The psychology of video game addiction

What turns a hobby into a sickness? Jack Flanagan at The Kernel investigates. "I would not inflict this game upon anyone" was the testimony of a gamer codenamed Leo as he looked into the camera, his left cheek illuminated, offscreen, by a computer monitor. He was speaking about World of Warcraft, the notorious poster boy of the gaming industry, and, later in the documentary, he'd reveal why: 12 hours a day at a computer screen, sometimes more.

No money, no education, no life. Leo gave everything to World of Warcraft and, unsurprisingly, it gave nothing back. But Leo's story is not unusual. Scan internet forums like Reddit or Olganon (On-line Gamers Anonymous) are replete with horror stories of lives lost — in some cases, literally. In 2005, a South Korean man died after a reported 50-hour video gaming session, and in 2012 a Taiwanese man was discovered dead in his gaming chair, arms outstretched for his computer even in the middle of a fatal cardiac arrest. No, you wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Video game addiction exists. It has all the features you need to classify an addiction: losing jobs and loved ones; withdrawal symptoms like cold sweats and anger; developing migraines and back problems and, very occasionally, death. And it's occurring around the globe, but especially in America, the UK, and parts of Asia (China, Korea, and Japan).

How many people are affected, no one knows, but two statistics stand out: Globally, this is a $66 billion dollar industry, and in 2007 a study found almost 12 percent of participants in a 7,000 person study were diagnosed as addicted to video games. If that trend even partially reflects numbers in the greater population, we're in trouble.

So why does video game addiction merit little more than a footnote in the latest DSM, the manual for understanding and diagnosing mental illness? Studies have been conducted which look at the source of the problem. We've moved past the wagging finger of maternal disapprobation, which tells us, "just switch it off, for God's sake," and are now just starting to take it seriously.

The right questions are at least now being asked: How can a video game become addictive? What is it in the brain that switches, or was always ready-to-go, which makes a person sit until their back aches and their eyes stream? What turns a hobby into a sickness?

A recent study looked into motivations in video gaming addiction: A questionnaire asked gamers found on video game websites what they got out of the gaming. They got a huge number of respondents: over 1,600. The survey justified stereotypes: Participants were 87 percent male, 79 percent white. Joseph Hilgard, one of the researchers, said he came to the study thinking they might learn more about the reward pathways in the brain — the "go-to" areas in addiction research.

When we do anything that triggers our brain's reward system, that information gets locked into our brains. A reward system is, basically, a system that governs how the brain feels when we do something — a chore, a job, anything — that results in reward at least some of the time. If we keep getting a reward for the same task, we start to understand the relationship between the two and our brain builds the appropriate connections. It means the next time we come across the chance to do that same task, we assume we're at least a bit likely to get a gift in return. How strong the reward system is in our brains depends on how often we get the reward and how big of a reward it is.

Video games are built to exploit this part of our brain. Kill monster, get points. Complete level, get happy music. Win game, feel satisfied. It's a very simple and primitive part of who we are. We react the same way to everything, from food to sex, in education and even in our relationship with our parents, who, if they are good parents, scold bad behaviour and reward good.

"[This is what] we expected to be the number one thing," Hilgard says, "Thinking that what makes Diablo so addictive is the small chance of getting treasure for every monster you kill." Diablo is a video game, produced by the same people as World of Warcraft. Psychologists call this PRE, or Partial Reinforcement Effect, in which the reward is only offered randomly, some of the time, such as in gambling. This leaves gamers hoping that just round the corner lies the suit of armour, gold, or some other reward they've been waiting for.

That "reward" plays a part in the psychology of addiction is certain: Plenty of gamers will be familiar with the phrase "just ten more minutes". But Hilgard and his researchers discovered other results from the survey, things they did not expect. First of all, a lot of people said they felt they were "duty bound" to go online, that "people were relying on them." Online games, like World of Warcraft or Eve Online, feature massive worlds. So massive that you're not very strong by yourself, and people aren't too strong without you. "All for one and one for all" counts double if you're a gamer.

So most people join guilds — in-games factions — in order to achieve more within their virtual life. But with that benefit comes a cost: social responsibility. Often, you need to play every day and often it means several hours per day. If you don't play, there are people (granted, somewhere else in the world) who will think badly of you. They'll slander you on the forums and blacklist you from future raids. And, anyway, people like to feel included, so aside from the threat of social gaming censure most people enjoy being part of a group.

