It’s a troubling topic, game addiction. Certainly discussed before by perhaps more eloquent voices, this is a topic that in some way or another affects a large number of people. Often it does so in varying ways, making my job summarizing any points about it rather difficult. Even still, there’s value to be had in having a general discussion even if only to explore the reasons we play and perhaps more importantly the reasons we keep playing. And playing. And playing. Long after it ceases to be healthy.
Everyone who plays games knows the inexplicable struggle involved with gaming compulsion. It’s a topic that came to me recently when I started to play the seriously addicting indie space 4X strategy game Endless Space for the first time since a dangerous 3 day binge back when it was still in beta. Now, I consider the game to be one of the most compelling and streamlined civilization sims I’ve played in a good, long time, and I wouldn’t be too troubled to call it my game of the year thus far. But I’m finding that my constantly growing compulsion to sink a few more hours into it is reminiscent of the feelings associated with gaming in my youth, when I did everything in my power to play certain games just a little more. This happened with Roller Coaster Tycoon, SimCity, Pokemon, and an assortment of other lengthy games with gradual build-up mechanics.
Others find their kicks leveling up in MMO’s, grinding and hacking away in groups or in solitary to gradually increase a number. I tend to stay away from such games, but I have a distinct fear of ever being drawn into EVE in particular, as economic mechanics tend to be more my speed. Other genres can lead to severe compulsion as well, but there’s a fine line between playing a game for the sake of improving skills or completing a story and aching in pseudo withdrawal pain every second not spent playing. In the realm of causality, addiction is not a result of playing a game for long period of time, it’s a cause. I know people who love fighting games. They practice for unending hours, refining button combos and inventing new strategies. To the untrained eye, this kind of activity looks like gaming addiction, but these friends play for the compulsion of becoming a skilled player, not because the games themselves have some addicting hook.
That’s not to say that the fighting gamers are any less off. I’d argue that they’re in a healthier position having a concrete goal beyond scratching an elusive itch. Many who dive too far into MMO’s end their weekend feeling drained and wasted. Feeding addiction is not always fun. In the last few weeks, my own experience with Endless Space has reduced my productivity and attentiveness. As a child, Pokemon and Roller Coaster Tycoon, and later games like Fallout 3 and Empire: Total War interfered with homework, and in many cases, my social life. I had friends who stopped doing work altogether thanks to World of Warcraft and Team Fortress 2. Some wormed their way out of coming to school.
I think this is where I make my distinction. Looking back at the games I’ve played, a great majority did not interfere with my life in any harmful ways. I love the Assassin’s Creed games, but it never compelled me enough to distract me from more important responsibilities. Fallout 3 absolutely did. I never lost sleep because I just needed to get the next kill in AC, even if I’ve already played until 3 am with work in the morning. Endless Space has forced me into that corner more than once this past week and a half. Playing games is not inherently bad, but like everything in life, it’s best in moderation.
I really do want to emphasize that not being this addicted to a game doesn’t make a game any less enjoyable or your enjoyment of it any less valid. Different games simply have different voices that call us to our controllers, keyboards, and handhelds. Sometimes its to tell us a compelling story. Sometimes its the promise of becoming skilled at a competitive level. And sometimes it’s to seep deep into our consciouses with addictive mechanics and an overly rewarding grind. Often the other reasons we play can lead to even more hours being sunk into our games than games that are addictive. Sometimes the aforementioned negative effects of addictive gaming can even apply to those games as well.
If you ever find yourself in such a situation where a game grips you so closely that you simply can’t think of anything else, experience has taught me to recommend against binging. Falling too deeply into an experience not only has negative effects on your physical, social, and mental health, but also it can damage your relationship with the game itself. Pace yourself. Let time grow the itch back after it’s been scratched. Otherwise you’ll be left hopelessly burned out.
Let life and games coexist in peace.