Neils Clark On Game Addiction Fallacies

By John Walker on October 5th, 2009 at 9:40 am.

Ah, this old image.

Having spent many months a couple of years back researching gaming addiction, speaking to all the experts in the field (both self-appointed and those in academia), and finally producing this article, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make my eyes roll and my head shake it’s those who lazily throw around the term. So often we hear news outlets credulously repeating the unscientific and unevidenced claims of gaming addiction, without scrutiny or analysis. It’s infuriating, and I especially find this to be the case because if there is the potential for harmful use of gaming, whether that’s addiction or excessive use, then this constant trivialising of the subject is going to only make it less likely that it will be identified or treated. However, even more researched and nuanced articles can make the same mistakes. Someone who wants to keep people on their toes is one of the leading researchers into the topic, Neils Clark, who has just written an epic blog post on the subject.

Clark recently published the book Game Addiction and has consistently been one of the calm and research-focused voices on the subject for years. In his new essay he goes through ten of the most frequently repeated fallacies in these perennial stories and explains why they are at fault, using this particular piece as a template. It makes for some fascinating reading on the subject, going deeper than your average analysis, while also demonstrating Clark’s personal style. You should absolutely check it out.

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48 Comments »

  1. Ian says:

    Okay, so that’s game addiction cleared up. Now where are we on the games-turning-me-into-a-soulless-murderer front?

    Joking aside, I should really be reading more of This Sort of Thing.

  2. Tei says:

    I like good things, like videogames, and I dislike bad things, like boring stuff at TV.
    Doctor, can you fix me?

  3. patton says:

    well that was a waste of my time.
    he writes a lot but doesnt say much. Atleast nothing new or intresting.

  4. phil says:

    It’s Bad Science, the video game edition.

    Clark seems to be making the case that game ‘addition’ is closer to OCD combined with technology induced alienation (that aggrevates prexisting conditions) than true chemical or psychological addition – fair point but surely any now electronic media has the same potential, epecially as technological convergence means my TV is currently more interactive and draws on more types of media than many games?

    • Rai says:

      I’m sorry but the absurdity of that typo had me literally laughing out loud.

      “Clark seems to be making the case that game ‘addition’ is closer to OCD combined with technology induced alienation (that aggrevates prexisting conditions) than true chemical or psychological addition”

      Maybe I’m easily amused.

    • phil says:

      Providing someone LOLs, at me or with me, my work is done.

  5. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Great article. I haven’t read all of it so far (not to mention the things he refers to), but it’s clear-headed and out-of-the-trenches, which is refreshing. Not to mention that it’s the first time I’ve read something on the subject written by an academic who has studied the subject matter.

  6. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    And, of course, it is a blog post. Clearly meant to make some people rethink how they’re thinking about game addiction. It doesn’t have to be anything new to <i>you</i>, but if this gets read (and I hope it will) it may further worthwhile discussion on the subject for those who are firmly stuck on the ‘anti’ or ‘pro’ side or those who fall prey to the fallacies as mentioned (and if the fallacies themselves become a point of discussion that’s still a step up, in my opinion).

  7. futage says:

    I dunno if we should really be all that bothered what the media says about gaming. The media says unscientific and un-evidenced (and I'll add in sensationalist) things about all sorts of things. Some of them far more important (or more immediately damaging) than this.

    I thought this while reading Alec's anti-rant against that itv things about games. I know this blog is about games and we all care about games and that, but I Really couldn't give a fuck about what itv in particular and the news media in general (the sensationalist end in particular, again) say about games and gaming. It's kinda their job to pretend that the next big thing that all the kids are doing is hugely damaging to both individuals and society and be all outraged about it. Unfortunate as it may be, it's part of what they're paid to do. People like to be told that new things that other (often younger) people do are threatening the very fabric of society as it reassures them that their fear of this new thing is rational. I could cite the tired old examples of rock n roll and rave culture and goddamn flappers or whatever but the very fact that they're tired old examples and we all look back on them and laugh a little and feel a little embarrassed that members of our species were so stodgy and po-faced about these things such a short time ago… I've lost my train… oh yeah, that kinda gives us a clue as to how much this shit matters.

