On the evening of November 9, having barely been awake to see the day, I took the subway to Sunset Park. My objective was to meet a friend at the arcade Next Level.
In size, Next Level resembles a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. It does indeed serve food — free fried chicken and shrimp were provided that night, and candy, soda, and energy drinks were available at a reasonable markup — but the sustenance it provides is mostly of a different nature. Much of Next Level’s space was devoted to brilliant banks of monitors hooked up to video-game consoles, and much of the remaining space was occupied by men in their 20s avidly facing them. It cost us $10 each to enter.
I had bonded with Leon, a graphic designer, musician, and Twitter magnate, over our shared viewership of online broadcasts of the Street Fighter tournaments held every Wednesday night at Next Level. It was his first time attending the venue in person and his first time entering the tournament. I wasn’t playing, but I wanted to see how he’d do, in part because I had taken to wondering more about video games lately — the nature of their appeal, their central logic, perhaps what they might illuminate about what had happened the night before. Like so many others, I played video games, often to excess, and had done so eagerly since childhood, to the point where the games we played became, necessarily, reflections of our being.
To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind?
In 1993, the psychologist Peter D. Kramer published Listening to Prozac, asking what we could learn from the sudden mania for antidepressants in America. A few months before the election, an acquaintance had put the same question to me about video games: What do they give gamers that the real world doesn’t?
The first of the expert witnesses at Next Level I had come to speak with was the co-owner of the establishment. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his name and face from online research, and I waited for an opportune moment to approach him. Eventually, it came. I haltingly asked if he’d be willing, sometime later that night, to talk about video games: what they were, what they meant, what their future might be — what they said, perhaps, about the larger world.
“Yes,” he replied. “But nothing about politics.”
In June, Erik Hurst, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, delivered a graduation address and later wrote an essay in which he publicized statistics showing that, compared with the beginning of the millennium, working-class men in their 20s were on average working four hours less per week and playing video games for three hours. As a demographic, they had replaced the lost work time with playtime spent gaming. How had this happened? Technology, through automation, had reduced the employment rate of these men by reducing demand for what Hurst referred to as “lower-skilled” labor. He proposed that by creating more vivid and engrossing gaming experiences, technology also increased the subjective value of leisure relative to labor. He was alarmed by what this meant for those who chose to play video games and were not working; he cited the dire long-term prospects of these less-employed men; pointed to relative levels of financial instability, drug use, and suicide among this cohort; and connected them, speculatively, to “voting patterns for certain candidates in recent periods,” by which one doubts he meant Hillary Clinton.
But the most striking fact was not the grim futures of this presently unemployed group. It was their happy present — which he neglected to emphasize. The men whose experiences he described were not in any meaningful way despairing. In fact, the opposite. “If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being,” he wrote, “lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.” The games were obviously a comforting distraction for those playing them. But they were also, it follows, giving players something, or some things, their lives could not.
The professor is nevertheless concerned. If young men were working less and playing video games, they were losing access to valuable on-the-job skills that would help them stay employed into middle age and beyond. At the commencement, Hurst was not just speaking abstractly — and warning not just of the risk to the struggling working classes. In fact, his argument was most convincing when it returned to his home, and his son, who almost seemed to have inspired the whole inquiry. “He is allowed a couple of hours of video-game time on the weekend, when homework is done,” Hurst wrote. “However, if it were up to him, I have no doubt he would play video games 23 and a half hours per day. He told me so. If we didn’t ration video games, I am not sure he would ever eat. I am positive he wouldn’t shower.”
My freshman year, I lived next door to Y, a senior majoring in management science and engineering whose capacity to immerse himself in the logic of any game and master it could only be described as exceptional. (This skill wasn’t restricted to electronic games, either: He also played chess competitively.) Y was far and away the most intrepid gamer I’d ever met; he was also an unfailingly kind person. He schooled me in Starcraft, let me fiddle around on the PlayStation 2 he kept in his room while he worked or played on his PC. An older brother and oldest child, I had always wanted an older brother of my own, and in this regard, Y, tolerant and wise, was more or less ideal.
Then, two days before Thanksgiving, a game called World of Warcraftwas released. The game didn’t inaugurate the genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), but given its enormous and sustained success — augmented by various expansions, it continues to this day — it might as well have. Situated on the sprawling plains of cyberspace, the world of World of Warcraft was immense, colorful, and virtually unlimited. Today’s WoW has countless quests to complete, items to collect, weapons and supplies to purchase. It was only natural that Y would dive in headfirst.
This he did, but he didn’t come out. There was too much to absorb. He started skipping classes, staying up later and later. Before, I’d leave when it was time for him to sleep. Now, it seemed, the lights in his room were on at all hours. Soon he stopped attending class altogether, and soon after that he left campus without graduating. A year later, I learned from M, his friend who’d lived next door to me on the other side, that he was apparently working in a big-box store because his parents had made him; aside from that, he spent every waking hour in-game. Despite having begun my freshman year as he began his senior one, and despite my being delayed by a yearlong leave of absence, I ended up graduating two years ahead of him.
Y’s fine now, I think. He did finally graduate, and today he works as a data scientist. No doubt he’s earning what economists would term a higher-skilled salary. But for several years he was lost to the World, given over totally and willingly to a domain of meanings legible only to other players and valid only for him. Given his temperament and dedication, I feel comfortable saying that he wasn’t depressed. Depression feels like an absence of meaning, but as long as he was immersed in the game, I believe that his life was saturated with meaning. He definitely knew what to do, and I would bet that he was happy. The truth is, as odd as it might sound, considering his complete commitment to that game, I envy this experience as much as I fear it. For half a decade, it seems to me, he set a higher value on his in-game life than on his “real” life.
