Ender’s Game: Video Game Compulsions (Part I)

Go to:  Part II – Social ReconditioningPart III – Prosocial Gaming

In part II of Walt Disney’s American science fiction movie Tron: Legacy, Kevin Flynn’s son Sam hunts for his missing father who is lost in a video game he created twenty years ago. The story follows Sam, who responds to a message from his father’s pager and in responding to the urgent message he is somehow transported into a virtual reality called the Grid, where Sam finds his father and together with the last algorithm of her kind, Quorra, must stop the malevolent program Clu from invading the real world.

Equipped with metaphorical language, the story plot is similar to the Matrix where everyone seems to be living in a virtual reality or “dream world”, where they possess superhuman powers and abilities saving the world from the brink of destruction. For people attracted to the gaming industry, it is easy to find its appeal. In the virtual world, the industry provides a space where you can display superhuman capabilities. In the gaming world, you can fly, leap leagues and bounds jumping from one building to another, fight like a class A martial artist, from your bare hands you throw fire bombs, you’ve got laser beam eyes and impenetrable armor. You fight monsters, goblins, pirates, robbers, and thieves.

You rescue the damsel in distress, a child from the burning house, the cat in a tree; in this world, you are a hero, an enigma, a savior. You feel a sense of purpose, you feel wanted, you feel needed; people turn to you for you have all the answers a person should seek, people recognize you, acknowledge and admire you. That is until you get “unplugged” and realize you have to deal with the real world, with real-life situations and problems to solve. But you don’t want to go back because in the real world you feel invisible, unneeded, insignificant, helpless and unloved. What a striking difference the virtual world is to the real world, so each time you plug yourself in, you stay in the game for longer, and longer, and longer, and longer periods of time. Until poof! Just like that – and you’re gone!

Gaming Compulsions and Addictions

There is much debate in the gaming world that excessive use of game playing leads to addiction. Industry players reject the word “addiction” but instead prefers to use the term “compulsion”. What’s the difference between the two? Is there a difference?  Slight as it may be yes, there is a difference albeit along the same sliding scale.  Addiction is a broad term that is simply about pleasure. The term compulsion was first used to explain the idea of addicts accessing the pleasure center of the brain. It’s a form of escapism. They use the substance or engage in the behavior so much that they become dependent on it to cope or to release the stresses of life even to the point that it becomes harmful to themselves, family or other areas of life.

The word “compulsion” then began to be used as a distinction from “addiction” because it does not include the experience of pleasure.  It is often a way of dealing with the “obsessiveness of the behavior that brings about relief from the urge.  The behavior is like a piece of metal drawn towards a magnet, you don’t necessarily like it yet you are drawn to it.  The confusion between compulsions and addictions can be explained of those who after awhile they may not like the substance or behavior but they still engage to relieve themselves from the withdrawal symptoms.  That’s compulsion.  Feeling drawn but no pleasure, although the original motivation to engage was for pleasure.

Similarly, people who suffer from compulsions (obsessive-compulsive behaviors) are aware that their compulsion is not real. Although they may not like it, they still have to deal with the reality of the compulsion, because it relieves stress and anxiety. Whereas those who suffer from addictions are absent of their reality and the harm it causes to themselves, others and their life’s circumstances. They often dismiss or minimize their behavior, that is until reality strikes in the form of a disaster (i.e. job loss, relationship break up, car accident etc.), that force them to face the reality of their problem and seek treatment.

As such, “Cohort studies have shown evidence for changes in dispositional narcissism and specifically in empathy over the past 30 years. The apparent rise in narcissism and decrease in empathy is still hotly debated, and although the causes for such changes may not be fully understood, the possible relationship with an increasingly digital environment is difficult to ignore and certainly worth confronting from a positive computing perspective.

For example, as with other forms of violent media, there is significant evidence that violent video games decrease empathy and physiologically desensitize users to violence but then pro-social games increase pro-social behavior. This is critical to positive computing because gaming makes up an ever-increasing chunk of our digital experience, and it makes more sense to look at video games’ psychological impacts from a higher level and holistic angle rather than inadvertently suggesting their influence go only one way. ” [Positive Computing]

Types of Gaming Addictions

There are two major types of video games and therefore two major types of video game addictions. Standard video games are generally designed to be played by a single player and involve a clear goal or mission, such as rescuing a princess. The addiction in these games is often related to completing that mission or beating a high score or present standard.

