Every time a new game drops in a beloved franchise, some segment of its fans jokingly say farewell to loved ones, showers, eating, and/or sleep. Some of you who’ve never done this with a game may be familiar with the concept every time a new Game of Thrones novel drops. For me, Fallout 4 has been that kind of game — so I’m somewhat sympathetic to this tale of woe from a beleaguered Russian man who is arguing that Bethesda’s latest title is so addictive, it cost him his job, his wife, and his health.
Russian website RT.com claims that the man is suing Bethesda for 500,000 roubles ($ 7000) for emotional distress, stating: “If I knew that this game could have become so addictive, I would have become a lot more wary of it. I would not have bought it, or I would have left it until I was on holiday or until the New Year holidays.”
It’s difficult to know what to make of the case, which has no precedent in Russian law, but the law firm representing the man has stated that they want “to see how far we can go regarding this case.” In the US, the firm NCSoft was ordered to pay the legal fees of a Hawaii man who claimed to have become addicted to Lineage II, and the entire question of whether gaming or the Internet is “addictive” is subject to considerable debate.
Gaming addiction: Fad or reality?
There’s an inherent contradiction in the way we talk about games and gaming as compared with other activities. We recognize that people can become psychologically and physiologically addicted to various substances as well as to certain activities, like gambling. The rush we feel when our hand wins in poker or when you a make a one-in-a-million shot at pool or in basketball is an actual rush of neurochemicals. But when it comes to games, we talk about their addictive nature in admiring terms.
I’ve been a gamer for nearly 30 years and I’ve enjoyed many genres, including MMOs. Clearly gaming isn’t addictive the way that various substances can be. But if you’ve ever stayed awake hours after you intended to be in bed, waiting on just one more turn / one more boss / one more level, then congratulations — you’ve witnessed the power of a Skinner Box to change your own behavior. Most of us manage to control our own behaviors, and a few laggy days at work (or beating a game in question) is enough to put us back on the straight-and-narrow. But some people, for whatever reason, fall down the rabbit hole past their own ability to claw back out.
Why this happens is a matter of considerable debate and serious consequences are thankfully rare. But the one thing I’d personally like to know, after reading this story, is how happy this person was with his job and his life before he ever picked up a copy of Fallout 4.
I do not claim that my own experience is a substitute for scientific research, but one thing I observed during my time playing World of Warcraft is that the people who really got sucked into the game, to the point of devoting enormous amounts of time to it above most other things, almost always had profoundly unhappy personal lives. Male or female, young or old, it didn’t really matter. And I think there’s a reason for that. Games like World of Warcraft (or even Fallout 4) offer you the illusion of a rich, vibrant world in which what you do matters. I think the effect is more pronounced in MMOs because the way these games tie real-world people together, but I can see it applying to vast single-player games as well.
If you’re an amazing healer or incredible tank, then you’re one of the reasons why your guild is seeing endgame content. Maybe your spouse has left you, or your kids hate your guts, or you got passed over for a promotion — but in-game, you’re a star.
Before anyone dogpiles me in comments: I’m not arguing games should be subjected to “addictiveness testing,” I’m not claiming this suit is anything but frivolous, and I’m certainly not arguing that the fault of Bethesda, or Blizzard, or BioWare if you decide playing their latest title is more important than showering or walking the dog. Part of being an adult means taking responsibility for your own actions, after all.
But I think there is an interesting difference in how we tend to dismiss the idea that someone could become addicted to gaming, as though there’s something magically different about it, as opposed to all the other behaviors that humans engage in, in search of biochemical rewards.
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