Recently, I wrote an essay involving MMO addiction and thought it might be worth posting here. Take what you will from it. I'm open to discussion and any thoughts you might have. Buckle your seatbelts though, because it might be a bit on the long side...
Without further ado:
ADDICTED TO AVATARS: MMORPG ADDICTION
While addiction is primarily a physical phenomenon, research has shown that people can become addicted to MMOs. Furthermore, many studies have been done to determine what types of people are addicted to these games, and how developers attempt to keep their players hooked on their games.
A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), which often is abbreviated to MMO, is a specific type of video game designed to allow up to thousands of people to play simultaneously in a virtual world. Within this world, players control a character known as an “avatar” and interact with others’ avatars. Most often, these online meetings involve role-play, in which players use their characters to act in a fashion appropriate for the fictional setting of the computer-generated world.
Who Gets Addicted?
Richard Bartle, one of the forefathers of the MMO industry, classified players into four generic genres to examine their motivation. (Crowley)
The first player-type is the Socializer, who plays in order to interact with other people online. They rarely enjoy playing the game alone and instead seek out others to play with. Socializers get addicted to MMOs due to relationships formed within the game. Often, they hold their friends in the game to be better or more important than those in real life. (Bartle)
Killers are often held in stark contrast to socializers, because they focus primarily on the more violent side of MMOs and less on the ability to interact with others. Rarely do killers join groups for any reason; when they do join a team of any kind, it is usually with other like-minded players focused on becoming the best warriors in the game. Killers can easily become addicted due to the thrill of dominance they can hold over other human beings within the game. (Bartle)
Another type of solo player, Explorers are those who enjoy immersing themselves within a game’s lore and secrets. They spend their time traveling around the virtual world to uncover long forgotten passage-ways and the stories behind aspects of the game. Explorers enjoy sharing this knowledge with others, and thus get along better with socializers than killers. These players are usually the ones who engage in role-play, which is another way of applying their accumulated knowledge of the game’s background story. Usually, explorers are not addicted to MMOs and generally only play until they feel they have discovered all there is to know about the game. (Bartle)
The final type of player is known as the Achiever, whose goal within the game is to amass the largest amount of “points”, treasure, and influence. Often, MMOs feature a mechanic which awards prestige (such as a title visible to others) to those who complete amazing feats. Most often, these feats consist of a repetitive action, such as slaying a hundred dragons. Achievers become addicted to the concrete rewards given and the euphoria from showing their prowess off. (Bartle)
Each of these player types are helpful in organizing players by motivation, but do little to determine information about players in real life. Belonging to one caste or another defines neither personality type nor physical characteristics. Studies have shown that MMOs have a very wide and diverse demographic. A study by Dr. Nick Yee concluded:
“It is easy to dismiss video games as pointless activities that only teenagers indulge in. The truth is that the average age of MMORPG players is around 26. In fact, only 25% of MMORPG players are teenagers. About 50% of MMORPG players work full-time. About 36% of players are married, and 22% have children. So the MMORPG demographic is fairly diverse, including high-school students, college students, early professionals, middle-aged home-makers, as well as retirees. In other words, MMORPGs do not only appeal to a youth subculture.” (Yee)
Dr. Yee went on to add that about 80% of MMO players play with someone they know in real life, dispelling the myth that most gamers live solitary lives. (Yee)
What Addicts Players?
MMOs forge relationships as they force like-minded people (gamers) into circumstances where they experience mutual difficulties and face the same battles. Due to the fact that these games are a type of “hyper-reality” where each player is thrust into dramatic and life-threatening conditions, opportunities for great acts of self-sacrifice and honor present themselves often. Chances to offer a helping hand or display generosity occur far more often within these games than in real life, and thus allow for a much greater amount of bonding than is common. All too often, players find the lack of such camaraderie in real life disturbing and have to stay in the game to find friendship, and thus grow addicted to the digital world. (Yee)
The rewards system common in MMOs is attractive because it follows the same pattern taught to kids from a young age: complete a task and get a quantitative reward. As children, homework must be done in order to get the cookie and chores must be completed before play is allowed. In school, a sufficient essay must be written before a good grade can be given. When adulthood is reached, however, life stops offering concrete rewards. Sometimes weeks of hard work are done for miniscule results or a small job is completed for a huge payout. In the midst of this confusion, the security found in MMOs becomes very tempting. (Yee, 2006)
Identity in MMOs is whatever a player decides. For someone shy in real life, multiplayer videogames offer an opportunity to become a bold knight in shining armor. Because they can choose to remain anonymous, many players become their “dream self”, who speaks what’s on their mind and isn’t afraid to stand up for those in need. Power and influence are available for those who strive hard enough and spend enough time working. With enough determination, a player can become rich, prominent, and unflinching in the face of danger. For some, the contrast with reality is harsh, inviting them to remain within the virtual reality where people appreciate their expertise, instead of real life where nobody cares about them. The security of an optimized identity keeps many players addicted. (Yee; Yee, 2006)
Closely tied to the idea of identity, the chance to escape from reality is another cause of addiction. MMOs present the opportunity one to escape from a harsh reality where bills must be paid into a world where fortunes can be made in a few hours. The allure of another, different life attracts many, keeping them addicted to the escapism factor. (Yee, 2005)
Within most MMOs, players divide themselves into large groups known as “guilds” which serve as a type of club or family. Members are expected to contribute to the welfare of the entire guild. Some members eventually rise to become officers of the guild, which usually entails a leadership role. Often, this can be a good thing and actually teach leadership extremely well. However, sometimes, a player’s only reason for playing an MMO is because of the duty they feel they have towards their guild. This supposed responsibility can keep players addicted to a game far longer than they normally would be.