You get benefits, such as better rewards and faster in-game advancement, but you inevitably have to give back to the community which has helped you. In World of Warcraft, "raids," in which groups of players dive into a monster-invested cavern for rewards, can take a couple of hours and require quite a bit of organization, and most take place with upward of five people, and at a prearranged time. In his confessional autobiography Unplugged, video-game addict Ryan Van Cleave remembers countless missed dinners and social occasions he instead spent "plugged in" to Warcraft conducting raids. He wasn't just enjoying himself: He had promises to keep.

Social obligation itself can't really be a true addiction; it's just guilt. Anyone with a shred of conscience would feel bad leaving a team to fend for themselves if you'd made a promise to them. And it is just that, guilt, which can tie people into a lifetime of gaming. Not just guilt about your community or your guild, but for your character, too. Ryan devotes a few paragraphs to remember his Warcraft characters, who he loved and nurtured. Unfortunately, in exclusion of his real children, whom he neglected.

The other factor, in fact the largest reported factor found in the study, was escapism. Many people in the study reported that they enjoyed games because games took them out of the real world. These same people were the most likely to develop addiction-like symptoms. Why be a landscape architect when you could be an invincible mage? Or, feeling doomed to unpopularity in real-life, why not join a guild online? This isn't the first study to find the relationship between video games and escapism: A study in 2009 found 41 percent of its participants said they played to escape the real world.

In a way, video games are the spiritual successors to fantasy literature. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, or Shizuku in Studio Ghibli's Whispers of the Heart, people are escaping from their humdrum lives into a world of invented magic and wonder. This is why games like World of Warcraft are a gamers' "drug of choice": they span massive worlds, across continents and with thousands of quests to join. If someone has a powerful imagination, the real world doesn't really cut it anymore.

The difference is, video games are personalized and meticulously tested experiences which, unlike books, are constantly tinkered with by their manufacturers to be as "sticky" — that is to say, addictive — as possible.

Hyperactive imaginations aside, there are a number of people with more serious conditions that might look to video games to escape from real problems. People with depression can find a temporary high in these virtual wonderlands. In one of the worst cases in video game addiction, a Korean couple suffering from depression played Prius, a game in which you raise a child, until their real baby daughter died from starvation.

True to stereotypes, those with social phobias, or just poor social skills in general, are more likely to turn to gaming. Not only do games offer them that elusive social affirmation — NPCs, or non-playable characters, telling you how wonderful you are, how brave and so on — but there is the opportunity with online games to speak with real people, who share your hobby and are likely to be less judgmental than the people they know in real life.

Social stigma toward video games and the nagging knowledge that you're neglecting your responsibilities lead people deeper down the rabbit hole. Hilgard calls these "bad coping strategies": he says, "just like refreshing my browser tabs because I'm nervous and want to keep my mind off of something, gamers are often playing to forget their real-life problems." The problem is: The problems get worse, and so the pull to gaming gets even stronger. It's a vicious, downward facing, spiral.

Van Cleave's Unplugged is a study in this cycle of destruction, 300 pages of twisting every way he could to escape how hard life had become for him. And it only got worse. At every checkpoint in his life he could for many hours a day escape to a world in which he wasn't overweight, underemployed, disliked and disenfranchised, but instead a legend.

There's a lot more work to be done before we truly understand this stuff. Indeed, the science of addiction itself is still hopelessly infantile. In the meantime, gaming addicts are more or less on their own, and have to fight their addiction by figuring out what makes the real world so unappealing when compared the bright lights of the computer screen. And the rest of us have to keep an eye on games manufacturers stepping over the line from entertainment to exploitation.

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The military is weaponizing video games

The Xbox Kinect can do a lot more than recognize your dance moves. According to Eugene K. Chow in The Week, the military has long been an object of the video game industry's fascination.

Titles like Call of Duty slavishly pore over the details of real-life weapons, technology, and terrain to create virtual battlefields for their users to wage war on. But in a case of reality mimicking art, the military has started to turn to the gaming industry for help — and not just for training, as one would expect, but for technology itself.

In the arms race for a better user experience, the $66 billion video game industry has become so advanced that in some areas it has outpaced the military. The gaming industry's state-of-the-art controllers, high-tech sensors, and processors have been co-opted, even weaponized, by the Pentagon.

