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Understanding Online Gaming Addiction

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Teen boy using computer

Online gaming addiction is an addiction to online video games, role-playing games, or any interactive gaming environment available through the Internet.  Online games such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Halo, The Dark Age of Camelot, or Diablo – dubbed “heroinware” by some players – can pose much more complex problems.

“I really want my life back,” explained Matt, an eighteen-year-old gaming addict.  “Three years ago I was one of the most popular kids at school.  I got invited to all the parties, got lots of girls, had too many friends. Then I discovered an online game called Counter-Strike.  It’s very hard for me to stop.  I wake up in the morning, no shower, get on the computer, stay on till the wee hours of the mornings, go to sleep, repeat.  I don’t know how to get off; I’ve tried.  It’s just too hard.  I heard this is a very common problem but I really want to get my life back and I’d give anything.”

To fully grasp the dynamics and issues related to online gaming today, it is necessary to look at where this all got started. In the early days of the Internet, interactive online games were a take-off on the old Dungeons and Dragons games, often know as Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, that drew upon power, dominance, and recognition within a role-playing, make-believe virtual world.  MUDs differed from traditional video arcade games in that instead of a player’s hand-eye coordination improving, the actual strength, skills, and complexity of the character improves.  Now games are highly interactive.  Players can socialize, develop strategies, or compete directly with fellow players.  With a click of a button, a socially introverted young man can transform himself into a great and powerful warrior within the game leading legions of troops into battle.

Known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, also called MMORPGs, these games became the newest form of electronic game development.  MMORPGs advanced the notion of gaming from the older style MUDs as these games became commercially available, allowing more users – thus the term “massive” – and added new graphical character-based interactive environments with enhanced features where users could chat and exchange items. Initially, these games were very basic but the use of online avatars and combining chat and graphics made MMORPGs revolutionary.

In many ways, MMORPGs are not really games as much as they are living, self-contained three-dimensional societies.  Each game has its own scenery from forests, prairies, beaches, mountains, and towns.  Players can immerse themselves and collectively evolve in these virtual societies.  Each game has its own currency to buy goods and services.  Gold coins, jewels, bears, or pelts may be used to buy weapons, armor, or magical potions, depending upon the economics and currency of the game.  To play, players first create a “character,” or a virtual version of themselves.  The player must decide a character’s race, its species, history, heritage, and philosophy.  The genres and themes vary depending upon the game.  A player could be a greedy business type in one game, a strong warrior in another game, or an elf with magical powers in another.

As gaming has evolved so has the forms that characters can take, so that players can select more detailed representations for their characters.  For instance, for human characters, players can select skin color, hair color, height, weight, and gender.  They also can decide on a character’s profession, ranging from a banker, lawyer, dancer, engineer, thief, minor, bounty hunter, elf, or gnome, depending upon the game.  Finally, each player must choose a name for the character.  Some take great care and pride in determining just the right name.  In fact, in some strange way, a character’s name seeps into the player over time.  They spend hours living as this “other person” and begin to identify with a character that feels more real and less fictional the longer they play.

Gregg, a normally quiet and shy 19-year-old physics major at Texas A & M explained, “I had been playing video games since I was twelve.  Then a friend told me about FFIV [Final Fantasy IV] and said I just had to try it.  So I did.  It was totally different.  I’ve been playing it for a year.  I am Calab, a warlock with special potions.  I liked questing with friends.  We collected all kinds of things – bears, eggs, pelts – it didn’t matter.  We liked being together, hanging out.  The more I played the more powerful Calab became.  I had stronger potions and more magical powers.  It was easier to get things.  I could take what I wanted from lesser players or kill monsters.  Calab became respected by everyone I played with.  I liked the whole progression, the advancement thing … gradually getting better as a player, being able to handle situations that previously I wouldn’t have been able to.  I was immersed in the game, spent every night playing, and liked feeling important in ways that I wasn’t able to in my real life.”

This is just the first of many articles to come that will address how online gaming addiction is rapidly becoming the number one subtype of Internet addiction. In these series, I will try to blend some actual cases and comments from clients to illustrate how these games work and what methods of assessment and treatment are appropriate for this emerging client population.