What did the game offer that the rest of the world could not? To begin with, games make sense, unlike life: As with all sports, digital or analog, there are ground rules that determine success (rules that, unlike those in society, are clear to all). The purpose of a game, within it, unlike in society, is directly recognized and never discounted. You are always a protagonist: Unlike with film and television, where one has to watch the acts of others, in games, one is an agent within it. And unlike someone playing sports, one no longer has to leave the house to compete, explore, commune, exercise agency, or be happy, and the game possesses the potential to let one do all of these at once. The environment of the game might be challenging, but in another sense it is literally designed for a player to succeed — or, in the case of multiplayer games, to have a fair chance at success. In those games, too, players typically begin in the same place, and in public agreement about what counts for status and how to get it. In other words, games look like the perfect meritocracies we are taught to expect for ourselves from childhood but never actually find in adulthood.
And then there is the drug effect. In converting achievement into a reliable drug, games allow one to turn the rest of the world off to an unprecedented degree; gaming’s opiate-like trance can be delivered with greater immediacy only by, well, actual opiates. It’s probably no accident that, so far, the most lucid writing on the consciousness of gaming comes from Michael Clune, an academic and author best known for White Out, a memoir about his former heroin addiction. Clune is alert to the rhetoric and logic of the binge; he recognizes prosaic activities where experience is readily rendered in words and activities like gaming and drugs, where the intensity eclipses language. Games possess narratives that have the power to seal themselves off from the narratives in the world beyond it. The gamer is driven by an array of hermetic incentives only partially and intermittently accessible from without, like the view over a nose-high wall.
In Tony Tulathimutte’s novel Private Citizens, the narrator describes the feeling near a porn binge’s end, when one has “killed a week and didn’t know what to do with its corpse.” An equally memorable portrait of the binge comes from the singer Lana Del Rey, who rose to stardom in 2011 on the strength of a single titled “Video Games.” In the song, Del Rey’s lover plays video games; he watches her undress for him; later, she ends up gaming. Pairing plush orchestration with a languid, serpentine delivery, the song evokes an atmosphere of calm, luxurious delight where fulfillment and artifice conspire to pacify and charm. The song doesn’t just cite video games; it sounds the way playing video games feels, at least at the dawn of the binge — a rapturous caving in.
Of course, it was not video games generally that removed Y from school but, allegedly, one specific and extraordinary game. In much the same way that video gaming subsumes most of the appeals of other leisure activities into itself, World of Warcraft fuses the attractions of most video games into a single package. It’s not just a game; in many ways, it’s the game of games. Set in a fantasy universe influenced by Tolkien and designed to support Tolkienesque role-playing, the game, digitally rendered, is immeasurably more colorful and elaborate than anything the Oxford don ever wrote: If The Lord of the Rings books are focused on a single, all-important quest, World of Warcraft is structured around thousands of quests (raids, explorations) that the player, alone or teaming with others, may choose to complete.
Whether greater or lesser, the successful completion of these quests leads to the acquisition of in-game currency, equipment, and experience points. Created by the Irvine-based developer Blizzard (in many ways the Apple of game developers), WoW is rooted in an ethos of self-advancement entirely alien to that of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where smallness and humility are the paramount virtues. There is little to be gained by remaining at a low level in WoW, and a great deal to be lost. The marginal social status of the gamer IRL has been a commonplace for some time — even for those who are, or whose families are, relatively well-off. What a game as maximalist and exemplary as WoW is best suited to reveal is the degree to which status is in the eye of the beholder: There are gamers who view themselves in the light of the game, and once there are enough of them, they constitute a self-sufficient context in which they become the central figures, the successes, by playing. At its peak, WoW counted 12.5 million subscribers, each of them paying about $15 monthly for the privilege (after the initial purchase). When you consider how tightly rationed status is outside the game, how unclear the rules are, how loosely achievement is tied to recognition, how many credentials and connections and how much unpleasantness are required to level up there, it seems like a bargain.
Of course, there are other games, and other reasons to play beyond achieving status. Richard Bartle, a British game-design researcher and professor, constructed a much-cited taxonomy of gamers based on his observations of MUD, an early text-based multiplayer game he co-created in 1978. These gamers, according to Bartle, can be subdivided into four classes: achievers, competing with one another to reap rewards from the game engine; explorers, seeking out the novelties and kinks of the system; socializers, for whom the game serves merely as a pretext for conversations with one another; and killers, who kill. It isn’t hard to extend the fourfold division from gamers to games: Just as there are video games, WoW chief among them, that are geared toward achievers, there are games suited to the other three branches of gamers.
In many major games of exploration, like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft, the “objectives” of the game can be almost beside the point. Other times, the player explores by pursuing a novel-like narrative. The main character of the tactical espionage game Metal Gear Solid 3 is a well-toned Cold War–era CIA operative who finds himself suddenly in the forests of the USSR; the hero of the choose-your-own-adventure gameLife Is Strange is a contemporary high-school student in Oregon, and her estrangement results from her discovery that she can, to a limited extent, reverse time. These games are all fundamentally single-player: Solitude is the condition for exploring within games in much the same way that it is for reading a novel.
While explorers commune with a story or storyteller, socializers communicate with one another: The games that serve as the best catalysts for conversation are their natural preference. Virtually any game can act as a bonding agent, but perhaps the best examples are party games like Nintendo’s Mario Partyseries, which are just board games in electronic form, or the Super Smash Brothersseries, in which four players in the same room select a character from a Nintendo game with which to cheerfully clobber the other. The story, in these games, isn’t inside the game. It’s between the players as they build up camaraderie through opposition.
