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Got Game?

Online gaming might start off innocently enough -- a fun way to kill a few hours here and there -- but for some, it can quickly turn into a life-consuming addiction.

 by Sam Friedman
 published on Thursday, April 13, 2006

/issues/arts/696653
On the cover
 
(from left to right) Ben Tatem Hainine, Dustin Perrotti, Dave Latshaw and Matthew Morgan play video games in their dorm room at Palo Verde East./issues/arts/696653
Scott Pennelly / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
(from left to right) Ben Tatem Hainine, Dustin Perrotti, Dave Latshaw and Matthew Morgan play video games in their dorm room at Palo Verde East.
 
Tatem Hanine and Morgan battle it out while playing Halo on their Xbox./issues/arts/696653
Scott Pennelly / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Tatem Hanine and Morgan battle it out while playing Halo on their Xbox.
 
Morgan connects with gamers around the world to play
Scott Pennelly / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Morgan connects with gamers around the world to play "Counterstrike," a popular first person shooting action game. He uses the headset to communicate with other members of his global team.
 

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"I'm a terrorist," casually declares global studies freshman Matt Morgan, staring intently into the glare of his computer screen. "It's my job to plant the bomb without any counter-terrorists getting in the way."

Morgan hardly looks the part.

Dressed in shorts, a baggy T-shirt, with blond curls tucked neatly underneath a baseball cap, Morgan looks a lot like your average college student.

But then he is a college kid; it's just that he's also a terrorist in his spare time -- his video gaming time.

Tonight, at Warzone Gaming on McClintock and Elliot in Tempe, Morgan's hands -- one massaging his mouse, the other twitching above his keyboard -- are about to start moving wildly, causing a havoc of bullets and explosions on the screen.

He's starting a game of "Counter-Strike," a hugely popular online PC game that pits a group of counter-terrorists against a team of terrorists in rounds of competition won by eliminating the opposing force.

But Morgan's careful only to play for one hour tonight.

He says he's been addicted to video games since he was 13 and only managed to kick the habit since coming to college.

Still, for five years, the addiction invaded nearly every area of his life.

"I used to go to bed; dream about games; wake up; play all day in a darkened room; and at 6 p.m. look around and realize I was still in my boxer shorts," he says in a single breath, stopping only to take a swig from his can of Bawls, a popular gaming drink packed full of caffeine and glucose. "It was kind of ridiculous, now that I come to think of it."

Heroinware

Gaming addiction, a longtime subject of jokes among video game fans, is beginning to stir the interest of academics and psychologists across the country.

The popularity of Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs such as "EverQuest" -- dubbed "EverCrack" by many gamers -- and "World of Warcraft," has skyrocketed in recent years.

According to Bruce Woodcock from Mmogchart.com, a Web site dedicated to tracking the growth of MMORPGs, there are currently 10 million MMOG subscribers worldwide, a figure which he says has doubled every two years since 1997.

As of February 2006, the most popular of these games, "World of Warcraft," or WoW, reported on its website that it had surpassed the 6 million mark for active subscriptions.

The games -- dubbed "heroinware" by some users -- often include extensive chat features designed to engage the player. They are also easy to access, relatively cheap and encourage collaborative play, which can make it much harder to take a break, says Dave Greenfield, clinical psychologist and founder of The Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford, Conn.

"This is a huge area and we are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg," he says.

No one can say for sure how many users are addicted, or have reached the point where the time they spend on video games negatively affects the rest of their lives.

But, Nick Yee, a Ph.D. student from Stanford University who has surveyed more than 35,000 MMORPG users since 1999, says his results show that 50 percent of players consider themselves addicted, spending an average of 22 hours a week in front of the screen.

Additionally, he says, 60 percent report playing games continuously for more than 10 hours at a time.

While there is no clear line between healthy and obsessive gameplay, it's clear that "problematic usage" is not uncommon, Yee says.

According to Yee, there are a number of mechanisms in MMORPGs that encourage obsessive playing.

"They're very seductive," he says. "Players are rewarded for performing increasingly complex tasks, and this causes them to want to play more."

Still, Yee says he and other academics in the gaming field generally shy away from branding obsessive gaming an "addiction." All too often, they say, the media uses the word to induce a "knee-jerk paranoia," convincing the public believe new technology is somehow going to "eat their babies."

"The truth is, this is not a new thing," he says. "Excessive gaming is just another behavioral dependency, much like excessive shopping or golf-playing."

Greenfield says gaming may not be an addiction in the classical sense.

"But in the way that people are unable to stop, it can certainly feel like an addiction," he says. "I mean ,you're unlikely to die from a video game addiction, but it can certainly seriously disrupt your life."

And the addicts are not just children.

