

I've played a variety of games both on and offline. Traditional paper and pencil rolplaying as well as live action where participants dress and act as the fictional persona. All have had moments which were highly rewarding and I often look back at the experiences fondly in the same way you remember the story of a good book. And I have had stress from the interactions with people in the games become so annoying that I left the game completely.

The most poinient things I noticed were that people who were unhappy in their lives tended to latch on much more strongly to the fictional persona. In one case I believe that the man' real life had been relagated to nothing but life support for his avatar. The live action games made it more difficult to seperate fake from real and seem to have drawn more unhealthy people. For this reason I now avoid them like the plague.

I also noticed that the more games I played and the more fictious characters I pretended to be, the weaker my own core personality got. One morning I awoke after a night of gaming genuinly confused about who I was.

Now I keep a helthy perspective of play and real. I am married, gainfully employed and a very proud father. The games, online and off, are a distraction for me. A place to set aside stress and play. I have never seen a game corupt a person, but I have seen many dammaged people lose themselves to the game.

Posted by: Ryan on April 24, 2008 10:50 PM

I have been a 'gamer' for 10 years. I worked full time, raised our daughter, homeschooled her and have spent many a happy moment with her in 'real life'.

Recently, I have been laid off, and the very first thing I did was turn off my online gaming accounts. They were/are not an expense that I am willing to pay for until I get back to work.

Throughout my gaming years, I enjoyed the social aspect, the achievement aspects and the PvP environment.

I have made many friends all over the world and we talked not only online, but over the phone as well.

I have been with many of these online friends for 8 years now, and I have been there for them through death in thier families, births in thier families as they have been there for me.

After so many years of gaming, I find no loss in my life for cancelling my accounts. To be honest, I expected to feel a lot of loss from not being able to play.

However, since my friends and I still talk on the phone, I realized that THEY were the reason I enjoyed playing so much, and that still talking on the phone about thier lives and gaming, that I am not missing out on anything.

I have a neck injury that is keeping me from working right now. When this injury is finally cured, I will go back to work, and possibly re-activate my online gaming accounts.

In the back of my mind, I did wonder if I was 'addicted' to gaming.

I now know that through all of these years, it was just another social tool for me. It was a fun pass time and a chance to keep in touch with my friends, nothing more.

The debate over addiction will continue dispite people like myself not showing any negative results from so many years of gaming.

My daughter and I have a wonderful relationship, and my husband and I are both doing great.

I guess gaming is all in how you use it in your life.

It was my hobby, not my obsession.

F-39 AC, UO, DAoC, WoW


Posted by: Lisa on May 5, 2008 12:18 PM
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