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Let us define addiction as "a recurring behavior that is unhealthy or self-destructive which the individual has difficulty ending" for the purposes of this paper. Before trying to understand MMORPG addiction, it must first be demonstrated that this is a phenomenon that is real and occurs with a certain degree of prevalence. It is not hard to show that MMORPGs are very compelling and require huge time investments that many players are willing to give.

It can also be shown that many MMORPG players would consider themselves addicted to the game, and that it is fairly difficult to quit playing these games even if one tried to.

But just because these games are compelling and many players diagnose themselves as being addicted to them, does that immediately translate into an addiction? One line of evidence is the strong parallel between MMORPG addiction and substance addiction. Two typical symptoms of substance addiction are dependence and withdrawal. Individuals who are dependent on a substance need the substance to sustain a sense of normality and well-being. Individuals who are dependent on a substance suffer from withdrawal when they do not take the substance. Withdrawal is marked by anger, anxiety, irritability, and frustration.

The following charts show that a small subset of players suffer from withdrawal symptoms even though the bulk of players do not, which is what is to be expected. In the same way that one could be a social drinker and not be addicted to alcohol, it is clearly the same with MMORPGs. Just because someone plays an MMORPG does not necessarily mean that they will become addicted to it. And in the same way that people can be addicted to alcohol even though not everyone who drinks is addicted, it is clear that certain individuals can be addicted to MMORPGs even though not all MMORPG players are addicted. The following charts also make clear that the amount of time spent playing is highly correlated with the likelihood of suffering withdrawal.

The effects of withdrawal are articulated by several players:

I call myself an addict, because I share the same symptoms as someone who's addicted to smoking, or alcohol, or some other substance. I think about EQ while I'm not playing, I get stressed when I have to go 24 hrs without logging on for a fix, and I wasn't able to quit when I tried. If that's not an addiction, I don't know what is. [m, 22]

EQ is highly addictive and quitting entirely is something VERY difficult to do. After all, if you do quit... everything you worked so hard for (your stats, equipment, friends) is gone forever since characters are stored solely on the Verant servers. The only thing you can take with you is the stories. And those anecdotes will haunt you endlessly until you give in to the urge to re-immerse yourself in Norrath just one more time. [m, 27]

A stronger piece of evidence is the parallel of dependence and the use of MMORPGs to feel better about oneself. The data also shows that dependence is highly correlated with hours played per week.

Critics may argue that similar responses could also have been solicited from individuals who partake in many healthy hobbies: such as dancing, tennis or skiing. Someone who loves to play tennis or ski might be irritable and frustrated if they weren't able to because of weather conditions; and being on the court or the slopes may produce a kind of satisfaction that boosts self-esteem. It is only when an individual partakes in an activity in the face of negative or self-destructive behavior that the use of the word addiction is appropriate, and these behaviors are seen in MMORPG players.

The very things in the game that cause extreme anger and rage in real life are the same reasons I still play I suppose. For example, after finally "dinging" into level 54 with one of my characters, I was running into Fironia Vie and got jumped by a nasty NPC necro that took my level. It enraged me, but its also the very reason that even though it was 3 in the morning and I had to be up at 8 for work I played for another 2 hours to get the level back. That's Evercrack. [m, 25]

The effects of self-destructive behavior are seen more clearly when players are asked directly whether their game-play has led to real life problems.

Still, the skeptic may argue that it is hard to draw a line as to where hobby ends and addiction begins. However, the point isn't where the line is drawn, but that there is some point along the spectrum where most people would agree that the amount of self-destructive behavior that is caused by game-play is dangerous to the point of being labeled as an addiction. There are also many anecdotes like the following which even the most stalwart skeptic would be hard-pressed to argue as being healthy and normal. (Readers interested in perusing a large list of anecdotes can find them at the EverQuest Widows message board hosted by Yahoo Groups.)

I could take a guess that I was playing about 90+ hours a week. I was living in San Fran at that time. EBay was paying our rent (for my boyfriend and I). We had closeted ourselves inside our 1 bedroom apartment for days at a time. We went out only to buy food and cigarettes. I called my family on the east coast maybe once a month, he called his maybe once every 2 weeks. Food consisted of fast food or anything hand held or anything that could be cooked in under 20 minutes. We literally saw no one but each other for months at a time, we didn't bother with friends or cultivating friendships.

We were kicked out of our apartment in January 2001, we fled back to the east coast, to our families. I left the dude within weeks of moving back east, losing my computer and all access to EverQuest. <poof> Having no crutch and no co-dependent in my life at that point, I actually attempted socializing again. I called old friends and hung out with my family. So, I attempt to "normalize". Interacting with more than 1 person at a time was just impossible. I could not speak with more than 1 person at a time, if there were 2+ people in a room, I had to leave it. The with other people, holy christ the noise, I felt as if I had just come out of a bubble after 12 months and my ears could suddenly clearly hear everything around me. [f, 23]

The above data shows the spectrum between healthy and addictive game-play. It is also clear that there is no one discrete point where a player suddenly becomes addicted. In fact, the data shows that players can be addicted to these games to different degrees. The claims that MMORPGs are completely healthy or completely addictive are both extreme to the point of absurdity, and are not supported by the empirical data provided. But why are these games addictive? And why do certain players become addicted while others do not? The rest of this presentation tries to answer these questions.

Copyright, October 2002, by Nicholas Yee

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