At The Center for Internet Behavior, Greenfield says about a third of his patients suffer from gaming addictions and almost all are 16-to-25-years-old.

"In particular, gaming is popular among college kids," he says. "Technology tends to be skewed toward that demographic, and they're really the first generation to be completely surrounded by gaming and the Internet."

Gaming History

A few days after visiting Warzone Gaming, Morgan is back at San Pablo dorm, where he works as a receptionist. Reclining in his chair, he begins to recount his gaming history, stopping only to glance at his screen, where he's also holding a conversation with a buddy on MSN Messenger.

"I used to live in Saudi Arabia and my Dad always used to bring back the best games," he says. "It started with 'Super Mario Kart,' then 'Goldeneye,' but I think the real turning point was 'The Legend Of Zelda' -- I mean I still think that was the best game ever made."

As a teenager, Morgan was part of a group of friends that shared a common interest in gaming. "We used to have parties where we'd just play for like 12 hours on end," he says.

"At one point we totally binged on this one game called Diablo 2 -- I mean it was like a month-long ordeal -- hours without eating or drinking."

As well as becoming hooked on these games, Morgan and his friends also became very skilled. One of his friends, ASU freshman Ben Hainline, was briefly ranked No. 1 in Arizona at legendary first-person shooter, Halo. When the second version of the game, Halo 2, was released, the friends formed a team, "Kin", and stormed as high as 30th in the game's world rankings.

"At that point I think we were just in our own little world," Morgan says. "Nothing else really mattered."

Too many hours playing a video game and a gamer can exhibit dry or sore eyes, inability to stop, irregular sleep patterns, bad personal hygiene and neglect of family or friends, says Maressa Orzack, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Computer Addiction Service at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

"Like gamblers, they compulsively keep investing time and money," she says. "They fantasize that the next level will solve all their problems."

"I definitely used to get cravings and withdrawal symptoms when I wasn't playing," Morgan says. "And I also got really bloodshot eyes and my skin was always pale -- I mean I hardly left my room."

Although Morgan says he's been addicted to a number of games, the most obsessive were always the online role-playing games.

"I'm scared to start playing World of Warcraft. I know it has the ability to take me over," he says. "I mean with the MMORPGs, they're so addictive because you can always improve your score. I mean they never end."

It is precisely this element of infinity that makes MMORPGs so dangerous, according to Greenfield.

"No boundaries results in heightened compulsion," he says. "Whereas books have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, there is no natural pause in these games."

Journalism sophomore Paolo Cruz also struggles with a gaming problem, but says his weakness, sports games, is easier to escape.

"The big thing with sports games is the clock," he says. "Whether you like it or not, the game has to finish. And, y'know, games on consoles eventually get boring; it's not like the MMORPGs where you can keep going forever."

Collective Play

There are those who argue that gaming -- even a lot of it -- can actually be a positive thing.

In a recent book called "Got Game -- How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever," author and information consultant Mitch Wade argues that gaming helps develop mental skills useful in professional life.

After conducting a survey of young business professionals, Wade found that those who grew up playing video game were better at skills needed in business -- like problem-solving, team play and careful ris- taking.

Most people also wrongly categorize gaming as a lonely activity, according to Yee.

"Eighty percent of gamers are actually playing with a friend or family member and thus strengthening relationships in a way they never would sitting in front of the TV," he says.

Indeed, Yee says his results show that gaming displaces people's TV watching, rather than adding to it.

"People don't realize the average American watches 26 hours of TV a week, which is more than the average gamer spends at their keyboard," he says.

Despite his excessive play, Morgan says gaming never disrupted his schoolwork and he remained an "A" student throughout high school.

Some of his friends used gaming to their advantage. Dustin Perotti used to design the website for "Kin" and now runs his own clothing company, Indifferent Clothing, which he says was inspired by his gaming days.

"Indifferent' is a reference to one of Matt's aliases in "CounterStrike" and many of my other designs are influenced by gaming," he says.

Growing up in the wealthy Fountain Hills area of the Valley, Morgan says, if anything, his preoccupation with gaming may have helped protect him and his friends from drugs like cocaine and meth, which were widely used by kids his age.

"Gaming was kind of the anti-drug for us," he says.

Gamers Refuge

Gaming is far from the anti-drug in the eyes of Liz Wooley.

She founded Online Gamers Anonymous in 2002 after losing her 21-year-old son, Shawn, to suicide. Although Shawn had a history of mental illness, he was also highly addicted to "EverQuest," and his mother eventually found him dead in front of the computer.

"I knew he was addicted, but I didn't realize what huge impact it was having," she says.

After the story made news around the world, Wooley realized the problem of gaming addiction stretched far beyond her small town of Harrisburg, Penn.

"I wanted to set up an online place where gamers from all around the world could go to discuss and share their problem," she says.