The other type of video game addiction is associated with online multi-player games. These games are played online with other people and are especially addictive because they generally have no ending. Gamers with this type of addiction enjoy creating and temporarily becoming an online character. They often build relationships with other online players as an escape from reality.  For some, this community may be the place where they feel they’re the most accepted.


Many different causes factor into video game addiction. One of the main reasons that video games can become so addictive, however, is they are designed to be that way. Video game designers, like anyone else trying to make a profit, are always looking for ways to get more people playing their games. They accomplish this by making a game just challenging enough to keep you coming back for more but not so hard that the player eventually gives up. In other words, success for a gamer often feels just out of reach. In this respect, video game addiction is very similar and belongs to another more widely recognized disorder: gambling addiction.

Like any other compulsive disorder, video game addiction can have severe negative consequences. Though most of the symptoms have short-term effects, they can lead to more severe long-term repercussions if not addressed properly. For example, someone addicted to video games will often avoid sleeping or eating proper meals in order to continue gaming. While the short-term effects of this may include hunger and fatigue, it could eventually lead to a sleep disorder or diet-related health issues.

Homo Gamus

Similarly, those who isolate themselves from others in order to play video games may miss out on family events, outings with friends, or other events in the short-term. If this continues to be a pattern for a long period of time, however, addicts might find themselves without any friends at all [except for the virtual players they never met].

Problematic online gameplay has been speculatively linked in the media with the suicide of a 13 year old boy in China who jumped to his death in 2004 after playing World of Warcraft for 36 consecutive hours and the suicide of a 21 year old man in Wisconsin who shot himself dead in 2001 while playing EverQuest overuse describe players who lost their jobs were left by their spouses and children neglected their personal hygiene and household chores, and considered suicide due to their overuse of the game. Although many of these cases involved online games that were not virtual worlds, they serve as powerful examples of the potential harms that can accompany the excessive use of virtual worlds and related online applications.

Other long-term effects of video game addiction to consider are the financial, academic and occupational consequences involved. Video games and video game equipment can be very expensive, especially when factoring in recurring costs such as the high-speed Internet connection required for online multi-player games. These games can also be very time-consuming, leaving addicted gamers with less time to focus on their education or career.

‘Great biceps! However, you need to get more exercise than just pointing and clicking.’

“The newer MMORPG’s which represent many of the most popular virtual worlds have elicited even more concern about their potential for problematic use. For such games, the long-term nature of the games’ story-lines, the somewhat unpredictable nature of major game events, the social interaction and social status that can be achieved in the games are all features that can encourage overuse among players. Indeed research on the brain activity of males who overused the MMORPG World of Warcraft indicated that when viewing images from the game activity in various regions of their brains associated with cravings mirrored neuro-biological patterns that have been associated with substance dependency.  This can pose serious consequences. For example:

  • A 28-year-old South Korean man collapsed and died in 2005 after playing the online multi-player game Starcraft which is a computer game played online but is not actually a virtual world or role-playing game for 50 hours while stopping only to use the restroom and sleep for short periods of time.
  • 26-year-old Chinese man died in 2007 after playing unnamed online games frequently over the course of several days during the New Year holiday.
  • A 30-year-old Chinese man died the same year after playing an unnamed online game for three days.”

Excessive online gameplay has also been mentioned as a factor in parental neglect or abuse that resulted in the deaths of children, such as a four-month old South Korean infant who died of suffocation in 2005 while her parents played World of Warcraft at a nearby Internet cafe, and a 3 month old baby in Florida whose mother shook him to death in 2010 when his crying interrupted her use of the social network game Farmville.” [Virtual Lives, J. Ivory, 2012]

Emotional Involvement Through Gaming?

What is it about game playing that has people hooked? Is it the sense of [false] power? (as long as the game keeps playing, you are in control) What about the sense of camaraderie, could it be explained as a form of escapism where an individual use the distraction of gaming to escape from their boredom or pressing issues that are in need of attention in their “waking life”.

In the book “Social Consequences of Internet Use” authors James E. Katz and Ronald E. Rice provides a commentary about the ’emotional involvement and its exploitation’ of online gaming. In many cases communities are created using the original games yet creating enhancements calling this modifying process “mod” communities making them different than Mud (multi-user domain) or Moo(multi-user object-oriented) communities. Some games are role-playing games which require interaction with other players, this creates a terrain of internet play that is grounded in the collective-benefit of social capital vs individual-benefit social capital.

