Fri, 28 May 2010 3:00p.m.
By Angus Deacon
A lot of us can confess to being addicted to videogames.
Whether it’s spending your hard-earned moola on the latest console, suffering sleep deprivation, taking days off work or missing homework in order to get your gaming fix. Plenty of you reading this right now will be familiar with the impact that being a gamer can have on your everyday life.
However at what point does an enthusiastic pastime get out of hand? Sadly, there have been many cases around the world where gamers have not only destroyed their own lives, but affected the lives of others as well.
Some of the more recent cases come from South Korea, where videogaming is more than just a means of stress-relief or an entertaining way to pass a few hours. Games like StarCraft and Counter Strike are regularly televised with videogaming recognised as a desired profession. Players are treated, as well as paid, like sports stars or celebrities often earning more than US$100,000 a year through prize money and sponsorship deals alone.
The level of competitive gaming is so mainstream in Korea they are widely regarded as “e-sports” with tournaments like The World Cyber Games attracting millions of viewers every year.
But for all of the success stories of fame and fortune, there are some tragedies that stem from such a national obsession.
On 5 March 2010, a South Korean couple were arrested in Suwon for the death of their three-month-old baby, who reportedly starved to death while they played popular role-playing game Prius Online in an Internet Café. Following their arrest, it turned out that the couple had recently lost their jobs and had “lost their will to live a normal life”, instead deciding to live a virtual life online in order to avoid reality.
According to Suwon Police, the couple only stopped playing the game to feed their baby every twelve hours. As if the scenario wasn’t tragic enough, the couple were currently raising a virtual child online that happened to be perfectly healthy and happy.
Some years back in 2005, a 28-year-old South Korean man collapsed and died from a cardiac arrest while playing StarCraft for nearly 50 hours straight, with little food and sleep. At first impressions it appeared his decline into videogame addiction stemmed from similar issues to the previous couple, such as losing his job and his girlfriend. But later investigation found that his addiction was actually the cause of his decline, when it was discovered that he was fired from his job because he took days off in order to play videogames. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume his relationship with his girlfriend failed due to his manic video gaming lifestyle as well.
There are dozens of cases like this in South Korea, where the cultural attitude toward videogames, especially online, is bordering on becoming an epidemic. According to Bloomberg News (15 January, 2006) over 17 million people (nearly 35 percent of the population) are playing online games in South Korea. At any one moment in time there are more than 4 million players playing online multiplayer games of some description in the country.
Despite this incredible statistic, cases of videogame addiction aren’t isolated to parts of Korea either. In a similar vein, a couple in Reno, Nevada neglected their child to play online roleplaying games back in July, 2007. They often left their 22-month-old boy and 11-month-old girl alone for hours at a time in order to play Dungeons & Dragons online. Thankfully the children were discovered before they suffered long term effects, but they were still found severely malnourished. The 25-year-old father and 23-year-old mother both pleaded guilty and are currently serving a maximum 12-year prison sentence.
Due to the media, everyone has heard about numerous cases of injury or death that have been linked to videogames. Many of which are cases of extreme violence that have been conveniently pinned to violence in games such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Due to a lack of strong evidence towards any connection between the two, it is difficult to speculate any real truth in the matter.
Chances are these particular individuals who go on shooting rampages after playing violent videogames have deeper psychological issues that video games could never achieve on their own. They are often teenagers living at home where, in a perfect world, their parents should be monitoring their behaviour. However, most of the cases of online videogame obsession come from a much older generation, often including the parents themselves.
Considering the social aspects of online gaming, it’s easy to imagine players becoming completely absorbed in their virtual worlds. Many gamers who consider themselves to be addicted have admitted that they use gaming as a form of extreme escapism from their everyday lives. In moderation, this is perfectly acceptable. But unfortunately there are cases where individuals have difficulty separating the two.
Over in Shanghai, China, an online gamer named Mr Qui was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing another gamer (Mr Zhu) back in July, 2005. Mr Zhu had apparently sold a “virtual sword” that the accused had lent to him on the basis that it would be returned soon after.
Initially this bizarre situation sounds comical. However Mr Qui broke into Mr Zhu’s home one night and confronted him with a knife. Despite Mr Zhu claiming that he would give him the money, he was still stabbed violently. The sword from the game, Legend of Mir 3, was valued at 7,200 Yuan (NZ$969). Chinese authorities say since there were no laws protecting virtual property it was difficult to recover any monetary losses from theft or foul play. Mr Qui is serving a life-long manslaughter charge.
This videogame related death seems extreme, but it does bring to light how “realistic” and emotionally attached some players can become in an online fantasy world.
