It seems as if everywhere we turn, someone has a problem with video games these days. We take a look at one of the reasons, "MMO Addiction".
It seems as if everywhere we turn, someone has a problem with video games these days. Even the President of the United States, it appears. Addressing the American Medical Association last week, President Barack Obama outlined a series of "preventative care" issues deemed important to modern health care reform. Limiting the amount of time that kids spend playing video games is a small part of that plan. "The second step that we can all agree on is to invest more in preventive care so that we can avoid illness and disease in the first place," Obama said at the press conference, referring to his reform plan. "That starts with each of us taking more responsibility for our health and the health of our children. […] It means going for a run or hitting the gym, and raising our children to step away from the video games and spend more time playing outside."
Sure, it's not exactly a defining topic of the speech, or even a full paragraph's worth. But it does indicate—at the very least—that modern video game culture has the attention of the Obama administration, in some capacity. It doesn't read like a "call to arms" against video games as a whole. More so, it seems as if the administration is urging the AMA to recognize video games as a potential "health hazard" (if only in the sense of physical fitness and mental well-being). The question remains: "Does the government believe video games—including MMOs—pose a risk to public health?"
It's tough to ignore the ongoing media trend of reporting video games in a negative light, or slanted with a "public safety hazard" angle. Just consider the "obscenity factor" alone: throughout the past decade, US Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CN) has spearheaded campaigns (like the Communications Decency Act) opposing sex and violence in video games, commonly voting on bills and regulatory acts related to the sale of such games. He was one of the chief proponents behind the Family Entertainment Protection Act, a bill that enforces strict compliance regarding sales of ESRB-rated video games to minors. More recently, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown (D) petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a law that would ban the sale of "violent" or "obscene" video games to children under 18. The law was originally drafted in 2005 by everyone's favorite "Governator", California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) (the law was eventually shot down by the state courts, considering it unconstitutional). Brown petitioned the court last month to overturn that ruling, which would make it illegal for minors to buy "M-Rated" games (like Call of Duty: World at War, Halo 3 and Resident Evil 5).
That particular law might not seem like much of a threat to the MMO genre, since the majority of publishers avoid an "M" rating in an effort to make their games accessible to teens and children. But you've probably noticed the popular disclaimer seen on many ESRB rating tags, usually offering something like "Does not apply to online gameplay." What happens if ESRB ratings eventually become mandatory rather than voluntary, and "online gameplay" suddenly requires an "M" rating?
The law that Brown's pushing in California would then ban the sale of any video game (MMO or otherwise) to kids under 18. The law could even prohibit people under 18 from becoming paying subscribers, even if it was okay with their parents.
That kind of future-forecasting begins approaching the "slippery slope" area of speculation, so it's difficult to make informed "guesstimates" until the situation unfolds. On one hand, there's the mighty shield of the First Amendment which has been used to fend off glancing blows aimed at the video game industry in the past. But, despite our freedom of speech and all the liberties it provides, sometimes the "threat to public health" (perceived or otherwise) isn't always one of them.
You've probably read about all the MMO horror stories circulating the news sites and blogs, or heard about them from your friends. These days, it's almost impossible to avoid them—they've practically reached the status of Internet "meme."
Reports of gaming-related deaths have steadily trickled in throughout the past decade; stories of teens and adults literally playing themselves to death, like the guy who died of a heart attack toward the end of a 50-hour Starcraft binge, or the girl (known in-game as "Snowly") who died while playing World of Warcraft for three consecutive days over a Chinese holiday. There are at least a dozen or more reports of people succumbing to "video-game addiction"—playing for hours or days at a time, ultimately succumbing to an untimely death (usually attributed to heart failure or malnourishment-related complications). There's even a South Korean couple who were arrested after coming home to find their 4-month-old daughter dead from suffocation, after they left her alone for hours to play WoW at an Internet café.
With stories like these, it's not that hard to understand why thousands of parents and teachers around the world are suddenly becoming more aware of MMOs than ever before (and, obviously, this newfound awareness isn't exactly painting our favorite games in a positive light). But are MMOs really "killing" people? Or are reports like these circumstantial at best—and downright lies at the worst?
A substantial number of these reports come from Chinese news agencies, leaving their validity a topic of debate among news analysts. They argue that the Chinese government has released fictitious news stories in the past, using propaganda to further the communist régime. That's a pretty extreme example of a government "waging war" against MMOs, and it's one that can't be entirely verified yet.
There are less extreme arguments being waged against the "MMO addiction" concept than that of death. A newer trend emerging in mainstream media is stories citing researchers and studies that associate problems like lack of family and social life, poor fitness and declining school/college grades as symptoms of MMO addiction.
