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Yes, Videogames Are Addictive…

…at least for some people. A personal perspective on using Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
February 7, 2006

I’m not a videogame addict. Yet. But if I don’t get this infernal Xbox 360 out of my house, I may become one.

I got the machine on eBay a few weeks ago on Technology Review’s dime so that I could review it for an upcoming print edition. I already have a Playstation2, which I’m quite fond of, and I had never felt a need to try the original Xbox, which didn’t appear to be a quantum leap over the PS2. So I was skeptical about all the hype and fuss over the Xbox 360 – until it actually arrived. How wrong I was.

I’m not going to write here about the absorbing plots and delirious pace of the games I tried on the 360, or the jaw-dropping realism of its graphics. For that, you’ll have to wait for my review. But I will say that I played the games a bit longer than was strictly necessary to gather my impressions. [Ahem.] Well…much longer.

One title, Activision’s World War II first-person shooter Call of Duty 2, became my particular obsession. I’m an aficionado of WWII history and a big fan of relatively true-to-life recreations such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and the game seemed like an opportunity to step into the boots of fighting men whom I had only connected with before by reading their letters, hearing interviews, or watching on the big screen. Of course, the appeal wasn’t entirely intellectual. There was also the adrenaline rush of trying to survive in battle while Germans were shooting at me from every angle.

Now, I have been known to display a few obsessive-compulsive traits. I can’t walk down the street without checking periodically to see if my wallet and keys are still in my pockets. I watched the whole second season of 24 in about 24 hours. I go around with a soundtrack playing in my mind’s ear, as if there’s an iPod Nano embedded in my brain. (Right now it’s playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan/> Lake/>/>.)

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the time I spent with Call of Duty 2 got a bit out of control. It wasn’t enough to finish the Russian campaign against the Nazis in Moscow/> and Stalingrad; then I needed to finish the British campaign in North Africa/>. No matter how many times I died, I kept coming back for more. My dog eventually stopped trying to get me to play with him. When my partner insisted that I start “bookending” – calling friends to let them know that I was going to be playing, and that they should intervene if they didn’t hear back from me within 60 minutes – I had to admit to myself that something was wrong.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I did finally wrench myself away from the Xbox controller and hand in my review. And I don’t anticipate going through withdrawal after I’ve boxed up the Xbox and shipped it off to Cambridge. But I am realizing through experience that videogame addiction is a serious issue that I may have been too quick to dismiss in the past.

That’s easy to do, since it’s a subject surrounded by the usual moral panic from family-values proponents, not to mention its own urban legends – a 28-year-old man in Korea/>/> who keels over from heart failure after 50 straight hours of online gaming, an infant who dies of neglect while his father plays Everquest (a.k.a. EverCrack and NeverRest). Then there’s the chorus of gamers and technology enthusiasts who heap ridicule on every study that appears to point to videogames’ addictive potential, and students of culture like Steven Johnson who argue that videogames are actually good for you.

But psychologists point out that almost any activity, carried to extremes, can become addictive – especially those that offer an escape into non-reality. Just like drugs, alcohol, and other classical addictions, videogames can put the user into an alternative sphere of consciousness where the stress and pain of existence are numbed. People who are predisposed to daydreams, obsessions, compulsions, and depression are probably at special risk.

Even mental-health professionals can fall into the trap. Timothy Miller, a clinical psychologist in Stockton/>, CA/>/>, told that he decided to try Diablo II in order to better understand his teenage patients. But the game quickly became a habit, and Miller found himself compelled to complete level after level, until he eventually had to delete the game from his PC. “Each goal leads to another goal, and there are critical choices you make along the way,” Stockton/>/> said. “You invest a lot of time and thought into developing a character. You feel like you’ve wasted your time unless you reach the next goal…Here I was in a good position to understand the problem…and yet I really did have to struggle to beat this thing.”

So my answer to the great debate about whether videogames are addictive is yes – for some people. For the majority, they are probably harmless. But the Xbox 360 gave me my own little taste of videogame addiction, and it was both luscious and bitter. Luckily, the box isn’t mine to keep.  

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