Virtual addiction

  You forget to eat and sleep. You even forget family and friends. Yes, video game addiction is real and a growing problem

It has not been labelled a “diagnosable disorder” yet, but moms of pre-teens/teens, and girl-friends/wives of young men will tell you how the mega-killer World of Warcraft (WoW) can keep web-fingered geeks unwashed, unslept and uncommunicating for days. Core gamers have gone on “bender” sessions lasting 12 hours. Online Gamers Anonymous, a support group, has numerous postings seeking help. “I stop only when my hands ache,” said Akilesh (9), furiously thumbing his DS. “Road-Rash is relaxing.” Video game addiction is real.

Escape from the routine

Sure, all gamers are not addicts. Gokul (9), Govind (9) and Akshay (14) play for hours, but manage school, grades and sports well. But there's no going away from the games' can't-stay-away-from appeal. “For me, it's a mental escape from a mundane everyday existence,” says Anirudh Ganapathy, a college student. “The idea that you're in control of a character in a setting you're unlikely to see in life is enthralling. Whether you're Dr. Gordon Freeman (Half-Life series) battling other-dimensional aliens or Prince Arthas fighting Orcs, you get to live the experience. Game designs are so advanced that each aspect lends realism (quite paradoxically) to the fantasy.”

Techie Mahesh, whose million+ hours at the WoW make him an authority, puts visuals as #1. “Game appeal is in the scenery, character models and the visual world that changes constantly,” he says. The clever short-term goals prevent boredom. There's a sense of accomplishment as you reach a higher level. Games are now so meticulous in detail that you develop an emotional bond with their worlds, people and language. The competition is another high. You compete for something and against the computer. And MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like WoW allow you to play with real and online friends. That's social networking!”

Subscription is another draw, he says. You buy the game (regular new content) and then pay a monthly sum to keep playing. The game is paced in such a way that you can't complete goals easily while still being emotionally involved with the story arch. In WoW, you first walk winning different quests/goals to make enough in-game money to buy a vehicle/animal. Then you get ground transport. The next macro goal is to buy a flying transport. See why you'll pay that subscription?

“VGs don't just show something beyond reality, they let you live it,” says “avid gamer” Naren Pradhan, 15. “You're variably the speedy hedgehog Sonic, the heroic Link, mighty Master Chief, or football star Brady himself! You walk, run, jump, and shoot in their unique worlds. The amazing images, sounds “pull” you in with their vividness. You point a Wii controller at the screen, and blast an enemy with a gun. Video games are forms of art. They appeal to the mind.” Gamers go online for Call of Duty, Starcraft II, Red Dead Redemption and play furiously against and alongside fellow players in fierce battles for ranking. Victory is sweet, the thrill is intense.

Designed to attract

And that's creepy, says David Wong, Games are intentionally designed to hook you, like in Skinner's experiments, he argues. You spend time and effort to buy in-game items (sword, axe) that are just binary code! In Chinese MMO ZT Online, you pay real money to buy keys to chests that may, may not have treasure. The reward for opening the most chests at end of play keeps you going till you find you've lost out to a more obsessive player. You collect things endlessly, even when they're not needed to win! It's “exploitation” of our natural hoarding instincts.

The carefully scheduled rewards system is manipulative, he says, comparing quick wins to potato chips. You get the pieces one by one. “Pellets” are easy to earn at first, and then slow down. You go on long missions. If you stop, you lose progress. In Farmville and Ultima Online, your property decays if you don't look after it regularly. So you click, click, click...


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