    This all just feels like when 7 year old kids announce that someone in the playground is gay and the kid in question shouts "I'M NOT I'M NOT I'M NOT" and then starts crying. a) Nobody really thought you were, they just enjoy saying it and b) no one really gave a fuck anyway.

    I dunno, I'm pretty tired, maybe I'm talking shit.

    • malkav11 says:

      I think we darn well should be bothered. It will most likely blow over by itself eventually, yes. But eventually is a timeframe in which there is still plenty of scope for damage to be done. Most notably, there is the potential for something like the Comics Code Authority to happen to gaming – that damnable entity stunted the creative development of an entire medium for decades. Comics are only really starting to recover from the effects that had in recent years, and there’s still a pervasive and unfortunate perception that comics are for kids (which results in perfectly ordinary adults getting in serious legal trouble for things like porno manga.).

  8. futage says:

    I meant to add, looking back on these various media hysterias, even after only a few years, the over-earnest defences of whatever cultural form is under attack often look just as silly as the attacks themselves

  9. der Rudi says:

    Read the book. Read the blog. Had deja vu. NEEDZ MOAR SCIENCE!

  10. EyeMessiah says:

    I agree that games are unusually good at instantiating lots of different and very powerful draws, but I don’t think that this on its own is enough to account for the 17 year old Australian playing wow for 20 hours a day. Surely he had some other sorts of problems going on there too, and that these sorts of things need to be taken into account on a case by case basis?

    Perhaps the article is more nuanced than that, but I have the flu right now so I’m not quite with it.

    Have there been any studies that have attempted to measure how many people without other additional mental-health issues also have pathological gaming habits? I been interested to see how whittled the numbers would become in that case.

    The cortisol thing is interesting though, if a little outlandish sounding. Has anyone ever actually died from playing F.E.A.R? Of boredom perhaps. Zing!

  11. EyeMessiah says:

    “I been interested” makes me sound like jar-jar binks. Ug.

  12. Archonsod says:

    One problem I have with several of his inferences for the argument towards addiction, one example:
    “he discussed making fundamental changes to his living arrangements so that finishing highschool was no longer necessary, and so that he and his housemates could have more or less uninterrupted play. At the time, I was shocked to the point that all I could really do was spend an hour or so listening to his descriptions of his life.”

    Really, you could boil this down to saying “the guy was willing to change his routine in order to spend more time doing something he enjoys”. Or in other words “people tend to want to do things they enjoy more rather than things they enjoy less” which to me sounds like a good description of a fundamental trait of human nature rather than an addiction.

    • Sparvy says:

      I dont think its that simple, doing only things you like instead of things that benefit you; seems like you have problems to me. I mean it would mean I get no higher education, I dont get a job, I dont wash my clothes, I dont clean my appartment etc. Of course, I might be making mountain out of a mole hill; the article was vague as to what the kid was planning to do, but dropping out of highschool to play games does not seem like a sensible course of action and I personally would not call it “a fundamental trait of human nature”.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      Right. He’s not just adjusting his life a bit for more leisure time. The person mentioned is methodically and deliberately deconstructing his own potential future so he can spend every waking moment in a game world. His behaviour is irrational, and devastatingly self-destructive. It ties back into the “chicken and egg’ problem- no doubt there are other factors than WoW involved. But WoW is the primary visible manifestation of the issue. It is involved. It (and other situations where gaming behaviour is problematic) demand consideration, both from each gamer and parent thereof, and from clever, careful researchers.

    • malkav11 says:

      I don’t know. I think that someone who drops out of high school in order to game more has probably not fully thought through the likely consequences. I think it’s very possible that things won’t go well for him in future. But fundamentally, I see someone who’s assessed their priorities and come up with a different ordering than most of us. If I thought I could fund the activities I enjoy without working a 40-hour work week, I would. But my experience has been that I can’t, and a certain amount of education was necessary to get the kind of employment that does fund me without lots of overtime, manual labor, etc.

