Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: When a person is flirting with addiction, praise can be harmful

Duff: When a person is flirting with addiction, praise can be harmful

This is the third installment in my continuing series about gamers and game addiction. You can find previous columns, along with links and supplemental materials at the Internet Buzz blog on Lubbockonline.com.

Last week we talked about Eloy, a well-known podcaster who, inspired by Morgan Spurlock, forced himself to play Warcraft 10 hours a day for 30 days.

Eloy won’t use the word addiction to describe how he felt in the second and third weeks of his experiment. He thinks of addiction as “something you can’t walk away from” and ultimately, he did walk away.

After 17 days of constant play, Eloy gave up. There was no single moment of clarity here, no grand event that made him quit. Thinking back on it, Eloy says it may have been as mundane as looking in a mirror.

Eloy had always been an active person – running, hiking and exercising regularly. The sedentary gamer lifestyle caused rapid weight gain and took a real toll on him physically. Eloy suffered headaches, backaches and muscle twitches before he decided to quit.

That’s what drew me to this story in the first place, the notion that a group of active, healthy people – people who didn’t necessarily fit the gamer stereotype – could devote so much of their time and energy to a video game.

Everybody expects this behavior from introverts and computer geeks, and Eloy is quick to defend his nerd cred. He’s proud to be the kind of guy who can discuss both “beer and Star Trek,” crossing between worlds that most people get stuck in.

So with all this going for him in real life, how did Eloy get stuck in the game? There was clearly a point in the latter stages of his experiment when the goal (leveling a character to 60) took on a life of its own. What started out as a matter of scientific curiosity started to consume his life.

Eloy gave up his active lifestyle, stopped returning phone calls from family and friends, and kept himself rooted to a chair, even when back pain caused him to take handfuls of ibubrofen.

What could make a person do something like this? Eloy says the games are designed to be addictive, and they are designed very well. World of Warcraft is a perfect feedback loop, a perfect balance of effort and reward.

The game is set to give you exciting new rewards, just when you start to get bored. In Warcraft, there’s always a pot of gold over that next rainbow. The victories come fast when you play fast, and with a guild, those victories are shared.

There’s always a comrade to congratulate you when you reach a new level, always a well-meaning friend who will urge you to clean out one more camp or earn one more bar of experience. This culture of shared accomplishment can be very powerful, and very destructive.

The congratulations come from genuine affection and goodwill, but when a person is flirting with game addiction, that praise can be the hook that keeps them in. Words that are meant to be lighthearted cheerleading can lead a person deeper into denial and self-destruction.

Eloy is careful to draw a line here and make a distinction between group and personal responsibility. People are ultimately responsible for their own decisions. The game has an off switch, and no one can force you to turn it on.

But there’s a strong group component here, and a player who falls behind the curve or misses an important raid can feel like he’s letting his friends down. Ultimately, Eloy thinks people need to keep a closer watch on their friends, and be willing to call them out when their gameplay seems to be excessive or destructive.

Next week we’ll talk about how Eloy’s experiment affected his friends and about what you can do if you suspect one of your friends is developing an addiction.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 2, 2007 at 14:07

Posted in Columns, Games, Warcraft

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