The ultimate games for killers aren’t fighting games so much as first-person shooters: Counter-Strike when played in competitive mode obliges you to play as one member of a team of five whose task is to eliminate an enemy quintet. The teams take turns being terrorists, whose task is to plant and detonate a bomb, and counterterrorists, whose task is to deny them. What beauty exists, is found only in feats of split-second execution: improbable headshots, inspired ambushes, precisely coordinated spot rushes.
What’s odd is that across these groups of games there’s perhaps as much unity as difference. Many of the themes blend together. Achievement can be seen as a mode of exploration and seems as viable a basis for socializing as any other. Socializing can be grouped with achievement as a sign of self-actualization. And killing? Few things are more ubiquitous in gaming than killing. Each one of the trio of novel-like games cited above forces the player-protagonist to kill one or more of his or her closest friends. Even a game as rudimentary as Tetris can be framed as an unending spree of eliminations.
Perhaps psychological types are a less useful rubric than, say, geological strata. As much as games themselves are divided into distinct stages, levels divide the game experience as a whole.
The first, most superficial level is the most attractive: the simple draw of a glowing screen on which some compelling activity unfolds. There will always be a tawdry, malformed aspect to gaming — surely human beings were made for something more than this? — but games become more than games when displayed vividly and electronically. Freed from the pettiness of cardboard and tokens, video games, like the rest of screen culture, conjure the specter of a different, better world by contrasting a colorful, radiant display with the dim materials of the dusty world surrounding them.
Second: narrative. Like film and television, many video games rely heavily on narrative and character to sustain interest, but just as those mediums separated themselves from theater by taking full advantage of the camera’s capacity for different perspectives, video games distinguish themselves from film and television in granting the viewer a measure of control. What fiction writing achieves only rarely — the intimate coordination of reader and character — the video-game system achieves by default. Literary style pulls together character and reader; technology can implant the reader, as controller, within the character.
Third: objectives, pure and simple. Action games and platformers (like Mario) in which the player controls a fighter; strategy games in which the player controls an army; grand strategy games in which the player controls an empire; racing games in which the player controls a vehicle; puzzle games in which the player manipulates geometry; sports games; fighting games; SimCity: These are genres of games where plot is merely a function of competition, character is merely a function of success, and goals take precedence over words. Developing characters statistically by “leveling up” can feel more important, and gratifying, than developing characters psychologically by progressing through the plot. The graphics may or may not be polished, but the transactional protocol of video games — do this and you’ll improve by this much — must remain constant; without it, the game, any game, would be senseless.
Fourth: economics. Since every game is reliant on this addictive incentive system, every gamer harbors a game theorist, a situational logician blindly valorizing the
optimization of quantified indices of “growth” — in other words, an economist. Resource management is to video games what African-American English is to rap music or what the visible sex act is to pornography — the element without which all else is unimaginable. In games as in the market, numbers come first. They have to go up. Our job is to keep up with them, and all else can wait or go to hell.
And there is something sublime, though not beautiful, about the whole experience: Video games are rife with those Pythagorean vistas so adored by Americans, made up of numbers all the way down; they solve the question of meaning in a world where transcendent values have vanished. Still, the satisfaction found in gaming can only be a pale reflection of the satisfaction absent from the world beyond. We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.
Gamers have their own fantasies of prosperity, fantasies that sometimes come true. For a few, gaming has already become a viable and lucrative profession. Saahil Arora, an American college dropout who plays professional Dota 2under the name UNiVeRsE, is reportedly the richest competitive gamer: He has earned $2.7 million in his career so far. But even Arora’s income is dwarfed by those of a handful of YouTube (and Twitch) broadcasters with a fraction of his talent: Just by filming themselves playing through games in a ludicrously excitable state for a young audience of fellow suburbanites, their income from ads and subscriptions adds up to earnings in the mid seven figures. The prospects for those who had gathered at Next Level that chilly November night were not quite so sunny. The fighting-game community (FGC), which has developed around one-on-one games like Streetfighter, and for which Next Level serves as a training ground, has yet to reach the popularity of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAS) like Dota 2, or first-person shooters, such as Counter-Strike. (The scene is taking steps in that direction: 2016 marked the first year that the Street Fighter V world championships were broadcast on ESPN2 as well as the first time that an American FGC player — Du Dang, from Florida — took the title over top players from Japan.)We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.
Still, according to a veteran of the community (16 of his 34 years), Sanford Kelly, the fighting-game community scene has a long way to go. Though he personally isn’t fond of Street Fighter V, the latest iteration in the series, his energies are devoted to guiding the New York FGC to become more respectable and therefore more attractive to e-sports organizations that might sponsor its members: “We have to change our image, and we have to be more professional.” Compared with other branches of American e-sports, dominated by white and Asian players, the FGC has a reputation that’s always been more colorful: It’s composed primarily of black players like Kelly, Asian players like his longtime Marvel rivals Justin Wong and Duc Do, and Latino gamers, and its brash self-presentation is influenced by the street culture that gave rise to hip-hop. With a typical mixture of resignation and determination, Kelly internalized the fact that, locally and nationally, his scene would have to move away from its roots to move to a larger stage. But the competitive gaming economy had already reached the point where, as the streamer, commentator, and player Arturo Sanchez told me, the earning potential of the FGC were already viable. “So long as you don’t have unrealistic ambitions.” Between the money gleaned from subscriptions to his Twitch channel, payments for streaming larger tournaments, sponsor fees from businesses that pay for advertising in the breaks between matches, crowdfunding, merchandise, and YouTube revenue, Sanchez is able to scratch out a living, comfortably if not prosperously, as a full-time gamer.