The Internet games section of Ebay saw more than $9m ($10.2+ million NZ) in trades back in 2003 according to a BBC news investigation. Many more transactions take place in the Black Market due to restrictions placed by the game distributors, with games like World of Warcraft prohibiting user to user sales. Of course it doesn’t stop publisher’s Blizzard from selling virtual items themselves for a premium cost.
Like all negative impacts on society, people feel the need to start pointing the finger. Rather than blame those directly involved (ie, the players themselves) critics have started accusing everyone from the developers of the games through to Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Although most of the cases are online and Internet based games, expecting ISPs to try and limit online time or placing server connection limits would be a logistical nightmare. However, perhaps the developers and publishers of the games could take some responsibility. It wouldn’t be difficult for publishers like Blizzard or Sony Online Entertainment to place in-game timers that prevent users from playing for extended periods of time. Automatically logging them out and stopping them from logging back in for a set duration in the hope that they’ll get some sleep or go for a jog would be a relatively easy task.
Of course many would point out the 400,000+ other EverQuest users or the more mind-blowing 10 million plus players in World of Warcraft who manage their lives and game playing time sensibly. Why should millions of other gamers be subjected to time constraints when they possess the ability and will-power to simply shut down their PCs for a good night’s rest?
However, it would be fair to say that sensible limitations wouldn’t affect most “healthy” gamers. If a game allowed for eight hours straight before logging you off for a four hour break, it should satisfy most average users. Hopefully it would help prevent the epic 12+ hour sessions that can be detrimental to one’s health. Granted, games like World of Warcraft do have parental locks in place, but as mentioned above it can be the parents themselves who need controlling.
With the Internet and online gaming numbers expanding, these small minority cases of obsession with video gaming could start to rise. If the gaming industry doesn’t take some small measures now, there is a high possibility of Government intervention. We can already see this trend with many Governments enforcing regulations on fast food outlets due to the supposed connection to the rise of obesity. Government interference in the world of videogaming is never a good thing for the players, simply look at Australia and their restrictive censorship in the gaming market today.
At this stage, most countries don’t consider videogame addiction as a mental disorder. Their argument is drug addicts are addicted because they have chemical dependencies. Videogame players do not have a chemical dependency with the game, therefore they cannot be addicted in the sense most people define the word. But the similarities between substance addiction (nicotine, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etc) and game addiction really aren’t too far apart at all.
In fact studies at the University of British Columbia have found that the physiological effects caused by excessive gaming and drug addiction are very similar. The stimulation generated by extended and intense videogaming sessions can boost the secretion of the chemical dopamine inside the brain of the player.
Dopamine gives a sensation of feeling happy, can help ease stress and leave an individual feeling satisfied which can all subsequently lead to addiction. This same chemical is also released by the body during sexual arousal and traces the same pathways followed by A-class drugs in the brain. Those gamers who partake in an unhealthy manner could easily have a chemical dependency towards videogames.
Further studies at the University of Plymouth have found that gamblers exhibit an increased heartbeat rate and a similar release of chemicals from the brain to that of intense videogaming. As we all know, gambling addiction is already considered a major problem for most Governments around the world. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that an extreme online gaming addiction could easily be just as financially and socially crippling as a gambling one.
Furthermore, videogame addictions display the same withdrawal symptoms as drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, characterised by anxiety, irritability, nausea, stomach cramps, headaches and sweats.
Korean psychologists estimate more than 10 percent of South Korean schoolchildren have shown signs of videogame addiction, one of the highest rates in the world, along with China. Back in 2002, the South Korean Government opened one of the region’s first Internet addiction treatment centres, mainly focused on online gaming. Since then, hundreds of private hospitals and clinics have opened specialised units to treat these disorders, and the South Korean Government even opened a phone hotline for gaming addicts in 2006. At the treatment centres, patients typically spend two weeks or more “detoxing” from their videogame use, partaking in outdoor activities and arts and crafts instead.
But are online videogames themselves to blame? Just like any other type of addiction, the stimulus that games can deliver can definitely lead some people to obsession. But these same individuals with a susceptible personality could become addicted to just about anything, whether it’s collecting bits of ribbon or getting hooked on Tic Tacs.
Naturally, videogames are a prime suspect as a catalyst toward negative effects because they demand such psychological and emotional attention. The media often ignore a videogame’s entertainment value over a chance to create negative spin on their effect on society. A more pessimistic person could argue that videogames are competition for broadcast news television and newspapers, possibly causing an unbiased opinion toward the industry.
But no matter which way you look at it, some small attention to online videogame addiction by the gaming industry now could prevent hundreds of gamers taking their obsession that little bit too far in the years to come.