Here, a few examples:

How Xbox Kinect can guard a border

In addition to interpreting dance moves and imaginary swings of a light saber, Xbox Kinect sensors are helping to guard the last remaining front of the Cold War, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea.

After a series of high-profile border mishaps, including a defecting soldier from the North who simply waltzed through the heavily fenced, mine-strewn, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ and knocked on a guard post, the South Korean military turned to the developer of the Xbox Kinect sensor for help.

While existing sensors along the DMZ were effective, they had difficulty distinguishing between animals and humans, resulting in frequent false alerts. Now thanks to Ko Jae-Kwan, who developed Microsoft's Kinect sensors that allow users to control games using their body movements, the DMZ's newest sensors are able to separate human and animal movement.

"For its price, the device is very accurate and effective in covering vulnerable areas," Ko said.

Planned upgrades include sensors capable of reading biometrics like heart rate and body temperature, features already included in Microsoft's Xbox One, which was released last year.

To succeed in the retail industry, video game makers must offer highly advanced technologies at affordable prices, which is partly why they are so attractive to the military.

In 2009, the Pentagon purchased thousands of PlayStation 3s to bolster its supercomputer clusters. According to Defense Department acquisition officers, the PlayStation's processor offered comparable performance to the world's most advanced chips but at one-tenth the price, making it the most viable option.

Using a Wii to disable a bomb

Meanwhile on the more hands-on side, several drone manufacturers have adapted video game controllers and interfaces to pilot drones as their designs have proven to be the best available.

It's no coincidence that Raytheon's Universal Control System, the complex command station that allows drone operators to fly, track targets, and launch death-dealing Hellfire missiles from thousands of miles away, closely resembles a hardcore gamer's ultimate setup.

In an effort to reduce accidents, Raytheon hired game developers to redesign drone "cockpits" by borrowing technology from the gaming industry including wrap-around wide-screen monitors, Xbox-based processors, and an array of familiar joysticks, switches, and thumb controls.

"Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs?" explained Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon's tactical intelligence systems. "The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction."

That is exactly why engineers modified a Nintendo WiiMote to control the Packbot, a bomb disposal drone used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, after they realized the existing "joypad" interface monopolized the user's attention.

"Our tests show 90 percent of the operator's workload goes into driving the robot rather than keeping an eye on the sensor data," said David Bruemmer, a U.S. Department of Energy engineer who helped design the modified controller.

With the Wiimote, troops are able to control the robots more instinctively as the new control directly translates the movements of the hand into the movements of the robot, Bruemmer added.

Other battle-tested controllers include the widely used Xbox 360's, which Lockheed Martin modified by removing the logo to help British troops fly UAVs. The U.S. Army has also been spotted using the same controller for ground-based drones.

How virtual reality can alleviate PTSD

Beyond controllers, video games themselves have become effective tools to help veterans struggling with PTSD or even recover from severe burns. Where powerful drugs and other therapeutic techniques have failed, video games have proven enormously effective.

In an experimental treatment, soldiers recovering from severe burns were given virtual reality goggles to play Snow World, a specially designed immersive game that kept their minds off the excruciating pain of having their wounds cleaned or skin stretched.

"Sometimes patients are crying or screaming or begging for you to stop or pleading to God for mercy," said clinical nurse specialist Morrow. "[Snow World] really changes the nature of what we do."

Patients reported that they felt less pain when playing the game, required less pain medication, and had a greater range of motion in their burned limbs as their muscles were more relaxed.

The game is fairly simple, consisting of a 3D environment where players travel along a snowy path and throw snowballs at non-moving targets. The virtual reality headsets keep patients from seeing what's happening to their bodies and the game keeps their mind focused on playing the game rather than the pain.

Other specially-designed virtual reality games like Beyond the Front as well as mobile apps are helping to treat and diagnose PTSD. A virtual first-person shooting game offers vets a chance to return to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in safe way that allows patients to conquer their past traumas and habituate themselves to experiences of fear.

On the less therapeutic side of shoot-em-ups, the Pentagon uses America's Army, a military-style shooting game, as a subtle recruitment tool. And, taking its cues from the Pentagon, China's People's Liberation Army released the not-so-subtle first person shooter Glorious Mission, which inundates players with fiery nationalistic propaganda as they slog through boot camp and ultimately face off against America in a bloody showdown.

As the military is proving, video games are no longer child's play.

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Sex toys get social

And they're not a total waste of time... According to John Aziz of The Idea Factory, a new generation of sex toys is here.

