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Book: Game Addiction

UPDATE: Oh God, will everyone please read John's article here, where this stuff is covered in detail. What follows is a review of a book, not an exhaustive article on game addiction, as should be plainly fucking obvious. Thanks.

This week I've been reading Game Addiction by Neils Clark and P. Shavaun Scott. This authorial duo have created a book that should not be judged by its cover, and should definitely be read by a wide range of folks who are interested in knowing a bit more about where gaming now sits amid general electronic culture. Scott is a psychotherapist who provided expertise and case-studies to the project, while Clark is an academic, gamer, lecturer and recovered game addict who seems to have done most of the word-laying. Game Addiction is probably the most important work yet written on the subject of habitual gaming, and draws together a wealth of information that I'll be going back to for some time. Read on for some more thoughts on the book itself, and why that might just be a poor choice of title.

I should stress that this is, for the most part, a straight-forward, well-constructed book, but there are nevertheless wobbles from the outset. Clark claims that "this book is neither pro-games, nor anti-games", which seems like an interesting approach for a book that is entitled "Game Addiction". We seem, from the cover itself, to be focusing on the problems inherent in gaming: addiction is necessarily a negative angle to take. However, Clark rapidly redeems himself by taking a wide-angle approach to the subject of gaming as part of a lifestyle. He attacks the issue by looking at what it means to game, why games are so powerful and potent, and why we love playing them. As the book progresses, and the portrait of gamers and gaming becomes more detailed, Clark and Scott demonstrate what a jungle of concepts the notion of "addiction" is actually obscuring. In fact, they seem to undermine their own choice of title when, in the concluding remarks, Clark writes: "Addiction is one word with many faces. When applied to games, it lumps together draws which are fundamentally different. Using it betrays our ignorance... People applying the word addiction should consider it an interim term. Though it may never fall out of fashion, it should."

Strange that this book isn't leading the charge on that one, eh?

Anyway, as the book makes abundantly clear, what really matters about gaming addiction and all the issues surrounding, clouding and supplementing the issue, is that we educate ourselves in the true complexities of habitual gaming. Games are - as we and the authors of this book know all too well - remarkably engaging and compelling. We need to recognise and describe this as a basis for getting to the negative/obsessive aspects of our gaming behaviours in a sensible fashion, as the book explains: "Before we talk about addiction, whether in neurochemistry, psychology, or any other area, we've got to acknowledge that the gaming experience alone can exert a forceful pull, even with the simple tradition of immersion."

The book talks at length about just how "real" games seem to us: it dwells on the idea of a "real illusion", which is something I've ended up mulling over a lot myself. (I don't think Clark is always useful in his analysis of the nature of engagement and immersion, but it's definitely the right thing to tackle in this book. Personally, I like Steven Shaviro's "prosthetic reality" idea best of all, along with the notion of understanding gaming as extension, rather than "illusory" or "virtual", and I'll be writing about that soon, elsewhere.) What's important, says Game Addiction, is that we understand some of the basis of gaming experience - how we play, why we play, why we experience it so viscerally, even when it can be so abstract - before we even consider its effects on gamers and their lives. It's the right approach to take.

Clark and Scott spend some time on the well-trodden ground of what it is about games that make them different from other media, and although occasionally struggling to articulate the most important ideas, the book rapidly expands the topics that dominate the discussion: MMOs, and the added appeal and addictive qualities of online play. There's a huge amount of material pertaining to online behaviours in here, and Clark carefully folds in a bunch of research from areas such as developmental psychology, neurology (with particular reference to current trends in neuroplasticity, which is something I'm very interested in), while adding a wider collage of anecdotal and academic resources to the mix. Game Addiction goes some way to flesh out the ramifications of what gamers are doing when they spend six hours a day in a game: it examines the activity, the rewards, the processes of reinforcement, the wider behaviours of habitual gamers, and even suggests a little about what might be happening at a neurological level. The idea that prolonged exposure to games isn't having significant physical effects on us is, it seems, rather wishful thinking.

Game Addiction points out that the problems of excessive gaming come from all kinds of directions, including the social dimension of being friends with other highly-practiced players. As soon as you stop practising for many hours at a time, your game begins to drop, and that means you can come under pressure from other gamers who put in similar amounts of time. (I find this with FPS gaming, having played Quake III competitively. I almost can't enjoy FPS games now because I want the high of absolute mastery, or nothing, from myself and my team-mates.) This isn't necessarily bad, but it is part of the kind of gaming behaviours that do cause a problem, behaviours which this book, of course, describes.

What this means is that Game Addiction is damning of "grind" heavy games. At times, it seems like Clark is betraying his "not anti-games" by painting a deliberately bleak pictures of traditional MMOs. He's quick to nod towards the complexity of these clever multiplayer constructs, and the positive side-effects of social gaming, but I couldn't help feeling that grind-based games are beginning to become their own worst enemies when subjected to this kind of scrutiny. It seems like an impossible task to come away with a truly positive picture of their game model, and the way we gamers behave when playing them. They are not games that encourage balance in our lives.

What this book is about, I think, is balance. Certainly, it's warning. It tells us to pay attention to games or "secondary worlds" as something that is important to our future. Not recognising significant problems early on has led to many a calamity, and Clark and Scott have identified the problems, and the potentials for problems, in gaming. But crucially, Clark and Scott are not attacking gaming as a medium or as a way of spending leisure time, but they are asking for - even demanding - that we look at education, and find concrete ways to inform gamers, children, and parents, of how to approach gaming with a sense of balance.

My initial reaction towards the nannying cry of "making sure people understand the dangers", rather than relying on them to figure things out for themselves, as Clark seems to have done, was that it seems somewhat condescending. But, well, the said reality is that most people are stupid. And education is a lot better than governmental meddling or crude censorship. Since we don't seem to have much self discipline, and we do neglect things because we're busy playing games, we need to be told to take a step back and think. Clark and Scott are right to call time, because there are problems, particularly with regards to young children and videogames. (And also television.) They carefully point out that while play is essentially to the development of children - and indeed all infant mammals - screen-based play is peculiarly truncated, and does not offer all the sensory and psychological nutrients that we need. One of the most interesting observations is that while kids will project imaginative situations onto objects they play with in the real world "the stick is a pony", they don't tend to do the same thing with screen entities. A chicken on a screen is just a chicken. (Which I think could do with being examined further - do screens have some particular hold over our imagination that the real world does not? Does it suppress imaginative leaps? An intriguing prospect.) Perhaps the diversity of games, with new interactive possibilities, will change that.

"Everything in moderation" is a good rule of thumb, and could be a general motto for life, however hard it is to stick to. The evidence is that this is true tenfold for children, especially younger children, as this book makes plain. The younglings cannot be exposed to extended time with any screen-based entertainment without significant consequences to their psychological development. It is our generation - the prospective parents of the future - that need to be made to understood that. Children need more than screens to develop normally.

Anyway, Clark and Scott have compiled probably the best set of resources on this topic that is available to us at the moment. It's a little slow and dry in places, but it's not supposed to be entertainment. The nature of habitual gaming going to be a huge social issue in the coming years, of that there seems little doubt. Those people interested in the debate - which should be most of you, frankly - would do well to pick up this book, arm yourselves with Clark and Scott's research, and continue following the army of experts, critics, and researchers that Game Addiction refers to. This is a practical and sensible starting point to understanding a subject that is going to loom ever larger in all our lives.

Neils Clark was a major contributor to John's feature on gaming addiction, published in 2007. You can read it here.

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Jim Rossignol