Gaming (Ad)diction: Discourse, Identity, Time and Play in the Production of the Gamer Addiction Mythby Rob Cover
Although the vast majority of studies undertaking the examination of electronic games and the emergence of a gaming culture deny that games are addictive, a stereotype of the game player as addicted continues to circulate in various strands of ego-psychology and pedagogical study and, with greater force and political affect, in popular culture, news media and governmental rhetoric. Frequently, the addicted gamers are seen as low-class, proto-violent addicted and dangerous kids (Beavis, 1998), learning to express repressed anger and aggression (Young, 1998), sociopathically isolated (Thompson, 2002), and potentially capable of perpetrating another Columbine Highschool shoot-out (King & Borland, 2003). Unlike writers such as Young who lump games and online use together and read interactivity and immersion as addiction, there is clearly a strand in popular discourse that seeks to celebrate one over the other, and to accuse games for their addictiveness. What is at stake is how the various sets of knowledges that produce and affirm the stereotype of the addicted game player are produced and circulated. Stereotypes link an image to an idea (Rosello, 1998), fixing a long-term relation between the imaginary figure of the game player and the idea that gameplaying is addictive. The image-idea operations of the stereotype work dynamically-that is, the idea of gameplaying as addictive produces a particular form of game player, while, simultaneously, the utterance of game player invokes within some discourses the danger of addiction to gaming. But this only occurs through particular sets of ingrained attitudes that have emerged partly from a high-culture denunciation of gaming as a valid form of textual engagement, and partly through a set of moral panics around gaming as they emerge every few years in a variety of contexts.
Working within and studying game theory, we grow used to the idea that the stereotype is false, that gaming addiction is not real or at least far more complex than given in much popular culture depiction, and we become used to the task of ignoring popular culture and alarmist representations in order to concentrate on the manifold task of analysing gaming culture in such a way that overturns older, less-rigorously argued and indeed somewhat boring attitudes. However, it does remain a fact that the stereotyping of gameplay as addictive continues, and it comes into play in submissions to censorship boards in various countries, it informs government ministers and politicians and lawmakers in their attitude to gaming, it has discernible indirect effects on industry and development funding, it is related to the capacity to study gaming-and to fund that study-within universities and it relates to self-attitudes to gameplay. For these reasons alone the production of the gaming addiction stereotype is worthy of further analysis and further research, and of being drawn back in to the more interesting questions around the nature of gaming. As importantly, if the study of gaming is to go beyond the celebration or close analysis of games and further continue the examination of gaming sociality, then one of the political points of engagement centres on the question of gaming addiction, rather than ignoring or denouncing this unfortunate stereotype.
Given the considerable and continuing research suggesting gaming is addictive that continues to be produced through certain strands of psychological and normative discourses, as well as the considerable frequency with which alarmist statements and moral panics over gaming appear in the news media and other popular culture forms, it is not enough for those studying games, advocates of gameplay or industry representatives simply to reject the claim that games are addictive. Rather, a thorough body of work that addresses the concerns that gaming is addictive is needed, and particularly work that broadens the scope of gaming by utilising cultural studies and uses/ gratifications notions in favour of an overly simplistic technological determinist understanding of the emergence of contemporary game culture. In this paper, I want to work through six concerns that intersect with arguments around gaming and addiction: the application of addiction rhetoric of game players, research into online addiction, youth, violence, and the interactive goal-seeking nature of gaming narratives. All of these are, separately and in various combinations, fields of engagement in which gaming is denounced and the idea of gaming as addictive is rhetorically supported. What sustains and links them all is the concern I will end with: the production of an illusory dichotomy between the "real" and the "virtual" and a continuing cultural apprehension for activities and entertainments which are not viewed merely as the new but as dangerous by virtue of their representation as virtual.