Manipulatable by the actions of a far-away internet partner, these sex toys — called teledildonics — are internet-enabled devices that let long-distance partners feel each other in real-time. For men, there are vagina-shaped sex toys, and for women, penis-shaped ones. What one partner does is picked up by sensors in the toy, sent over the internet, and felt by the other partner, and vice versa. The toys can also sync up to the action in adult films, like the now-defunct RealTouch.

It’s easy to condemn such things as weird or bizarre.

And I’d say that’s for good reason: Hooking up via vibrating plastic accessories attached to an internet-connected computer is clearly not the most obvious way for two people to be intimate. It is rather like a Rube Goldberg machine: an extremely complicated solution to a simple problem. Why go to such trouble to create virtual sexual experiences when real-world sex is possible without all the technology getting in the way?

But as jarring as they may seem, these technologies may actually be useful for things outside of the domain of internet fetishism. They are a very primitive attempt to solve an extremely important problem in computing — how do you create convincing physical sensations in virtual environments?

Today, we have relatively underdeveloped virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift that immerse viewers in 360-degree digital environments where they can move their head to look up, down, and around. But integrating elements of reality beyond audio to create a fuller virtual reality experience presents difficult engineering challenges. Surround sound is possible, but the other senses — taste, smell, and touch — are much harder to fulfill.

Internet-connected sex toys are a tentative first step toward physical feedback in virtual reality, just as (say) Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was a first step toward the impressive virtual reality visuals possible with the Oculus Rift.

If the initial application (internet sex), seems weird, that’s probably just human nature. Humans like experimenting with sex so it shouldn't be too surprising that porn has been a big driver of technology adoption. The adult film industry has been at the forefront of technology for years, at least since it picked VHS over Betamax. Technological innovations pioneered by the porn industry include online payment systems, streaming video, video chat, and DVD and HD video formats.

The same logic probably applies to sex with robots. In creating convincing human-like robots, it seems inevitable that researchers will experiment with making robots sexually convincing, as well as capable of various human tasks such as lifting heavy objects, performing manual labor, performing housework, fighting in war zones, etc. Designing robots that are sexually attractive and sexually convincing will hold important lessons for designing robots to interact with humans in other ways.

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The online cookie has turned stale: Here's what advertisers are cooking up to replace it

Sorry, you're still being tracked. According to Robert W. Gehl in The Week, the $10 billion online advertising industry is in a state of crisis. That is, if we are to believe "Privacy and Tracking in a Post-Cookie World," a recent report from the advertising trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

As this IAB report details, the online marketing industry requires accurate, pervasive monitoring of our online habits. The data that results from this monitoring is turned into profiles, and these profiles get sold to advertisers in a hyperspeed auction that takes place in the milliseconds before your browser loads the next webpage. This practice of monitoring our habits, profiling us, and selling our eyes to the highest bidder is called Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA).

In order to work, however, OBA relies largely on a two-decade-old technology: The cookie, a small text file with a unique ID that is downloaded to your browser when you visit many websites. But just like any cookie would be after 20 years, the HTTP cookie is now stale.

The cookie, crumbled

Cookies are failing because internet users are increasingly blocking them. In fact, as you read this, many of you might have your browsers set to block third-party cookies, or you might be using privacy add-ons like Self-Destructing Cookies. You're not alone; as the IAB report notes, privacy-conscious internet users are now "churning" cookies by regularly deleting them, thus making it impossible to track these users over time.

Moreover, because cookies aren't persistent across browsers or devices, they don't allow marketers to track you as you browse the web first on a laptop, then on your phone, then on your Playstation. At best, multi-device browsing results in fragmented profiles, hardly the data gold mine the industry wants.

Finally, in 2011, the European Union and U.S. government began cracking down on cookies due to privacy concerns. The IAB and other trade groups consistently fight such regulation, but regulator tolerance of cookies has waned.

And when the cookie crumbles, the OBA industry does too. Without reliable data culled from constantly monitoring our online habits, the custom profiles data brokers make about us are far less valuable to advertisers.

After cookies: User IDs and security desks?

However, let's not celebrate the end of the cookie too soon. If the IAB report is any indication of where the online marketing industry wants to take the internet, I think we're going to be longing for the days when a visit to a site like Dictionary.com resulted in 159 cookies downloaded onto our computers.

