Author's Note: In this assignment, our instructor required us to write for a general audience. As a result, some passages may sound slightly redundent to developers and avid gamers. I've tried my best to appeal to the widest audience possible for this article. My professor really liked this one, and I hope you do too.
Elements of Writing (M/Th)
10/6/2011 (Essay #1 Revised)
Videogame Addiction: Misunderstood
In August of 2005, a man from South Korea named Seungseob Lee died after playing the online strategy game Starcraft non-stop for fifty hours. Infamous stories similar to this one are typically jumped upon by the mass media immediately and become sensationalized, contributing to the stigma and moral panic that already surrounds video-games from many circles of people. One of the more notorious incidents of negative effects of video-game addiction involved an American teen named Daniel Petric shooting his parents over taking away his copy of Halo 3 because of his obsession with the game. It must be heavily stressed that these are highly unusual stories, but health issues and death have both resulted from obsessive video-game playing. Most people addicted to videogames are ordinary people, not killers.
Unfortunately, there has not been enough conclusive and credible research on game addiction from neurological standpoints. What little research that exists is often tainted by special interests from both big business and ideology groups. Thanks to this, there is not an official diagnosis of videogame addiction by the American Psychiatric Association. Even credible studies have given contradictory results. One such study from the Taiwanese Kaohsiung Medical University described the neurological factors involved in videogame addiction similar to substance abuse. Another one by psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude declared that videogame addiction was more comparable to an impulsive disorder such as gambling problems. This contradictory information on neurological impact causes treatment for game addiction to be difficult. It's easy to see why the the public and parents are confused. There is so much disinformation and many contradictions about videogame addiction that it is hard to determine what is credible and what is yellow journalism.
Who's responsible? The players, the developers, society itself, or something different? I predict that many people will be ready to point fingers at one specific target. It may also seem easy to one dimensionally view videogame addiction as a simple problem that can be pinpointed to some region of the brain and scrubbed away. The truth is that videogame addiction occurs from a combination of the player and the game design. Only together do they cause a person to wander inside the fictional worlds that feel so real inside the glass of a monitor. So what can we do?
I will be first to admit that there is a massive responsibility on the players' part in keeping their hobby healthy. Having been a gamer for nearly all of my life, I understand the appeal of playing videogames and the difficulty behind putting the controller down. From my experience, a probable cause for addiction is escapism. Nobody seems to ever think about this during studies and I have no idea why. Videogames today have gone far beyond PAC-MAN; ever since the mid-1990s, technology has developed to the point where imaginative virtual worlds surpassing reality exist. In real life I am an ordinary college student that can't control the future. In contrast to my real role in society, videogames allow me inhabit worlds where I matter and have an obligation to be part of. Holding a controller in my hands does not just mean controlling the onscreen characters. If I'm not saving the fantasy world of Hyrule from The Legend of Zelda series from evil monsters, I might be the city planner and mayor for a growing metropolis in Sim City. When I'm not playing any videogames, you will likely find me in online message boards dedicated to videogames that I like. Being a gamer is not just about playing games, it's about being part of an active community that loves getting away from reality's claws. This sense of control and community that videogames allow makes it very difficult to give up playing them.
That doesn't mean videogame developers don't share the responsibility as well. Whether they are aware of it or not, they often implicitly design their games to draw back large numbers of players to the games for several hours by subtle psychological manipulation. Even as a college student, I've found myself subconciously guilty of such design choices. The most common method of drawing players to a game is one of the most basic principles of established game design: scoring. Even non-electric games use scoring as a fundamental principle for tracking a player's progress. Classic arcade games encourage players to beat their previous score in the traditional sense. In modern games though, scoring can be used for more than tracking progress. Role Playing Games are heavily based on using statistics that affect a game character's abilities. Killing creatures will give a player more points, and the more points they get the stronger their character will become. This process is understandably time consuming, thus encouraging extensive devotion to the game. Whether a player tries to beat their own score or make their game avatars stronger, scoring systems create a desire to come back and self improve.
Another major way of encouraging addiction is for a game to somehow reward players the longer they play. These rewards could be anything ranging from in-game weapons, to currency that allows special items and gadgets to be purchased. It could even be something as simple as a key to unlock a door so a player can get to the next room. Rewards are a basic game design principle, making it virtually impossible to remove them in even the simplest of games. The whole point of making a game is to create something people will have so much fun with, they will want to stay engaged and continue playing? In most cases, making a game not addictive also makes it not fun. Still, some questionable practices exist. Perhaps among the more ethically dubious design choices are those by Zynga, utilized via their facebook games. Titles such as Farmville continue to run on Zynga's and Facebook's servers, even when a user's browser is closed. The in-game items, such as crops, slowly degrade over time and will require maintenance by the players. However, crops become unwithered if a player buys with real money a special item from Zynga. Social networking games by companies like Zynga effictively penalize a player for not playing the game daily. Johnathan Blow, creator of the critically acclaimed independent game Braid, once criticized Farmville in an interview with Gamasutra, "It's only about exploiting the players ... It's about 'How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity' -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. " I expect many will agree with Mr. Blow's stance on Zynga. But whether Zynga's practices are right or wrong, or whether a game designer's intent is malicious or benign, a well designed game will have to be inherently addictive. Do we just blame developers for all of our social ills then?