  13. EyeMessiah says:

    @Arch

    Yeah, it can sound a bit like you are on the verge of describing all behaviour. That said the distinction is whether or not said behaviour becomes pathological, though defining the difference between playing wow in a “healthy” way as opposed to a damaging way might be problematic I suppose.

    Would you really be better off watching TV like everyone else in the industrialised west?

    Are we sure that watching TV isn’t pathological? I mean its basically the only thing aside from working that the majority of people actually do.

  14. jRides says:

    If we had internets and blogging when Film was the new media corrupting our young and dooming the human race to a fallout 3 type oblivion – we’d have seen all this before – armchair scientists quoting ad verbatim everything on the subject and attempting with lack of any real training – merely their own gut feel – on What It All Means..

    The research is mainly poorly done, there is really not much academic interest, not beyond tabloid pap designed to appeal to their reading demographic. Leave it be I say, there will always be people who do too much of something, its only for gaming that this equates to The End Of The World.

  15. Gap Gen says:

    One thing that comes out of this is that both the media and gamers are quick to man their side of the trenches, whereas often this is counterproductive – understanding and solutions come out of an honest appraisal of your own ignorance, not a trench warfare of opposing viewpoints of which both are ignorant in part.

  16. Lilliput King says:

    Article was good. He took the unpopular path of not really heavily weighing in on either side (although the piece did come across, just very slightly, as pro-game) and presented all the arguments and counter arguments we’ve seen before with a refreshing lack of bias and rhetoric.

    Not much new, though, just the occasional interesting aside.

  17. Wibbs says:

    I’ve recently got my wife into gaming, and she now regularly plays World of Warcraft to relax in the evenings and sometimes at the weekends. We were trying to come up with ideas that her parents could get her for her birthday, and I suggested some of those monthly subscription cards. My wife’s response was that her parents would not get those because they were not happy that she was playing video games, and thought they were a waste of time.

    Although it’s easy as a gamer to ignore the rubbish that a lot of mainstream media comes up with about gaming, I think it is important that people are given a balanced and informed view, and a lot of the time, the only way they are going to get that is from people who play games.

  18. Radiant says:

    Joking aside gaming addiction is something I do worry about.
    It isn’t something your often hear from developers as something that they are concerned about.

    But from my view, as someone who makes the shittiest of casual games, I don’t think the vast majority of ‘new gamers’ are mentally equipped to walk away from what we present to them.

    I look at the stats that our games output, I know the demographic of people that use the sites our stuff is on and when we see people playing ‘make a pizza’ games for 3-4 hours at a time in the middle of the day of course I am concerned.
    Maybe it doesn’t trouble the guys working on WoW whilst they stroll around in their clothes spun from saffron and solid gold shoes but it worries me, what I’m doing.

    • Clovis says:

      I don’t think that indicates addiction so much as extreme boredom. I’m pretty sure there are some statistics on how people play MS Solitaire (the most popular game EVAR). There are tons of people who play solitaire on PCs for hours and hours at a time. I don’t think they are addicted to it, they are just (insanely) bored. And I don’t think it, or your games, are causing a problem. They seem to alleviate some of the boredom. If those games are taken away then they would just watch TV. You can’t force someone to do something worthwhile (or even interesting) with their lives. Heh, in Wii Sports it occasionally suggests you go play outside. I always immediately think, “Ya, why don’t you STFU!” I’m sure people playing “make a pizza” games for hours and hours have some problems, but you can neither solve them nor make them worse.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      Dude I play Dwarf Fortress at work all day. Well not all day because it’s on pause for large periods of time but I do poke around with it when I’m waiting for a build to finish so I can test something or while I’m waiting for something to finish installing on a virtual machine so I can test it or
      Does that mean Toady One should feel like he’s a bad person for “addicting” me to the running of the virtual dwarven population? Would I be a better person if instead I was wasting my time on ‘social networks’ were I inclined to bother with them or unfunny nonsense on YouTube as the majority of people in offices seem to do?