The argument I am making here is not an attempt to prove that gameplay is not addictive for in some cases and a complexity of reasons it may well be. Rather, I am suggesting that the popular claims that gaming is addictive occur within the application of a rhetoric of drug addiction to the activity of gameplay, and that this occurs for a variety of reasons as I will illustrate. The transference of addiction rhetoric to discourses relating activities that may require repetitiveness or even have compulsive qualities is not limited to games, but has been similarly applied to gambling (Griffiths, 1998), sexual compulsion (Young, 1998) and pornography use (Pornography & Sexual Violence, 1983) among others. However, new technologies seem to be a particular target, and both the Internet and mobile telephones have been discussed as having inherently addictive qualities (Young, 1998; Quin, 2001). New technologies have frequently been the subject of anxiety and apprehension, particularly in popular culture representations in films such as The Matrix or television series such as The X-Files (Cooper, 2002). A cultural ambivalence toward media technologies is marked by the frequent celebration of technologies for the variety of benefits and possibilities that are given in various discourses, and the anxieties around change and disruption to existing social orders in modernity that are understood to be threatened by new technologies and subsequent emerging new social frameworks-this latter concern often being grounded in a technological determinism. Despite three decades of electronic gaming in a variety of forms (including the arcade game, the shift of gaming into the home with the rise of the personal computer, the gaming console innovations of the 1990s, and online multiplayer gaming), the celebrations and anxieties around technology continue to cite gaming as a prime example, and in many cases electronic games form the hub through which such apprehensions are expressed. The simultaneous trepidation and celebration of new forms of digital entertainment is particularly central to the idea that such forms are somehow inherently addictive.
In the medical and scientific discourses around chemical drugs, addiction is often defined either as processual behavioural change related to repetitive experience in socio-psychological disciplines, or neuroadaption to stimulation (such as psychoactive chemicals) among the more biochemically-oriented understandings of addiction. Either way, any concept of addiction involves a notion of behaviour change and a desire for or experience of repetition. Addiction is sometimes presented as an experience of moral disorder, a physical failing, a social failing, or as an infectious disease that must be contained or monitored for fear of spreading addiction from one body to another (Lart, 1998). It is variously one or several of these concepts that are used in digital addiction rhetoric to produce the figure or personage of the "frequent" or "heavy-use" game player as suffering an addiction, as an addict. Often this is seen simultaneously as a psychological disorder and through a model in which addiction is determined through that to which one is addicted-digital media in this case (e.g., Holliday, 2000). Kimberly Young’s work on Internet addiction serves as a significant example of the ways in which addiction rhetoric is used to denounce new social formations that emerge through digital media. Certainly her writing is filled with comparisons, many of them reductive and over-simplified, to suggest that frequent and time-consuming use of digital media forms is no different from "alcoholism, chemical dependency, or addictions like gambling and overeating" (Young, 1998). Rather than drawing too close a set of parallels between the digital as "drug" and drugs themselves, she works through a notion of "addictive behaviour" by drawing on previous writings which have drawn commonalities between chemical drug dependence and habits such as compulsive gambling, chronic overeating, sexual compulsion and obsessive television viewing. For Young, it is the "feeling" experienced that is addictive rather than the digital media itself (Young, 1998). For other writers, a notion of digital addiction is produced through articulating a resemblance between cultural notions of both drugs and electronic games as escapist-an escape from "the real" (Binaisa, 2002; Federwisch, 1997; Reid, 1998). Such comparisons are usually just that-reductive statements of resemblance that liken the physicality of chemical substance dependence with activities that can, in many cases such as gaming, be quite self-consciously chosen because they are pleasurable, enjoyable and gratifying, and are located in a vastly complex matrix of desire, identity and sociality that produces the choice to spend significant time engaged in game activity.
In an interview on the cultural semiotics and connotations of drug use and dependence, Jacques Derrida refers to a notion of the "diction" of "addiction" as a set of significatory characteristics that are applied to drug users and which bind the applicant within a particular set of ideological and political valencies (Derrida, 1995). I will return to Derrida’s diction of addiction at the end of this paper, but it is important at this stage to note that the application of the addiction metaphor constrains behaviour, as I will show, performatively produces behaviour and establishes the "digital world" as an unnatural, unreal, dangerous substance, and reductively represents the user as an addicted stereotype, linking the activity of gaming with the "image" of the drug addict.
