Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Article: Video Games = Crack

The magazine New Scientist has posted an article entitled Gaming Fanatics Show Hallmarks of Drug Addiction:

Excessive computer gaming has the hallmarks of addiction, suggests new experiments on "drug memory". The researchers argue it should be classified as such, enabling “addicts” to start seeking help.


Learning is recognised as an important underlying mechanism of addiction. In becoming addicted, people start to associate cues that are normally neutral with the object of their craving. To a crack addict, for instance, a building in which they have used the drug is more than just a place they have been – it becomes a trigger for craving and can, on its own, reignite a need to use the drug again after months of abstinence.


They compared 15 men in their 20s who admitted that gaming had chased other activities – such as work and socialising – out of their lives, and 15 game-playing but otherwise healthy controls.

They showed them a variety of visual cues and asked the volunteers to rate how they felt about the images. All had normal reactions to neutral images, such as chairs, and even to alcohol-related images, despite the fact that all the participants drank alcohol.

But excessive computer game players showed classic signs of craving when they were presented with freeze-frames from some of their favourite games – they desperately wanted to play, expected to feel better once they did, and fully intended to indulge again as soon as possible.

In another test, the researchers monitored the response of a large muscle in the eye, to see how much the volunteers could be startled while looking at a game-related image. Scientists theorise that the most pleasing stimuli prompts the smallest of startle reflexes. They found that excessive game players could not be easily startled, unlike the controls.

This article is asinine for a variety of reasons...

First of all, their sample size was 15, with a control of an additional 15 people. 15 people for a clinical trial is meaningless. Its the number of people you give a new drug before you start a real clinical trial just to make sure that the drug doesn't make their head explode - after you test it on rats to see if it makes their heads explode.

Second, its printed in, which might as well be called McScience, and have a clown with a test tube experimenting on anthropomorphic McNuggets as a mascot. It packages things that sound interesting for non-serious readers with a scientific interest in a Value Meal of grease and fat, with little substance. If the results had merit, then NewScientist would be reporting on how a serious peer reviewed scientific journal had published results showing how video games are like drugs.

This is nothing but the repetition of the stereotype that video games are bad because they cause violence, make you fat, cause diabetes, etc. All of these are based on the correlation = causation fallacy. Just because two things occur together, doesn't mean one causes the other.

In reality, video games are essentially the same as watching television, going to the movies, knitting, or any other popular and sedentary activity. You know what would stop your kids from being obese drug addict-like murderers? Get up off your ass and parent them for a change. Exercise together, sign them up for activities then make them go, make them get a part time blue collar job, and don't buy them hundreds of dollars worth of toys and games that encourage them to lock themselves in their room with the lights out and the door locked.

Finally, at least the researchers seem to understand basic psychology:

Grüsser says that addictions stem from relying too heavily on one coping strategy, which eventually becomes the only activity that can activate the dopamine system and bring a person relief. “It’s the same mechanism in all addicts,” she says.

"Coping strategy" is just the politically correct way of saying defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are a set of unconscious ways to protect one's personality from unpleasant thoughts and realities which may otherwise cause anxiety. My favorites are altruism, intellectualization, and humor. But the most common are avoidance, denial, and sublimation. When something sucks in our lives and we can't change it, it causes stress, and to avoid dealing with it we do other stuff that makes us feel good - whether its eating, video games, sex, sports, music, art, or anything else you do to deal with stress.

The larger point is, defense mechanisms don't solve the unpleasant realities of our lives. They just get us through the day. Playing video games is no worse then any other defense mechanism, and they are certainly better then many others, like drugs.

A better title for this article would be, "Don't Do Too Much of Anything." Using any defense mechanism too often is likely to lead to unhealthy outcomes, regardless of the content of the mechanism. Eat too much and you get fat. Diet too much and you develop anorexia. Read too much and you lose out on developing social skills. Have sex too much and you risk a bevy of issues. (And you should email me). Hesiod was right, "Observe due measure, moderation is best in all things."

Equating video games with drug use or the host of other social ills facing our country is missing the point. Instead of looking for someone to blame, why don't we look for what causes the anxiety that people are avoiding?
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