I expect most people who visit this site are well-rounded individuals who can judge for themselves what is an ‘excessive’ amount of time to play video games. Even we can still enjoy a marathon gaming session every so often, like when the latest expansion to World of Warcraft is released. Few and far between, these long periods of gaming can often be a sociable experience with a group of friends, or a charitable affair such as the annual Child’s Play event used to generate donations through sponsored twenty-four hours gaming sessions. It may come as a surprise then, that a portion of the general public would consider our normal habits as symptoms of addiction.
What some people do not realise is that our pastime will often replace other ways to spend our free time. How many families spend their afternoons gathered around the television each and every evening? How many singletons spend their free time lounging around the house on their days off? Is playing an interactive game really any worse than enjoying the latest popular comedy? In my early teens I spent a lot of time reading works of fiction, today I spend what little free time I have playing games. Literary masterpieces of previous generations are still enjoyed today, who is to say that future generations will not enjoy games for their in the same way?
Okay, so some people are unable to control their habits. A person with an addictive personality will always have trouble gauging how long they should play games for, but in this case, games could be substituted for any other hobby or substance. It is not solely the fault of video games that people are unable to put them down. Modern MMOs have mechanics that reward players for returning to the game, or deliberately randomise items given to a player. Extra time may need to be devoted to one of these games to get something useful to the player, though it may not need be done in one sitting. Even taking time to clear everything in one go does not make someone an addict. A person with an addictive personality would let their life deteriorate around them to accomplish those goals.
Occasionally a news story will surface that tells of an individual or a couple who neglect themselves or a child in their care to play games, usually an MMO. A negative light is cast on games when these stories come to light, but why should it? In my experience, a game has never rewarded me for not eating. I do not achieve anything by going without showering for the day. A person has to make these decisions, therefore it cannot be the fault of the game.
Some critics accuse game designers of utilizing sophisticated behavioral psychology research to keep gamers hooked. A famous study of rats and rewards offers such a model. When rats are given food every time they pull a lever, they use the lever only when they are hungry. If the food is given in an unpredictable pattern, the rats remain in such a heightened state of desire and frustration that it keeps pulling the lever until it dies of exhaustion. When applied to games, this random-reward system keeps players clicking and hoping their next click will be a winner. Here, game design is less to blame for addiction, rather it is the disease of addiction itself. Mental disorders, such as ADHD, social anxiety, or depression, make people even more susceptible. Video gaming becomes their ‘substance’ of choice.
There will always be people who have trouble in real life and turn to games as a means of escapism. Playing games for for long periods of time does not make a person an addict. An addict is someone who is unable to give up what they are doing, despite any adverse affects it may have on their health and/or life. As long as we are able to judge when it is time to stop, gaming remains an enjoyable pastime. Anyone who finds they cannot put the controller down should seek help from friends and family.
Have you been accused of being a gaming addict? Do you have first hand experience of people who have had loved ones intervene in their gaming habits? Let me know in the comments!