Companies are commercial organizations. Studios need to make a profit in today's modern world so they can pay their bills and workers. To not make addicting games means a failing business. Still, videogame developers should be more aware of their techniques on the negative effects of baiting players in. While from a business standpoint the methods make sense, it also requires finding a balance by factoring in ethical concern. Our first instinct likely involves developers to find a way to stop making games addictive, but that could ruin the industry. Financial circumstances aside, part of the reason games are addictive is because of their escapist appeal. They provide virtual worlds capable of tangible narratives. Videogames are growing as a storytelling art-form, and to scale back on virtual world production today would mean regression to 1980s design. Not all games are like Farmville and demand mandatory play to succeed. How can designers possibly achieve this balance without destroying the industry? I'm afraid I do not have an answer. Finding a balance will be among the biggest challenges and ethical dilemmas of 21st century game design.
However, I think there may be an answer that does not try to stop addiction but embraces it. Would a parent today complain if their child is addicted to reading a good book? It's unlikely, because reading a book today is viewed as inspiration of the imagination and can cross over into real-world benefits. It may seem hard to believe, but books were once viewed as dangerous time wasters of society in western culture. I wonder if someday videogames will reach the respect books have too? Games possess the potential to step into reality in ways traditional media never could. The difference between videogames and movies is that games are a participatory art with an interactive stage. Perhaps designers could somehow extend this stage into reality. Gamers collectively spend billions of hours in the virtual world. Imagine if we could somehow harness all of the time spent in the virtual world and channel it to the real world. Dr. Jane McGonnigal, author of Reality is Broken and designer of World Without Oil definitely thinks so, “The great challenge for us today, and for the remainder of the century, is to integrate games more closely into our everyday lives and embrace them as a platform for collaborating on our most important planetary efforts” (McGonigal, 354). These games McGonigal strives to design have already been created, but on a small scale. For instance, a web-based trivia game called freerice is tied to an organization that will donate ten grains of rice for every correct answer you give. Think of how this simple little game has fed thousands. Now imagine if modern and sophisticated games somehow implemented systems like freerice but tenfold. Combine game playing with the dedicated communities it propagates and videogames have the potential to benefit the world.
Without detailed research about the social effects of gaming, the public will never come to this conclusion. First an accurate study on addiction free of special interests needs to be carried out. Then developers need use the study to optimize positive social paradigms for videogame design. But the frustration from a lack of answers from professionals is not just a problem for developers; inconclusive research could curtail positive game experiences by causing unnecessary regulation from the government on game development. State legislatures across the country have been trying to regulate violent videogames and have failed due to federal court decisions. I think with the violence regulation failed they'll go after addiction next with the justification of “public health.” Clearly many politicians are against videogames because they do not see how they could grow as an art-form and benefit society. Without proper research, I am certain that politicians will continually misjudge games and improperly regulate game addiction in the near future. If videogames are sent back in time to the seventies by them, we will have missed one of the greatest opportunities for our society to grow.
There's also the issue of media treating invalid research as fact. The portrayal of game addiction in news and pop culture makes the problem worse by demonizing the games and people involved with them. Instead of helping people affected by addiction, it results in scorn from society towards players and developers. Education on the topic will be key and everybody from all sides, developer or consumer, parent or child, reporter or viewer, will need to be responsible for themselves. Whether someone is a game player or an outside observer, responsibility will be key to solving every issue. Currently the two parties who have the most burdened responsibilities are the American Psychology Association and the general gaming industry for obvious reasons, but one other party has potentially the greatest one of all.
Gamers, both developers and players, must show the potential of the medium to non-gamers. The amount of people who play games has risen exponentially, but there are still many who have not seen the potential videogames have to bring society closer together. Someday videogames will be integrated into our lives to make them better. I do not know yet how I could personally design a modern-style game to integrate with reality, but I know that the potential is there. Videogames are a vast ocean and we have merely cast our poles into it. Some have ventured in kayaks and canoes on the surface, but we still have not yet sailed and explored it. The time will come when all developers and players are ready to dive into the depths of this ocean. If game development does not stagnate, then addiction could be good.