At the same time, the application of the diction of addiction to gaming operates within a nexus of other discriminations, including class and age issues. Class in cultural theory remains considerably inseparable from taste, in Bourdieu’s sense of use and pleasure discrimination (Bourdieu, 1984), particularly when applied to the user, consumption or ingestion of a substance. While different tastes in music and food are among his prime examples, the use of electronic games is occasionally-but not uniformly-associated with class, particularly through a high/ popular culture binary. A recent opinion-editorial in the Melbourne (Australia) newspaper The Age reaffirmed the continuing separation of electronic gaming from reading literature. Chris Bantick’s "Why Computer Games Should Worry Parents" (2002) suggested three problems with younger persons playing computer games: (1) games usurp the creativity involved in playing with Lego building blocks, (2) games along with DVDs and television distract from reading and (3) games are compulsive and addictive. What is striking yet representative about this particular piece is that it continues an artificial high/ popular culture division and locates the alleged addictiveness of games within an anxiety over interactive, participatory and immersive formats that are understood to compete with the conceptual representation of "higher" art that is embodied in the non-interactive print book. Compulsive reading, then, is exempt from calls of addiction-though there may well be grounds for the application of addiction rhetoric to some readers-because it bears no resemblance or association with the less "legitimate" form of new media arts. The stereotype that gaming is predominantly not only a middle-class youth entertainment form but that the gaming console is found in the homes and trailers of an underclass is significant in making the connection between the game and the drug. It works to create discursive linkage with the continuing if discredited stereotype that drug use is predominantly a lower-class activity, and the idea that the street addict belongs to a particular social category of underclass. By linking gameplay in certain popular discourses to an anti-intellectual, anti-stability and anti-literary representation within class demarcations, the way is opened for the application of the rhetoric of drug addiction to games as a means to discredit gaming and to express apprehensions over the use. Whether such discrediting and anxiety is effective is immaterial, although, like claims that gaming deterministically causes violence and aggression, it remains the case that the rhetoric of chemical drug addiction continues to be cited in political deliberations over game censorship, as well as in dialogue on the utility of games for younger persons.
Online Addication and Gaming Addiction
One of the routes through which the application of drug addiction to gameplay is supported in the popular imaginary is through the recent moral panics over the Internet-as a sibling digital activity and form-as being also inherently addictive. While internet use and electronic gaming use have similarities in that they both utilise digital and, in some cases, interactive forms of textual engagement, they are also markedly dissimilar in the popular understanding of these two new media forms. For example, Lister et al (2003), indicate a dichotomy between computer-mediated communication forms (CMC) and videogames that is supported by several of the following binaries: creative content versus mindless entertainment; adult users versus youth consumers; fluid identity versus hypermasculinity; sociality versus commodified space; tool versus toy. More importantly, where the internet is seen as immersive, games are seen as addictive, and where online communication produces interactivity, gaming culture works through reflex or "twitch" (Lister, 2003). Nevertheless, the rhetoric around internet addiction as it produces the concept of addiction to digital and virtual forms of communication and entertainment has sometimes been shifted to justify a claim that electronic games are likewise addictive.
