Tech gaming is monstrous in scope and a virtual Niagara of revenue. Global consumer spending on mobile gaming apps is set to reach $105.2 billion by 2021, a stat so impressive that everyone wants in on the party.
That “party,” according to SteamSpy, includes 276 million active gamers who each own an average of 49 of the 205,984 games available, produced by companies whose entire existence is dedicated to mining the motivations of gamers and administering the digital dopamine drip they crave.
The addiction side of gaming is also monstrous in scope. In fact, it’s so monstrous that the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognizes ‘Gaming Disorder’ as a mental health condition, a move that got the gaming industry up in arms.
Quantitatively, WHO conservatively estimates that 3-4 percent of gamers -- totaling tens of millions of people -- struggle with a gaming disorder. While the physical offshoot of over-gaming can me minimal -- say, a headache or sleep deprivation -- some gamers have wound up hospitalized or dead.
Who’s to blame?
Some psychologists blame parents for letting too much media into their children’s life, which, in turn, can create a ripple effect that leads to addiction. Others pin the root of the problem on old-fashioned insecurity.
But if you follow the money, video game creators could also be considered complicit. The days of video games being built around trying to get a frog across the road or helping an Italian-American plumber exterminate a creature coming out of the sewer are long gone. These days, the real money is being made on games that are designed to be played with no definitive winning or losing end, which gives the players a feeling of power and respect. Some developers even go as far as buying data that reveals a gamer’s motivation to purchase, play, and tell others about the game.
Examples? The “massively multiplayer online game” (MMO) League of Legends -- a game where players assume the role of an unseen "summoner" battling a team of other players or computer-controlled champions -- hauled in $2.1 billion in 2017. Then, there’s Epic Games’ Fortnite -- a multiplayer shooter/survival game where players can battle each other or clash with zombie-like creatures and defend objects with barricades that the players build themselves. In 2018, Fortnite beat all its competitors with revenue of $2.4 billion, and its iOS (Apple) mobile version generated another $455 million on top of that.
Video games as a “drug of choice”
ConsumerAffairs reached out to Liz Wooley (LW), the founder and director of OLGA - Online Gamers Anonymous, to get a better perspective of the who, what, how, and why of gaming addiction.
CA: Was there an "a-ha" moment that led you to create OLGA?
LW: “Yes, there was. After my son died as a direct result of gaming addiction, an article done in 2002 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel went around the world. After reading all of the responses I could find to that article, I soon found out that video game addiction was an underground epidemic.
Thousands of people were getting hooked to this latest generation of video games that were designed by people with degrees in psychology, to make them as addicting as possible. People's lives, relationships, families were being ruined because of the games. People did not know they were designed to be addicting. There was nowhere to go for help. People thought it was only happening to them.”
CA: Are there specific gamer-centric mini-steps within the principles highlighted by other addiction programs like Alcoholics Anonymous?
LW: “I was familiar with the 12-step program of A.A. and know that works for many addicts. I was a software developer myself and understand how the purpose of the end game is decided before any code is written. I knew that so many people's lives and relationships were being ruined because they were addicted to the games.
In May of 2002, I decided to start the 12-step group of On-Line Gamers Anonymous® (OLGA) for video game addicts to see if there was a need. Within a month, we had several people join our community, and the need and membership has only grown since. Soon, parents, family members, and spouses were looking for a place to meet, so we added OLG-Anon for family and friends. Then the community was looking for information, and the Outreach division was created.”
“The only difference between the OLGA (video gamers) 12-step program and the AA 12-step program is the drug of choice. We have found most other aspects of the program match up. Once the social video gamer crosses the line to be an addicted video gamer, there is no going back. He/she no longer has a choice. The addict’s brain becomes disabled and relationships are ruined. That neural pathway in the brain has been set and will always remain. If the person stops gaming and starts up again, they will have problems. We recommend abstinence. This is a socially accepted drug in our society today. It is very sad for addicts and their family members and loved ones to go through this because there is little professional help for them at this time.
CA: Are there certain "triggers" you see in gamers that put them over the line?
LW: “Gaming addicts do have a profile. They are most often male and have other mental disorders like ADD or ADHD; the person also may have a more creative, sensitive, artistic, or introverted type of personality rather than being competitive and athletic. Most gamers are very intelligent - almost geniuses. Peer pressure, camaraderie in the game, ease of access, and parents who have no knowledge of what these games are doing to their brains all attribute to gamers going over the line.
