Tragic news from Korea yesterday: a couple allowed their three-month old infant to starve to death while they obsessively tended to a virtual baby in an online game. This follows on the famous report from a while back about the gamer who played so long he died from fatigue. These stories represent extreme cases, but there are many more people for whom a videogame addiction is a serious problem. I’m certainly not the first to note how games are specifically and rigorously designed to be addictive, and as the bodies–literally–start piling up, it’s only a matter of time before Joe Lieberman and his ilk are back on the Sunday morning talk shows with a proposal to ban or regulate addictive MMOs. Don’t think there aren’t already a dozen groups looking to cash in on the next new threat to “our precious children.” And this time they actually have real science on their side, unlike the crazy vaccine-autism nimrods who can move mountains with sheer conjecture and speculation.
An initial response might be on the consumer side, with timers in people’s computers so they actually have to stop and feed their babies or with the government stepping in to categorize the games themselves and set age limits or watch players through their webcams to make sure they don’t play too much? Many of these “solutions” are already available on a consumer level without the need for more government. The last battle fought over videogames was when concerns about violence in games stoked fears that it was making kids more violent. The difference, however, is between an active feature in some games (the depictions of violent acts), that wasn’t intended to change players’ actual behavior, and a passive feature in modern games (addictive reward systems), that is specifically designed to keep people playing longer. Using hard science has been the key to making games even more addictive. At first it was just exploiting the stimulus-response effects understood from BF Skinner’s experiments with rats. But now neurologists and psychologists are using cutting edge research and fMRI machines to study how the human brain responds to just about everything. This new expertise will help designers to ever more effectively program drop rates of loot and other game features to keep players coming back. Even more problematic is that all of this is happening in the background, where people cannot see what the game is doing to them until it’s too late. This is also a concern because people play alone in their homes so they don’t see the effects it has on other people the way seeing some haggard-looking guy hunched over a slot machine for 12 hours would tend to ward people off from excessive gambling.
The government’s response this time should directly target game makers because it’s more than just games being inherently addictive–solitaire wasn’t created to make people keep playing it–but making them more addictive for profit. I would analogize this trend to the way advertising was regulated by the FTC to prevent use of subliminal advertising and other deceptive techniques when research first discovered their potency on consumers. You could also link it to the reasoning behind tobacco and gambling legislation. Although I would not support any sort of content regulation–games can be as violent or as fluffy as the market will tolerate–I think that when it comes to what’s under the hood, it’s time for tough action. You shouldn’t need a 12-step program to stop playing WoW.