A few months ago, the FCC announced that MMO addiction is a serious problem facing teens and young adults. Former FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate introduced the notion during a speech last year, claiming "one of the top reasons for college drop-outs in the U.S. is online gaming addiction—such as World of Warcraft—which is played by 11 million individuals worldwide." The FCC backs up its claims with reports indicating a substantial number of college kids' grades are failing—or they're dropping out completely—after getting hooked on WoW and abandoning other priorities.
When that particular story broke, my own personal reaction was to shake my head, sigh and dismiss it as another knee-jerk reaction made by an older generation that fears what it doesn't understand. I mean, seriously…video games like WoW are causing kids to drop out of college like flies hitting a bug zapper? Tooling around the Barrens chat and making Chuck Norris jokes is what's causing our children's grades to drop from A's and B's to F's? But then I recalled my own high school and college gaming days, and it made me wonder.
As longtime gamer, I remember years of coming straight home after high school, seething with anticipation to open up Doom on my old 166 MHz PC. Connecting to a couple of friends via dial-up modem and playing for hours until bedtime, homework was often the last thing from my mind. I also had similar experiences in college; usually during those cold and bleak winter months, when cuddling up with a video game just seemed much more enticing than hitting the books. Sure, I got a C in Biology…but I leveled my Warlock pretty damn quick!
The point I'm trying to make is what we, as gamers, would probably call this concept "tunnel vision" or "being in the zone," rather than "MMO addiction." Regardless of who calls what concept what, it's something that the media, parents and teachers are all paying a lot more attention to than they were a few years ago.
Their argument is that when gamers—kids and adults alike—become "hooked" on an MMO, there's a possibility they'll begin neglecting their friends and family, schoolwork, career and even their own health. Whereas Tate and the FCC pretty much subscribe to all the tenets of that premise, it seems that the president's speech to the AMA was focused more on just physical fitness. Ironically though, the AMA itself conducted a study a few years ago trying to learn if MMOs are indeed as "addictive" as many opponents claim. The study failed to discover any substantial causality between MMOs and addiction (albeit in the most traditional ideas of addiction, such as compared with drug usage).
But for every study like the AMA's, it seems like there are always a couple new ones popping up every month to take its place. The FCC and organizations with similar viewpoints cite a variety of studies that have found causality between MMOs and addictive behavior. Another popular argument made by critics is that MMO companies are using "shady" tactics in the development of their games, specifically designed to keep subscribers hooked.
Most of these arguments stem from the fact that Blizzard (among other developers) has been known to consult with Las Vegas casino industry professionals during early development. The consultants are experts in the gambling trade, having spent years studying the "art" of casinos (the most effective ways to keep people spending money on their games, while enjoying every minute of it). Many of the same strategies are converted and applied to development stages of MMOs (including World of Warcraft), designed to maximize the delicate balance between effort and reward; giving you just enough of a "reward" for a certain amount of time and effort, yet never handing out so much as to fully satisfy.
Still, despite the tactics developers use to maximize customer retention, aren't they entitled to those tactics as long as they're not breaking the law? Especially when it's a quality game that's actually fun to play? It's not as if we're being bombarded with subliminal messages, or some crazy, conspiracy-like "brain-altering wave patterns through the wi-fi," right? As most proponents will argue, no one's actually forcing you to play a game.
It's probably more likely (as the aforementioned AMA report suggests) that a minority of people suffer from a compulsive addiction to MMOs. That minority of people—often with addictive tendencies—may face a greater chance of "falling prey" to an MMO addiction (as with many other vices in life, like drinking or gambling).
But the question still remains as to whether or not the concept of "MMO addiction" is real, or if it's just a case of obsessive-compulsive kids and teenagers who don't have the self-control (or parental oversight) to know when to quit. If the problem were limited to just kids and teens, I'd have an easier time closing the book with that theory. As some of those above-mentioned studies suggest, though—it's not just kids who have problems with MMOs.
Many of them purport that adults are washing out of college or losing their jobs because they couldn't control the balance between the MMO and "real life." Probably the most extreme of them all, this infamous news story calls World of Warcraft more addictive than crack cocaine. With headlines like that, it's pretty tough for anyone genuinely researching the topic to take it seriously.
But right as you're about to shut the book on the whole thing and chalk it up as absolute lunacy, there's the increasing emergence of MMO and video game "rehab" programs popping up all over the world. Mostly originating in Asia and just recently making their way to the Western world, we're starting to see everything from MMO support groups to "Boot Camp for Gamers." At the very least (and because most of these programs are voluntary), it proves there are a number of people who really consider themselves MMO addicts, and admit to having suffered because of their addiction.
Does this represent a miniscule amount of the MMO population, or are they merely a small sample of a much larger group of gamers who haven't yet come to terms with their problem? It's probably too early to tell. Regardless, it seems like the political storm surrounding MMOs is nowhere near dissipating. A line is being drawn in the sand, and if you—not just as an activist, but as a gamer—want to have any influence in the ongoing battle, now would be the time to speak up.
Josh "WaxPaper" Bashara