Why? Because, in a move resulting either from clumsiness or sheer hubris, the marketers who wrote the IAB report have tipped their hands about what they want the internet to look like in the post-cookie world.

To explain the need for new tracking technologies, they use an analogy of security desks:

Imagine you work in a building with a security desk on each floor. Think how frustrating it would be if every time you walked into the building or went to a different floor you had to provide your name, company, job title, and ID so security personnel could make sure you’re allowed to proceed. You would have to provide all of this information every time you left the building or went to another floor — even if you just went for a quick coffee break, or walked a guest to the elevator. To circumvent headaches such as these, security badges were invented. Now every time you enter your building or change floors you are able to swipe your badge at the security desk and that swipe provides information to quickly remind the system of all of your details and automatically gives you permission to proceed. Additionally, your security badge contains information about you that can only be read by the security desks in your building, [sic] it would not work if you swiped it anywhere else. [Privacy and Tracking in a Post-Cookie World]

As the report explains, cookies are like security badges, but badges that are now obsolete; they don't identify you consistently enough. The report authors suggest new ones by expanding the use of "advertising IDs," cloud-based ID systems, or statistical identification of users (for an example of how this last might work, see this EFF project).

These plans would require a centralized service to assign us unique online IDs on our devices. The report outlines a few different approaches: A cloud-based one would have us sign into an ID service and use the unique ID it gives us to connect to publishers. In a sense, this is happening with Facebook Connect (although Twitter's implementation of OAuth competes with Facebook to be an internet ID system), but in the IAB's ideal scenario, we'd pick just one service to be our online ID. The report also indicates a solution through your internet service provider: Every time you log on to the internet through Comcast or Verizon, for example, you'd be assigned a unique ID. Advertising IDs, like those used in Android and iPhones, would provide device-level identification; this would be far less centralized, but it would still be more concentrated than the free-for-all cookie system.

But I want to set aside the technical details of these ideas and instead focus on what the practical effects would be. Let's take the IAB's unfortunate analogy of the internet as a highly secured building to it's logical conclusion. (Seriously: The internet as a series of security desks? They wrote this report after Snowden's NSA leaks?)

1. We all work and live in the same building; call it "Les Interwebs." It used to be that you had to explain to the guards who you are every time you left and came back into the building, but the IAB has fixed this for us. Now you have an IAB-issued internet ID card you can use to get into Les Interwebs, and the guards greet you by name with a cheerful grin. (The IAB report acknowledges that post-cookie tracking technology will require "an authentication mechanism" — in other words, a persistent ID you use to identify yourself online.)

2. We each have our own special room in that building. The guards know when you're in your room and when you're not.

3. While you're in your special room, highly trained social scientists watch your every move, monitor what you read and watch, pore through your financial records, consult with your doctor about your health, study your sexual preferences, map your social networks, and divide you up into myriad categories. (This detailed monitoring is, of course, the dream that animates online behavioral advertising).

4. As a result, in your room, you only see what you want to see — or rather, you only see what marketers believe you want to see. You like "technology" and "sports?" That's all you see. You like liberal politics? You will only confront views that confirm your own. Don't worry about the opinions of others; you won't hear about them — except in sensational headlines. (This is what the IAB would call "personalization," and what others might call a "filter bubble.")

Of course, much of this is already reality, but if we take the IAB report at face value, the way in which this vision of the internet is currently being implemented is inefficient and clumsy. Cookies helped get us to an internet that tracked us, but now the time has come for even more precise and powerful tracking technologies.

The internet can certainly be a building with security desks on every floor. If you want personalized services everywhere you go — where "personalization" means you get what someone else says you want — then the IAB is your guide to the future of the internet. If you like to be watched as you lust, love, and live, if you like to give the marketing industry such infopower, please do help the IAB figure out the future of tracking after the cookie.

On the internet, no one should know you're not a dog

However, what if we take seriously other metaphors for the internet? For example, since so much of the IAB's work is to fix us as specific, identifiable people, perhaps we need to turn to the old metaphor of the internet as a place where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "no one knows you're a dog."

I would rather see an internet where you can be a dog one minute, a cat the next, a man the next, a woman the next. Where you can do things without a massive, highly sophisticated industry studying your every move. Where you can explore and learn based on whim and serendipity rather than the dictates of marketing (or, of course, government, but that's for another essay). Where when you can put your name on things one minute and be anonymous the next.

In other words, let's have a post-cookie internet without tracking. The IAB can keep their security desks.

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