Problematic Usage

There are several reasons why I prefer not to use the word "addiction". One reason is that the word has gained a lot of baggage. It's flung around by sensationalist media to portray MMOs in a particular light. But it's also used casually by gamers as a way of saying how good a game is. Another reason is that as soon as we use the word addiction, some people will argue that addiction can only occur where there is a physical substance causing a physiological response of dependence and withdrawal. Using the word addiction mires us in a debate of reconciling physical addiction theories with non-physical addiction theories.

In other words, people constantly debate whether someone can be addicted to video games, but in the same way that no one will argue that some people eat unhealthy, no one will argue that some people spend too much time playing video games. And of course, this isn't a notion of a threshold of hours played just as some people can eat as much as they want and never gain weight. It's about how your time spent playing video games impacts the rest of your life. Some people - like college students on vacation or retirees - have all the time in the world to play. Their game-play largely doesn't impact their real life obligations or relationships. Problematic usage is more about how your game-play begins to negatively impact your obligations and responsibilities.

And while there's a lot of work that deals with defining and trying to measure this problematic usage, there isn't very much work on explaining what it is about video games and the people who play them that leads to problematic usage. After all, it doesn't happen to everyone. In fact, I know a lot of people in real life who think MMORPGs are the most boring video games out there. And that means that whatever is causing problematic usage can't be entirely about these games. Because if that were the case, then either everyone or no one would exhibit problematic usage. In other words, it's got to be something about the people playing them as well.

There's another stumbling block when people talk about online gaming addiction. It makes it easy to believe that there's just one kind of addiction - that there's a certain way that causes it to happen and that once it happens all the addicts are alike. And that you can avoid addiction if you follow these steps, or that you can resolve your addiction by following these guidelines. This is part of the problem with using the framework of physical addiction because physical addictions have well-known physical causes. It encourages us to think and talk about video games "addiction" in a certain way. But given the variation in why people play MMORPGs, it's not clear at all that there's just one underlying reason for problematic usage.

keywords: mmorpg addiction, mmo addiction, addicted to mmorpgs


The survey data presented here sheds light on these two questions: 1) What about MMORPGs and their players lead to problematic usage? and 2) Is there a dominant pathway to problematic usage? And I have another trick up my sleeve. I can answer these two questions without ever having to categorize players as problematic users or not. Here's what I did. I drew from existing measures of online problematic usage that centered on dependence, withdrawal and negative impact on real life obligations and relationships. The survey items used were:
Do you spend more time than you think you should playing the game?
How difficult would it be for you to limit your playing time?
How agitated do you get if the servers go down unexpectedly?
How often do your friends or family members complain about your game play behavior?
Has your work/school performance suffered because of your game play?
How much of your happiness in life currently is derived from playing the game?
Have your personal relationships suffered because of your game-play?
A factor analysis showed that all these items loaded onto a single factor implying that they are measuring the same underlying construct. A problematic usage score was calculated for every respondent based on a weighted sum of their responses to the items. I then ran a multiple regression with the motivation components, gender, age and hours played per week as the predictors. The multiple regression was significant at p < .001 with an adjusted R-square of .33 (a good model with strong predictors). The best predictor of problematic usage was the escapism subcomponent (Beta = .31, p < .001), followed by hours played per week (Beta = .27, p < .001) and then the advancement subcomponent (Beta = .18, p < .001).


In other words, the people who are most likely to exhibit problematic usage are those who are purposefully using the online environment to escape their real life problems. They are playing to avoid thinking about their real life concerns. Another set of people who are likely to exhibit problematic usage are those who are driven to advance and achieve within the game. They are hooked on the rewards cycle, accumulating resources, currency and rare items. We know that these are not the same group of people because the two motivations are largely uncorrelated (r = .13).

With regards to the two questions we had, the data suggests that there are two pathways that are highly correlated with problematic usage - escapism and achievement. The escapism component is more about the mindset of the people playing, while the achievement component is both about the goal-driven nature of the player as well as the rewards mechanisms provided by the game. In either case, the data suggests that models of problematic usage need to consider both internal and external factors, but also that they need to take account of the different reasons players exhibit problematic usage. There is no single thing about MMORPGs that causes problematic usage and knowing this helps us develop different ways to help people who are exhibiting problematic usage.

Gender and age differences were also analyzed. Male players were significantly more likely to exhibit problematic usage than female players. Players between the ages of 18-22 are the ones most likely to exhibit problematic usage.

See Also (listed in chronological order):

- Understanding MMORPG Addiction
- Addiction
- The Seduction of Achievement
- A New Disorder is Born