**Originally published as “How computer games affect CS (and other) students’ school performance” in Communications of the ACM, March 2004. Reprinted as “Online Game Playing Can Be Addictive,” in Addiction: Opposing Viewpoints Series (Farmington Hills, MI.: Greenhaven Press 2009.)
1. THE PROBLEM
Discussions with more than a thousand college-aged students at one of the countries premier state universities have convinced me that video games ruin the social and scholastic life of many students. As a community, we must understand that this is indeed a problem. I don’t claim that this is our greatest social malady, but I do claim that many students—particularly computer science students at my university—have an addiction to these games. (And it is easy to infer that students at other institutions face this same problem.) Of course, the evidence for my claim, attested to by hundreds of students, is anecdotal. As such, it suffers from all the shortcomings of a non-scientific investigation; it is no substitute for serious investigation. With these caveats in place, I reiterate my concern about the effect contemporary computer games have on college students.
My methodology has been simple: I have asked students—all computer science majors in an elite program—if they know someone whose social or scholastic life has been negatively affected by computer games. Typically, about 95% answer in the affirmative. Students proceed to describe someone whose fascination with computer games chains them to their apartment or dorm room for days, weeks, or semesters. Many students admit to having, or having had, this problem themselves. The effect is exacerbated by the so-called “role-playing” games like Everquest, (whose addictive powers are so great that some students call it Ever-crack!), Age of Kings, Dark Age of Camelot, and so on. Players of these games create characters or alter-egos in cyberspace to live out fantasies and play roles, usually adopting exactly the kinds of traits they believe they lack in the real world. According to my informal surveys, there is something particularly addictive, if not sinister, about role-playing games. To highlight the problem, students tell multiple stories of parents withdrawing financial support from students who continually play these games at the expense of their studies; of intimate relationships that have been ruined because of an obsession with the virtual world; and of roommates who will not respond to any human interaction while playing these games—transfixed as they are to the imaginary world created by the interface of virtual world and human mind.1
The primary allure of role-playing games is escapism. And, as the graphics get better and the games more sophisticated, the pull of the games increases; the games become even more appealing.2 Now it is easy to imagine why persons want to escape our difficult world. But can they do it with ever more sophisticated computer technology? Increasingly, they can. One can live in these virtual worlds with little or no interaction with the ordinary world right now. With money, online bill paying, and delivered groceries, one can live in the early part of the 21st century peering almost exclusively into a computer screen. But would anyone really choose to live as a character in a role-playing game instead of our real world? According to my students, many students already do. Virtual reality is almost here. And many like it. These students are among the first to experience that these games may augur the future choices of the general population.
- BUT IS IT REALLY A PROBLEM?
But then I began to wonder. How was I to convince students not to play such games? I don’t play them and have no desire to do so, but then they were not available when I was in college. Moreover, I’m sure I had frivolous habits of a comparable nature at their age. Still, I believe these games are a waste of time. But how to convince someone of this, that is the challenge. An obvious strategy would be to point out the negative effect these game may have on one’s social and scholastic life. But suppose they don’t care about those consequences. Suppose they say that their social and academic life pales in comparison to life in cyberspace. Suppose further that they claim that role-playing games allow them to be courageous heroes that they are not in real life, or that communication with online friends teaches them something about relationships that they might otherwise not learn. And what of their scholastic life? It is easy enough to imagine college students who don’t care about scholastics; professors have been complaining about them for years! But a committed gamer could maintain that familiarity with the fast-paced computer world is good job preparation for the 21st century.3 In short, if they prefer playing games to studying, it is hard to find a good rejoinder. I could assert my preference for reading over gaming, but surely this would merely reveal my subjective preference. Who am I to say anything about their preferences, especially when adopting these preferences doesn’t seem to hurt anyone other than possibly the players themselves? 4 Game addicts could claim that role-playing games give them a better life than the one they experience in the real world; thus, they might add, the consequences of playing the games is positive. After all, if they didn’t prefer spending time in the virtual world, they wouldn’t be playing all the time, now would they?
If gamers deny that games harm themselves—about which they may be correct—we could argue that they harm others. For example, games may interfere with the possibility of meaningful relationships, since gamers spend most of their time chained to computers. To this objection, gamers may maintain that they aren’t worthy of others, or that they want time alone. But even if we acknowledge the validity of these claims, what of the disappointment they might cause their parents? Here the gamer might reply that it isn’t obvious that college students should make decisions based on whether it disappoints their parents or not. This may be a consideration, but it is hardly the only or even the most important one. For if pleasing parents was the criterion for our actions, how many of us have disappointed our parents in the past, or continue to do so in the present? And how many of us may choose to live lives in accord with our parents, rather than our own, desires? Most of us would grant that personal autonomy holds sway over other’s preferences.
But what if the student is financially dependent on the parent to support their habit? In that case, parents are probably justified in removing funding from a project they deem worthless. But if students are financially independent, then they can circumvent this objection. In fact, according to my students, it is now possible to derive a living from role-playing computer games. Evidently, gamers create and develop characters—a time-consuming process—and sell them for profit. Others buy these characters because they possess greater powers or other virtues in the virtual environment. One can easily imagine that entrepreneurs will find other ways to make money via the computer and role-playing games. Thus, short of financial dependence of the gamer on someone who doesn’t condone their actions, there seem to be no conclusive arguments, either from harming self or others, against the gamer’s fixation. And without good reasons, we have failed to convince either the gamer or ourselves to give up the habit (addiction).