      My work machine is very capable of handling any recent PC release but you don’t see me installing Steam & playing TF2 and/or L4D during the day. I do however play both TF2 and L4D in the evenings with people whom I work with during the day (as well as other real life friends) but I guess that’s just one of the perks of working in software development where people who are into things like Video Gaming are plentiful.

  19. Radiant says:

    your= you

  20. EyeMessiah says:

    @Radiant, people get compulsive about seemingly odd things. One thing that I think is challenging is not making value judgements about how broken they or the activity are/is (not that you are of course) just because they find something that you find a bit meh to be totally compelling.

    Regular folks can easily watch 4-5 hours of TV a day. They choose to watch TV over doing other things.

    The more I think about it the more I think that this is “normal” behaviour in the modern world. People only get freaked out about it when the compelling activity in question is something they don’t fancy much themselves.

    Granted it might be a different story if how compelling an activity it is leads to it having an acutely disruptive effect on the functional aspects of said persons life (mental or physical health, eating, sleeping, bathing, earning or learning*1 e.t.c.) but I still haven’t seen any evidence that clearly suggests that this happens in more than a small minority of cases.

    *1 Of course everyone knows someone who “dropped out of uni to play WOW” but that said everyone who actually went to university probably knows of at least a hundred people who dropped out period, so…

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      I know many people who think that coming home from work & switching on the TV from 5 or 6pm until they go to bed at midnight or later every night is perfectly healthy but playing Video Games is completely alien, abhorrent and/or only for kids etc.
      They don’t even watch anything particularly interesting. No news, no documentaries etc. just soap opera after soap opera with ‘reality TV’ randomly interspersed (most of them have never even heard of The Wire).

      This however is perfectly acceptable behaviour in mainstream society. Apparently doing something which might actually mentally stimulate you instead of turning you into a mindless drone however is not.

  21. Dracko says:

    Where’s Jo Blow when you need him?

  22. Premium User Badge

    Arathain says:

    Solid article. Some useful cautioning. I think his collection of points is balanced and considered.

    Also, he includes the following paragraph:

    “Move too quickly through your quotes, and a complex message can wind up as effective as offering up a big pillowcase full of homemade Halloween candy. Reaching your hand in, you’ll feel a mish-mash of whole caramel apples, slices of blackberry pie, and fresh-baked brownies. This article, like many, provides a selection of quotes that I would have loved, had each been weighed separately. I know personally the skill it takes to conduct and present quality interviews, and Nicole’s were good. That’s part of my frustration. In that feathery little pillowcase, the brownies infiltrated the pie, the sticks in the caramel apples jabbed my palm, and my hand came out of the bag looking like a plumber’s bad day. And regardless of the good will of the festive homeowner, I worry for the trick-or-treaters.”

    So that’s OK then.

  23. Railick says:

    What about adults that are addicted to gaming? I can say that I'm totally addicted to it and I would, if I could, ONLY play games all the day long. Sadly I cannot but I've stayed up to 6 or 7 in the morning playing games often and always end up kicking myself because I know the next day at work is going to be horrible. It is worth noting however that I have an addictive personality. I used to smoke, probably would drink a lot more if it didn't make me so sick and get addicted to other things very easily. I think in a lot of cases the people addicted to gaming would be just as happy addicted to something else.

  24. Fat says:

    Anyone seem that ‘documentary-type’ thing called Second Skin? I watched that and it was alright. Mainly about people who play MMOs and also covered addiction aswell as online relationships/friendships.

    Like many people above have said, i personally feel it’s all down to the person and how addiction-prone they are. Also, at least in that documentary, it seemed the worst affected people weren’t really seasoned gamers, seemed like those who find gaming or at least an MMO for the first time will be sucked in harder than someone who has played videogames for a long time. Again, this is only going off the show really.

    Myself, i have no problem with addiction. I can smoke a packet of cigs on a night out out of boredom, which i have done (when drunk) for no reason other than boredom… then not smoke again, or at least for a long-ass time. I maybe have a cigar once a year or so on special occasions/events. I drink infrequently, i used to drink a lot in my youthier-youth (i’m 25) and once i saw the drain on my wallet impacting me more than i thought was appropriate, i stopped.