According to Young’s research, five to ten percent of internet users are addicted-she concludes that therefore five million Internet users are addicts on the basis of alcohol/ gambling use/ addiction differentiation estimates. Having utilised user responses she is able to articulate a particular narrative of online addiction, but in methodological terms her reliance on user responses to estimate that five to ten percent of all internet users are addicted has little legitimacy, and her concern that 97 percent of her respondents spent more time on the internet than they might have liked tells us very little about digital media use. While Young’s 1998 Caught in the Net study has been criticised for its reliance on a self-selected sample who replied to advertisements posted on Usenet groups and internationally-distributed newspapers (eg., Griffiths, 1998; Grohol, 2000), it is her production of normativity located within a concept of the "real" that has much broader implications for the idea of digital addiction. Young sees the space of digital communication, digital textuality and interactive engagement as a world of "make-believe" (Young, 1998) that has dangerous consequences for one’s personal identity and behaviour. By enforcing a strict and over-simplified distinction between "real life" behaviour and "virtual" behaviour, she validates a false concept of reality over digitality. Her concern is that in spending time online, inhibitions are broken down and people will type "words you wouldn’t dream of saying in your real life" (1998). She is concerned that heavy internet users neglect their "real" lives: "other family members and friends of Internet addicts lament the addict’s total loss of interest in once-treasured hobbies, movies, parties, visiting friends, talking over dinner" (1998, p.7). This point echoes Paul Virilio’s lamentation that "when things ‘far’ are brought into immediate proximity, those that are proportionately ‘near’ such as friends, kin, neighbours-turn what is proximate-family, work, or neighbourhood-into a foreign, if not inimical space" (Virilio, 1993, p.10-11).
Her reliance on "time expired" while engaged in digital communication and entertainment emphasizes the physical and local as the real, while viewing the imaginary space of the digital as the "virtual" or the "pseudo"-a lesser form of communication and experience that is considered in and of itself addictive. For Young, time spent online is the major criteria to indicate addiction. As she puts it: "In my survey 97 percent of all respondents reported that they found themselves spending longer periods of time-on-line than they intended" (Young, 1998, p.36). Television and radio are not treated to the same concerns over interactivity because they are not viewed as an ingress into a virtual or cyber world. I would suggest, however, that they in fact do invoke imaginary spaces, a point Joshua Meyrowitz (1997) makes in invoking the conceptual difference between physical place and communicative social space utilised through television and telephone. The difference is not a substantial distinction from various internet or gaming activities-they are all media and communications forms of differing levels of interactivity-but because television and radio are structured around scheduling and time, they are seen as less of an "unknown" frontier. Indeed, the clock on the VCR beneath or above the television seems to indicate clearly how long you’ve been accessing that virtual and imaginary world, and how long you can expect a particular programme to continue. Time spent gaming or online, as opposed to other activities, becomes the criteria for determining digital addiction. Indeed, much of Young’s questionnaire is based on questions about time spent online-an articulation of a set of norms of behaviour rather than a research-led interest in the different ways in which new communications technologies are utilised for different periods of time in varying temporal and social arrangements.
A further conceptual problem in Young’s work involves the ways in which she represents particular social arrangements as not only normative but desirable. In favouring her conception of "real life" over the mythical "virtual", she privileges not only physical and geographically local relationships over communication, entertainment and information-seeking in digital forms, she also celebrates the suburban and conservative family as a social unit hermetically-sealed off from alternative friendships, relationships and communicative practices that occur through digital means and across distances. Through a media effects and technologically determinist understanding, she expresses her alarm at what digital engagement apparently does to people like Jeanne:
a 34-year-old wife and homemaker from South Carolina. By appearances, Jeanne had a perfect life; an attentive husband, a nice house, two healthy toddlers, a few good friends through her church (1998, p.18).
After use of the Internet, Jeanne "began sharing her most personal thoughts and intimate details of her life" with online friends ("not her husband or real-life friends") and soon began exchanging erotic messages and enjoying cybersex. Likewise, players of MUD Interactive Games (Davis, 2001) are seen by Young as ignoring their real families who "are in the next room singing and laughing with holiday merriment" (1998, p.89), and Young does indeed bewail the fact that we no longer "know the names of the people next door" and that families "hardly ever eat together" (1998, p.113-114): the catch-cries of a conservative and normative articulation of home life. Rather than viewing digital media as something that emerges alongside and through cultural changes to the perception of family, friendship, communication and ways in which leisure time is legitimated, it is seen as facilitating the breakdown of lived culture per se.
