Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

The Blame Game

Last month, the AMA backed away from a recommendation by its Council on Science and Public Health that videogame addiction be included as a formal diagnostic disorder.   Had they approved the recommendation, it would have allowed patients suffering from the disorder to seek insurance coverage for treatment and also allowed them to utilize Americans with Disabilities Act provisions for such things as job accomodation.

You heard it right – videogame addicts could seek legal redress of grievances through ADA and file for therapy coverage with their insurance carriers.  The implications of that should be pretty plain if you’ve heard about the number of lawsuits filed against companies who sell fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs and other abusable products.

I’ll get to the issue of addiction in a moment – I’m not dismissing the phenomenon at all.  But I do believe that sometimes we encourage a culture of victimhood when we set out to help those who need it.   The best intentions sometimes end up providing only convenient excuses for those who can’t seem to take responsibility for their own lives – or have parents who don’t teach it.

Am I being harsh?  Perhaps – but let’s take a couple of common scenarios and ask some tough questions.  Both of these cases are composites of people I actually know:

Exhibit A: Johnny is 15 years old.  His parents have been divorced for several years and his Mom works 50 or 60 hours a week trying to make ends meet.   Dad isn’t a deadbeat – he pays his child support and helps when he can – but he sometimes spoils the kid out of guilt or misguided parenting notions.  So Dad bought Johnny an Xbox 360 and a few games for his birthday. 

Mom’s not around much.  Neither is Dad.  Johnny discovered Xbox Live and now spends most of his free time chatting and playing with his buddies online.  Sounds better than joining a gang and getting arrested, doesn’t it?  That’s how his parents feel.

Except that Johnny never exercises.  He’s becoming obese.  His wrists and hands take constant abuse on the Xbox controller.  He plays so much he begins to see the real world in game terms – a world where violence is acceptable, the goal is to achieve selfish ends (winning) and if you screw up you can always hit “restart”.   Worst of all, Johnny no longer finds homework and real friends interesting.  His grades crash, he stops playing baseball or soccer, he isolates in his basement in front of the Xbox.  Without even realizing what happened, Johnny has met the conditions of addiction.

Exhibit B: Bob is 32 years old.  He has a decent job, but he’s never related that well to others.  The few girlfriends he’s had all ended up rejecting him at some point, and Bob has retreated into the fantasy world of online games where he is in control.  Others can only know as much about him as he chooses to reveal, and what’s more he can parlay his obsession with games into a form of respect from other gamers.  Bob is always the first one to hit level 50, the first one to get the best equipment.  He never misses a raid, although he misses plenty of work trying to power up all his characters in his quest to be the best player on his server.

It’s worse than not having a life — Bob’s life is a mess.  It’s too easy to substitute the shallow, meaningless Skinner Box of online games for more fulfilling human relationships and healthy activity.

Bob doesn’t think he has a problem.  Even though, at heart, he is an unhappy person whose life has decreasing fulfillment.  Even though he finds himself overly upset when events in his games spiral out of his control.  Even though, as much as he secretly wishes he had friends or a girl he just can’t stop logging on every day and getting that next level.  Ironically, his desire for control doesn’t apply to his own life.  He’s lost control over the most important aspect – his ability to make healthy choices.

Those two examples aren’t typical of the majority of online gamers, by any means, but they are also not uncommon.  And both point to the same thing: addiction.

According to Nick Yee, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who has studied online gaming for the past seven years, about half of the 35,000 players he’s interviewed considered themselves addicted.

The controversy among psychologists over the definition of “addiction” has been raging for a while.  We all know about drug, alcohol and nicotine addiction.  Some substances trigger addictive responses in the human brain and body that are easy to fall prey to and very tough to overcome.  There’s another school of thought that widens the definition to include a whole set of behaviors which are also destructive, but involve things we don’t normally think of as addictive — food, shopping, sex, porn, risk, gambling and … videogames.

