At the Future Play 2007 conference, IT University of Copenhagen's Espen Aarseth aimed to take a look into the "dark side" of gaming -- phenomena like "Everquest
widows," game addiction and media panic -- and asked the question, "are games always only good for us?"
"As I have performed research on the concept of game addiction, I have come to see it to be of more and more importance, but I’ve seen very few studies about it," Aarseth began. "I’m not talking about the effects of violence, I’m talking specifically the things that happen due to game addiction.”
He continued, "It seems that most of us here are apologetics for games -- talking about how games are good. That is important, but I think that we are being too one-sided. If we don’t talk about the other side, and take it seriously, we’re doing ourselves and society a disservice.”
The Future Play event is academically-oriented, and Aarseth cited the belief, which he says is supported by "very little evidence," that games can be used successfully in the classroom. "We have a belief that games are good that is not yet completely sustained by research," he added. "We should be equally open [to the idea] that there may be other aspects to games.”
Don Quixote De La Mancha
Aarseth showed an image of the fictional character Don Quixote, whom he suggested might be "perhaps the first person to be addicted to media. Don Quixote is actually an argument against reading books.”
As Aarseth continued, Don Quixote de la Mancha famously shows Don Quixote locked up in his room for three days, going slowly insane, until his friends intervene and debate which of the delusional man's beloved books to burn. "Back then that was seen as a real problem – people locking themselves up and reading," said Aarseth. "But now, if your kids were addicted to books, you’d be really happy!”
Drawing a parallel to sports addiction, Aarseth asked, "Are sports good? A limited amount of sport is good, but professionals break their bodies to be the best at their game! It’s literally unhealthy. If a football player dies on the field, the sport doesn’t get blamed!”
What Games Are
Aarseth went on to discuss exactly what games are, displaying a cute image of him playing with his flatcoated retriever - “we have a really interesting canine-human interface” he quipped.
“Games are pre-historical – much older than culture!" Aarseth noted, explaining, "Animals didn’t wait for humans to know how to play. It has a cross-species aesthetic. I couldn’t tell a dog a story -- well, I could, but it wouldn’t listen!”
He then gave his definition of games: “Games are facilitators that structure player behavior and whose main purpose is enjoyment.”
Aarseth touched on the topic of violence in games with a quip about chess. “Chess is a horrible game," he asserted. "In an FPS, you kill people -- but you can get hurt, too. In chess, you learn to sacrifice people without paying for it. That’s truly an evil game! It turns many people into pacifists!"
He then broached the topic of games as art. “I think many people want games to become this – something that can move our higher emotions. Some people say yes, they could be, but I can say that this has already happened. The game I am thinking of is the Tamagotchi. It can make us cry! Have you ever been to a Tamagotchi graveyard? [websites where people note their dead Tamagotchis] It’s a really brutal game – it should have had a higher ESRB rating than it did, or something.”
As an example, Aarseth displayed text from a girl, writing about her dead Tamagochi in a hysterically upset post: “Remember the time when I had your sound off and I still heard you? It was scary, but I felt so close to you!”
“This is quite moving, actually," said Aarseth. "I’m actually quite scared when I read this – what a Tamagotchi can do to people. So is this good, what a Tamagotchi can do to people? I’m not sure!”
Media Reaction To A New Medium
But is addiction just another media panic? Aarseth defined: "A media panic is seen as an ungrounded reaction to a new medium – literature, comics – videos.”
He continued, “The attempt to ban horror comics in the 1950’s was really interesting. They didn’t manage to ban the horror comics, but they did succeed because they managed to cause self-censorship to such an extent that comics took a major dip in sales and creativity. So self-censorship is a major problem that video games need to be aware of.”
Aarseth also noted, “The medium is blamed for very complex social problems – such as school shooting, even when they’re not related at all, such as in the Virginia Tech shooter, who actually stayed away when others in the dorms were playing games. He was, however, a playwright… And I’m not going to make any conclusions from that at all.”
He then went on to try and define addiction: “It can be considered a psychological dependence to a drug, or just a great interest in something, like a hobby, according to the dictionary.”
He continued, "So are games a drug or a hobby? That’s two very different things! There are many people who over do their hobbies – obsessive athletes, aquarium owners, Michael Jackson fans. But how big is this problem in games? People tend to class games in the same way as a drug rather than as a hobby when discussing addiction.”
To establish this, he gave the audience a short quiz, translated from Swedish, to test the audience for game addiction, which was similar to any other drug addiction questionnaire (“do you lie to relatives or friends to conceal how much you play?”) Lots of people scored highly – more than 5 out of ten. (Gamasutra's own correspondent scored 7.)
Posited Aarseth, “I guess we have a lot of problems in this room – but did anyone find this test itself problematic?"
Elaborating, he said, "I’d argue this test is not valid. Only a few questions were validly related to problems. Many simply relate to things that for many people would just be examples of the way that gaming was a positive highlight of your life, such as ‘you value the status the game gives you and spend time maintaining that.’ Of course! The questions seem weighted to make a problem appear.”
Does Game Addiction Really Exist?
Continued Aarseth, "What does the research literature say? There’s been very little empirical research. What little has been done was mainly done by Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University, who seems to be a very reasonable guy, quite neutral to the topic. He states that it does exist, but if seems to affect very few people, even noting, that many people who play video games to excess are still not addicted.”
Aarseth said that Griffiths' survey did find that in a 2007 study of self-selected online gamers, 12 percent of participants (840 gamers) fulfilled their diagnostic criteria of addiction for their gaming behavior.
Extrapolating, Aarseth noted, “If that was true across all of World of Warcraft
, that would mean 1 million people were addicted! That is not a small problem.”
The MMO Factor
Continued Aarseth, “But Griffiths was quite cautious to note that conclusively – noting that there seems to be a difference in addiction between game genres. It seems that MMOGs have a much higher possibility of addiction.”
Why MMOGs? Aarseth explained that this is because MMOs are more social games and incorporate a variety of different activities, from character creation and leveling to social interaction and exploring. "The gratifying feedback is always available," Aarseth said.
And, he pointed out, the industry is also very aware of this allure. “'Addictiveness' is a positive measure in a games industry,” he noticed.
Nonetheless, according to Aarseth, the comparison between gaming and drugs "doesn't really hold up," as crime and debt are not secondary consequences of gameplay. Film, TV and other forms of entertainment remain a better comparison, he argues.
Aarseth concluded, "One game that one person finds themselves addicted to can be utterly beneficial to many others. This is true of most media. We need to move away from simple deterministic conclusions about the effects of media and realize that what is good and empowering for one person, can be ultimately contributing to another person.”