Is Video Game Addiction a Real Thing?

In 2010, a three-month-old South Korean child starved to death after her parents abandoned her in order to meet at an Internet cafe and play an MMORPG called Prius Online. Later that same year, 22-year-old Alexandra Tobias shook her baby to death after her crying "interrupted" her whilst she was playing FarmVille. In 2012, 23-year-old Chen Rong-yu died in an internet cafe after playing League of Legends for 23 hours straight. It took 9 hours before anyone else in the cafe noticed that he had died.

I've been playing video games for the majority of my life, except for a period of time between the ages of 15 and 17 when most of my spare time was taken up by alcohol, girls and masturbating. Fortunately, as you grow older you also grow more adept at multi-tasking, so I can now gawp at baldy Space Marines in my tellybox whilst still finding time to drink, look at lady parts and touch myself.

But even though I've been playing video games through five generations of home consoles, I've never found myself physically unable to turn off my SNES/PlayStation/GameCube/Xbox and move away from the reassuring glow of my television. That's not to say that I disregard the case for video game addiction, though.

Many addictions are fuelled by a willingness to escape. For some, real life is too stressful to go it alone. They need something, a distraction, to keep themselves distanced from whatever it is that they're trying to escape from – be it poverty, grief or otherwise. Video games, moreso than books, music and movies, are the most literal form of escapism that we humans have. Listening to The Smiths may make us envisage a ten-ton truck careening into both ourselves and our unwitting girlfriends, but in There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: The Video Game, we can be placed behind the steering wheel of that ten-ton truck, mowing down pedestrians for bonus points. 

Every video game, no matter which genre it falls into, wants us to complete tasks. Tetris wants us to rid the screen of blocks. Pokémon wants us to catch 'em all. Super Mario Bros. wants us to rescue the Princess. RPGs, with their branching storylines and sidequests, want us to complete multiple tasks at once. Focusing on these ultimately inconsequential tasks distracts us from important real-life worries, such as the inevitability of death or the looming fear that sharks will eventually learn how to walk on dry land.

Of course, video games themselves have no addicting qualities. You can't inject Dark Souls into your forearm. You can't rub Tekken into your gums. You can't snort Shenmue. It's the feeling of escapism that video games affords us that makes people want to vicariously exist inside the world of the World of WarCraft. Much in the same way that violent video games don't force people to kill one another, they also do not encourage people to be loners couped up in internet cafes accidentally starving themselves to death. They do, however, provide avenues for these people to forget that they are alone.

But are video game developers partially responsible for the fates of these "addicts?" After all, developers want people to play their games for as long as possible, so they therefore drip-feed content such as downloadable content in order to keep them hooked, right? Well, yes, but not in a bad way.

Video game companies want the money out of our pockets. In order to get that money, they need to give us things that we want to buy, such as DLC, and they need to keep us playing their game long enough that, three months down the line, we'll willingly invest in this DLC. Saying that this DLC is intended to keep players "addicted" is essentially equating it to a drug dealer sprinkling crack cocaine in weed to keep their buyer coming back for more, which in turn is confusing physical addiction with psychological addiction. 

Developers such as Zynga, the creators of FarmVille, wanted Alexandra Tobias to spend real money on her virtual farm. They wanted her to do this every day. This doesn't make them bad people. This doesn't mean that they anticipated the end result to be her murdering her own child. Zynga's job, every video game developer's job, is to successfully market content to an audience that will enjoy it. They do this because they are a business. A faceless, emotionless business.

People are addicted to video games, but video games aren't inherently addictive. When we direct our blame at developers, we turn our attention away from people. Lonely people. Depressed people. Anxious people. People with real problems. But entering a virtual world doesn't make these people forget about their real problems. It just allows them to pretend that these problems don't exist.

Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor of Crave Online. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.