Who Needs Drugs When You’ve Got Farmville?

The key to a new hot game used to be catchy concept, solid game mechanics, and a compelling storyline. Nowadays, the key appears to instead be Vegas-style gambling tricks designed to con people into spending a fortune for that one slim hope of striking it big.

In order to push profits into the stratosphere, gaming companies have turned to hiring psychiatric professionals in order to develop their games. The end result is the same as psychologists find for addictions to gambling, as described on WebMD:

  • Playing for increasing amounts of time
  • Thinking about gaming during other activities
  • Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
  • Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
  • Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming

Substitute any other addiction, such as gambling, and you find the symptoms are eerily similar if not identical.

Olivia Metcalf, as part of her PhD study at the Australian National University, studied video games and their effects on people and found just this: that video games can and are as addicting as alcohol or gambling. As she puts it to the Australian Broadcasting Company:

We didn’t find that pattern in people who play video games but don’t experience any negative symptoms.

So it’s not something that occurs because you do a behaviour a lot. It’s some sort of change that occurs in your attention system, in your brain, when an addiction is developing.

So we found this core sign of addiction in these thinking systems of these people who play games excessively.

We know that people are gaming excessively but we’re not sure yet what type of problem that is.

There’s a lot of speculation that it’s an addiction and what we need is this scientific evidence and that’s what my research has found.

It’s found really good objective indicators that excessive gamers are displaying signs of an addiction and that’s the first step to lead us to developing treatment and therapies to help those individuals.

Dr. Timothy Fong, who runs a UCLA clinic for behavioral addiction, said this when asked about the patients he is seeing:

It’s the same exact clinical symptoms: preoccupation, loss of control, inability to stop. They keep playing the game despite harmful consequences so, in my mind, absolutely, I believe it is the same disease as alcohol or drug addiction.

And video game psychologist is the new hot career, according to the American Psychological Association. One of these, Ariella Lehrer of Legacy Interactive called this “pure Las Vegas,” using fancy tricks and slick graphics to get customers hooked.

We learned this with rats in a food pedestal. If you only occasionally give a reward then you keep going. That’s what Las Vegas does. The rewards don’t come every time.

This Vegas-style methodology is actually a technique long understood in the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) business, which has survived for over a decade on just this model. But with new games being more narrowly focused on instant rewards instead of long term development, the dangers of addiction can become too great, not just for the customers, but for the companies themselves. Already, large firms are finding themselves in trouble when they shut down an older product and find that the market is unwilling to purchase the replacement, such as when NCSoft shuttered long-running MMORPG City of Heroes for a new replacement, Blade and Soul, only to find that the new game no longer met the customers demands. Now the company is facing a severe stock price drop-off along with its increasing losses. The average City of Heroes player would play for 4 hours a week, but stay subscribed at a monthly fee for 4 years. The average Blade and Souls player will play for 23 hours a week, but stay subscribed for no more than 6 weeks. The result has been a massive disappointment to a company which spent tens of millions in developing the new product.

The danger with this new model, over the older MMORPG methodology, is that it may have gone from merely an enjoyable pastime to a full-on addiction in some people’s minds. Stories of game addiction used to be rare, now they are becoming almost routine. Instead of one-time monthly payments, new games use a micropayment system, sucking up hundreds of dollars a month in what some have termed “pay-to-win,” where to get any advantage, to get that payoff, you need to invest more into the game. Instead of Vegas, where the payoff is actual money, these games pay you off with virtual farm crops, a thriving virtual fishtank, or even just plain old virtual poker chips. You have nothing left but a virtual warm feeling in your cockles.

Addiction is a serious problem whether it is to alcohol, gambling, or video games. If you or someone you know is an addict, get help immediately. It can mean the difference between life or death.