Next Level itself is not financially self-sufficient: Without additional income, including from its co-owner and co-founder Henry Cen (a former day trader), it couldn’t pay the rent. “Only rich countries can have places like this,” says the bespectacled and crane-thin Cen. “You wouldn’t see this in Third World countries.” He describes the people who make up the majority of New York’s FGC as coming from blue-collar families: “They’re not the richest of people. There are some individuals that are, but most people that do have money, they want to do something more with their money.” He’s relatively pessimistic about the possibility of becoming a professional gamer: Considering the economic pressures on FGC members and the still small size (roughly 100,000 viewers at most) of the viewing audience, it’s a career that’s available only to the top “0.01 percent” of players. Family pressures to pull back from gaming are strong: Even Justin Wong, one of the happy few who succeeded in becoming a professional, reportedly hid the fact from his family for a long time. “His family did not accept him as a gamer, but recently, they have changed their opinion,” says Cen.
“Because he started bringing in money,” I speculated.
“Yes. If you’re doing gaming, especially if you’re an Asian, your progress in life is measured by only one thing: money.”
Like Professor Hurst, I was interested in the political valence of gaming: Was there something fundamental to the pastime that inevitably promoted a dangerous politics? I was intrigued by the data Hurst cited, and during the recent campaign and immediately after, a number of writers noted the connection between Trump supporters and the world of militant gamer-trolls determined to make gaming great again through harassment and expulsion. But as a gamer myself, I found this ominous vision incomplete at best: Most gamers weren’t Trump-adjacent, and if Trumpism corresponded to any game, I thought, it was one that, in its disastrous physicality, could never become a video game: not Final Fantasy but Jenga. (Jenga is now on Nintendo Wii, I’m told.) On the other hand, I’ve never found it easy to trust my own perceptions, so I reached out to friends and acquaintances who were also gamers to learn from their experiences.
Though none of us is a Trumpist, no discourse could unite us. We were trading dispatches atop the Tower of Babel. We got different things out of gaming because we were looking for different things. Some of us greatly preferred single-player games, and some could barely stand to play games alone. Some of us held that writing about games was no more difficult than writing about any other subject; some of us found, and find, the task insanely difficult. Some of us just played more than others — Tony Tulathimutte listed 28 games as personal favorites. He and Bijan Stephen, also a writer, both had a fondness for secondary characters. (Stephen: “I love the weird helpers like Toad and the wizards in Gauntlet— not because they’re necessarily support characters but because they’ve got these defined roles that only work in relation to the other players.”) Meanwhile, Emma Janaskie, an associate editor at Ecco Books, spoke about her favorite games’ main characters, especially Lara Croft. Janaskie’s longest run of gaming lasted ten hours, compared with Stephen’s record of six hours and Tulathimutte’s of 16. When likewise queried, the art critic and gaming writer Nora Khan laughingly asked if she could go off the record, then recalled: “I’ve gotten up to take breaks and stuff, but I’ve played through all of Skyrim once,” adding parenthetically that “Skyrim is a 60-to-80-hour game.”
Janaskie and Tulathimutte made strong avowals that gaming fell squarely within the literary field (Tulathimutte: “Gaming can be literary the same way books can be. DOS for Dummies and Tetris aren’t literary, but Middlemarch and The Last of Us are, and each has its purpose”); I found the proposition more dubious.
“It seems to me that writers get into games precisely because it’s almost the antithesis of writing,” I said to Khan.
“Absolutely,” she said.
“When you’re writing, you don’t know what the stakes are. The question of what victory or defeat is — those questions are very hard to pin down. Whereas with a game, you know exactly what the parameters are.”
“Yes. I wouldn’t say that for everyone. Completing a quest or completing the mission was never really very interesting to me personally. For me, it’s more meditative. When I play Grand Theft Auto V, it’s just a way to shut off all the noise and for once be in a space where I don’t need to be critical or intellectualize something. Because I’m doing that all the time. I just go off and drive — honestly, that’s what I do in real life, too. When I just want to drop out of the situation, I’ll go and drive outside of the city.”
I wouldn’t trade my life or my past for any other, but there have been times when I’ve wanted to swap the writing life and the frigid self-consciousness it compels for the gamer’s striving and satisfaction, the infinite sense of passing back and forth (being an “ambiguous conduit,” in Janaskie’s poignant phrase) between number and body. The appeal can’t be that much different for nonwriters subjected to similar social or economic pressures, or for those with other ambitions, maybe especially those whose ambitions have become more dream state than plausible, actionable future. True, there are other ways to depress mental turnout. But I don’t trust my body with intoxicants; so far as music goes, I’ve found few listening experiences more gratifying or revealing than hearing an album on repeat while performing some repetitive in-game task. Gaming offers the solitude of writing without the strain of performance, the certitude of drug addiction minus its permanent physical damage, the elation of sports divorced from the body’s mortality. And, perhaps, the ritual of religion without the dogma. For all the real and purported novelty of video games, they offer nothing so much as the promise of repetition. Life is terrifying; why not, then, live through what you already know — a fundamental pulse, speechless and without thought?
