Why Do People Get Addicted To Games
For someone who has never played a computer or video game, it can be difficult to understand why they are quite so compelling. Admittedly, in this day and age the number of people who have never played a video game are pretty low. A 2012 IGEA report shows that 93% of New Zealand homes own some device for playing games, and that most gamers play between half an hour to an hour at a time, every day or every other day.
If we look at human history, it’s not hard to see the importance that games have held across every civilization and every era. We've had physical games such as sports, interactional and social games like ‘tag’, ‘hide and seek’ or ‘charades’, tabletop games like chess, bridge and other board and card games. From this perspective, video games have only changed the medium through which we play games, but not the basic format or the enjoyment and reward that they give.
Games have always been enjoyable and rewarding. Games provide us with clear goals, clear ways of measuring our success and achievement, and provide a way to compete that is less threatening to our self esteem than competition in other areas of life. At the same time, they provide us a way to socialise, to develop shared goals and agendas, and to forget about other aspects of our life – at least for the time being. It’s no surprise then that games have always been popular, whether it’s playing them or simply spectating. The amount of enthusiasm and investment of energy (and often money) in our national sports, whether it’s rugby and cricket or baseball and football makes it clear how much value we tend to place on games.
Modern video games are often more engaging and more rewarding than more traditional forms of gaming, while simultaneously making them more accessible and engaging to a new generation. One significant factor that contributes to addiction is repetitive engagement in an activity, and since video games are so rewarding it is no surprise that many people often do engage with them to a significant extent. Here, I will provide an overview of some of the main reasons why people engage with video games which can, in some situations, contribute to the development of addiction. These reasons are that games can provide a sense of purpose and goals, a sense of achievement and potency, a sense of belonging and community, a sense of freedom and escape, and a sense of identity.
The emotional reason behind gaming is probably the same for many addictions, like porn or drugs - a need for escapism due to depression, socialising issues, low self-esteem... The reason for gaming above other addictions is immersion and a sense of achievement.
Sense of Purpose And Goals
One reason games are so compelling for many of us is that they provide us with clear challenges and goals and often contain a narrative that creates an overarching sense of purpose or meaning. Whether it’s to advance our character, to crush our enemies or to solve a mystery, when we play a computer game we almost always have a sense of what we’re trying to achieve and the steps we need to take to get there. We are free of ambiguity and uncertainty, and our path is clear.
Contrast that to the real lives that most of us lead which can at times be confusing, unfulfilling, ambiguous and uncertain. In real life, we may have some sense as to what we want to achieve but no clear idea of how to get there, or we may not even have that much clarity. Many of us struggle to know what we want, or to find a sense of meaning or purpose in our everyday activities. This is not a bad thing – it is part of the inevitable challenge of being human, to find a way to make meaning of our existence and create our own goals and purpose. At the same time, it’s easy to see the allure of games which provide that for us, which allow us to be the hero, which give us a purpose or a destiny which we can often gain a sense of meaning and satisfaction from pursuing – so long as we stay in the game, that is.
Numerous research studies have shown that for highly engaged and addictive video game players, a sense of purpose or meaning is a significant part of what creates a desire to continue playing. In one study, players who had become addicted to games described the games as being “the only thing that mattered”, and that life seemed “dull and grey” without games.
Again, this can be difficult for some people to understand if they’ve never been heavily involved in video games themselves, but suffice it to say that modern games have become extremely sophisticated and well designed to allow the player to feel fully immersed and engaged in the game world.
Sense of Achievement and Potency
Games can also provide players with a sense of achievement and potency. Games challenge players to improve their skills, and many games have a very high ‘skill cap’ – that is, there is no limit to how much players can continue to improve their skills in the game. Accordingly, players are rewarded for investing more time into the games by becoming better at them, and being able to overcome more difficult challenges.
It is inherent to our human nature to want to be challenged, and to experience a sense of mastery when we overcome challenges that were previously impossible for us. Whether it’s honing our skills to overcome a particular encounter in the game, or becoming better as a team of players in order to defeat other human opponents, games provide just this opportunity on a regular basis. Many games track players’ progress in some way, and allow them to compare their skills to other players. As a result, players can immediately see when they have improved and can see what it will take to move up in the rankings compared to other players. When this happens, it can create a great sense of accomplishment and pride.
For some people who may not experience a sense of being competent and effective at things in other areas of their life, this can be a particularly compelling reason to keep gaming. A number of people I have worked with have described how it is only when they are playing games that they feel “like I am really good at something”, and how if they gave up gaming they would feel like they didn’t have anything that they were good at in their lives. This is another reason why some people keep gaming to the point of addiction.
I think as well as it being an escape gaming gives a huge sense of achievement. By being able to track your progress a lot easier than you can in real life it is easy to think that you're actually being productive.