Finally, MMOs are an opportunity to make money in real life for those clever enough to know how. Many players will be open to purchasing amounts of fictional currencies within a game over the internet with real money. This opens the opportunity for opportunistic players known as “gold farmers” to collect in-game cash and sell it online. This phenomenon has not only opened the eyes of many economists as to how serious gaming economies are, but also provided a window into the area of addiction. Some people play the game simply for the money they can make: their greed keeps them playing. (Yee)
In their quest to keep gamers playing, developers use operant conditioning principles to reward players. Most notably, they use fixed ratio and variable ratio schedules to assign prizes to players. In-game tasks called “quests” usually involve obtaining a certain number of objects or slaying a specific number of enemies before a reward is given. This demonstrates a fixed ratio schedule and keeps players actively working to complete goals. The variable ratio schedule is used for the more valuable treasure. Often, players will find out that a rare item can be obtained from a certain type of enemy. They must then continue to defeat that type of enemy in hopes that the rare item will randomly “drop.” Psychology can be a powerful tool in the hands of developers who want to keep players addicted. (Yee)
Effects of Addiction
Addiction to an MMO can have severe consequences as Joshua Smyth, Associate Professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Science of Syracuse University, noted in his study.
“Professor Smyth assigned gamers to four groups: Single-player console games, Single-player PC games, Single-player arcade games, and fantasy-themed MMORPGs. For gamers of the MMORPG group, they reported a much lower level of overall health and well-being than the other groups. They were also observed to not be sleeping as well as they should and their quality and quantity of real-life socialization and academic work saw a sharp decrease. It was theorized that MMORPGs were so complex, so fantastical and alluring, and so involved that gamers reported that they had "...lost track of time" while playing and had "...gone to bed late" or "forgotten to eat". After only a few days of this, all the gamers of the MMORPG group showed a dramatic decrease in all areas of health” (Moverley & Hartman, 2011)
An addiction with any object—whether alcohol or a videogame—clearly consumes time that could be spent on other pursuits and even distracts from actions necessary to survival, such as eating and sleeping.
Within the MMO community, a “burnout” occurs when a player simply gets tired of playing a certain game. Perhaps the game’s mechanics become rote to him or her, or perhaps they simply have played a large enough percentage of the game’s content that they feel as though they “beat the game.” When this happens, it is usually because the player has reached a high enough level or obtained good enough gear so that there is no activity in the game that is challenging. Thus, the player loses interest in the game. However, usually the developers of the game ensure that there is enough “endgame” content—repetitive content challenging for those at the end of the leveling system, such as competitions with other players—to keep such players occupied.
While joining a guild can be a very positive experience, some feel that the obligation to support the guild can be much like a second job. What was once entertainment can turn into a requirement that is no longer fun. This feeling tends to push players away from the game. Furthermore, some players, known as “griefers”, purposefully annoy and antagonize others by using the anonymity an MMO gives to their advantage. Victims of these bullies are repulsed from the game due to their bad experiences. Some players simply cannot support an addiction due to a tight schedule or lack of time. These people do not play as often as most due to responsibilities that lie elsewhere. Time commitments outside of the game require less time spent playing and thus eliminate the risk of addiction. Finally, a healthy grounding in Christ and focus on Him protects Christian players from getting absorbed into any game.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:23, “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.” (NIV)
MMOs can be a fun and constructive game, but when they become addicting, they stop being beneficial and should not be played. Addictions are always unhealthy because they take up our time and by doing that, they take up the life that God has given to us. He does not want us to spend our lives on meaningless pursuits. The moment MMOs stop being a fun activity and start being an obsession, they should be cast from our lives.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV)
Clearly, if an MMO is becoming the center of our attention, something is very wrong. We should be focusing on God and not on an earthly videogame.
Bartle, R. (n.d.). Muse. Retrieved from http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm
Crowley, G. (n.d.). M.u.d. messrs bartle and trubshaw's astonishing contrivance. Retrieved from http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1013804/MUD-Messrs-Bartle-and-Trubshaw
Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). New York: American Bible Society
Moverley, D., & Hartman, M. (2011, May 23). Altered gamer. Retrieved from http://www.alteredgamer.com/worst-pc-gaming/50292-the-effects-of-gaming-on-socializing-social-behavior-and-making-friends/
Yee, N. (n.d.). The daedalus gateway. Retrieved from http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/gateway_intro.html
Yee, N. (2005). Motivations of play in mmorpgs. The daedalus project. Retrieved from http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/motivations.pdf
Yee, N. (2006). The daedalus project. Retrieved from http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/