Why Gaming is Not and Will Never Be a Real “Addiction”

This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

Ah, the time honored tradition of demonizing a popular form of entertainment that is in danger of supplanting your own as the hobby of choice for a new generation.

With tabletop RPGs, Pokemon, and comic books all having passed that awkward phase of their growth to mainstream acceptance and approval, it seems that gaming’s gangly and acne-infested teen years aren’t quite over with yet, plus it still hasn’t learned what that tightness in its pants really is.

All jokes aside, it’s getting a bit old by now, isn’t it? If we aren’t insulting the people who play the games, it seems we’re attacking the ones who make them instead. It’s just one gigantic merry-go-round of fit-pitching that shows no sign of ceasing and accomplishes absolutely nothing other than to give geeks something to bitch about in online comment wars.

So what’s the big deal this time? What makes this attack so worthy of critique that I’d dust off my angry editorial writing cap and put it on for another coronary-inducing, rage-filled rant against it? Well, apparently some well-respected scientists have decided that gaming is now a medical addiction and should be included in their official list of diagnoses.

I know, it’s a gold mine for jokes concerning cripple-bux and SSI, but let’s try to stay serious about this.

My first thought when I first read this was something Dave Chapelle’s character said in his movie “Half Baked”. In it, he tried going to a drug abuse support group to kick his Marijuana addiction. Once he went on stage and admitted his “Addiction”, the crowd – which was made up of other addicts – became angry at him. One, played by the famous Bob Saget, made the declaration that it wasn’t a real addiction and asked that, quote, “Have you ever sucked dick for some marijuana?”

Yes, I’m well aware of the fact that drug addiction is no laughing matter, but anyone with any common sense knows the kernel of truth in this scene. Not all drugs or addictions to those drugs are the same. Someone getting treated for doing cocaine will be handled differently than someone being treated for, say, nicotine. This isn’t due to one being legal and the other not, but instead due to one being especially lethal and not only easy to overdose on, but has permanent and devastating effects on the human body.

For a more in depth explanation, talk to any recovering addict. I’ve worked with a few and from what they’ve told me in confidence and in private is enough to scare anyone straight. They’ve been arrested, jumped people for cash to buy drugs, sold their bodies, and stolen from friends just to get high. Then, even after getting their fix, they have to deal with lost teeth, large sores opening up on their body, destruction of the soft tissue in the sinuses, organ failure, and heart disease.

Doing pot for ten years won’t open holes in your nose or cause you to lose your teeth due to gum deterioration, but doing meth or crack sure will.

The point here is that not all addictions are worthy of being “treated”. Nobody is rushing off to the nearest substance abuse center to treat their addiction to coffee, sugary snacks, or nictotine. Yes, there are over-the-counter products you can buy that claim to curb the desire for those things, but for all intents and purposes, we can safely classify these as substances that do no real harm beyond maybe giving you diabetes or lung cancer.

“Oh wow Carl, lung cancer and diabetes aren’t big deals, huh?” Good point, and one of the frequent rebuttals I hope to address here.

Look at it this way, everyone needs something to fill the hole in their spirit. I don’t care how self-actualized you are, you are inevitably going to need something to make the pain of adult life go away. Every single adult on this planet has at least one guilty pleasure that dulls that pain and makes the agony of their over-thinking mind melt away. Laugh at my phrasing of it, but when you find yourself alone with your own thoughts and begin dwelling on past mistakes or future anxieties, you’ll need something to help alleviate that anguish you feel. Sure, a psychiatrist can help, but people are frail and society forces us into situations we can’t always find a way out of.

And that’s where your addiction will fit in.

For some it’s sex. For some it’s porn. Still others may opt for “easier to get away with” addictions like food or smoking. Either way, you’ll need something to fill that hole that leaves you incomplete, and the trick is finding a balance between legality and bodily damage. Like a former crack addict co-worker who I once talked to (who was 19 months sober at the time he told me), he traded hard drug use for lottery scratch-off tickets and cigarettes. He even complained to me that he wanted to quit them too. You know what I told him?

“You need something that makes you happy, and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things.”