For the adult addict, there is an enabler. You cannot be a gaming addict without someone else there to feed you, cook your food, do the dishes, clean, wash your clothes, pay the bills, etc. There are such things as functional video game addicts. Their relationships in real life are minimal, as they are usually trying to figure out when they can get back to their games.”
CA: Can gaming addicts fight off addiction by themselves or are they better served by a professional counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist?
LW: “Gaming addicts will try to fight the addiction themselves, first. This will indicate to them whether they were really addicted to the games or if it was a compulsion or a phase -- or if they were using video games as an escape. If the gaming addict attempts to quit the games or slow down and they are unable to even though the effects are harmful to their lives, they may ask themselves how far they are willing to go to get off of the games. Will they reach out for help (a 12-step group such as OLGA or a professional therapist, or a wilderness program) or just give in and live life as a bum, living off of someone else (the enabler - be it parent, spouse or girlfriend) for as long as possible?
Many will search out a group, as the cost is more affordable. At this time, health insurance in the U.S. does not cover treatment or therapy for gaming addicts, as it is not yet in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).”
CA: What types of games are the most addictive? What games are the safest/least addictive?
LW: “The most addictive video games are:
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). These are epic games with an everlasting storyline. These games do not have an ending. They are designed to be played forever. MMORPG’s are usually played with thousands of other players online at the same time, adding a highly addictive social component to the game. Lastly, these games are designed so that the more you play, the more powerful and well respected you are by everyone else playing. An example of this type of game is “Everquest.”
First-Person Shooters (FPS). These are games where you are the hero. All you can see on the screen is your gun directly in front of you. Bad guys attack you, and you must shoot them. These games are all about guns. Throughout the game, you get bigger and better guns and must kill bigger and badder enemies, adding a very addicting macho (power) factor to the games. Recently, a lot of these games have taken more historical spins, allowing you to be a soldier in Vietnam or WWII. Examples of these games include “Halo” and “Call of Duty.”
Real-time Strategy Games. These games are basically a fast-paced chess game without the turn-taking component. In these games, you are responsible for controlling and commanding an army you have built from scratch. You must face off with whomever your opponent is and try to be the last man standing. Examples of these games include “Starcraft” and “Command and Conquer.”
Role-Playing Games (RPG’s). These games are very similar to MMORPG’s, except they are usually designed for only one player and they have an ending. Depending on how you play the game, the ending is often different. The more you play, the deeper you get into the story, and the more powers your character gains. Examples of this type of game are “Final Fantasy” and “Knights of the Old Republic.”
Third-Person Action Games. These games are similar to the platformer games in almost every way, except they have a more mature theme. While the hero in a platformer game is often a cartoon, in the third-person action game, the hero is a realistic-looking action star. These games are usually in realistic settings with more realistic violence, and they involve much harder logic puzzles. Examples of this type of game include “Fortnite,” “Splinter Cell,” and “Tomb Raider.”
Sports games. These are games [that mimic] a sport in real life. There are even professional (NBA) and college (NCAA) level games of some of the major American Sports (basketball and football). Some people play this for a one-time fun game, and other people like to create a player or team and take them through an entire season, improving their player along the way.”
Some of the safest, least addictive games include: Chess, Guitar Hero, Pong, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Flight Simulator, Dance Dance Revolution, Just Dance, and The Oregon Trail.
CA: How have video game publishers (e.g. Activision) stepped up to either curb addiction or address it in some manner?
LW: “The thing we see video game publishers doing to curb addiction is to create the games to be physically engaging - such as with some Wii games or Pokémon Go where the gamer has to leave the house. Games that teach about history are also good. Many games created for children pretend to be innocent but have hidden psychological triggers that groom the children to believe it is okay for the video games to control their lives.”
CA: Do you have any unique insights that consumers should take into account regarding gaming addiction?
LW: “The biggest insight that a consumer needs to realize, whether they are getting the video game for themselves or someone else, is that video gaming can become a "drug of choice" for some people. Are you willing to take that chance? What else can you get a person that will help them in their real life that is more productive?”
“Be aware that the high-tech gurus in this country send their children to schools that are technology-free. Bill and Linda Gates did not give their children smartphones until they were 14 and they regretted doing it that early...Another new concept that is becoming popular - game-free homes.”