Not Just Child’s Play: Massive Multiplayer Online Games, Addiction, and Predation (Part 3)

“During my addiction, I hated, truly hated, going out with family during my ‘World of Warcraft (WoW) time.’ I never organized anything with my friends, I sulked about having to work during the weekends, I dropped all my interests…just because of WoW. I became withdrawn, irritable and lifeless.”

“I’m moving to a new job soon, my first job, the one with the degree I almost didn’t get due to playing WoW instead of studying.”

“My son committed suicide Nov. 2010. His addiction to WoW had ruined his marriage.”

These are just a handful of stories from World of Warcraft players or their loved ones, taken from WoWaholics.org. But they are also the sensationalist ones–the kind that get picked up by major news outlets and daytime talk shows because they’re compelling, if atypical. These are the stories leading to studies about video game addiction. And these are the stories leading to the stereotype of gamers that they are, at 40 years old, still living in Mom’s basement and living off a steady diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew.

But what does it mean to be addicted to gaming? And why do Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) seem to lead to addictions?

The Risks of MMOs

As we’ve seen in the last two issues, video games have a number of risks ranging from inappropriate content to harmful interactions, though there are positive elements as well, such as teaching ethics and problem solving.

In most console games, both the positive and the negative elements occur in a controlled environment. In Portal 2, for example, the script is set in single-player mode; parents can play it once and know exactly whether it is appropriate for their kids. And in its multiplayer mode, parents can’t limit the language another player uses, but they can limit who their kids play with.

MMOs take both the good and the bad aspects of other video games and magnify them. Most of the popular MMOs, including World of Warcraft and the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, are role-playing games (RPGs), meaning they take place in a live, shared virtual world. Each player controls one custom character at a time. Often gamers will join a single gaming group (known as a guild). These guilds schedule times to play regularly together, whether competing in a tournament or conducting a “raid” on a dungeon in order to kill a tough monster. The online shared environment means your actions in the game can impact the storyline or other players in the virtual world. It also means there are few controls limiting who you interact with. Many games allow you to block specific users after they contact you once, but there is nothing to stop them from contacting you in the first place.

These very open environments lead to enhanced experiences, both in the game and in some cases in life. Many gamers consider other guild-members to be close friends, for example. However, these same positive elements lead to an increased risk of addiction.

A Note on Addiction

It’s important to note that the word “addiction” is a contentious term. According to Dr. Cheryl Olson, there are three hallmarks of addiction:

  1. A compulsive, physiological craving
  2. Increased tolerance (needing a higher dose to get the same effect) following early use
  3. Well-defined and uncomfortable physiological symptoms during withdrawal

Often, those who are accused of (or claim) video game addiction simply enjoy games as a hobby. Gamers may play for hours on end, several times a week. Therapist Mike Langlois compares these people to a person who reads Bleak House for three hours in the evening. That person would not be categorized as “addicted” to Dickens. Olson similarly likens many gamers to those who memorize sports trivia, collect memorabilia, and watch games for 3 or 4 hours: we don’t call them addicts, we call them fans.

Even those who let their gaming hobby affect their offline lives (like those quoted at the beginning of this article) may not be “addicted” in the technical sense. For many, it may have more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or, extreme escapism through video games may be a symptom of a deeper problem, like depression.

That being said, “addiction” is a reasonable term to describe a behavior that may be difficult to stop, and therefore we will be using it in this article.

How MMOs Work to Addict You

It certainly doesn’t help that many MMOs actively condition you to keep playing. One needs only to compare video games in general (and MMOs in particular) to the research of B.F. Skinner on Operant Conditioning. Game researcher Nick Yee explains Skinner’s research:

Skinner boxes are small glass or plexi-glass boxes equipped with a combination of levers, food pellets, and drinking tubes. Laboratory rats are placed into Skinner boxes and conditioned to perform elaborate tasks. At first, the rat is rewarded with a food pellet for facing the lever. Then it is rewarded if it gets closer to the lever. Eventually, the rat is shaped to press the lever. Once the rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded, a food pellet does not need to be dropped every time and the rat will still continue pressing the lever.

How does this connect with games? Most games have a very quick rewards cycle at the beginning of a game (level up and gain additional powers multiple times within the first few hours). Eventually this basic rewards-structure will slow down, but by that point most well-designed games will have additional goals in place to keep you pressing the lever–goals like leveling up in a certain skill (by performing a certain action a certain number of times), or like defeating a certain monster who only shows up at a certain time to gain a certain piece of equipment.