For example, consider a survey conducted in 2000 of Indiana University business school of students and executives aged 25-35 in the sports and entertainment industry. It found that about 90% of respondents participated in fantasy sports leagues because it promoted “camaraderie and friendship; such as sharing time and experiences with friends and having something to talk about with friends and coworkers”. Themes for games that have social environments can range from living environments where players link up with virtual roommates, political environments where players can take on the role of politician to elect legislation, pass laws, prescribe penalties and of course, engage in fiery debates, to action games that depict close quarter battles where to win players who are first-person shooters need to network among other players.

Game formats also allow teams to arbitrarily be chosen to create “clans” through try-outs, or by organizing local of virtual friends, or by drawing from pre-existing groups that share a common trait (such as an all-women’s clans or US department of defense member clans). Or there are online and physical games, playing with reality. Majestic expands on the popular science fiction movies such as Total Recall and The Game where the premise of is that players are suddenly thrust into the middle of an X-Files style mystery complete with shadow governments, extraterrestrial alien cover-ups and duplicitous officials and friends. Majestic interacts with players in an unorthodox way where they must use certain tools – AOL instant messenger, a web browser and Real Player to solve mysteries. Another familiar role-playing game is set in medieval times where players use the special skills of their character to chase monsters, engage in sword fights to gain points and rewards.

As a result, fantasy migrates to real life and it is not unusual to learn that people have found significant others in real life as a result of online gaming. In some cases, players have participated in online marriages, baby showers, and adoptions. The authors quote Billy Pidgeon, an analyst with Jupiter Communications who observed that such role-playing games (RPG) “…engage the dramatic imagination and immerse people in the details of the game and interaction.” Participants in multiplayer online games average more than 22 hours a week of playing time and have led to real-life marriages among the players. “Ultima [for example] is a very social and ethical world, so people tend to believe that who they are online is similar to who they are offline.” The authors quote Doug Davis of Harvard College who told the New York Times that “Ultima has this tremendous involvement that gives players the feeling that they get an immediate glimpse into who people are…People quickly feel that they are learning something important about each other as they play the game.”

The point is online gaming communities are created which, through their accompanying chat processes, creates a social environment where players can also become emotionally involved in each other’s lives. This leaves the door wide open for exploitation because the internet is full of fakes and manipulators. Online gaming is a pale substitute for real live communication. Psychologist David Greenfield author of Virtual Addictions sees them as causing addictions and isolation: “some of these games are so addictive they should have a warning label on them…it’s very socially isolating.”

This may be the view of experts, but people continue to have high levels of involvement with these games, including poker as well as the various group-based event. This interesting tension between online and offline worlds reminds us not to focus too exclusively on analyzing the online world without reference to activities and consequences in the real world.

Technological advances in the gaming industry researchers and developers are bringing even more ‘human experience’ to the gaming console. To make the gaming experience more exciting, you will soon be able to experience the sensations and emotions of your game avatar ‘that modify their behaviors based on the attack.’

The Australian company Emotiv Systems are well on their way developing technology that could monitor a player’s emotional states in real-time, thus allowing the game to respond to the players’ emotions. This adds another dimension where the game character will transform in response to the player’s feelings. To imagine this, the example given is that of the Incredible Hulk, transforming n the feeling of anger. Together with another program, the Cognitiv Suite employs the principles of telekinesis that would enable the gamer to manipulate virtual objects using only the power of thought. Whoa! Talk about living in a dream world! With technology like this, who would want to come back to reality after being “unplugged” from the Matrix.

“The interactivity that virtual worlds present, however, still presents many opportunities for users with malicious intent to antagonize one another. These ‘griefers’ derive pleasure from acts that inhibit other users’ enjoyment of virtual worlds which may include cheating and other instrumental exploitation or simply consist of harassment. While much-griefing consists of minor and silly interruptions, others are more offensive… virtual worlds can place limits on player activity and provide users with the tools to prevent and report griefing (for example by blocking communication from a griefer and submitting the griefer’s name to the virtual world’s administrator), the open and interactive atmospheres that virtual worlds strive to provide will probably always leave them open to this type of abuse.” [Virtual Lives, 2012]

 Video game addiction can be just as dangerous as any other addiction and should be treated as such. Recovery is not always easy, but it is achievable. The first step in overcoming dependency is being able to recognize that it exists, put the gaming controls away and do what you must to engage in life’s enriching opportunities.

Go to:  Part II – Social ReconditioningPart III – Prosocial Gaming