Aims: Video games provide opportunities for positive psychological experiences such as flow-like phenomena during play and general happiness that could be associated with gaming achievements. However, research has shown that specific features of game play may be associated with problematic behaviour associated with addiction-like experiences. The study was aimed at analysing whether certain structural characteristics of video games, flow, and global happiness could be predictive of video game addiction. Method: A total of 110 video game players were surveyed about a game they had recently played by using a 24-item checklist of structural characteristics, an adapted Flow State Scale, the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, and the Game Addiction Scale. Results: The study revealed decreases in general happiness had the strongest role in predicting increases in gaming addiction. One of the nine factors of the flow experience was a significant predictor of gaming addiction – perceptions of time being altered during play. The structural characteristic that significantly predicted addiction was its social element with increased sociability being associated with higher levels of addictive-like experiences. Overall, the structural characteristics of video games, elements of the flow experience, and general happiness accounted for 49.2% of the total variance in Game Addiction Scale levels. Conclusions: Implications for interventions are discussed, particularly with regard to making players more aware of time passing and in capitalising on benefits of social features of video game play to guard against addictive-like tendencies among video game players.
Keywords: video game addiction, structural characteristics of video games, happiness, flow
Video game playing is prevalent across many cultures with a wide range of different types, genres, and interfaces from which to choose. These media have been subjected to an increasing number of studies concerning the adverse effects of video game play that may entail cases of video game addiction, for instance (Griffiths, Kuss & King, 2012; Griffiths & Meredith, 2009; Kuss & Griffiths, 2012a; 2012b). It has been argued that to be addicted to video games, six core components need to be experienced by the player (Griffiths, 2008), namely salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. Salience is evident when the playing of the video game becomes the single most important thing in a person's life, often resulting in cravings and total preoccupation with the activity. Mood modification involves the creation of an arousing (or, in some cases, a satiating) feeling from playing the game that is often used as a way of coping with other areas of the person's life. The mood-modifying effect from the game often requires increasing amounts of game time, leading to tolerance. When playing the game is not possible, players may experience withdrawal symptoms, including irritability, sweating, headaches, the shakes, etc. Conflict refers to the ways in which playing the game interferes with normal day-to-day life, compromising personal relationships, job and/or educational activities, and hobbies/social life. Players may also experience intra-psychic conflict (i.e. personal conflict, resulting in feelings of guilt and/or a loss of control). Relapse refers to the tendency for those attempting to change their behaviour to return to similar patterns of video game playing prior to stopping the last time around.
Addictive behaviours brought on by video game play could be elicited by positive psychological phenomena, such as the state of flow (Ting-Jui & Chih-Chen, 2003). With the flow experience, a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player's skills, and the player's sense of time is distorted so that time passes without it being noticed (Csíkszentmihályi, 1992). For some video game players, this may then mean repeatedly seeking out similar experiences on a regular basis to the extent that they can escape from their concerns in the 'real world’ by being continually engrossed in a flow-inducing world (Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005). As can be seen, something like flow – viewed largely as a positive psychological phenomenon (Nakamura & Csíkszentmihályi, 2005) – may be less positive in the long-term for some video game players if they are craving the same kind of emotional ‘high’ that they obtained the last time that they experienced flow when playing a video game.
Flow has been proposed by Jackson and Eklund (2006) as comprising nine elements that include: (i) striking a balance between the challenges of an activity and one's abilities; (ii) a merging of performance of actions with one's self-awareness; (iii) possessing clear goals; (iv) gaining unambiguous feedback on performance; (v) having full concentration on the task in hand; (vi) experiencing a sense of being in control; (vii) losing any form of self-consciousness;(viii) having a sense of time distorted so that time seems to speed up or slow down; and (ix) the undergoing of an auto-telic experience (e.g., the goals are generated by the person and not for some anticipated future benefit).
The application of flow to video games is intuitive and some of the core concepts in gaming design indirectly incorporate facets of flow theory. For example, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA) is a design implementation within a game that replaces the traditional, optional difficulty system (Hunicke & Chapman, 2004). Instead of deciding the difficulty level of the game from the offset, the difficulty setting is player-centred, offering modification based on the performance of the player. In this way, the game adjusts itself to keep players at the level of difficulty that is challenging them, while not distressing them. Chen (2007) created a game exclusively to demonstrate this feature, which incorporated a DDA system while discreetly informing players of their performance. The game had clearly set goals, and players reported that time seemed to ‘fly by’ when playing. The experience of time distortions is a common feature of gaming. Some studies (e.g. Wood & Griffiths, 2007; Wood, Griffiths and Parke, 2007) have obtained qualitative and quantitative data from players of video games to explore this issue. In one of their online surveys of 280 gamers (Wood et al., 2007), results showed that 99% of the gaming sample reported experiencing time loss at some point while playing video games. Further analysis showed that 17% experienced this occasionally, 49% frequently, and 33% all of the time. When performing an activity in a state of flow, if one suddenly becomes aware of one's self, this may result in ending the optimal experience (Csíkszentmihályi, 1992). For this reason, reports of losing track of time are often one of the best indications of flow-like experiences. However, in the case of Wood and Griffiths' (2007) study, time loss was not always reported as positive and such phenomena were often reported more negatively in terms of potential video game addiction.
