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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Looking Back At Game Addiction

When Corvus put up his November Roundtable topic as video game addiction, I thought back to a piece I wrote for the old Unreal mod site, ModSquad, back when they hung their hat on PlanetUnreal. That's been a few years, but I'm going to quote myself and repost the whole bit:

First of all, apologies for not getting back to serious game design issues (as opposed to development stories) as I intended this week. However, I just finally caught up reading an article on a bit of news which had caught my eye.

It's a sad story really, and you may have heard it already. On Thanksgiving of last year, an EverQuest gamer by the name of Shawn Woolley committed suicide by shooting himself. I mention that he was an EverQuest gamer because his mother is suing Sony over his death.

According to Jay Parker, an Internet Addiction specialist from Redmond, EverQuest was akin to crack to Shawn. He, Shawn's mother, and a law firm believe that Sony should be placing labels on the game to warn people of potential addiction. In Parker's words:

"The manufacturer of EverQuest purposely made it in such a way that it is more intriguing to the addict," Parker said. "It could be created in a less addictive way, but (that) would be the difference between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine."

Like I said. It's pretty sad.

Any loss of human life, no matter the cause, is a tragic event. Shawn Woolley, at 21, had quit his job recently before his death, presumably to play more EverQuest. His mother also tells of when one of his fellow players robbed him, Shawn was in tears. Clearly Shawn lived a lonely life whose chief social outlet was the Internet.

The thing is, I've heard all this before. It's so identical it's spooky.

Some of you old-timers might remember the cultural crackdown that occurred over Dungeons and Dragons when a string of teen suicides were discovered to have something in common - all the players were heavy into role-playing games. Instantly concerned parents, psychologists and, of course, lawyers jumped to the rescue of America's youth to warn them of the dangers of role-playing. 'They get too attached to their characters, too involved in a fantasy life, too detached from society' was the warning.

There's even this horrible old Tom Hanks movie where he goes insane from playing them and wanders the streets having hallucinations. Which reminds me of another Parker quote, this time of another 21 year old who was dropping out of college while playing EverQuest:

"He thought the characters had come out of the game and were chasing him," Parker said. "He was running through his neighborhood having hallucinations. I can't think of a drug he could have taken where he would have disintegrated in 15 weeks."

The mistake that Mr. Parker and the rest seem to be making now is the same mistake the screenwriter for that awful Tom Hanks movie made then. They overestimate the power of the game and underestimate the problems of the player. Certainly, for some, video games can be an addiction. So can porn, television, and other outlets for fantasy where a person is inclined to be involved in escapist behavior.

And Mr. Parker is slightly off on his facts. Several powerful drugs, including cocaine, heroin and PCP, can kill a person with a single (over)dose. Fifteen weeks is over three months, and a lot of bad things can happen with drugs in that time. What I can't think of is a single game designed that will actually cause hallucinations. As for Sony's "crack" business model, trying to get players to play longer online is no different than a television executive planning a schedule to keep people at their television sets for an entire night. Unless "Must See TV" is some kind of warning label, I haven't seen anyone offering lawsuits because their kids know the cast of "Friends" better than their own relatives.

Shawn's mother, to her credit, admits her son had difficulties before EverQuest entered the equation. Mr. Parker himself apparently suggests that video games aren't inherently bad (difficult to tell, I think, by his comments). However, by forcing a lawsuit to have Sony place the label '"Warning, extensive playing could be hazardous to your health."' (Mr Parker's suggestion) would not have saved Shawn. If anything, making this a public spectacle in this manner trivializes his death as something as simple as "he played too many video games". Parker's quick-to-judge drug analogy of EverQuest blatantly ignores the thousands of players who seem immune to the "EverCrack".

That's not to say that I don't support the concept of Internet addiction and warning people that it *is* possible to use these games as a form of escape. Labels are no solution, however. Even if EverQuest really was akin to a drug, just ask a smoker how much good a warning label does. Sony, and any company who creates an online community, should not ignore the situation of gamers like Shawn Woolley. Instead of a warning label, however, they need to make sure their administrators, moderators and community leaders are aware of such cases being possible. These people were Shawn's social circle and as a society they need to be more perceptive to warning signs that one of their own may in trouble. I can only assume that there are gamers out there grieving over Shawn's death as heartily as someone who knew him in real life.

Posting information about Internet addiction on websites and within games, warning signs to the behavior and places for assistance is the best solution to the situation. I hardily believe that labels have always had a minimal impact on society. Instead of making a sensational connection to drugs, treat the problem at it's real roots - in loneliness, depression and social anxiety. Awareness, information and community support helps these problems, and as much as the Internet can be an outlet for escapism - it can also be a tool for building healthy support groups and long-distance friends. I doubt Sony, or any other gaming company, would disagree.

We don't need lawyers talking to each other. We need gamers talking to each other.

My condolences to the Woolley family on the tragic loss of their son.



I actually got an email from Mrs. Woolley shortly after writing that and we exchanged a few notes. She was actually quite thankful that I was representing her son in a reasonable light as much of the flame-induced Internet had flame-broiled him pretty hard.

It's odd the parrellels between the arguments about the dangers of game addiction, the problems with role playing games and now a redux with violence and video games. Our culture truly loves to legislate what it doesn't understand.

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