    So maybe since i’ve been gaming for 21 years and have a non-addictive personality, i’m not the best person to judge this whole topic… but i personally think that ‘videogame addiction’ is just like any other addiction. The substance isn’t neccessarily to blame, it’s the person and/or their personality and how their brain responds to all the chemical magic going on in their heads whenever they smoke/drink/play. Probably why many people drop one addiction and replace it with another (normally deemed ‘healthier’) addiction. Not that i think addiction can ever actually be healthy.

    Anyway, blabbering-rant over. I just get a bit pissed off whenever i see videogames blamed for crap in the news. If someone is addicted to it, they’re addictive by nature. If someone kills someone, they were already effed in the head and playing GTA or Doom made no more difference than watching Britain’s Got Talent would have. Just my opinion.

    Though, the sight of Susan Boyle is definately more gruesome than Doom.

  25. Tei says:

    The negativity towards games is based on people that is too old, and never have played, or don’t know about the videogames world. Once these people retire, the negativity will convert to positivism.

    Also, almost everything that can be seen in TV is of horrible low quality. I have stoped watching TV years ago, and Is working for me. I still watch series like BSG, but I don’t have to wait a week for the next episode :-)

  26. OJ287 says:

    Its not really about games, its about persistent media versus episodic. People are much more compulsive about soap operas than they are about Inspector Morse.

    The rock n’ roll stigmatizing was different. Music, films, books, some games and some TV are episodic and dont tend to cause problems with addiction. I would say some TV (like soap operas) and some games (like MMOs) CAN be a real problem to people with a certain personality.

  27. Railick says:

    I fall into the group of people that have the "just one more turn" addiction. It's always got me from Civilization on to Fumbbl. I just want to play one more turn and then I'll stop :P Of course by the time I finally stop I'm going going to get 2 hours of sleep. MMO's also have appealed to that only it is "Just one more level" instead of "just one more turn" Or maybe "just one more quest" ect. It's always just one more, was the same with cigs. Just one more cig and i'll stop :P

    • Tei says:

      I use to read more than 3 books a week. The “one more chapter” is also amazing (-:

  28. aaa says:

    xcycyx

  29. Kakksakkamaddafakka says:

    Nice read.

    To be honest, I do get a bit worried about addiction research in general. Bear in mind that I just got this impulse right now, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about (haven’t read much about it in the past), so I’ll be basing this right off the article:

    The markers are ok, I agree with them. Very shortly being basically something like: an individual spends large amounts of time on something, it should be investigated if this has a negative effect on his life. If the effects are negative in the sense that he or she acts immorally towards people close to him/her or himself/herself, then there might be a problem.

    But I’m not sure I see anything other than people having tools to deal with actions that THEY find morally dubious. I mean, every talk about addiction is always within a very rigid system of morals defined by a long cultural history of labeling certain actions as immoral.

    Lets take something like drinking and gambling (yeah, lets mash them together for sheer unscientificness). A pretty clear cut case, one would think; and of course, a great deal of people will do morally problematic things in order to pursue it, but not all. I used to drink a great deal, I also played a lot of poker. Did it affect my ability to function socially? Hell no, I was a great drinker (and I still bloody am), if anything, it had a positive effect. Also: what if I felt like being alone when drinking, or otherwise pursuing something society as a whole saw as problematic? What if I liked being alone and drunk? Maybe I could have endured the social scorn, maybe I couldn’t have.

    Where is the real moral issue here, if not the isolation of focus upon things that all good christians can agree upon being immoral (and indeed that very labeling)? What about being top dog at some sport? What about being an executive in a multinational company? Surely these are pursuits that, potentially, require at least a comparable amount of personal interest and timeconsuming singlemindedness (comparable to anything that can be labeled as addictive). It will most likely have a negative impact on your social dealings with people close to you (at least for a period). Yet, nobody labels anything that make one stand out as a better person, morally, to standards rarely discussed seriously in terms of modern morals.

