On Virtual Addiction

Born in 1985, I was one of the first generations to be brought up on the internet. This resulted in an intrinsic connection to this world; its pitfalls and benefits, its positives and negatives. When children are young their imaginations, their minds, are staved for stimulation; through advancements in technology and psychology, game companies have been able to take full advantage of this. And in my view they have become increasingly cunning in the manipulation of the human psyche.

As I grew, living in game worlds became an obsessive escape from my physical existence. Simply, it was much more enticing then the real world. I had no problems, a loving family and good friends, but I was bored with the stimulation of school and modern life. I had a vivid imagination, and this craved for an escape into worlds that contained the kind of stakes and vibrant stories I was read as a child.

At first it began with First Person Shooter gaming1, eventually moving into Clan2 competitive gaming. After a few years of this type, which I’ll call ‘non committal’, our group moved on to the more time intensive World of Warcraft, which is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game3.

In WOW4 one plays a role, a life, in a ‘swords and sorcery’ surrogate world. I always had a penchant for this kind of fantasy story, but this game caught me completely by surprise; containing a stimulation and escapism that was unparalleled at the time. WOW was seductive, addictive and all consuming.

The Surrogate World

WOW deals in fantasy fulfilment and a never ending cycle of goal completion and creation. In other words there is no ‘end’ to the game. The reason this game is so seductive is it allows the reward of fantasy fulfilment without the hard work and time that is required in the real world to achieve; one can be ‘the hero’, ‘the leader’, ‘and the savoir’, the only thing required to achieve these things is time5. It is designed in such a way that your desire to have the best equipment and strongest hero is never ending. Even if you acquire this goal, a new goal is placed in front of you, with a shiny new item, in an endless cycle of digital consumption.

What is wrong with this may you ask? A sense of escapism is very necessary for the mass culture to continue functioning. Movies give us this, as do novels and other art forms. Why not allow people to escape in this virtual world?

Well, as the current technology operates, one’s physical body needs to be maintained in this world. Therefore obsessive gaming can become a serious problem for mental and physical health. No matter how much one would like to exist in these imaginary worlds, they have limits to their reality; one can only travel as far as the designer has built and one must work, sleep, eat, and exist outside of this world, maintaining oneself and functioning as a member of society. Of course, a game like WOW is an ever growing parasitical drain on your time. You have the desire to spend every waking hour logged in, because this is where you are pot committed, and where you have invested all your time and effort. This effect is exponential, the longer you play, the more committed you are, and the more time you spend inside the game world (To the detriment of your life in the real world). As it stands, this is a problem many fields must face as technology cuts into our lives. Psychology, law and medical institutions must remain vigilant of the growing problems.

The Future?

At this very moment a quarter of the earth’s population are connected to the web and this number is growing at and unprecedented rate. I was addicted, and so are many others. Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China list several deaths and a generation of young users addicted into this online world.

In the west this problem already exists, but the implementation of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking technologies are spreading use to the general user, changing the social structures of human interaction and how we live, they seem to connect us, but in my experience they further disconnect users from the physical world. The web is a blessing, but it has dangers. The more we assimilate technology into our lives, the greater disconnection with reality, and the more disconnected and muted we become as humans.

Yet I think this effect is only temporary due to our technological limitations, which don’t allow the use of all 5 senses to connect. If we could communicate in this way, then a genuine connection through the internet would be possible. The only difference between real world communications would be the knowledge in one’s mind that neither communicator is truly present.

This is certainly possible in the future as technology is increasing at a unprecedented exponential rate, it’s a matter of time before our lives are so synergised with technology we won’t be able to tell the difference between the biological and technological.

Eventually the lines between reality and virtual will be blurred. We won’t experience these worlds through our monitors, but through our 5 senses. If one chooses so, they’ll be able to live life within a designed VR world, without deterioration, or maintenance in the outside world. If this were to occur (even with what I experienced in early life) I think civil liberty must allow members of society to make this independent choice for themselves; it’s up to the individual to determine how much they value reality. After all, how could one say what they are experiencing isn’t as ‘real’ as this world?; with the little we know about reality through science, that would be a very rich statement to make.

What would I do if this were possible? Personally I’ve come to see the mysteries and interactions in this world are much more interesting then anything a designer could currently create; I think it’s our job as storytellers and artists to inspire humans to value to enjoy the awe of the world we live in. I see reality as objective and material, so philosophically I truly value the world I live in, and no longer want to escape. (But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to encroach on the liberty of others who don’t think like I do)

Defeating the addiction or replacing it?

How did I come to this conclusion? Why did I leave gaming behind? Firstly, my search for stimulation was eventually left wanting. I began to see the seams as I explored the limits of the designer’s world. It began to feel artificial and limiting.

Secondly, a brooding feeling overwhelmed me. As this is a social game, one is required to join up with other users6. This requires you to stick to a stringent schedule which allows you to acquire the items you need to succeed and progress in the game. Coaxing people to cooperate sounds like a good idea in principle, but it’s a little more sinister in this case. Eventually one begins to mould real life around the schedule of the game. The social mechanics amongst these groups are like a horde of heroin addicts all looking to be the most powerful junkie7. The game plays you, you don’t play the game.

When I had this thought I knew I had to quit. I left World of Warcraft, but I was plagued by other games and motivation problems for at least a year after. So what did I do, how did I break this cycle? I don’t really have a band aid solution for you. It’s an addiction like any other.

I was lucky in the sense that I discovered a real world passion, filmmaking, which led me to a thirst for knowledge that I never knew I had, and it was through knowledge that I came to understand the psychology of my behaviour. I also excommunicated myself from my equally addicted social group, and gained new friends who were high achievers and ambitious just like myself8. I knew my mind was easily seduced by the escapism these games brought, and I knew when I had to cut myself off and keep away from games entirely.

I still get the urge to play, and sometimes I’ve relapsed and began to play certain games again, but I think that recognising the addictive behaviour has shown me that there’s no middle ground. Many times I told myself that I could play ‘Just a little’. It was later that I knew this was always a slippery sliding slope for me. This was a lesson hard learned.

If we want to help people in this position we all must remember that when one approaches addicted gamers, they see nothing wrong with how the game is manipulating them. To the contrary, as they have come to value their achievements in this world so highly, they will take any restriction of their logging in time as an attack on everything they’ve worked for. This is what they value and this is what is important to them; understanding that is the only way you can combat the parasitical nature of games like these.

In conclusion, there’s no stopping the advancement of technology and the synergy it will have within all of our lives. The only way to remain vigilant is to be informed and educated with both eyes open. We must all understand that technology is a tool, and a tool can be used in positive and negative ways. It’s our job to judge whether each individual technology has a parasitical or symbiotical effect on our lives.


Written by Scott Mannion.

Scott Mannion is a Sydney-based writer, photographer and film-maker. He is currently directing the movie 'Anima', which is about a young person with pervasive Internet-related problems. His website and blog are at www.scottmannion.com.


1I will note, the sense of brotherhood in a clan has a lot of positives to it, I made a lot of friends who I would never have met if it weren’t for this type of online gaming. It’s also not as time consuming as a game like WOW.

2A group of players who unite to compete in online competitions.

3Calling it a ‘Committal’ game would be an understatement.

4World of Warcraft.

5As apposed to other games which require hand eye coordination.

6In groups of players called Guilds.

7The one difference being, this drug is cheap, and it’s legal.

8Never underestimate the power of the environment on the individual’s psychology.