Sense of Belonging and Community
Games can create a sense of belonging and community for many gamers. Most games these days have a significant multiplayer aspect to them, with many of them being multiplayer-only games – that is, you’re always playing with other human players. In addition, many games are designed with this in mind, and require a number of players to work together as a team in order to play the game. This is true of both competitive games like League of Legends and Counterstrike as well as co-operative games like World of Warcraft. As a result, players often form into permanent or semi-permanent teams who work together or larger collectives of players called ‘guilds’. Many people develop close friendships and significant relationships with others through their gaming.
For some people, this may be the first time they have experienced a feeling of belonging to a group and being a valued and needed member of a team. Teams and guild are often highly supportive of their members, and players get to know each other well over time. This can be a strength for many, but for others it can also mean that they find it more difficult to establish meaningful relationships outside of the game, and may similarly find it difficult to feel that they ‘belong’ or are valued outside of the game. When this happens, it can be very difficult for the person to reduce or give up their gaming as it would also mean the loss of what have become very important social connections.
In some cases the way games are structured to rely on players working together means that gamers may start to feel obligated to play the game, as if they are ‘letting the side down’ if they do not. This can go hand-in-hand with the negative reinforcement cycle of addiction, as the negative feelings that arise from addiction when not using are exacerbated by negative feelings of guilt for letting others down, and this factor alone can sometimes keep gamers’ playing long past the point where they are getting any enjoyment out of the game.
Sense of Freedom and Escape
Modern games often create a deep sense of immersion, of being lost in the world of the game. While immersed in a game, it then becomes easy to escape from or forget about – at least temporarily – other issues, concerns or pressures that are going on in the rest of a person’s life. While people sometimes a similar sense of escape through movies, television, books or music what differentiates a lot of games from these other forms of entertainment is that many of the games have no real end-point. There is no final chapter, no epilogue, no outro that brings the player, however reluctantly, back to reality. Or, in the games where there is some endpoint it is usually just a matter of clicking a button to start again and become re-immersed in the game.For people who may have a lot of stress or pressure in the rest of their life, games can become a very compelling way to escape from it. Stresses can arise from work or study, from relationship issues with partners, children or parents, from physical or mental disability or disorders, from financial difficulties or from numerous other sources. Unfortunately, the more a person uses games as a way to escape real-world stresses, the fewer other tools and ways of coping they develop, and so games can increasingly become the only way of coping with stressful situation that are available to a person. When this occurs, it is often a small step to addiction.
"We game because it's an escape. Whereas you could deal with your problems, your issues, or your situations in life you just don't need to face any of it when you game... ...Crappy job? It's alright, soon as I get home I won't be a clerk anymore, I'll be a soldier taking out countless enemies. Relationship issues? None of those in Azeroth. Depressed? I won't be once I get to ganking."
Sense of Identity
One final factor that can contribute to players becoming highly engaged with gaming is the sense of identity that games can provide. In some ways, this factor links back to many of the previously mentioned factors around potency, achievement, meaning and belonging. By providing all these things, games can also provide players with a sense of identity – a sense of who they are and their place in the world. Many games allow players to create a unique character which inhabits the game world and becomes the face of their online presence in that game. Some, but not all players will identify strongly with their online persona and in many cases may act quite differently in-game from how they do in the rest of their life, particularly in their interactions with others. Someone who in real life might struggle with confrontation and being assertive may find that this comes more naturally to them online, and so for some players their online identity can start to become more valued and treasured than the person they are outside of the game. When this happens, it can become increasingly difficult for someone to want to step outside of the game as they may come to dislike or even hate the person that they are in reality.Players’ online identities are also reinforced and supported by others in the game. A player who develops an online identity as a strong and decisive leader is likely to be admired for that trait, and may end up leading others, becoming a key member in an online group or guild and may come to strongly value this identity. This can have a positive aspect as well – when players are able to translate aspects of their online identity into the rest of their lives, games can provide players with a way to experiment with and develop new qualities and character traits such as assertiveness, leadership communication skills, or even tolerance for others. However, very often players are not able to make this transition, and so there can become a growing divide between their online personality and identity and the person that they see themselves to be in the rest of their life. This alone can cause some people a great deal of distress, and further feed into people’s unwillingness to give up their gaming.
As has been illustrated, games can provide a sense of potency and achievement, a sense of belonging and being valued, a sense of purpose and goals, a sense of freedom and escape, and even a sense of identity. These same factors that make games engaging and enjoyable can also contribute to players developing addictions to gaming if they become the only ways in which a person experiences these things in their life. Recognising when gaming shifts from being a fun way to relax, a hobby or a form of entertainment to a potential addiction has a lot to do with recognising when the purpose of gaming has shifted into being primarily a way to meet some or all of these psychological needs. If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s gaming, a good place to start is always to ask: Why am I/are they gaming?