- MORE QUESTIONS FROM THE GAMERS
Moreover, the gamer might seriously object to our characterization of gaming by posing an obvious question: are all role-playing games bad? First, let me say that I doubt the benefits of game playing outweigh the costs in terms of the time and energy involved. It is possible that the games facilitate social interaction since many games demand that players play together as a team and get to know each other. For shy or friendless persons, this surely may be of comfort.5 Still, the games addictive effects—I believe we are justified in calling them that—suggest that they may be more pleasant than real life, otherwise their pull would not be as great. The games are less demanding and less complex than real life. Of course, this raises the question of whether this is a good or bad thing. Surely persons differ in their response, but if the most demanding and complex games are the best ones, then these games are not as good as the game of life, inasmuch as real life if more demanding and complex than gaming.6
Other strategies the gamer might turn toward in defense of their habit include the following claims: 1) most gaming doesn’t lead to the breakdown of one’s social life; 2) there are some positive lessons in gaming; 3) some gaming might actually aid a computer science education; and 4) there are many other genres of games that don’t pose these problems.7 However, I think we have strong counter arguments to most of these claims. The first issue has to do with how much gaming one can safely engage in before social relationships begin to break down. This is difficult to determine with accuracy but given my anecdotal evidence from students, when one begins to play daily one will affect their social and academic lives. As for positive lessons, there may be some such lessons regarding cooperation and strategy or for people who might design future games for example. But the fact is that the games target primal areas of the brain and satisfy primitive needs in the (primarily male) psyche. As such, they shut down more than stimulate the brain. As for the claim that some gaming is needed for a computer science education, I simply reject it. There are interface/game design courses if one wants to take them; no one needs to spend time playing these games to be a computer scientist. As for other games, I think the issues and concerns are the same, especially since the nature of the games and their effects might well converge in the future. Given then that none of these defenses seems convincing, can we make a good case against gaming? I believe we can.
- GAMERS ARE ADDICTS
If we could show that gamers have an addiction to their games then our case against them seems stronger. Why? Because we think of addictions as compulsive behavior (something done regularly) which has a negative effect on an individual’s life. The key to understanding why we think addictions are bad is the conjunction of both compulsivity and negativity. If we only have one but not the other, we wouldn’t likely refer to a behavior as an addiction. It may have a negative effect on my life to smoke one time, but I’m hardly an addict if I quit immediately thereafter. Likewise, I may be compulsive about many things without being addicted to them in a negative sense. I may be compulsive about breathing and do it every few seconds, about eating small, healthy meals, or about exercising thirty minutes a day, but few would label me an addict since these behaviors positively affect my life. So compulsivity by itself doesn’t mean you are an addict—at least not in the negative sense. And the reason we aren’t likely to think of such persons as addicts is primarily that there isn’t anything negative about breathing, eating, or exercising in moderation. However, if I did nothing but eat or exercise, then you might say I was compulsive in the negative sense, and that’s precisely because I’m not exercising moderation or temperance. So we have introduced another idea in our attempt to understand addiction—moderation. Thus, I define addiction as a compulsive behavior, engaged in without moderation, that negatively affects one’s life.
According to this definition, it is easy to see that gamers are addicts. While it would be hard for them to deny that their behavior was compulsive or immoderate, they can still make the claim that it positively affects their life. But is this really the case, or does it just appear to be the case to them because they are addicts? I think it is the latter. Cigarettes may appear good to smokers, but they really are bad for persons independent of their desires for a smoke. Similarly, role-playing games may appear good to those playing—because they want to escape the world or are afraid of it—but for the moment the real world holds much more for those with the courage to face it. It holds more depth, more possible experience, more knowledge, more joy, more beauty, and more love than the world of a computer-generated reality. It is possible to imagine that in the future this may no longer be the case; but for the present, such escapism is cowardly.
- Here’s an interesting anecdote I heard from a graduate student. A student had not gotten out of his chair in days, compulsively playing computer games. A roommate thought he had a great idea to help: he offered $50 dollars for the chair so his roommate would have to get out of it, and hopefully quench his addiction. The transaction concluded, but the first just dragged a pile of (dirty) clothes and sat on top of it… and continued on! I’ve also heard stories of persons who work helplines from home while playing computer games simultaneously.
- My informal surveys suggest that obsessive computer game playing is particularly problematic for male students since most players are men.
- There appears to be some evidence for this. For example, the military has found that recruits familiar with the fast-paced action of computer games perform better than other recruits regarding certain skills.
- I’m assuming that we are utilizing Mill’s “harm principle,” the notion that only harm to others can justify the use of legal coercion. Obviously, if we believe that role-playing games create harm to self, and if we believe that this is sufficient to use coercive methods to prevent persons from harming themselves, then we can simply ban RP games.
- I am indebted to Kip Werking for this insight.
- I am indebted to Thierry Joffrain for suggesting this line of thought.
- I thank Andrew Rosenbloom for posing these issues.
I would like to thank the following: Andrew Rosenbloom of the ACM for posing many questions that made this a better paper; my colleague Thierry Joffrain for many insightful comments and suggestions; and Kip Werking, a perceptive undergraduate whose insights were beneficial.
John G. Messerly
The University of Texas at Austin
Department of Computer Sciences
2.124 Taylor Hall
Austin, TX 78712