A Gamer’s Virtual World Is Key to Understanding Real-Life Addiction

young man playing video gameAs the power of mobile devices and smartphones has rapidly increased, game developers have created ever more realistic and complex environments. Using backdrops of elaborate movies or the authenticity of real-life events, the level of detail that was unimaginable only a few years ago is now commonplace. As the story lines and design of games advanced, so did the interactivity of online games. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) were made possible with the growth of broadband Internet in developing countries, allowing hundreds of thousands of people around the globe to play the same game together. These games require the most complex of infrastructures, replicated and deployed from data centers around the world. The development community often describes these types of MMORPGs as “persistent worlds,” which continue to exist and evolve while a player is away from the game.

Each MMORPG carries subtle differences regarding strategy, game play, and outcome. Games typically involve a large number of players who interact with one another and often assume the roles of fictional characters, taking control of those characters’ actions. Players can assume the role of a general, a king, or some other figurehead, leading an army into battle, while at the same time maintaining the resources needed for such warfare. The virtual world is based on traditional fantasy (dwarves, elves, spells, etc.), and players can trade troops with other players, build armies, cities, and kingdoms, take over new lands, and join in quests.

In attempting to understand what motivates a person to play, it is important to understand the context of gaming and the vast array of possibilities available to potential players. A player can choose from hundreds or perhaps thousands of games, and each player is motivated to participate in a particular game for unique and personal reasons. Clinically, it is important to understand why a player chooses a particular game and what he or she likes about it. Does he or she like exploring? Being part of a group? Being able to take command of a guild? Being able to create new scenes within the game?

What needs does the game itself fill? What types of scenes or images intrigue a player? What is it about the types of guilds the person joins that gives the player a sense of community? For therapists, the answers help to uncover some of the key issues involved with the Internet gaming addiction process. Learning about the game helps therapists understand the attraction.

If you strip away everything else, the main thread to this, or the common entryway into gaming, is the creation of a character. A name, an identity, a gender—all need to be determined at the onset of gaming. The “drug” of online gaming is in the properties that a user creates through a character. The theme of the game is also important, and the types of battles, terrain, or associated scenery are all relevant, but the real addictive aspect of the game comes from the character created.

The formation of the character is a psychological and social process. To understand Internet gaming addiction, a therapist must understand what a character means to the client. Who this character becomes in the game represents something about a person’s personality or perhaps a wish fulfillment or some secret fantasy. It varies from user to user. Sometimes a person who is normally shy creates an online character who is more outgoing, or it can be something deeper. A person with low self-esteem and confidence may create a powerful and aggressive character.

What psychological meaning does the name of the character represent? Is the character a warrior or an elf? Is the character aggressive or reserved? Is the character strong and possessive? Is the character masculine or feminine? This early stage of character development is the first stage in understanding the addiction cycle. Individuals may use their characters to establish new identities when interacting with others online. They may feel that they “become” another person. Online, a user has the ability to remove the imposed constraints of real life and experiment with altered perceptions of self. That is, gaming creates a virtual “stage” where a person can act out a new role through the creation of fictitious handles and the projection of altered physical characteristics, such as gender, age, race, or family background. This cultivates a persona or false image of oneself, allowing a person to “reconstruct” his or her identity.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kimberly Young, PsyD, therapist in Bradford, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Melissa


    October 23rd, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I can see how easy it could be for someone looking for an escape to find that in the gaming and online world. There you can become whatever you want to be or maybe even what you have always imagined yourself to be in your own mind but knew that that was not how others saw you. It doesn’t make any sense for those of us who are pretty confident in who we are but if you think about people who have a hard time relating to others and how much easier this kind of identity must be and how much easier it must be to construct this virtual world for yourself then you can see why there are so many people who get all swept up into it.

  • Lana


    October 24th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    This is pretty scary, given that these gamers continue to develop these worlds in their heads even when they are away from it.
    Does this or could this also indicate some kind of psychotic break from reality?

  • pete


    October 24th, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    For those of you have never had a hard time making friends or for whom things have always come easily, you seem to think that this is strange.
    But if you are like me and have always struggled socially then surely you know just how much easier it is to live online than it is to interact in reality.
    I know the difference between the real world and the online world, I haven’t had that kind of break with reality, but maybe the people I meet online are just plain nicer and far more cool to be around than anyone I ever meet on a day to day basis. I enjoy their company and I think that they enjoy me. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  • RunninFast


    October 25th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    I have never felt the need to go online for this, so I can’t say that i know what that would feel like.

    But what I do know is that those who do deserve our compassion and not our condemnation, and perhaps if we tried to extend them more understanding then they could feel less of a need to make up this storyline for themselves online.

  • Cheryl


    October 28th, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    After reading this article, I will be more observant of my son’s activities in his virtual world. This ia an eye opener.

  • Elaine


    October 28th, 2013 at 3:44 PM

    We are now and have been dealing gaming addiction. We tried many different approaches when he was is his Junior and senior years in high school.Unfortunatelymy son is now 22 does not see his addiction is a problem. He has stopped going to school twice, he has lost every job he has had including two good ones recently. At this time he goes to classes two days a week, no work and spend the rest of his time in his room playing games. If anyone out there has any advice, please help

  • Jason Brophy

    Jason Brophy

    October 29th, 2013 at 8:23 AM

    Online gaming for me, is an escape from reality. Just like reading, writing, or any kind of art crafting. It’s human nature. I’ve always loved video games and strive to be the best. I strive at work to be the best.
    Some people do take it to far but it’s a sport to me and no one seems to mind an obbessed football player or baseball player. Its when they use drugs that people seem to mind.
    Teenagers who join a club and start becoming friends with different people change their identity to fit in with that clique. People act different at work then at home. There’s nothing wrong with a person who acts different in certain environments. It’s called adapting.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.