The solution to digital addiction that Young offers is grounded in a combination of surveillance and alarmism. She suggests an increased vigilance and invokes an extremist rhetoric that calls for a Foucauldian level of surveillance of both others and the self:
An Internet addict can be your best friend, your own child, your parent, your partner, or your employee. An Internet addict could be the local bank’s president or its custodian, the public school principal or an average student. Or you! (1998, p.30)
Such discursive forms and strategies of articulating a concept of digital addiction work through, then, a markedly conservative set of ideas about human behaviour, normativity and change, and are no different from the discourse that feeds an alarmist moral panic about gaming use as abnormal, producing violence, and perceptions that players are "improper persons."
Although it is certainly true that younger persons, children and teenagers, make up a significant proportion of the known game player demographic (Latham, 2002; Buchanan, 2004), it is certainly also the case that games are becoming a popular lifestyle choice among adults (O’Riordan, 2001; Newman, 2002), particularly since the marketing of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft’s Xbox. The stereotypes of the average game player as the nerdish lad in the darkened basement or the psychopathic youth planning to blow up his school are in the process of being surpassed. Indeed, we have moved beyond the stereotype of gaming as a masculine pastime: girls and women are playing games, though the game genres of choice are often different-The Sims as a family-simulation rather than the first-person shooter game, such as Wolfenstein (Gee, 2003, p.11). Nevertheless, the nexus of youth, gaming and addiction continues to be posited in both popular discourse, alarmist moral panics around game culture, and in some instances, academic writing. Popular concerns that children are now playing digital games rather than reading, or playing with "physical" toys such as building blocks or footballs, are voiced often by opinion-makers and politicians. As with the psychological and popular representation of the internet as addictive, games are seen as addictive not because of an inherent feature in particular games or among particular players, but because gaming is viewed as an activity of choice of youth and, in its discursivity is believed the chief entry to a world seen as dangerous, unknown, unknowable, virtual and drug-like.
A particular set of discourses on children and new technology emerge in popular and media accounts of electronic game use and serve to strengthen the idea of games as addictive under the notion that youth are particularly vulnerable to addiction subsequent to exposure. Neil Selwyn (2003) identified five different depictions of child computer users in contemporary media: 1) the "natural" child computer user with an innate and adept ability with technologies; 2) the "successful" child seen to become "exceptional" through computer use; the "adult" user who surpasses teachers and parents in computer use and becomes mentor to them; 3) the "needy" child user, which highlight’s the enhanced need for training of children in IT use in schools; 4) the "victimised" user, who as an "innocent" is inadvertently exposed to undesirable violent or sexual material; and 5) the "dangerous" child who is "actively and aggressively using ICT at the ultimate risk of harming both themselves and others" (Selwyn, 2003, p.362). Of these, the latter two intersect most strongly with electronic game use in popular perception-the child who suffers the "media effects" of exposure to game violence and who, as British MP George Foulkes put it as early as 1981, become "hooked on the ‘space invaders’" (cited in Selwyn, 2003, p. 362), while at the same time dangerous because the exposure appears to produce a violent child (subsequently adult) and the addiction can be spread from one child to another. The rhetoric here is no different from that used to describe the child victimised by the drug pusher and the underground drug industry, as well as the dangerous, violent youth "on drugs." but as with Young’s assertion that online communication is addictive, it is merely a case of similarities drawn that ignores the specificity of physical drug dependence and the sociality that produces the game player. At play are a set of discourses producing the child or youth in differentiation or deviancy from "responsible adults." The immersion in gaming is sometimes seen, as Latham in his study of youth as consumer-vampires-consumed suggests, as the transformation of youth into passive objects to be "manipulated by a controlling system"-again, enabling a ready link between the vampirous industry and the vampiric drug dealer. Some academic study into gaming celebrates the programming and mental skills younger players are understood to pick up from gaming (e.g., Herz, 1997; Rushkoff, 1996), although Latham (2002) usefully points out that such appreciations tend to ignore the important role of marketing games to youth and de-link gaming culture from the "determinative structures of social power" (p.53), part of which might be seen to sponsor compulsive game purchase and play, which is subsequently read as game addiction.
