By Dr. Brent Conrad
Clinical Psychologist for TechAddiction
For most players, computer games are a fairly harmless hobby used for simple entertainment and relaxation. Although the vast majority of gamers do not become addicted, some clearly play way too much and their habits become real problems for life in the "real world". When games become the most important activity in a person's life and obsessive play contributes to social, relational, educational, work, or psychological difficulties, computer game addiction is a real possibility.
There are those who point out that game addiction as a problem pales in comparison to drug and alcohol addictions. No arguments here. However, even though game addiction may not cause as much damage and hardship as alcohol addiction, it can still be a very significant problem for some online gamers. In contrast to drug addiction, the physical act of playing computer games is not inherently destructive. Rather, game addiction is a problem mainly when excessive time in front of a computer screen significantly detracts from life outside the virtual world and greatly impedes personal, academic, career, and/or social development.
As an example, consider child video game addiction and imagine a fifteen year old who plays video games seven hours per day. There is little doubt that this habit will have a negative impact on his grades, how much contact he has with his friends, his relationship with family, work (if he has a job or is seeking one), and physical health.
When it comes to game addiction not all games are created equal. In general, research has shown that games in the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) and First Person Shooter (FPS) genres have the highest risk for game addiction.
Which bring us to this question: Why are computer games addictive? How does game addiction develop and what is it about certain genres that makes the potential for obsessive play more likely?
Read on to learn how three well-know psychological concepts may play important roles in computer game addiction.
During the early stages of a playing a MMO, characters have few (if any) powers, limited abilities, and are overall very weak. But, after only a short time playing (perhaps within 15 minutes), the player is often able to "level up" his or her character (i.e., the avatar becomes stronger or more powerful). Despite putting in very little effort the player is rewarded - an important design element for early game stages intended to encourage the person to keep playing. Following this initial introductory period, it will take just a bit longer to reach each subsequent level. The result? Over time, the player is shaped to accept the greater amounts of time and energy that are required to keep playing. Late stage game levels may even take months of extensive play to reach, but by this time the game addiction is well established..
2. Desire to Gather & Hoard
With regard to game addiction, online role-playing games play upon our natural desires / instincts to gather (acquire) and hoard (save). Most of us can relate to just how difficult it can be to throw out things that (if we admit it) are quite useless. This is a natural human tendency that has evolved over thousands of years and one that is exploited quite successfully by the most addictive games. For example, players often receive small in-game gifts or rewards for mundane and very repetitive tasks (referred to as "grinding") that can take hours upon hours to complete (e.g., killing very weak characters over and over again until the next level is reached).
3. Avoidance of Negative Consequences
Another contributor to game addiction is the desire to avoid a negative in-game punishment for neglecting the game. Many of the most addictive online games continue to change (players, environments, skill attributes of others, etc.) even when the player is not online. Therefore, if the player is not spending at least a few hours per day with the game, he risks being left behind and unable to complete against those who are more "devoted" to the game. Take the popular Facebook game Farmville for example. If one's virtual garden is not cared for it will quickly begin to rot - and the player may feel that all his / her time has been wasted. To avoid these types of punishments, players must commit to playing every day. So, game addiction is not just encouraged / maintained by rewards, but also by the prevention of punishment.
See the related article "Why Are Video Games Addictive?" for an even more complete explanation of game addiction.
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