Gaming Addiction – Fact or Fiction

2003 was an amazing year for gaming, I’ll never forget it. Some of my most fondly remembered games came out during that time: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time, Call of Duty (a franchise which unfortunately did not know when to stop), Max Payne 2, Jedi Academy, Need for Speed: Underground, Knights of The Old Republic and so many more. But of all of them, there was one I ached for most: Legacy of Kain – Defiance. When I finally got it, I went up to my mom and told her that for the following two days I would not leave my room. The game has a story mode and that’s it, so that’s all I needed. I was very honest about it, and she was amused. “You’ll become addicted to that computer” she said. Fast forward thirteen years and she spends more time playing candy-gem-farm-whatever games than I currently do playing games which require long waiting times for planetary alignments and injection burns where you quite literally have nothing to do except maybe check the ullage in your fuel tanks every ten minutes, so that’s saying something. Are we both addicted then? Neither of us?

Text: George Stoica

It turns out that the answer is a lot more difficult to find. This Monday, March 21st, The University of Tromsø hosted a presentation by Rune K.L. Nielsen, a psychology student currently working on his doctoral degree at the IT University of Copenhagen. The purpose of the presentation was to try to both clarify and spread information with regards to the causes and effects of this addiction, which can be hard to pin down.

The talk focused mainly on Internet game addiction, though many of the points could also be applied to offline games, and with today’s always-online platforms and games the line gets blurrier and blurrier. Surprisingly, a lot of the time was actually dedicated to expounding the difficulty of dealing with a condition which cannot even be defined consistently. The methodology behind the process of determining a pathological behavior in a person has shifted over the years, from focusing on the negative consequences themselves (such as “do you steal money in order to pay for your addiction?”) to the mechanisms which trigger them (for example “do you think about doing [insert addicting activity here] all day?”). This reflects a better understanding of the condition and how it can be helped, but in the case of video games, again, it is not that easy. Partially due to the media’s preference for sensationalist headlines as well as less-than-credible fear mongers, such as the endlessly trollable Jack Thompson of a few years ago, and partially due to the barriers between parents and children which modern society has engendered, it is difficult to see video game addiction for what it really is: a symptom of an underlying problem. Rune presented the case of a young man who suffered from serious physiological conditions due to what his parents thought was his game addiction. After some discussions with the boy himself, it turned out that the root cause was actually social anxiety and peer pressure, a fact that absolutely every teenager is faced with. Far from being a sinister affliction, the “addiction” was a coping mechanism for dealing with an incredibly common form of stress in everyday life for an adolescent.

Illustration: George Stoica
Illustration: George Stoica

This is a perfect example for why surveys such as the ones Rune presented need to shift towards qualitative assessment instead of quantitative. Surveys in general can be very tricky, as we often make assumptions about what is asked of us, and this can color our responses. Until there is a solid definition for a “gaming addiction” there can be no realistic perspective on the condition, or its veracity for that matter. In fact, one of the papers Rune wrote and talked about on Monday was titled “Turning Data into People”, an interesting twist on the idea used in statistics, that of doing the opposite. Since no two people are alike, dealing with their inner struggles cannot be treated as a simple variable to fit into an equation.

It will be interesting to observe how this situation changes over the years as many of today’s gamers become tomorrow’s parents. There already is a healthy culture of “cool gamer parents” thriving online, just ask YouTube and its many content creators who make a living playing games. However, most still avoid discussing problems with their children and “normalizing” the symptoms instead of blowing them out of proportion. Some of the children who are perceived as addicts could actually be professional e-sports players in the making, and a quick Google search will show you just how profitable such a career is. Talent comes in many shapes and sizes. Trying to fully understand a problem before attempting to solve it can both make the job easier and avoid making things worse. Remember, there are no quicksave buttons in real life.