Given that several studies have concentrated on psychological flow and addiction in relation to video games, it is not surprising that these two factors may at times inter-relate. Ting-Jui and Chih-Chen (2003) examined the relationship between flow and addiction and found that flow resulted from repetitive behaviour through a desire to repeat the positive experience. This repetitive behaviour subsequently resulted in addictive tendencies when wishing to repeat the activity concerned. It should be noted that not all players who experience flow may get addicted to playing a video game and not all persons who are addicted to video gaming will necessarily have a flow state when playing. Flow could be an antecedent to an increased likelihood of becoming addicted to a game as gamers begin to increase their expertise in playing the game and this may then lead to a seeking out of greater challenges within the game space to receive the same ‘hit’. For instance, as Figure 1 shows (adapted for video gaming), if the level of challenge is low and a player's abilities are low through just learning the game, there could be a flow-like experience as the player begins to revel in their new-found talents at a game (i.e. A1 in Figure 1). However, if the challenges of the game remain at a similar level throughout, then it is likely that the player may begin to get bored of the challenges of that game (i.e. A2 in Figure 1); by contrast, if the gamer were to be dropped into a level of a video game that was over-challenging for one's abilities (i.e. A3 in Figure 1), then anxiety may result and perhaps an inclination to no longer want to play the game. Where flow and addiction may begin to be intertwined is when the challenges of the game begin to increase in line with the player's abilities and new challenges need to be met. In this state (i.e. A4 in Figure 1), it has been argued (Csíkszentmihályi, 1992;p. 75) that this will be a more intense and complex flow experience markedly different from when the activity was first being learned. Due to the ‘highs' experienced at that point, it can be hypothesised that, as flow experiences increase in frequency through incremental steps of abilities matched with challenges when playing, it is likely that addiction-inducing situations may then begin to arise.
In addition to positive psychological phenomena (e.g. flow), being correlated with gaming addiction, there is evidence to suggest that low levels of well-being and happiness can be predictive of increased tendencies to engage in problematic video gaming behaviour. For instance, a two-wave longitudinal study by Lemmens, Valkenburg and Peter (2011) of 851 adolescents in The Netherlands found that poor states of psychological well-being acted as antecedents to pathological video gaming. Well-being, in that study, was operationalized in several forms that included self-esteem, social competence and loneliness. As a result of Lemmens et al.'s (2011) work, we predicted that low levels of happiness would be predictive of higher levels of gaming addiction scores.
Characteristic features that a video game may possess could impact on a player's experiences and the potential for a game to elicit addictive-type behaviours. To this end, King, Delfabbro and Griffiths (2010) developed a taxonomy of features and sub-features that are common to most video games (see Table 1). This taxonomy was based on the seminal work by Wood, Griffiths, Chappell and Davies (2004) who identified inherent characteristics of a video game that were structural and likely to induce initial gaming activities or maintenance of gaming, irrespective of any other differentiating factor such as the socioeconomic status, age, sex, and so forth. There has also been preliminary recent evidence (King, Delfabbro & Griffiths, 2011) to demonstrate that some structural features inherent in certain games are particularly associated with problematic behaviour that could pose a risk to players of having increased video game addiction tendencies. For example, King, Delfabbro and Griffiths (2011) found that video game players who were exhibiting problematic tendencies were more likely than so-called ‘normal’ players to look to games that provided increasing rewards in the game (e.g. earning experience points or finding rare items) and were also more likely to be engrossed in games with a high social component to them (e.g., sharing tips and strategies, cooperating with other players, etc.).
Taxonomy of video game structural characteristics
Overall, this pilot study was designed to test a predictive model of video game addiction that incorporated the structural characteristics of a game that participants had recently played, along with the nine different elements of flow that may have been experienced in relation to playing that game, along with the influence of respondents' general levels of happiness, or lack thereof.
It was hypothesised, based on prior research into flow and addiction, that flow would be positively associated with gaming addiction, in particular the elements of flow that would be symptomatic of being immersed in a state of being that would involve shutting out the player from the outside world (e.g. actions and self-awareness being blended into one; concentrating on the task; not being self-conscious; and having a sense of time being distorted). It was also anticipated that, as unhappiness has been correlated with tendencies to withdraw socially and be engrossed in activities such as excessive video gaming, we predicted that low levels of happiness would predict an increase in gaming addiction. Moreover, we expected to see positive associations between the main structural features identified by King, Delfabbro and Griffiths (2011) and gaming addiction, as per prior research. It was anticipated that the social features would affect a similar dynamic with addiction that has been seen previously in a range of virtual environments such as what may occur in social networking websites. Other features were also seen as synonymous in being able to elicit pleasurable engaged feelings of being in flow while at the same time leaving oneself open to such activities becoming addictive – these would entail the seeking out of rewards and the striving to be in control, to name a few of the structural characteristics that may be naturally reinforcing.
A total of 190 gamers completed an online questionnaire. The sample was obtained via opportunity sampling by advertising through online gaming forums and via other online psychology research web sites. After data cleaning for incomplete or problematic responding (e.g., identical responses made for all items or illogical response patterns), a final sample comprising 110 responses was used. This included 78 males and 32 females, with a mean age of 24.7 years (SD = 9.04 years). The mean number of years of playing video games was 13.4 years (SD = 5.6 years) and participants played for a mean of 9.2 hours per week (SD = 8.8 hours). Respondents mainly came from the United States of America (n = 65) or the United Kingdom (n = 34). Overall, 79 different video games were played by the participants with the most common game being played by respondents being Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (n = 20). Of the 110 participants, 66 played the video game alone, while 42 played in a multiplayer mode. Two players did not specify whether they played alone or with others.
Video Game Features (King et al., 2010). Respondents were provided with a selection of gameplay features, based on the video game feature taxonomy developed by King et al. (2010). Each item also included an example of what each kind of feature entailed (see sample items in Table 1). Gamers were asked to indicate the extent to which each of the characteristics was integral to the gaming enjoyment of the video game they had most recently played. Items were coded according to an ordinal scale of 2 if the feature was rated as present and important, 1 if the feature was present but not important for gaming enjoyment and 0 if it was not present. It should be noted that one of the five main features from the King, Delfabbro and Griffiths (2011) taxonomy – the reward/punishment one – was split into two and the focus of the analysis was primarily on the reward feature rather than on punishments as it was hypothesised that the seeking of rewards would be most strongly linked with gaming addiction and the avoidance of punishments would not be that crucial for gaming addiction levels.