These basic reward cycles are common to all games; systems of trophies or achievements are designed to force you to play for hours. You’re required to play each level in the popular LEGO games at least twice to accomplish everything, for example. Online games in general and MMOs in particular take this a step farther. Unlike single-player console games, which you can put away for weeks (or years) without losing anything in-game, many online games will actively punish you for not returning to it regularly. In the popular Facebook game Farmville, you risk losing crops if you do not return to the game within a set timeframe. Some MMOs incorporate similar “features.” At the least, they will introduce regular expansions to the core game with new areas, character types, or rewards. The most successful MMO, World of Warcraft, has released three expansions since its original release in November 2004.

Then there is the risk of ostracism. One of the biggest benefits of an MMO is the ability to join a guild and go on raids in groups. Miss the occasional raid, and you’ll miss the opportunity to gain valuable items, and fall behind other players. Miss too many raids, and some guilds may even kick you out completely. This is especially problematic for those who, for whatever reason, have migrated their primary social interactions to these games. For them, setting aside the game is akin to skipping out on the Labor Day barbecue or the weekly get-together to watch football. Skipping once in a while is one thing; skipping regularly means a loss of community.

MMOs and Escapism

Anecdotally, many gamers get addicted because a game is an increasingly rewarding escape from personal problems. A writer for gaming site Kotaku, for example, talks about getting addicted to EverQuest after his girlfriend broke up with him. As an extreme example, Langlois cites overseas soldiers, whose jobs very literally have a high risk of injury or death. It is natural that their hobbies would include games like World of Warcraft, which resurrects you moments later if you die.

Escapism is natural, and in reality any form of escape, even “good” ones,  may have problems. (Any avid reader will tell you tales of staying up late to finish a book.) The particular problem with using MMOs, however, is the inherent addictiveness. Most gamer horror stories begin with a real-world problem. They turn to their game as an escape and are increasingly drawn in; this causes them to lose sleep or skip classes or work; they drop out of school or get fired; they turn back to games. On occasion, this will lead to questionable, or even criminal, behaviors. Skim WoWaholics or WoW Detox and you’ll see stories of those who stole money to pay the monthly fee; on extremely rare occasions, stories like this one talk about turning to actual drugs as a result of gaming:

I found out that I could make more money than any of the roomies by working 1 night a week so I started working Saturday nights at a strip club (and I had always been modest prior to this). It was perfect, about $1,000 a week, all the time in the world to play WoW, my roomies were happy, and life was sunshiny.

While stripping, I was introduced to cocaine! A drug that allowed me to play WoW even more! I was hooked. As cocaine became too expensive, I was turned onto meth, which was less expensive and kept me awake for up to 5 days at a time.

Extreme, yes. But those who increasingly turn to games as an escape share a common story: increased focus on the game came at the detriment of personal goals and relationships. World of Warcraft did not fix the problems they sought to avoid; rather, they exacerbated them.

The Tangled Web of MMOs and Predation

Because MMOs are so social in nature, they can lead to predation whether intentional or otherwise. Some predators play online games in pursuit of grooming a relationship with a minor. In other cases, a fellow guild member may strike up a friendship that turns sexual. Many of these predators would not self-identify as sexually preferring children. Instead, they first fall for the digital character, then the person behind the character. When face-to-face interactions are introduced at a later stage in a relationship, age becomes a secondary detail. In two cases involving World of Warcraft, for example, the children lied about their age to the perpetrators. In one, a 23-year-old expected to meet an 18-year-old when in reality the girl was 14. In another case, a 35-year-old who claimed to be 21 started conversing with a 15-year-old claiming to be 20. This excuses neither adult, who both chose to proceed even after finding out about their victims’ ages, but in both situations it appears to have been about the person first, not their age.

Positive Elements

With stories about addiction and predation filling the news, it’s easy to write off MMOs as irredeemable. However, it’s important to remember that these cases are the exception, not the rule. Most gamers play casually for an hour or two at a time without being consumed by it. These people find that MMOs provide an enhanced gaming experience in comparison to other games.

Adaptive Gaming Environments

In standard, single-player console games, the game world and storyline are comparatively static. Portal 2 will never change, no matter who plays it. Even more open-ended games like Dragon Age 2 will share certain essential plot points, although some of the side stories and character interactions may differ depending on certain choices you make.

MMOs, on the other hand, don’t have strictly linear timelines, and player-controlled characters vastly outnumber static, computer-controlled characters. Two separate guilds may trigger the same quest, but because the people comprising each guild are unique, their interactions with the plot lines are unique.

