January 29, 2003

Approximately 430,000 people world-wide are estimated to participate in it, with tens of thousands of them doing it every day for at least three to four hours at a time. It’s become so important to advance at it, that people are willing to pay large sums of money to do so. It has become such a problem that marriages and businesses are suffering because of it. One mother even blames her son’s suicide on it. It has become an addiction. It is not a drug or a sport. It’s an online computer game known as EverQuest (SEE: http://www.everquest.com/), and it’s, “the number one addictive on-line game in the industry’s history and is growing in popularity” (OLG-Anon SEE: http://www.olganon.org/Gamer/Ideas_to_Help/Addiction_/addiction_.html). Since the days of Dungeons & Dragons (another fantasy role-playing game – SEE: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/main.asp?x=dnd/welcome,3), games of this type have been blamed for encouraging and aggravating obsessive behaviour.

You may think that because EverQuest is a game, that it’s harmless, but MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) addiction is just that, an addiction – and any addiction is dangerous. An addiction, as defined by the Kaiser Foundation(SEE: http://www.kaiserfoundation.ca/modules/Document.asp?LocID=412&DocID=908), is, “a primary and chronic disorder with genetic, biopsychosocial, spiritual, and environmental factors that influence its manifestation and development. Addiction is characterised by loss of control, preoccupation with disabling substances or behaviours, and continued use or involvement despite negative consequences.”

Addiction to using the Internet, just like any other addiction, can have wide-ranging effects that can include problems with health, family, relationships, work, school, finances, spirituality, sex, legal problems, and the potential for accidents. Most of us automatically think of drugs, alcohol, and even gambling when someone brings up the topic of addiction. Yet the “new drug” of the Internet – as well as its attendant activities such as RPG’s (role-playing games, where players take on fictional roles much like the characters in a book) – is becoming just as great a potential for danger as substance abuse and gambling have proved to be. This problem of addiction is also not confined to the young. I only have to talk to my friend S.T. (a 41 year-old from Australia who does not wish her name revealed) to see how much of a problem the Internet has become, particularly EverQuest. Her husband has been playing the game so obsessively, that they barely speak to each other anymore, and he has not worked a steady job in over a year. She has even turned to an online support group known as EverQuest Widows(SEE: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EverQuest-Widows/), people who are, as their website states, “here to support each other, and to discuss the trials and tribulations of living in Real Life while our partner is immersed in EverQuest.” Just recently, ST gave her husband the ultimatum: the game or me.

Another friend, Tom (a 24 year-old from the United States) says that, “[the games] can be dangerous. A complete world where someone can live in, in nearly every aspect imaginable. I’ve experienced all-out addiction, as well as feelings of escapism, where only the game could soothe me, and burn-out from being there too much.” Fans and detractors alike, even refer to EverQuest as “EverCrack” – a term that illustrates its addictive nature.

It is important to understand how these games, and the Internet itself, can become so addictive. In a persistent online world, a real society exists. Not just a group of people coming together to play a game or talk, but citizens living in the same world together, often times building social networks that include governments and economies. There is social interaction, through chat (talking) and cybersex (text-based sexual encounters where – most often – the entire encounter is typed out in words). Tom mentions that, “there are people I know in that game (Asheron’s Call, another MMORPG SEE: http://www.microsoft.com/games/ac/) far better than I ever even knew my next door neighbours and co-workers.” Increasingly intricate GUI’s (graphical user interfaces), utilising the latest computer technology, serve to make the visual aspects of an online world as real-looking and inviting as the technology currently allows.

The games are open-ended; there is no ultimate goal, you can neither win nor lose them. The designers of the games, knowing that their profits come from keeping players as long as possible, ensure there are always new stimuli, new ways to appear, to advance, even if there is no ultimate end to that advancement. Still, people strive to achieve everything they possibly can in those games. Why? Because it’s there, because there isn’t a time limit; and, adding to the sense of permanence within a game, is the ability for a gamer to own a house (for example), allowing them to have a piece of the gaming world they can call their own.

The problem doesn’t end there; it has begun to spill over into the RL (an Internet users’ rather disdainful abbreviation for “real life”) economy, with items of nothing more than a few kilobytes of data selling for hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars. The cost of a game has now expanded past simply purchasing a CD-ROM and monthly access to a gaming site. Moreover, unlike when you read a book and input your own scenery, sights, voices, sounds, smells, etc., from your own imagination, MMORPG’s do all the work for you. The world is ready-made; you do not have to build it.

Charles, a 27 year-old software professional from Australia, says, “Some people who play them [the games] do actually perform creative role-playing. RPG’s in themselves are good tools for the imagination. However, I doubt much of that goes on compared to clicking on buttons to get the skills up. And when you’re only sort of semi-role-playing, it turns into everyone being so superficial that you never really talk to anyone for real, just this lame facade.”

Most well known addictions can be linked directly to their harmful effects. Drugs damage the body and impair judgement. Addiction to gambling causes financial hardship. Addiction to Internet gaming is often trivialised because its effects are more gradual and harder to see. The immersion in a world that is not real, populated by people who you may never meet, and who may be nothing like they portray themselves online leads to an atrophying of the addict’s ability to function in the real world. This starts a vicious cycle in which the addict sinks further into the game in order to escape a world they do not feel comfortable in any more. Soon enough, the addiction takes on many of the secondary effects often associated with “harder” addictions, such as reduced job performance, family break-up, and in extreme cases, serious depression and suicide.

The software industry has a ratings system for games (and other products) (ESRB, 2002) that is merely age-oriented and based, for example, on how violent or sexual the game content is – or even the game’s potential to trigger epileptic seizure (Amaloo, About.com, 1997 (SEE: http://vgstrategies.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa040797.htm). There are no warnings about addiction or potential hazards of addiction, like those that appear on every package of cigarettes; or, more appropriately, like the law in Australia that requires all establishments hosting gambling machines to display information about gambling addiction services and self-exclusion opportunities (Department of Gaming and Racing, 2002 SEE: http://www.dgr.nsw.gov.au/HTML/GAMING/misc.html).

It may be alarmist to go so far as restricting games based on what may only be a small percentage of the game-playing population, yet the problems associated with Internet and gaming addiction are there, and they are real. With increased numbers of people acquiring Internet access, home computers, and gaming systems each year, it is not unreasonable to assume that those problems will spread.

Bray, Hiawatha. “Hello, world.” The Boston Globe 16 Dec. 2002: C1. Rpt. in Boston Globe Online.

Miller, Stanley A. “Death of a Game Addict: Ill Hudson man took own life after long hours on Web.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 31 March 2002. Rpt. in JS Online. http://www.jsonline.com/news/state/mar02/31536.asp

Shachtman, Noah. “EverQuest: the Latest Addiction.” Wired News. 19 July 1999. http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,20984,00.html

Lonita has been an AU student since early 2002, and is studying towards a Bachelor of General Studies in Arts & Science. She enjoys writing, creating websites, drinks far too much tea, and lives in hopes of one day owning a plaid Cthulhu doll. The most exciting thing she’s done so far in her lifetime is driven an F2000 racecar, and she’s still trying to figure out how to top that experience. Her personal website can be found at http://www.lonita.net and what you can’t find out about her through that, you can ask her via email: lonita_anne@yahoo.ca

%d bloggers like this: