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Smith: Addiction and the Video Game Money Machine

Video Games

After years of debate, the World Health Organization is finally recognizing video game addiction as a disease.You can argue for days about the semantics of addiction versus obsession. Unlike substance addiction, video game addiction doesn’t cause physical withdrawal. And “over-gaming” is often a symptom of another mental health issue.

But as usual, the semantics hardly matter. What does matter is how soulless video game publishers are using this addiction to line their pockets.

Addicted to narrative

When I get home from work, my fingers get itchy. After 30 years of gaming, my brain has become conditioned to identify exactly what kind of itch I want to scratch.

If I still have an excess of unused energy, I like to button mash my way through a one-on-one fighting game or shoot-em up for a while. Later in the night, when my thoughts have settled and I’m looking for compelling fiction, I might start playing a story-centric detective game. Or a role-playing game, if I feel like losing myself for more than a couple of hours.

Video games are one of my sedentary tent poles of entertainment, supported by a healthy diet of books, movies, TV shows, anime and pro wrestling.

I think it would be more fair to call me a media addict. I’m addicted to stories. Complex stories that probe society and human nature. Goofy stories about glistening, half-naked pro wrestlers trying to win a championship. Non-linear, esoteric stories about geometrically shaped blocks that continually fall from the sky.

Social hermit that I am, I tend to stay away from online multiplayer games. Those games tell stories too, but with real life real people who depend on each other. That’s a little close to what I do for a living to be much fun, though. If I’m going to have performance anxiety, I’d prefer to be paid for it.

I also spend quite a bit of money on these stories. A lot of people do. For the last few years, I’ve watched corporations take advantage of our passion/addiction by sectioning media entertainment into individually priced packaging. I’m drowning in subscription services, from Hulu and Netflix to CBS All Access and the WWE Network. And that doesn’t even count my annual subscriptions to Microsoft and Sony’s online gaming network.

Profiting off addiction

Whatever you call it, crippling video game addiction is real. Major video game publishers such as Electronic Arts know this full well, which is why they stuffed enough gambling loot boxes into “Star Wars: Battlefront II” last year to incur the ire of the gaming community and a Hawaii state representative.

To the surprise of no one, Congress doesn’t look kindly on those who push gambling to children.

These company execs call loot boxes “extended player choice,” but when they start talking business, their disdain for their customers is obvious. They’re looking for whales — addicted gamers who spend exorbitant amounts of money on digital items in a game that only costs $60. One Bioware developer, disgusted by his company’s practice, said a “Mass Effect 3″ player spent $15,000 on digital items.

Cronies helping cronies

When the Electronic Software Association was formed in 1994, most gamers (myself included) applauded the new organization for facing off against an overzealous Congress that wanted to regulate video game violence. That’s why video games have self-imposed content warnings rather than legally imposed ones.

I was 14-years-old at the time, and naïve enough to believe the ESA was looking out for me and my fellow gamers. I should have known an association made of video game publishers were more interested in protecting their own interests.

When the ESA issued a statement about the WHO’s inclusion of video game addiction, I chuckled at the hypocrisy.

“The World Health Organization knows that common sense and objective research prove video games are not addictive. And, putting that official label on them recklessly trivializes real mental health issues like depression and social anxiety disorder…” the ESA said.

Truth is, I agree with much of that statement. Depending on your personality, video games are no more addictive than TV, woodworking, web surfing or any other hobby. Those who overindulge should seek mental health treatment and address the underlying issues that result in that kind of obsession. The diagnosis of video game addiction doesn’t trivialize mental health. It’s part of it.

The ESA’s flat denial of video game addiction is transparent and self-serving, coming on the heels of the association’ support for gambling loot boxes in video games. Despite obvious evidence (paying for a random game item that may or may not be what you want), the ESA has repeatedly refused to call the loot box system gambling.

This kind of thing happened back in the pinball era, when arcade operators introduced gambling mechanics to their pinball tables. That’s why pinball tables were illegal in several states through the 1970s.

Addiction feels good — in moderation

If this story goes mainstream, I fear media pundits may blame the video game developers for making their product “too addictive.” Their real target should be the game publishers that target addictive personalities.

The notion game developers should make their product less addictive is absurd, and reeks of censorship. Video games are art, and asking an artist to curtail their work because they’re too good at it is laughable. When I sit down at a keyboard, I don’t aim to bore readers because I’m concerned they’re spending too much time reading the newspaper. I want them to be addicted to my work.

But if you’re no longer showering because you’re catching up on a decade’s worth of my columns, I strongly suggest you find a better hobby.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye. 

Smith: Addiction and the Video Game Money Machine | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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