As a final assignment for my game design class I had the students write an essay on a serious social topic connected to gaming. Many of them chose to write about game addiction, so I have been reading and thinking a lot about the topic recently. And it seems to me that we are taking the wrong perspective on it.
Most of my students tried to compare game addiction to drug addiction, arguing with various degrees of success that the two were either similar or different, and drawing from this a further argument to say whether ‘addictive’ games were good or bad. However I think the comparison itself is invalid. Drugs operate directly on chemical pathways in the brain and create physiological dependencies with quantifiable withdrawal symptoms. The case with games is a lot less cut-and-dry. I would instead compare games with food.
Enjoying good food is natural and healthy. There should be no guilt in taking pleasure in it. But as we are all aware, some foods are more nutritious than others. Our appetites evolved in a time when food was harder to come by and so energy-foods (fat and sugar) are our strongest desires and pleasures. In an age with Golden Arches in every suburb, these drives are no longer our best friends. Our natural desires need to be tempered with concern for our health, but that doesn’t mean that we stop enjoying ourselves.
For some, the problem is worse. The comfort food provides can become a crutch which helps us avoid pain elsewhere in our lives. Eating for comfort is not a bad thing, but it can become a habit that we lose control of, creating more problems than it solves, leaving us in a vicious cycle of psychological dependency. For these people, eating has become a self-desctructive behaviour and a real addiction.
The result is that we have an ambiguous relationship with food. Only the meanest ascetic would deny us the pleasure of eating, even indulging ourselves, but we need to practise moderation in the interests of our well-being. And we should realise that some foods are designed to push our buttons and appeal to drives in ourselves that are unhealthy when they are overindulged. We try to hold the companies who produce these foods and profit from them accountable for what they provide, without controlling them outright. And we act to protect and assist those whose ability to exercise self-control may be limited.
Without wanting to spell out the comparison, I believe our relationship with games is very similar. Play is natural, healthy and good. Some games are more ‘nutritious’ than others, but even taking pleasure in ‘empty’ games is fine in moderation. Sadly, for some games can become a crutch and a source of self-destructive behaviour, yielding the horror stories the media love to publish. As designers, we do bear some responsibilty for the games we make and how they are going to be consumed. We should not be exploiting our audience’s weaknesses for our own profit. But we should also not be ashamed of providing pleasure to millions. And if we can provide nutrition too, all the better.