© Copyright 2011 by Kimberly Young, PsyD, therapist in Bradford, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved.

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  • alex December 2nd, 2011 at 5:07 PM #1

    Hi Kimberly,

    I’m glad you’re writing about this issue. Online Gaming Addiction is a real thing and it’s getting kids younger and younger. From the ages of 13-19 I was addicted to online gaming. I’ve played several different games, DAoC (Dark Age of Camelot), EQ, WoW and others. It actually started with RTS (Real Time Strategy) games that I would play online and started to make friends. We had guilds and guild politics. It truly is another life.

    Though I was consumed with online gaming, it did give me a number of useful skills. One thing that I found helped me was equating life to an MMORPG – doing real life “quests” helped me land jobs, accomplish tasks and reach goals. It’s taught my about navigating in the world – geography and getting from place to place. It’s taught my about currency. In some cases it’s taught me history. It has certainly taught me a lot about social dynamics – though those social dynamics change when you’re in real life situations. I’ve certainly become very skilled at articulating points clearly and effectively through text.

    My little brother is now addicted as I was. And I struggle with trying to set a good influence with him and also being able to relate because I too was there. In fact, I’m 100% positive that I played a major role in his life that caused his addiction to online gaming. I hope that he is able to come out of it better in the end, as I have.

    Thank you again for bringing this issue to awareness.

  • gabe December 2nd, 2011 at 7:33 PM #2

    I guess I don’t get this but I have never been that into gaming. But I do see how you can liken this to any other online community that someone could get involved with. It is so easy to get sucked into this because most people are looking for someone to connect with, and these forums offer them the perfect opportunity to make those connections without ever having to leave their home and the life that they enjoy. Pretty enticing for someone who is a little predisposed to those addictive tendencies in the first place.

  • Rachel December 2nd, 2011 at 9:59 PM #3

    I think the ones that get addicted to all this are people who are insecure deep down inside.When an individual does not have an outlet in real life,like a hobby or good friends,they tend to seek an outlet in the virtual world and these games are a perfect fit.Because not only do you get an activity but also a make-believe world to interact with others and gain popularity.

    This is more serious of an issue than it seems to be. Not only is it an addiction(which is bad in itself) but it also speaks of a bigger problem on the inside.

  • davey December 3rd, 2011 at 6:42 AM #4

    Hey I’m a gamer and take a whole lot of heat for that. Friends accuse me of bailing out on them because of the things I have going on online. Have they ever thought that maybe what I get from my friends there is a whole lot more than what I get from them? I mean these are my friends too and I don’t get why there are you guys who don’t understand that this is a possibility too. I don’t find it odd, just a new way to have friends and people who like the same things that I do as a part of my life. I honestly fail to see what is wrong with that.

  • annabelle December 4th, 2011 at 8:25 AM #5

    I know that I am going to step on some toes here, but to me all these people who sit around all day playing video games and doing little more with their lives than using the controllers, that sure is a lot of life that that they are wasting there! I like to be outside enjoying the real things in life, but these losers make their lives around some online or onscreen non reality!

  • Jocelyn December 4th, 2011 at 5:00 PM #6

    @ annabelle it might be a little premature to call someone a loser just because they are engaging in an activity that you might not necessarily be all that into, but still a little unfair.

    Maybe this is their way of dealing with everyday life, or whatever.

    Yeah I know that some of them get a little too caught up in th game, but so what? If it is not affecting othe areas of their life then what does it hurt?

  • HEALY December 5th, 2011 at 6:43 AM #7

    It would be unfair to call every gamer a loser. But if there is an addiction, no matter to wat, it needs attention. and because there are emerging numbers of ppl addicted to gaming there is definitly gonna be talk of it.

  • Phil October 2nd, 2014 at 4:50 AM #8

    There’s a difference between playing online games recreationally and making close friends because of it, and being addicted to gaming and letting it consume your life. Putting your games ahead of your wellbeing.

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