Friday, December 3, 2010

WoW and Addiction

This is a topic that people have written copious amounts on. I would like to briefly touch on it, perhaps circling back around further down the line. We have all heard the stories or had an experience where ourself or a guildie was given an ultimatum to quit the game or lose a spouse. Or when someone comes to the realization that they play to much, or is spending to much time in-game and not enough time in real life (RL). I myself recently lost a guildie to the first. His wife finally said its WoW or the marriage. He was a smart man and said goodbye to us, if even for a period of time. We haven't seen him in about 3 months. I wish him well, and hope he's able to return some time down the road. The podcast The Instance recently covered this briefly in Episode 210 regarding a caller that was looking for suggestions on how to get his wife into playing WoW before it destroyed their relationship. They didn't spend a great deal of time on the topic but they brought up some great points around the subject of balancing game and RL. I'd suggest a listen if you have the time.

Before I go any further, I am not a licensed psychologist. I have not treated anyone, and I do not claim to have the answers. I am simply delving into a topic I find interesting and presenting my own hypotheses and opinions. If you find any of this "rings true" with you, or you feel you need to talk with someone or need help, please contact a professional.

So let's get down to brass tacks. What is addiction? I am going to give you my definition of what I believe addiction is. This comes from my own studies as well as my own personal experiences.
Addiction is a set of behaviors that a person creates to cope with a percieved negative situation. These behaviors can develop over time, usually from childhood. As the child grows up the behaviors they learned to cope with stress or other situations modify and may become ritualized around a central idea or theme, culminating in a sense of gratification or relief. The rituals become ingrained through repetition until the process becomes the "normal" response to a negative stimulus. The person then becomes "addicted to", either emotionally or physically, the process and subsequent fulfillment, and cannot become un-enmeshed from it. The end goal, or fulfillment can change but the process usually stays the same for the individual.
There are lots of ways to break down those few sentences. Behaviors are usually learned in childhood or early adolescence and become response patterns to negative stimulus such as adversity, discomfort, pain and anxiety. Defense mechanisms. I describe it as a process of learned patterned behavior because I have watched addicts move their addictions from one thing to another, while retaining the same patterns and reasoning.
By looking at it from this perspective it is easy to understand how people can become addicted to not just drugs and alcohol, but sex, gambling and even video games. The behaviors are developed to alleviate stressers that the individual may never have been equipped to deal with. Such as violence in the home at a young age, or simply having parents that were unable to adequately protect the child. In other words, the child is not taught how to appropriately care for themselves emotionally or physically, set boundaries, or deal with life stressers at an age appropriate level.  The process or ritual can be days, weeks or months in preparation and is usually where the "high" is developed. It is the anticipation of the act. The ritual or preparation then culminates in the use of, or fulfillment of the act. The process becomes more refined as the addiction develops and eventually the ritual part may be thrown out completely to get right to the fulfillment stage. This is where you would find severe drug addiction or alcoholism. This is also where you might find people who "act out" instead of doing normal everyday things such as working, sleeping, eating and bathing. It is controversial whether or not brain chemistry plays a part in this process. I believe that it is a combination of the result of repetitive ritual and the fulfillment of that, and the chemicals we create in our brain that tell us it is pleasurable while we are experiencing the ritual and culmination (endorphins, seratonin etc).
Let's break that down into something simple. I had ice cream last night. I like ice cream. I think about ice cream during the day and about how I'm going to have it when I get home from work. The idea of having the ice cream creates a sensation of pleasure culminating in eating the ice cream. Now when I feel anxious at work I think of ice cream to illicite that pleasurable response. I create the ritual by thinking about getting the ice cream and how I will prepare it and eat it. Now multiply that. Every time I feel anxious, worried, upset or sad I now revert to that idea of ice cream and eating ice cream. I now want it all the time and it becomes a means to an end so to speak. Every time I feel upset ice cream or the thought of ice cream becomes my way to assuage those fears and make myself feel better. I will even now create negative sitatuations so that I can enjoy my ice cream. After a fashion I will begin to skip the ritual of thinking about the ice cream and I'll make sure I have it handy. Now I am an emotional ice cream addict. Now if that ice cream contains chemicals like cocaine or nicotine, or I have created a chemical response in my brain through this process, I can also develop a physical addiction to it and my body as well as my mind will no longer be able to live without ice cream.
That is really over-simplified but that is the basic idea.