My point? You need to pick and choose your battles, and like Bob Saget’s character said in the video I linked above, comparing a benign and mostly harmless addiction to something like crack or meth is not only ridiculous, but actually belittles the price real addicts have to pay when addicted to “real” addictions.

“But Carl” you say with an arrogant sneer, “Gaming is a sedentary past time, and increases one’s chance for heart disease, obesity, and a variety of other such horrible illnesses!”

First of all, so do a lot of hobbies. You can binge watch TV all day and that’s accepted, but yet you’d be suffering the same maladies in the same time span of use. Drinking unfiltered, nitrate-heavy tap water can have much the same effects, as can eating white bread, eating red meat, and drinking soda. Or, as my father always told me when I’d tell him to quit tobacco and live a clean life like mine: “The air I breathe is giving me cancer, so what’s the difference if my illness happens 10-20 years sooner than yours?”

I know it’s an exaggeration, but what he said is still true. It’s all about common sense and degrees of lethality and legality. If something is legal and does nothing to harm the people around you or completely debilitate you, then what’s the point in making a big stink about it and classifying it as some harmful addiction in need of treatment?

“But Carl” you scream with indignant rage, “there are people who live in their mother’s basement, don’t get a job, and do nothing but game dozens of hours a week and are a drain on our nation’s economy!”

This is true, but I have two problems with this rebuttal that I often receive and I’m going to go through each in detail.

First of all, this stereotype is not as common as gaming’s detractors would have you believe. Are there such people? I do know of one who is on my Steam friend’s list, but his problem is depression and as a young man, he is unable to find a job because he has no education, and he has no education because he doesn’t have enough money, and he can’t afford school because he has poor credit and no job. Even a conservative capitalist like me feels sorry for the kid. However, his problem isn’t gaming, his problem is a world that has left his generation behind and he has very few ways out of it that his problems with anxiety and social awkwardness will allow him to take.

That being said, the stereotype of the “basement dwelling manbaby playing games at mommy’s house” is vastly overblown, and even in cases where such a person exists, there is a deeper problem that is the cause of it that needs addressing, such as anxiety or depression. Gaming isn’t the cause, gaming is only a symptom. The real addiction is to self-pity. I spent most of 2007 laid off of work and never leaving my house, content to collect unemployment checks and marathoning all the Might & Magic games until the debt collectors started calling and I was threatened with eviction. Some don’t have the fortitude to fight through that.

Secondly, what’s wrong with playing video games 20, 30, or more than 40 hours a week? If you’re paying your bills, working a full time job, and take care of yourself…what’s wrong with spending every waking second of your free time gaming? In my 20s when I cared less about joining real-life social networks and was content getting all of my social interaction from the Blizzard forums, I would work from 7am to 4pm, then by 5pm be on my PC playing RPGs until 2am, only to get a few hours sleep and wake up at 6am to do it all over again. I was playing games as much as I was working, and only left the house to buy new games or make money to buy those games. By the definition gaming’s hipster detractors enjoy repeating on social media and their fancy blogs, I would be that basement-dwelling manbaby whittling away his free time playing the vidya.

Yet I had a car I paid off, a house I lived in and paid taxes on, and was never (at least until my unemployment ran out) late with a bill. Even after I found a new job in 2008, I still gamed anywhere from 25-30 hours a week and did very little else except power through whatever new RPG came out that month. Well, that and get into arguments about character builds on forums.

My point is that as long as your adult obligations are met, there’s nothing wrong with partaking in a mostly harmless hobby, such as TV binging, gaming, or bitching on social media, that does comparatively little damage to you or others around you.

“But Carl” you shake your fist in defiance, “Gaming can lead to violence and can cause some impressionable or at-risk people to act out in dangerous or illegal ways!”

This has been covered before, and for every “Harris & Klebold were addicted to DOOM” case that is trotted out, you could pick just as many, if not more, cases of kids doing the same thing that didn’t even play video games. These include cases such as Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho who they frantically tried to link to gaming, but found out his psychosis was caused by repeated listening of the song “Shine” by the Christian alt-rock band Collective Soul.