In addition, many MMOs remain in active development after release. This means that they are constantly working to create new quests or environments. Play through Portal 2 once and you’ve seen it all. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to unlock everything World of Warcraft has to offer.

In some MMOs, your game decisions may even impact the game environment itself. Some players in the game Glitch, currently in beta, discovered a bug that allowed them to drop items in midair. This allowed them to spell out words or create pictures within the game environment which other players could come and view. The Glitch developers embraced these player-created art installations.

Group Collaboration and Interaction

The biggest benefit of MMOs is the social aspect. Most MMOs have single-player functions; joining a guild is not necessarily required to have a good experience. However, as you level up, more emphasis is put on guilds and collaboration. This means more than just teaming up to kill a monster. It means performing a vital role in service to other players. Physically weaker healer characters, for example, keep physically stronger fighter characters alive while they’re in the front lines taking and dealing damage. In planning before a raid, players can work out creative, tactical solutions that a single player likely would not discover on his own.

These interactions often mean that complete strangers in different geographical areas can become close friends. While these can be harmful to some people on occasion (as in the cases of child predation, or simply neglect of non-gamer friends and family), these can also be incredibly beneficial to some gamers facing isolation in real-world communities. Langlois mentions that someone who is physically impaired may have limited mobility and therefore limited real-world friends, but can get the social support they need from MMOs. In addition, a number of Christian guilds exist, allowing Christian gamers to grow in faith and community while playing MMOs.

Often, MMOs are used to support real-world relationships as well. Many friends or couples will go online together as a way to bond. While one Covenant Eyes employee was away at college, he would play World of Warcraft with his brother for an hour or two nightly as a way to spend time together despite being geographically distant.

What You Can Do

Despite these positive elements, some parents will (quite reasonably) choose to forbid their children from playing these games. For those who don’t wish to do so, or for gamers who choose to play MMOs, here are some steps to take to protect yourself and your family from game addiction and predation.

Monitor Internet Use

One of the most reasonable steps to take is to monitor the time you or your kids spend online and set strict limits. The Covenant Eyes Filter allows you to set daily or weekly time limits. Once these limits are reached, the Internet is automatically shut off for that user. Given that raids are often scheduled by guilds as a group, it may be wise to allow your child to bank their weekly time limit. Instead of an hour a day for an MMO, they may get more value out of their time by playing for three hours on Friday and four on Saturday.

Don’t forget to monitor Internet use. If your daughter seems to be spending all of her time online playing World of Warcraft and staring at strategy guides, it may be a sign that she has a problem.

Monitor Schoolwork and Outside Activities

As with many other issues, if gaming is becoming a problem in someone’s life, then other areas of life will suffer. Keep an eye on your son’s schoolwork, and consider setting limits based on his grades. If he drops from a B average to a C or D and spends all his free time talking about and playing City of Heroes, you may want to give him stricter time limits until his grade point average increases. If a friend of yours plays an MMO and starts dropping out of real world activities, such as a church group or movie nights, you may want to call him up and ask what’s going on in his life. (Conversely, if your child is suddenly overachieving, it may actually be a sign that she is being groomed by a predator.)

Remember to look at the whole picture when you consider these factors. If your straight-A son gets a B in math but maintains high grades in his other classes, it may be more indicative that he has problems with math than with World of Warcraft. And if your daughter drops out of the track team and fills her time with MMOs, ask yourself whether she actually liked track or whether she joined simply because you asked her to.

Look for Outside Factors

It’s important to remember that increased time gaming may in fact be a method of escapism from a different problem in life. If you’ve determined that your child or friend’s use of MMOs has become problematic, see if there’s a separate problem. Is your child being targeted by a bully? It’s only natural he would retreat into a game where his power is unlimited. Did your friend just break up with her long-term boyfriend? Of course she would want to become someone completely different. By identifying these underlying motivations for playing obsessively, you may be able to help your friend or child solve their issues before they get truly addicted to an MMO.

Get Professional Help

Remember, most addicts of any substance or activity will not seek or accept help until they acknowledge they have a problem, and you telling them they have one may only serve to make them more resentful. If your child or friend appears to be truly addicted, or if you have just discovered that your child has been groomed by a predator, you will help them most effectively by acknowledging that the problem is beyond your capacity and seeking help from a professional counselor or therapist.

Special thanks to Alaina Kraus and Scott McClurg for their insights on this article. Image credit: Phu Son

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on video games. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.