    Sure, you’ll probably get rich as hell, and feel fulfilled by mastering something hard. It will probably have a positive impact on your life, as well as a negative one. This is different from what is labeled as addictive gaming how?

    I mean, lets face it, if the markers in question are what we actually should be looking at, then most aspects of human life can be a problem. Not just the ones that have historical baggage. Sure, it’s not like excessive drinking normally is something good (in general), or excessive use of drugs, for that matter; but I do question the use of them as a moral foundation of an entire science. If the issue here is personal fulfilment of your life, and at the same time being able to function in the society as a whole, the spectrum should be widened and the terminology and the connotative aspects should be considered. Sure, gaming can probably be addictive, but I feel we’re still in a phase where gaming is “the devil”, and now we’re incorporating it into a system of beliefs that have a very traditional sense of what is morally problematic and not. Also, as a final hit of conjecture, I’ll speculate if this is just an continuation of old morals. Morals based in the old world where work was paramount to survival of yourself and the people closest to you. I think what today is labeled hedonism or addiction will in a few decades be labeled as pastimes. I mean, not only in terms of how we need to spend less time working to have a stable life, but also in how a digital life and the internet is gradually transforming how humans work socially.

    Just to be clear, yes, I do think many people have problems with addiction, and yes, I do think they should get help. I just find the need to label people who outwardly do something society as a whole looks upon as immoral, pretty disgusting. That was my only point, really.

  30. Heliocentric says:

    I’m genuinely a functional addict. I can work, study and look after my kids as long as its no longer than a week the last time i played an intense multiplayer game.

    If i go longer than a week i end up buying things on digital download sites. Not even played half my games, why would i need more?

  31. Miguel Coelho says:

    Excellent Blog entry, this is the type of article that makes me keep coming back for more.

    Good job and Good Luck.
    Keep it up.

    Best Regards

  32. We Fly Spitfires says:

    Awesome, thanks for the link through. I hate it when people throw around the term computer addiction to cover everything from kids shooting people to parents neglecting their kids. If only the solution was that simple eh? :)

  33. Railick says:

    I think studies have shown that when you just sit there and watch TV your brain is like, off for the most part ? (may be diffrent for diffrent people I dunno) I hate watching TV, I have to do it from time to time with my wife but I'd be just as happy not to have one. I do like to watch movies now and again with a bit of witty humor and puzzles to try and solve before the end (I almost always figure out the twist in a movie with-in the first 20 minutes if not sooner, that to me is the point of movies with twists)

    I wonder how much of your brian you're using when you're playing a video game on the other hand? Even the most mundane FPS Game you have to think of some sort of tactics and put your reflexs on spring mode so you can snap to and shoot enemies as they appear. How would that compare with reading a book or a comic? Maybe being addicted to playing games isn't a bad thing (At least, slightly addicted. Killing yourself of them or quitting your job, letting your kids starve is totally diffrent. I think I saw one where a dude was home alone with his daughter and TOTALLY ignored her to play WoW and the kid was taking drugs ect out of the cabinets. For me if I'm home with my kids the computer may as well not exist until they are in bed for a nap or for the night. Generally it is still off limits as long as my wife is awake unless she says "go ahead and play" normally with a sigh ;P She sighs because she wants to play though, most of the time TF2 hehe)

  34. James says:

    Perhaps we could start referring to most “journalists” by the name of “sensationalists”, and save the journalistic trappings and titles for those who have actually shown they have conducted some type of journalism.

    Words all have specific meanings, and this is a case where calling something what it is instead of what it is portrayed as could clear up a lot of misunderstandings before they happen.

    “Oh, that’s just a sensationalist piece.” That’s a statement that’s already made frequently, but if we had the correct context in mind it could be a helpful one instead of more fuel for the non-journalistic frenzy that is news reporting today.

    A bit off-topic perhaps, though at least slightly relevant.

    • futage says:

      To me that’s a way more sensible response. And it deals with the broader problem rather than adding fuel by going defensive.

  35. Jazmeister says:

    I just read this. Sehr Gut. I actually went back to read it because I was musing about doing an ill-informed addiction piece earlier in the week. Glad I got educated.