Putting addiction in these terms you can see how World of Warcraft can be seen from that perspective. If an individual uses it to fulfill a need they are not otherwise equipped to deal with, it can become a substitute for real life. Or more to the point, for dealing with real life.
The addict will use a substance, in this case video games, as a release from stress on a regular basis, and continue to turn to it regardless of the consequences.

World of Warcraft, and video games in general, offer many situations and stimuli that are very appealing to an 'addictive personality', and are the things that keep us all coming back time and time again.
  • Instant gratification - I get a quest. I complete it. I return and turn it in. I receive a reward immediately.
  • Power - I am a hero. I have powers not available in real life. Magic, shape-shifting or great strength.
  • Accomplishment - I can defeat obstacles of what appear to be immense proportions. I can save the world.
  • Physique - I am beautiful, muscular, smart, charismatic etc. I have attributes that I do not possess in real life.
  • Social or Solo - I can choose who, when, and where I want to hang out with. If I don't like you I don't have to talk to you or anyone. If I want to be alone I can. Conversely, I can create or find a team of people I do want or choose to spend time with.
  • Availability - If I am not in game I can listen about it in a podcast, watch videos about it on youtube or read about it in magazines or on-line. I can fuel my ritual.
With these attributes it's easy to see how WoW can be become addictive in the true sense of the word. I know that when I have a bad day I can't wait to log in, catch some battlegrounds, and kick some ass! I have also used the game to procrastinate. Like I said, who wants to do the dishes every day. Blech! I have also used WoW as a way to avoid. Last year my husband had open heart surgery after a sudden trip to the ER. When I was not at the hospital, eating or sleeping, I was playing. Just to give my mind something else to think about and do. Otherwise I would have either sat mindless in front of the TV (to do the same thing), or worried myself silly. It helped alleviate my stress a little and gave me something else to focus on. It also gave me a few people to talk to and therefore kept me from isolating myself and generally being miserable. Well...more miserable.

So from my own experience it's easy to let a video game take over once in a while. In fact, I'm betting that we have all done it at one time or another. Played when perhaps we should have been taking care of something else. I believe that is normal and necessary. It is important in our lives to have play time and laugh time. We all want relief from our normal everyday lives or from our normal everyday stress. Every person finds their own way to decompress and escape. Some people work out, some read books, some go to movies and some play video games.

Do I believe that World of Warcraft can become an addiction? Most definitely. It has the appeal and is innately constructed to draw us in. Do I believe that every time we play or that every time we use it to escape is dangererous? No, absolutely not. I do believe that the potential for someone who has already developed, or is in the process of developing patterns of addictive behavior, WoW can become a problem

As for my opening statement? WoW and spouses? I would have to agree with Scott and Randy. If there is a problem with a spouse and WoW then there is something else going on that needs to be addressed,  and WoW is just a symptom of bigger things. The issue can be with either spouse, and does not necessarily mean there is a problem with the person playing World of Warcraft. Begin talking about it or seek help. Either way nip it in the bud before it becomes bigger than it needs to be. There's nothing wrong with a little counseling. Everyone needs a little help sometimes. We were not born with the tools to make it through all the wierd, crazy and wonderful things life can throw at us.

WoW gets a bad rep. I believe it's because it's such a niche world. It takes a great deal of time and devotion. It has it's own language (leet-speak). It involves technology (geek/nerd). It is generally singular or small group in nature. It is not seen as contributing positively, such as working out might be viewed. (Which by the way can be an addiction) These are things that the general population still kinda scoffs at. Think of movies like "Revenge of the Nerds". WoW is a video game, the operative word being GAME. That word alone reminds us that it is something that is done to pass the time, not take time. I'm happy that games in general are accepted as more mainstream these days. UnfortunateIy, I believe gaming is still seen as a childs past time, or a waste of time.

In the end we all have times when we'd rather play than work. The trick is balance and the old adage, all things in moderation.

Now go kick some ass!!

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