A recent study conducted at the University of Missouri indicates that escapism, social interaction and constant rewards have caused an increase in unhealthy gaming habits among adults. In short; more and more people are finding themselves addicted to video games, and it’s easy to see why. Joe Hilgard, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the MU College of Arts and Science, has stated what he believes to be the cause of this rising addiction.
The biggest risk factor for pathological video game use seems to be playing games to escape from daily life. Individuals who play games to get away from their lives or to pretend to be other people seem to be those most at-risk for becoming part of a vicious cycle. These gamers avoid their problems by playing games, which in turn interferes with their lives because they’re so busy playing games.
This actually makes quite a bit of sense. Unlike other entertainment mediums, gamers take an active role within the fictional world. This allows for players to not only see a character’s actions, but to control them as well, allowing for a different sense of immersion than many films or novels can provide. Whether the game is gritty and realistic or fantastical and full of magic, immersing oneself within that world allows for an escape from reality, where those who are having difficulty dealing with their real-life issues can live vicariously through the character onscreen. While some want to escape from reality by focusing their attention on their digital avatar, others may find it easier to form social interactions behind a computer or television screen, as Hilgard went on to state.
People who play games to socialize with other players seem to have more problems as well. It could be that games are imposing a sort of social obligation on these individuals so that they have to set aside time to play with other players. For example, in games like World of Warcraft, most players join teams or guilds. If some teammates want to play for four hours on a Saturday night, the other players feel obligated to play or else they may be cut from the team. Those play obligations can mess with individuals’ real-life obligations.
While these obligations may indeed cause problems for those who choose to fulfill them over the ones they have in real-life, this may not be the entire truth behind the link between gaming addiction and social interactions. Returning to the subject of escapism, players who form bonds with others while playing video games, do so at minimal risk. One can join a guild or group without having to expose themselves too much. With an avatar to represent them, they can make their character behave any way they choose. Certainly, a person can put on a false persona in real life, but doing so in a digital world is made easier when online friends are unable to see the player’s facial expressions, and in some cases, hear their actual voice.
Those who aren’t happy with their physical appearance and mannerisms may turn to online games that allow for character customization. There, that usually self-conscious player can become as cool or attractive as the game allows. Online interactions carry a risk of rejection, just as interactions made in the real world, though the consequences may be very different. Abusive players can be ignored at the press of a button and there are always other guilds to join, with more appearing every day. This allows for players to focus solely on the rewards of making online friends. Such rewards were also noted by Hilgard in his study.
Gamers who are really into getting to the next level or collecting all of the in-game items seem to have unhealthier video-game use. When people talk about games being ‘so addictive’, usually they’re referring to games like Farmville or Diablo that give players rewards, such as better equipment or stronger characters, as they play. People who are especially motivated by these rewards can find it hard to stop playing.
Constant rewards, whether it be leveling up or finding a rare item, gives players a constant sense of progress. Many online RPGs also have a wide variety of skills and classes that a player can pursue, making sure that there’s always ‘work’ to be done. These constant rewards not only cause players to want to continue to their next goal, but spark the same pleasure center that other addictions feed off of. Those who are already trying to escape from their day-to-day lives have little reason to want to return to a world that requires much more time and effort to make even the smallest of achievements. Hard work isn’t always rewarded in the real world, and years of effort can feel like it isn’t moving things along. On the other hand, the digital world has set rules, boundaries and there’s always a reward for the efforts of dedicated players.
It’s easy to see that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games can be the most addictive genre of video games, a sentiment that Hilgard shared during his research. He states that this genre features a sort of ‘triple threat’, offering a massive world in which players can escape to, a means to make new friends through online interactions and frequent rewards that players can seek out. It’s easy to become lost in a digital world, especially when many gamers may feel cynical about the current state of the real world that surrounds them. It’s important for people to examine the amount of time they’re spending on any sort of medium, whether it be playing video games, watching television or even reading, and to make sure that they aren’t dedicating themselves to entertainment for the wrong reasons.
Joseph Hilgard’s original study can be found on Frontiers.
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