Smith: Addiction and the Video Game Money Machine

Video Games Illustration courtesy of Creative Commons.

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.