They even tried to pin gaming on Adam Lanza’s actions, but the best they could do is discover he was a frequent poster on 4chan, like every other autistic 20-something with no real job prospects. Which sort of brings me back to my earlier point that hopelessness and depression is the real culprit and frequent reliance on fantasy worlds (such as those found in games) is merely a symptom of a larger problem unrelated to any “addiction”.

For many, including myself, gaming fills a hole that would probably otherwise be stuffed with illegal drugs and/or hazardous and self-destructive behaviors. It acts as a way to unwind and shut off our minds so that we aren’t so fixated on our problems as we are when times are quiet and boredom leaves us alone with our own thoughts. It’s a way to power-down and relax in such a way that also gives us the added benefit of feeling proud about something. We can look at our scores or accomplishments in the game and feel like we’ve done something worthy of note, and the small measure of joy a gamer gets from conquering a game or earning a hard-fought achievement is as safe and effective a “high” as one can hope to get in the modern world.

It makes me think about my time spent working in my first job, a small east coast department store chain that I was employed at from 1994 to 2006.

One thing you’ll notice if you’re a quiet person at work is that people will start prodding you with questions about your personal life in what normal folks call “getting to know you”. While I find it incredibly exhausting, it’s something you have to learn to deal with if you ever intend to portray yourself as a normal, functioning person in modern society. Out of all the questions they’ll ask you, the most annoying is “What do you do for fun?”

In every job I’ve ever had, every co-worker eventually asked this question of me. During my teens and 20s, I made the horrible mistake of telling the truth. I answered, quite plainly, that I play video games. Don’t do that.

From that point on, I was labeled “that geeky guy” and was frequently (but playfully) ribbed as such. A few female co-workers would imitate controller or keyboard movements with their hands and laugh about it when others would describe their plans for the weekend and then point to me and ask me what mine were. Yes yes…my plans were always to stay inside and tear through another CRPG…but every single one of my co-workers, even those I was on very good terms with, decided that was worthy of ridicule.

When I moved away from that city and found a new job, I knew what my answer to that question would be. “What do you do when you’re not working, Carl?” I’ll respond: “Oh, I binge watch Amazon Prime and Netflix shows”

Never once, not a single time in fact, did any derision or ridicule result from such an admittance. Matter of fact, I actually made close friends at work after saying that and we’d compare our watchlists. Of course, I didn’t really watch that much TV, but I knew enough in passing to fake my way through long conversations. There was even one fellow I worked with who I befriended that would always give me these long lists of shows to check out, but I honestly never watched them. I was far too busy playing RPGs to really give a shit about something as boring and passive as watching a TV show.

Of course, I know what people would say to me. “You just need to ask around and see who is a gamer in your job!”

Sorry, but fitting in at work, which is what I need in order to continue eating, is far more important to me than being honest. It also drills home the perception gaming has to the outside world and how it’s viewed by people in my generation (40+) and older. Granted, the job I’m at now has a lot of young people and these 20-year old kids are floored when they find out a grey haired 42 year old man like me has been gaming hardcore for 36 years, but it’s more of the exception to the rule than it is the reality.

So what have I spent the last 2,000 words trying to say? That perhaps when we call something an addiction, we should first make sure it has a significant chance of lethality to the user and those around them and is epidemical in severity. Or, at least in cases such as nicotine or alcohol, it is a socially accepted form of substance abuse that can rapidly kill in some cases and has been known to affect others nearby (whether through secondhand smoke or a drunk driver).

If my tinfoil hat wasn’t still in the wash, I’d go on a long rant about how this is similar to what South Korea’s radfem government has done, but lucky for you (and my carpal tunnel), it’s too damp to wear.

Instead, let’s just all head down to our nearest substance abuse clinic and tell the guys helping crackheads and heroin users kick their habit that we play NieR: Automata too much and that we need help before we get permanent orange fingertips from the Cheetos dust we’re exposed to every night.

Let me know how long they laugh at you before kicking you out or calling the cops.

Editor’s Note: Main thumbnail via Getty Images; NieR: Automata artwork via 

Carl Batchelor

About

Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.