These addictions – I’m going to call them “behavioral disorders” – have many of the same characteristics of drug or alcohol addiction.  They start with an individual who may have a compulsive personality, someone who is more prone to becoming an addict than the average Joe or Jane on the street due to biology, nurture, or life experiences – or all three.

There is usually a trigger, such as Johnny’s or Bob’s feelings of emotional abandonment in my examples.  Emotional pain, even that which is subtle and unacknowledged, is often (not always) at the root of these behavioral disorders.  The addiction serves as the brain’s subconscious means of medicating that pain, of suppressing it or substituting instant gratification patterns that allow the individual to mask the real issues.   The particular behavior chosen provides a “rush” – a brain chemistry change that is pleasurable, something the sufferer wants more of.  And more of. And more.

Typical symptoms of addiction all apply to these behavioral categories –

– Reclusive behavior, self-imposed isolation.
– Lying, stealing or cheating in order to engage in the behavior.
– Deteriorating or non-existent real world relationships.
– Decrease in job or school performance.
– Loss of sleep, possible health issues resulting from the behavior.
– Defensiveness and anger when confronted, refusal to entertain the idea that the individual has a problem.  If cornered, more lying and bargaining in order to continue the activity.
– Bouts of depression when prevented from engaging in the behavior.
– Overspending on things that enable the behavior (if you’re a gaming addict, this would include the latest computer, fastest broadband connection, more $50 games and so forth).
– Most of all, the inability to stop.

From my own life experience, from family and friends and loved ones I’ve known, I can attest to you that all these are real problems and real descriptions of the phenomenon.  Addiction in whatever form can be very destructive to a life and the lives of those around the addict.

But does it warrant its own line in the DSM IV?  Are compulsive gamers entitled to the same considerations given to paraplegics and epileptics or meth addicts?  Should everyone’s insurance rates go up because we have a few million people in this country who can’t get control of their videogame habit?

I’m not advocating the abandonment of people with problems.  Frankly I don’t think someone suffering from any behavioral disorder has much hope of changing things unless and until they experience the ultimate devastation that inevitably comes along — the AA Twelve Steps calls it “hitting your bottom”.  Until you hit that bottom, it’s too easy to rationalize and postpone and negotiate with the problem.

But once you’ve hit that bottom, there are avenues through which you can seek help.  Most insurance carriers provide for limited coverage of psychological therapy without asking for too much detail (a “behavioral disorder” already qualifies without throwing in the videogame qualifier).  There are self-help groups in almost every town in America – and if you can’t find one for videogame addicts, you might be surprised at how closely the parameters of gambling or shopping addiction meet your own profile. 

There is also  Online Gamers Anonymous, begun by Liz Woolley whose son Shawn committed suicide as a result of his compulsive involvement in World of Warcraft.  Sometimes, there is no more powerful medicine than sharing your problems and solutions with other people who understand.

If you’re a parent, I make this final appeal to you:  your child draws his or her self-esteem from you.  Nobody else.  You are the emotional nurturer, the role model who sets the example they will follow the rest of their lives.  Ask yourself how much you actually listen to them, ask after their problems and concerns, involve yourself with their lives?  Do you see their increasing isolation (up in their room playing games) as a reprieve for your own sanity?  If so, then you have probably taken the first step toward enabling your child to become a videogame addict.   They’ll never know what other choices there are unless you show them.

If you choose to ignore the warning signs, be prepared for the next game you will play:  it’s called the “Blame Game”, and you’re it.


July 18, 2007 - Posted by | First Life, Internet, Second Life

1 Comment »

  1. You might find this interesting, David Brin wrote an open letter asking for research into self-addiction, specifically the state of self-righteous indignation. So it puts a bit of a link between this and your Blood Feuds post a while back. I’d like to see the results of any research done that way…could go and tell all the rabid neo-cons and loony liberals to seek professional help when they attempt to polarize every single issue into a battle between the left and right! (well we can dream anyway hehe…)

    Here’s the link

    Comment by Estella Jimenez | July 25, 2007 | Reply

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