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On the subject of addiction...

My own common sense told me yesterday that this is a subject I should stay away from. It can be very hard for someone inside the industry comment on a story like this without being accused of having a biased opinion. People are thinking 'of course he would say that' before they even start reading.

I'm going to risk it anyway...

In addition there have already been several well written, observant and insightful editorials written on this subject around the web. John Walker's piece over on RPS is probably the best, and most rational, response I have read. It is partly what I was going to say, just much better written, so you should go read that first and save me the time of repeating what he has already put across so eloquently.

Likewise Leigh Alexander covers the 'all things can be addictive, this isn't just a game issue, it's a people issue' angle nicely over on her blog.

So the important stuff to me is being said elsewhere, and very well covered. So I should have left it well enough alone. I can only guess that our PR guys are a little nervous reading on (don't stress guys, I don't think there is anything controversial coming up ;) ) but this is also an important subject for me personally. Both as a gamer and as a developer.

My take on this is of a little more of a personal nature...

Lets take the gamer part first...

If you are uncomfortable with people sharing their past life experiences to support one issue or another, you probably want to stop reading now, because that is what I am going to do.

This is a personal issue for me, because in some ways I identify and understand those people featured in the Panorama program. It is easy to call them 'losers', easy to stereotype them, easy to defensively dismiss their cases as the extremes of human behavior.

That's partly valid, they are certainly extreme examples, and representative of a very small, probably minuscule, percentage of how people experience and interact with video-games.

Ten years ago, for a relatively short period of time thankfully. I might have made a good subject for the Panorama team myself.

I didn't think I was 'addicted', I certainly wasn't in the scientific, chemical sense of the word. I was never in danger of any physical or medical withdrawal symptoms. Gaming, and in my case, the original Everquest, was an escapist crutch that allowed me to escape from a very difficult time in my own life. I was having other issues that were having a detrimental effect on my health, my relationships, and my work. I wasn't an 'obvious' addict in the way some of those profiled by Panorama are cast. I still went to work, I struggled on, I kept up appearances, in the same manner that many who suffer from either depression or actual addiction do (be it drugs, alcohol or something else).

I did however use gaming in an unhealthy way. Hindsight allows me the clarity to be unequivocal about that.

The game did not make me unhealthy, I made me unhealthy. I just didn't realize it at the time.

I can also readily acknowledge that from the outside looking in, the game would easily be seen by an observer as part of the problem.

I escaped into my gaming at every opportunity at the expense of the possible support offered by my friends and family. In many ways I was afraid of admitting that I wasn't coping. Immersing myself in the game allowed me to ignore the issues, it allowed me to leave all the stresses and problems of my real life at the log-in screen. It became the only thing important to me outside of those things I had to do, like earning money to pay bills.

I actually also worked too much at the time. In a weird way that was also an escape, if I kept myself immersed in either the stress of work or the relief of the game then I never really had time to work through the actual problems. It was in many ways a perfect storm of unhealthy behavior.

I played as soon as I got home from work until I slept, and most of the weekends. For a period of time I pretty much had to literally be forced to do other things. I also often refused to do other things unless I really felt I should, or wanted to, and usually only when it also offered an escape I enjoyed (like going to a movie)

My guild were a great virtual support structure precisely because they didn't know all the details of my personal problems. I am sure if I had revealed everything to them then they would have universally called me out for being an idiot, and also pushed me to get help. I could hide those things from my virtual friends very easily, or simply twist the truths just enough so that, to them, it would just sound like 'bad day' vibes, which we can all sympathize with. So they made me feel better about my life...it allowed me to justify it to myself as 'normal', we all bitched about our days in guild chat.

I was in effect deluding myself.

Admittedly I never got to the point where I also neglected the essential things, I never lost a home, or was in danger of being fired (at least not that I was aware of!)...but not before I had neglected or damaged many relationships. I allowed a virtual support structure to become more important to me than a real one. It is both easy to have happen, and a part of what, to normal, well adjusted people, makes playing an MMO such a fantastic experience.

To some extent I am sure many people recognize elements of this.

I firmly believe however that the extreme reactions, like those highlighted by the Panorama program, are more to do with the personal situation, well being, and condition of the individual involved rather than anything specific in any given game. In my case if it hadn't been EQ it would have been UO, or Civilization, or something else. I was able to play games in a perfectly healthy way before, and have been able to do so since.

I am no scientist, psychologist or chemist, but to me it wasn't any given element of the game that made me have to play. It was that I had to do something, anything, that effectively allowed me to shut out my problems. It was certainly a psychological crutch. That behavior contributed to making matters worse, as I refused to acknowledge my issues for far too long, and escaping into the game certainly didn't help anyone but me, and it only helped me in a short term manner.

My problems were with me, and my life.

I used gaming in the same way that many use alcohol too much, but are still not considered alcoholics. I still functioned on a day to day basis (albeit just about on occasion), and it caused issues of varying degrees of severity, slowly, over time, in my working life and relationships, rather than any kind of sudden catastrophic failure. The issue however was not a piece of software, it was my own psychological and physical well being. The game just allowed me to be stubborn and deny there was a problem because I could ignore it.

If I hadn't been escaping into games, I would have tried something else. I might have played golf too much, shopped too much, spent too much, drank too much or ate too much. I would have found another crutch. The answer actually lay in support, treatment and help from real life, flesh and blood, people. I was very lucky that I had some people in my life that were also stubborn enough to finally say 'enough is enough' and not let me keep ignoring it.