The Flow State Scale (FSS-2; Jackson & Eklund, 2006). This was used to measure the degree of flow experienced while playing their indicated games. The FSS-2 is a 39-item scale assessing nine factors relating to flow, which were computed as subscales. Responses were scored on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Higher scores for each of the nine factors indicated a strong indication of flow-like experiences having taken place. The scale has good psychometric properties, with confirmatory factor analysis supporting its factorial validity and it has satisfactory internal consistency, with Cronbach's alphas ranging from .72 to .91 (Jackson & Eklund, 2006).
The Game Addiction Scale (GAS; Lemmens, Valkenburg & Peter, 2009). The GAS was used to measure addiction relating to the game they had most recently played. The GAS is a 21-item scale, comprising seven subscales measuring factors of gaming addiction, and based on problematic behaviours and cognitions taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The scale included questions such as: Did you think about playing video games all day long? that indicated the issue of salience in relation to addictive tendencies with video gaming. Responses were scored on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from never (coded as 1)to very often (coded as 5). A score of 5 indicated a strong indication of addiction-proneness with regard to a specific factor. The Gaming Addiction Scale total was calculated by summing all items. The GAS has been found to have good levels of concurrent validity and very high internal consistency (Lemmens et al., 2009) and has been used in a range of studies into video game addiction (e.g., Arnesen, 2010; Hussain, Griffiths & Baguley, 2012; van Rooij, 2011).
The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (OHQ; Hills & Argyle, 2002). The 29-item OHQ was used, which was a measure of general happiness. Items were scored on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree. Positively coded items included ones such as I feel that life is very rewarding and reverse coded items were typified by those such as I am not particularly optimistic about the future. The OHQ has been found, after factor analysis with a sample of data from 172 University students, to have satisfactory construct validity by largely possessing a uni-dimensional structure and it also have very good internal consistency with a Cronbach's alpha of .91 (Hills & Argyle, 2002).
Upon clicking on the link to the online survey, participants were given information on the study and an online consent form to complete. To ensure participant anonymity and their right to withdraw from participation if they so wished, participants were required to provide a unique identifier, which could be used to delete a participant's responses at any point up until the analysis stage. After completing the consent section, participants were required to complete the various sections of the survey, after which they were met with a debrief statement that outlined the rationale for the research and pointed participants to resources for support in case of problems relating to video game play. The study was approved by the research team's University's Ethics Committee.
Design and analysis
The study had a cross-sectional design including correlational data analysis. Multiple regression was used to analyse the predictive capability of five different video game characteristics, happiness, and nine elements of flow in predicting the variance in total Gaming Addiction Scale values.
A multiple linear regression evaluated the ability of the nine elements of flow, the OHQ, and the five structural gaming characteristics as variables to predict the variance in respondents' GAS total scores. Pre-analysis checks were satisfactory after measuring the degree of multicollinearity in this sample. As can be seen in Table 2, predictor variables were not too highly correlated with each other, with only very strong correlations of .71 and .75 being found for the flow subscale factors. The Variance Inflation Factor (VIF) for the predictor variables ranged from 1.13 to 3.56, which is acceptable as being below the threshold of 10 (Pallant, 2007); likewise, Tolerance levels for each predictor was also satisfactory and ranged from .28 to .88.
Correlation matrix – Relationship of predictor variables with total gaming addiction scores
Inspection of the correlation matrix revealed the following salient trends, namely that there were low significant positive correlations between GAS levels and social, manipulation/control, and reward features of a game. In terms of relationships with flow, GAS was significantly and positively correlated with a merging of actions and awareness of oneself and also with a distorted sense of time. There was also a moderate inverse correlation between general happiness levels and the sample's GAS experiences. In terms of relationships between predictor variables, the auto-telic experience of playing a video game was weakly but significantly correlated with games that had manipulation/control, narrative and identity, and reward features within them. There were also significant positive correlations between the flow experience of merging actions and awareness of self with various features of a game, including those games with social features and reward features.
Table 3 shows the strength of the predictive relationship with each variable predicting gaming addiction scores. The total variance in game addiction levels explained by this model was 49.2%, (R2 = 0.492, F[15, 94] = 6.07, p < .05). Three predictor variables were statistically significant predictors of total GAS – social features of a video game, distortion of time perception when playing the game, and levels of happiness; happiness was the strongest predictor (b = –.47), signalling that a one SD unit increase in happiness would predict a .47 SD unit decrease in gaming addiction levels, and vice versa.
Summary of multiple regression analysis using the enter method to predict Game Addiction Scale levels
By conducting multiple regression analysis on the data collected relating to flow, the structural characteristics of video games, and addiction, the findings provide insights into some of the important factors that may be involved in the development of video game addiction. More specifically, the results demonstrated that three variables were statistically significant predictors of gaming addiction (i.e., the social features of a video game, distortion of time perceptions, and levels of happiness). These all appear to have good face validity in relation to previous findings on video game addiction (Griffiths et al., 2012). These three predictors and the other predictor variables accounted for 49.2% of the variance in Game Addiction Scale levels among the sample; these factors appear to be important factors in explaining how people develop video game addictions.
