Blog Post

Games Are Addictive: And Maybe That's Not a Bad Thing

I've been representing HASTAC and the Digital Media and Learning Competition this week at the wonderful workshop, "Etiology and Impact of 'Digital Natives' on Culture, Commerce, and Societies," that took place at KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea, and then at Bar Camp Seoul.   Among the excellent papers and conversations of the week were a number with Doug Gentile of Iowa State University.  I find his work, and the complexity of his thinking, to be some of the most exciting out there on games.  Plus, Doug was very willing to play along with me as I took paradigm after paradigm and turned it on the head, reasking each of his precisely articulated and elegant questions from the opposite point of view.   For many researchers as careful as Doug, my habit of inverting the assumptions is very annoying.  He was not only a good sport but he really engaged and engaged me.

Here are some of the highlights of those interactions.


First, Doug insists that he began his work on the addictive (as defined by the DSM) power of game playing in a rare argumentative mode for him:  that is, he originally set out to disprove the "addiction theory" of game playing.  However, after many studies, he found that the parallels between gamer addiction and other forms of addictive behavior was striking.  He doesn't mean addiction in the sense of drugs or other forms of substance abuse but in compulsive behaviors such as gambling.   He found about 8.5% of gamers fell into the DSM's definition of addictive behavior, where the gaming actually intrudes in, harms, or in other ways disrupts aspects of life--relationships, school, work, self-esteem, and so forth.


His work is compelling for so many reasons that I'll only begin to plumb them here.  First, I found it striking that only 8.5% of the gamers he studied fell into this group.  That's actually fairly low relative to other such behaviors.   So that is interesting to begin with.  Second, he found positive addictive behaviors as well as negative and wants to get rid of the whole silly dichotomy of "are games good for you or bad for you?"  Instead, he would say that learning games may well have addictive potential of rewards and supports that come similar to those supplied by excellent mentors and teachers, where positive behaviors are positively reinforced and rewarded with rewards graduated to accomplishment.   That is a hugely significant and important finding---one we can build on.


However, when the games are violent, based on harming others, then the same transference happens.  The violence of the games bleeds into everyday life and addictive gamers really do treat others more rudely.


Now this is where our conversations began.  I wondered if, for example, aggressive treatment of others outside the game correlated with ethical or unethical standards.  One thing in games is often the standards of retribution are based on a vengeful but also rigid and strict code of ethics.  Good and bad, friends and enemies.  Doug hadn't studied that yet, but, if he does in the future, there are possibilities for transforming situations outside the game based on the relationship of ethics to "justice."   That's a different paradigm than the amoral, mad, insane one that we all fear most:  the gamer gone mad, shooting up the school.    In other words, there are forms of aggression---and then there are fastly more powerful other forms of aggression.


I also admire very much Doug's insistence that game addiction is also about a range of other social, cultural, and psychological factors happening outside the game and we need to remark on those if we are going to address why gaming is an addiction.   I wondered what happened if some of the positive aspects of gaming--improved hand-eye coordination, spatial relations, certain narrative making skills, possible logical and synthesizing improvements--could be channelled into other forms of rewarded behavior.   If there are spaces relying on these skills, and also on rapid and exciting reinforcement of behaviors, outside the game world, perhaps the games would not be as necessary.   Example:  if a kid has to sit bored in school all day, if he is diagnosed with ADHD and stigmatized, maybe the rewards of game playing are not only addictive but compensatory for other forms of reward in his school and family life.   If he were spending an equal amount of time practicing the violin and doing math problems, the world would smile.   Are there ways that gamer talents are productive in the same way--and that cause the world to smile?  And what does that positive reinforcement do to turn "addiction" into "focus, concentration, practice, and working toward a goal"?


I asked if the kind of DSM index of asocial behavior that fits so well with the addictive gamer personality might be applied to the overly ambitious academic who postpones every holiday, and seemingly every pleasure, in order to write that article or book.   Of course, it is rewarded as a career path, and, thanks to the eccentricities of academy, may even be rewarded in other ways too (i.e. extreme academic irresponsibility in meetings, as a citizen, as a teacher is in some circumstances acceptable if the quantity and reputation of the publication is high enough).   Are there world where the addictive gamer can also find supports for his or her particular brand of obsessive addiction?  


I don't know the answers but I know I had great conversations with a very complex, original, and important thinker.  There were many others that I'll report on in other blogs but, for now, I urge you to checkout the work of Doug Gentile.






Doug's work sounds fascinating. What kind of games did his population play? Did the positive vs. negative addictive behaviors vary with the type of game?


Halo is one.  I'm not sure of the others.  Those are great questions and require follow-up.  I'll report back sometime.   I think his work is very interesting.  He has a marvelous subtle way of turning and thinking, very good combination of qualitative and quantitative


Thank you! I'm really interested to know what you find out from him. Thanks for posting about this study. It seems like an important movement towards thinking about the effects video games in a more complex, nuanced way.