That process allowed me to see how I used things like gaming as a crutch, and the key, as it usually is, was about finding balance and happiness in your life. learning to cope with work stress better, placing more value on your relationships and your friends...appreciating life more! I understand that I was lucky, and many struggle to find the strength to pull themselves out of such situations. I was just as weak for some time. I wish I could pinpoint a turning point that would allow others to benefit from my experience, but it was a personal realization that is probably different and individual to each of those who suffer from things like this.

I can however vouch for the fact there is a way out, and you can be much better off for the experience if you are willing to acknowledge the issue and seek help.

I thought a lot over the last few days about whether to write this and publish it. A personal acknowledgment of something like can always be taken the wrong way. However it is also important that people hear from those who both sympathize, but don't offer an easy excuse. Hopefully hearing of someone who has come out as a healthier, and better adjusted, human being after going through a very similar experience. So if you recognize too much of this to be comfortable right now, then I have only one piece of advice, and that is to take that first step and think about whether this might actually be a problem you should talk to someone about.

My life is happy, I cope with stress better, and I know how to prioritize things to keep a balanced and reasonably healthy life. I didn't just magically do it on my own though.

That's why the subject is important. It is important that, as a society, we acknowledge that mental health issues are worthy of acknowledgement, and most definitely need study.

That has next to nothing to do with games.

There needs to be help available, and that is also likely with better understanding. (in particular in light of the 'over-diagnosing of American society' as Leigh Alexander mentioned in her piece)...and games are clearly a medium that lends itself to being this kind of psychological crutch. That is also worthy of study. Prevention is always better than cure. Who is to say we shouldn't have better methods of identifying this behavior. We should not have to spend time apologizing for the extreme examples of this behavior, and instead be willing to recognize them for what they are, as potential signs of a deeper issue. It doesn't have to be the games fault, and neither may there be any fault on behalf of developers, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be willing to understand that behavior, and be able to at least flag up that 'you know, that extreme behavior is probably not healthy'

I am not however sure that the cause is best served by exaggeration and sensationalizing a subject. That just puts people on the defensive and gets in the way of actual constructive discussion. It just distracts from progress on diagnosing and offering support for those who suffer from conditions which could be identified by this type of behavior.

Recovering from something like that is a tremendously insightful process. In many ways it can, if successful, make you very self-aware. That is the most important thing I took away from that entire period. It also means this subject is personal to me...

So that's the gamer covered, my past. What about the here and now, and the developers point of view?

We should talk about this...

Firstly, as hinted at above, we should not avoid or deny that these extreme examples exist. We should be able to acknowledge that they exist. be allowed to say that they are rare, and not representative, without being seen as being overly defensive.

...this is relevant for a very, very, important reason.

Actual addictive behavior really only has downsides for us as MMO developers.

No developer in their right mind actually wants to create something that could be technically and scientifically addictive. Sure, we all know that marketing folks, reviewers, and executive producers the world over, often like to use 'addictive' as an adjective when maybe they probably should be using the word 'compelling' instead. They don't actually mean addictive. Addiction to anything is bad, but it is one of those words that suffers from overuse and misinterpretation.

So why do I say that encouraging addictive behavior would actually be counter-productive?

Think about it for a second.

If we were actually designing to be addictive, then that would imply that we would be encouraging players to consume our products more and more. We genuinely don't want our players over-consuming our products. Certainly not as an MMO producer I don't. You couldn't possibly keep up with an actual addicts appetite for your content. I really don't want a player to want to play our game for more hours than is healthy per day.

Those players interviewed by Panorama are examples of the types of extreme of behavior that we actually don't want to see. Anyone capable of playing ten hours a day is burning through the same amount of content we might intend to last a week, a month, or more, in a much shorter period of time. That wouldn't be something we would want by design...ever...really. I would have hoped that wasn't as obtuse a concept as it seems to be for some people.

We do indeed talk a lot about things like player retention, incentives, average play time, and hours spent. Likewise we really strive to make compelling gameplay. That however, is a world away, from intentionally trying to craft something that is actually addictive. We want our games to be fun and diverting, we don't want them to be overwhelming and addictive...at least, I can vouch for that with our process, and somehow I really doubt other developers are any different.

Negative associations...

Then you also have the fact that the behavior of a true addict is rarely something you would want your game associated with (which underpins a lot of the defensive reactions you get from the industry on the subject). It would create a negative association for friends and family of the addict. You will rarely meet more vocal advocates of drug, gambling or alcohol control than those who have experienced living with, have cared for, or interacted with an actual addict. There would be no advantage for us having that kind of an association. Why on earth would we want our games associated with that type of behavior? I genuinely don't think any right minded person in the industry would want any of our games thought of in the same way as narcotics.

That kind of common sense doesn't make for a good sensationalist report though...

Wrapping up...my little soapbox edition...

This is actually an important, and worthwhile, discussion. Unbiased, objective research into things like addiction should be supported. Not just in how games can be an outlet for that behavior but how many different things in our modern lives can be.

As always a discussion like this is all about understanding and context. There are some very important associated points well worth actual scientific study and understanding. That is how we develop as a society. However, just as the exaggeration on one extreme doesn't help build our understanding, neither does the defensive reluctance to recognize that there are associated areas that can be furthered by being open to the discussion, without accusations of wrong-doing.

...alas in this day and age, such a rational approach tends not to make for quite as dramatic news and reporting. Thus it gets marginalized at the expense of point scoring, accusations and rhetoric. I would much rather see some constructive debate and a wish to seek an understanding of the issues on both sides. That is why it is always worth repeating this view, even if the rational or objective point of view rarely wins out these days, it is never a bad thing to remind people to actually stop and think about an issue instead of just jumping on one or more of the already rolling bandwagons.




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