Blogs > Cliopatria > video games, culture, and addiction

Sep 27, 2007 6:36 pm

video games, culture, and addiction

This semester I'm a TA for a class on "Alcohol and Other Drugs in American Culture", and today we had a guest lecture on stimulants and the neurophysiology of addiction. I've only been close to a couple people whose lives were seriously disrupted by drugs or alcohol. But I know a number of people who have experienced all the standard consequences of drug addiction (loss of control, monomania, failed attempts to quit, neglect of professional/educational responsibilities and social life, withdrawal symptoms) from video games.

It's become a commonplace to refer to the addictive nature of video games (and massively multiplayer online games - MMOs - in particular). I had always taken that as a metaphor: yes, they spend more time playing games than they probably should, but it's not the same as real addiction. As games become more significant parts of culture, though, it's becoming increasingly clear that the boundaries between the real and the virtual are (surprisingly) permeable. (This first became obvious with economics, where economists and marketers came to grips with the interchangeability of real and virtual economies...and suddenly realized that the biggest MMO economies were comparable the economies of small countires.)

From a historical perspective, the social construction and medicalization of addiction diseases is pretty much indistinguishable from the disease-creation process that is going on right now with video game addiction; the American Medical Association met to discuss the topic of a formal diagnosis in June 2007, and it will likely be a certifiable disease on order of alcoholism within a few years.

Today's video game industry may be setting itself up for the same kind of backlash being felt by the cigarette industry today. Indie game designer Jonathan Blow, who is deeply concerned about the artistic potential of games and their effects on culture, suggests that best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are"predicated on...player exploitation" by"plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards". He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in"the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]".

Gaming history is in its infancy, and would-be gaming historians are still struggling to justify a place within the academy. At they same time, they need to find an intellectual framework for talking about games, since the default film and literature types of analysis, focused on plot, visual imagery and sound design, leaves out much - perhaps most - of what gaming is about. But cultural historians (and historians of medicine) shouldn't neglect video games among the gamut of cultural products worthy of study and attention.

Relevant links:

- Jonathan Blow's blog post about his game design lecture, from which the above is taken. Skip to 50 minutes into the first video for the parts that are interesting to non-designers.

- Matt Barton's series on the history of computer role-playing games.

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