In relation to happiness, the study showed that the unhappier a player was, the more likely they would have a higher score on the GAS. Given that much of the video game addiction literature shows that video game addicts play as a means of escaping and coping with unpleasant and unwanted aspects of their day-to-day lives (Kuss & Griffiths, 2012a, 2012b), such a finding would appear to make intuitive sense. However, given the cross-sectional nature of the study, the data do not shed light on whether the unhappiness was experienced prior to the game playing (and therefore video game playing was used to counteract the unpleasant feelings) or whether the addictive playing made them feel unhappy (and therefore the video game playing made them forget about how unhappy they were).
The structural characteristic that significantly predicted video game addiction was the social element with increased sociability being associated with higher levels of addictive-like experiences. Structural characteristics that promote sociability are also likely to be deemed as highly rewarding and reinforcing by players, and again any activity that is constantly providing rewarding experiences to the player increases the likelihood of habitual behaviour. The findings in the current study also confirm results obtained by King, Delfabbro and Griffiths (2011) who found video game players with problematic gaming behaviours were significantly more likely, when compared with those with non-problematic game play behaviours, to be engrossed in games with a high social component to them. There are several key dynamics that could be occurring with video games that have a salient socialising characteristic that could make video game addiction more likely. It is probable that an iterative and synergistic process of low levels of happiness, and high levels of certain elements of flow and gaming addiction are blends of experiences that make for gamers seeking out social support systems from within the online game to ameliorate any feelings of isolation.
Indeed, it has been argued in a seminal paper by Selnow (1984) that unhappy, socially isolated gamers may often turn to socialisation through gaming, which then in turn effects a need for spending more time with these ‘electronic friends' in order to feel complete. It is through the social world of the gaming environment that the video game player with pathological tendencies may act out relationships that are somewhat superficial but that are still mutually reinforcing and rewarding; it is often through playing the game at a certain level of skill and the kudos afforded to the gamer through gaming achievements and respect and recognition given by one's gaming companions, that the gamer may attain some form of self-worth. The addictive experiences within the social world of the online video game may thus become mutually reinforcing among many of the players within the gaming community – this dynamic could be particularly problematic for some gamers with a high risk of gaming addiction. With the normalising of behaviours within the video gaming population's social world of devoting prolonged periods of game play in order to succeed, it is little wonder that the norms and values of some of the socially-related video game characteristics may be particularly noxious for someone with a predisposition to video game addiction.
Only one of the nine factors of the flow experience was a significant predictor of gaming addiction – heightened levels of a sense of time being altered during play. This factor may be highly reinforcing and rewarding to video game players, and as such may be an experience that players want to constantly repeat to achieve these positively rewarding psychological experiences. Given that addictive behaviour is essentially about constant rewards (Griffiths, 2005), such a finding again makes intuitive sense. Since flow more generally is widely accepted as a positive optimal psychological experience from engaging in an activity, it makes sense that an activity that is enjoyed so much may in some cases take on an obsessive and/or addictive form. This finding supports the study by Ting-Jui and Chih-Chen (2003) who suggested that flow-inducing activities may lead to addictive behaviours. As also noted earlier, there have been instances within video game addiction research where potential addicts have reported time loss as a negative attribute to gaming (Wood, Griffiths & Parke, 2007). The results from the present study appear to support such a finding.
At present, it is likely that no one type of gaming experience can be associated with higher levels of flow or addiction. In essence, it may not be the phenomenological set of experiences derived from playing a game that is as vital to addiction and flow as perhaps the actual interplay between facets of addiction and flow themselves. Certain, as yet uncovered, facets of gaming experiences may be more crucial to determining a video game player's tendencies to become addicted to a certain game or in getting into a state of flow while playing it. Rather, it is possible that other factors may more crucial to getting into a flow state when gaming, such as the speed with which the gamer can interact with the gaming environment or the need for a focused attentional state (Huang, Chiu, Sung & Farn, 2011).
This study aimed to uncover the potential for assessing common gaming experiences among video game players and also in seeing whether these experiences could be equated with video game addiction. However, as this was only a small-scale pilot study, it is acknowledged that were some limitations, which included issues to do with: the sample size; whether the sample can be seen as representative of the video gamer population and its self-selecting nature; the self-report nature of the data, and that the fact that the cross-sectional design did not make it possible to infer causality.
The study's findings suggest some implications for prevention and treatment of gaming problems. The results suggest that strategies are needed to help game players keep track of time spent during gameplay. Certainly, the extant literature (King, Delfabbro & Griffiths, 2012; King, Delfabbro, Griffiths & Gradisar, 2011, 2012) around the treatment of technology-based addictions, such as internet addiction, has involved recommendations of using a range of therapeutic techniques such as cognitive-behaviour therapy or motivational interviewing to help clients to monitor and cope with unmanageable patterns of behaviour; such techniques could include cognitive-behavioural strategies (e.g. diarising to help the player to be more aware of structural characteristics in a game that has prolonged game play to such an extent that adverse consequences such as conflict, mood modification, and tolerance have resulted). Some responsible gaming companies could introduce features in a game to assist those who may be prone to addictive tendencies from losing track of time while playing; features could be built into a game to remind players to take regular breaks by having subtle ‘pop-up’ messages to inform players of time spent gaming in a single session. Alternatively, as recommended by King, Delfabbro, Griffiths & Gradisar (2012), behavioural strategies such as deploying an alarm clock to set clear parameters for game play time, may also be effective when aiming to interrupt flow as a precursor to addiction. Overall, this pilot study has revealed intriguing results and implications for prevention and treatment of video game addiction, which could benefit from further replication with larger, heterogeneous samples of video game players.
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