Now Online Gamers Anonymous has over 2,000 members and gets more than 300 hits a week. The site offers links to professional advice as well as the 12-step addiction program championed by Alcoholics Anonymous. It also organizes online meetings for addicts to share their experiences, and Wooley herself mans a 24-hour hotline. She says she's found gamers prefer to seek help via the Internet rather than in person.

"People don't understand the seriousness of the problem and so gamers tend to be very ashamed of their addictions," she says. "Or they see the activity as socially acceptable and are in complete denial of having an addiction."

Gamers seeking help in Arizona can also turn to The Sierra Tucson Clinic in Tucson, which specializes in behavior health therapy.

The best way to treat gaming addiction, according to Orzack, is via a technique called "cognitive behavior therapy," which teaches the patient to identify the problem, solve it themselves and learn coping skills to prevent relapse.

Wooley says prevention -- not just treatment -- is what's needed.

"The government really needs to step in like it has in other industries like tobacco and alcohol," she says.

The Chinese government recently did exactly that, demanding in August 2005 that gaming companies place controls on new games. They want manufacturers to install programs that prevent users from playing for longer than three consecutive hours.

WoW

Back at Warzone Gaming, it's Saturday night.

Inside, nearly all 50 computers are occupied. Gamers of all ages sit in silent concentration.

Occasionally, a scream of anguish pierces the silence as a player curses his fantasy character or lack of "hit points."

At the front desk, 20-year-old attendant Keith Netzley is engrossed in WoW, only glancing away to offer advice to young gamers or sell another sugary drink.

Netzley says proudly that he's played WoW for 10 hours straight today, but adds with a grin that there's still at least three left before closing time.

Despite there being hundreds of online games on the market, Netzley says there's only two games that people play at Warzone nowadays: "Counterstrike" and WoW.

"WoW is simply the most popular game in the world right now," he says.

Asked to identify some WoW experts, Netzley immediately points in the direction of 19-year-old Ryan Collins, apparently a "serious gamer."

Collins is engrossed in a game of WoW, raiding one of the game's higher difficulty "bosses" with his team.

Reluctantly, Collins leaves his character and turns around to talk. He says his team, or "guild," is already 50-strong and made up of gamers from around the world.

"This really is a fricking gigantic game," he says. "I mean it's truly global."

For a monthly fee of $15, "World Of Warcraft" allows players to create their alter egos by choosing from a variety of colorful races and powerful classes. It then catapults them into "Azeroth", the game's interactive fantasy world. From there players begin roaming the countryside, both alone or in teams, undertaking various quests and acquiring powerful new items.

WoW players also have the option of turning their gaming to profit through something called "goldfarming."

Frowned upon as "cheating" by purists and game-makers, goldfarming involves players accruing "gold," which helps them progress in the game, and then selling it to other players on sites like eBay.

Yee says this is a surprisingly widespread practice, used by 20 percent of his survey respondents, who have spent an average total of $150. He says the tactic has interesting implications.

"The popularity of goldfarming shows that the allure of WoW is much more than simple compulsion," he says. "It's the status, not the monotonous game play many players want, the sense of empowerment and leadership they develop from progressing through the game."

The game is hugely complex, but at the same time remarkably approachable, according to Collins.

He says he's been playing "non-stop for two years," and the interface icon in the corner of his screen informs him that his total game play is actually 70 days, 8 hours, 4 minutes and 26 seconds.

Even Collins, who also works full time at Starbucks, seems a little shocked at this figure.

"If I would have known how much time, money and effort I was going to invest in this thing, I never would have started," he says. "I mean, this game ruins your life," he adds, flashing a grin.

Although tonight at Warzone the gamers are all male, Netzley says games like WoW are attracting an increasing number of women.

One is female gamer and finance junior Myra Martin.

She agrees that more women are playing games, but says she doesn't have the attention span for games like WoW.

"I definitely think more girls are playing, but I generally like racing and fighting games," she says.

After worrying about how much time her two adolescent nephews were spending on video games, Martin recently did a presentation on gaming addiction for a communications class at ASU.

"I was amazed at how big a problem it is," she says. "And one of the main things I learned was that gaming releases dopamine into the brain, and then gamers constantly try and recreate this feeling."

New Horizons

Morgan says he's done chasing "that feeling" for now.

He says it's hard not to game in the college environment -- there's so much "time to kill," he says -- but at the same time, he's entered a new period in life.

"Now I look back, it did have a negative effect on my social life," he says. "I never really went to school dances, and sometimes at parties I used to just find an empty room and start playing."

But things changed after he spent last summer traveling around Europe and China.

"Traveling really opened my eyes to the world," he says. "I mean, it really made me realize there's more to life than just video games."



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