Should games companies be held responsible for the woes of addicted gamers?

Game companies have started taking responsibility for an unfortunate byproduct of their success – “pathological” addiction - after a series of studies at British universities.

Gamescom 2012.
Gamescom 2012 Gaming Convention. Image: Juergen Schwarz/Getty Images.

It’s 11.55pm. The big hand is leaning precariously towards the number 12 and it’s time to face the truth; there’s only time for one more Deathmatch before it’s officially tomorrow. You join the match lobby, plug in your headset, and wait for the countdown. For the majority of gamers, sleep is victorious and the selected console is switched off to see another day. As for the rest? They crave one more hit, a hit that never satisfies. Or so say researchers at Cardiff, Derby and Nottingham Trent universities.

Games trick us into impressive periods of screen gazing in order to reach the next must-have achievement, or into defeating that menace: Level 65 of Candy Crush. That’s the whole point. In order for a game to be played, it requires playability. The very reason why we choose to devote time to the PC, Xbox, PlayStation, iPhone or whatever your platform poison, is to be entertained. But can games be too good at their job? The universities’ study, published in July’s issue of Addiction Research and Theory Journal seems to think so, warning online game companies to start taking responsibility to combat a byproduct of their sales – “pathological” addiction. And they’re right, companies do need to flag up the side effects of their success, but not purposefully smother the “addictive” game mechanics.

“Take everything in moderation ... Bring your friends to Azeroth, but don’t forget to go outside of Azeroth with them as well”. The new addition of a welcome message to popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), World of Warcraft, is reminiscent of friendly tobacco or alcohol packaging, warning punters from overdosing on the delights within. Likewise, Final Fantasy XI greets its users with a few helpful hints on how to scale the world of Vana without developing real-world travel sickness: “Don’t forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work”. 

Both games are MMORPGs, which, more so than other video game genres boast “an inexhaustible system of goals and success in which the character becomes stronger and richer by moving to new levels.” So far, so safe. Right? But the handy life advice upon entry to these virtual realms doesn’t exist for pure aesthetic value; it does so because of very real circumstances.

The idea of an uncontrollable urge to level-up, a burning need to find the Manslayer of the Qiraji or an overriding concern to hoard piles of ‘gold’ around – and all for a character who exists solely through a computer screen is, on the surface, laughable. Nevertheless, the infinite nature of these worlds and their seemingly limitless gameplay – more so than other game types - has hooked some players into marathon-long sittings. The study records individuals continuing to play 40, 60 and occasionally 90 hours in a single session. That’s enough time to raise some serious parental eyebrows, especially when The American Medical Association predicts that “more than 5 million children” may be fellow addicts.

Game addiction is hardly a new phenomenon. Gambling addicts have been successfully losing their money for centuries, the mechanics of gambling based on a similar premise to MMORPGs. There is no ultimate end goal, but a faint hope of striking lucky spurred on by occasional rewards. What is more problematic is classifying gaming addiction. How many hours of FarmVille do we have to commit to before rewarded with the diagnosis of addict? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there is no certified definition for game addiction, but a simple Google search will show you that it isn’t an urban myth. Popular listings include “How to get rid of your game addiction in 15 easy steps” and “Wowaholics Annoymous – a community for suffers from World of Warcraft compulsion.

For most of us, video games can be enjoyed in healthy doses without any real blow to psychological wellbeing – except perhaps a slight sense of guilt that our simulated character is both richer and more skilled than its living counterpart. But the cheerful creed-like messages to “take everything in moderation” is an example of game developers and publishers “tak[ing] some responsibility into their own hands” of potential misuse.

While these cautions should be applauded, as indeed should practical time monitoring tools for players and parents, to alter the entertaining gameplay itself to make it less entertaining is ludicrous. Dr Zaheer Hussain from the University of Derby calls for an amendment of “character development, rapid absorption rate, and multi-player features” to discourage potential addicts. Why purposely manufacture a game to make it less playable? Yes, publishers produce games with the intention of seducing its audience, if they didn’t there would be no gamers to purchase the software in the first place. And what a place would that be. Rather, what is needed is a greater awareness and acceptance of the addictive effects of online games, and a knowledge that Wowaholics Annoymous are there to pick up the pieces.