The production of a nexus between the figures of youth, gaming and addict occur within what Mark Davis identifies as cultural generationalism. This he describes as a set of discursive formations in the West that denounces the practices, behaviours, concerns, ideas and pastimes of youth and children while nostalgically venerating those of the recent past-a form that is more marked in the representation of generation differences between the Baby-boomer and Generation-x age groups (Davis, 1997). Certainly Bantick’s concern that Lego has been displaced in favour of electronic games and online entertainment is rooted in a celebration of the popular toys of a baby boomer generation over those that were used by people currently under thirty, with a concern that these may lead to an "addiction to electronic stimuli at the expense of the physical." We see the artificial generationalism in the shift from the rhetorical link between youth-at-risk and chemical drug addiction, to the geographic realm of the shopping mall and consumer addiction (Steyer, 2002), and more readily to the addiction to digital media forms. The internet in popular culture is likewise frequently juxtaposed with the amorphous concept "youth" (as too are mobile phones and text messaging) in such a way that disguises a digital divide based on access, class and region, although this again seems to be something of a lag from a decade ago.
What also appears to differentiate the video game addict from other "digital addicts" as they are produced within popular culture is the differing weight given to the concept of the addict as a "social menace." Much has already been said to suggest that the practice of gaming is a determinist cause of violence and, in other spheres, to dissuade and discredit such a view. I will not rehearse these arguments here, other than to point out that a major "stream" in the anti-gaming argument is one of a particular apprehension towards a simplistic notion of immersion, and that this is something we find most dominantly in politicians’ articulation of anti-gaming and justifications for censorship. The US Congress in both 2000 and 2002 discussed legislation to limit violent content and more tightly regulate video games; in Australia a restricted (to adults) classification of games for those which would ordinarily be banned was opposed amidst a vocal lobby and a media moral panic; in New Zealand, the PlayStation 2 game Manhunt was recently banned by chief censor in the Film and Literature Office Bill Hastings on the basis that it was violence per se, not gameplay (InGaming, 2003). Steven Kent cites two United States senators who differentiate violence in gaming from the older and even more tired argument around violence represented on television and in film: Sam Brownback, who suggests that "A game player does not merely witness violence, he takes an active part" (Kent, 2001, p.546), and Senator Kay Hutchison who points to some statistics on television violence but goes on to suggest that "if a child is playing video games, that number is multiplied and the violence is at his own hands. He pulls the trigger, he likes it, he has fun, and his score goes up" (Kent, 2001, p.547). What is implied by these sorts of statements is that the modality of player and the modality of game character is collapsed in the act of gameplay, particularly as an act which is differentiated from the understanding of television viewing as more "passive." Part of the reason given for the banning of Manhunt in New Zealand is its immersion of the game player in a violent onscreen environment:
A player’s exposure to these [violent] aspects of the game is not fleeting. A proficient player could take up to an hour to complete each of the 24 levels. The length of time it takes to complete the game, and the necessity to repeat the killings in ever more gory fashion on each level if one does not complete that level at first attempt, increases exposure to material that initially disturbs, but which must be accommodated to complete the game…. To succeed in this game, a player must learn over an extended period of time to acquiesce in, tolerate, or even enjoy, the violence he or she inflicts (Office of Film & Literature Classification New Zealand, 2003).
The suggestion here is that playing a violent game goes beyond exposure, requires lengthy temporal engagement with the game’s narrative and that the accommodation of disturbing activity may become enjoyable and subsequently an issue of potential public injury under the purview of the OFLC. The notion that immersion becomes pleasurable is not without its roots in the rhetoric of chemical drug use, and works to support a discursive matrix presenting violence, drugs and gameplay as interrelated or, indeed, undifferentiated. Certainly it is the case that a game’s form requires a participant player to engage with a narrative in an interactive way around a goal-oriented main character. As Mark Wolf (2001) puts it,
Although characters in a film or novel may be goal oriented, video games (and games in general) frequently rely more on the attainment of a particular goal and win/lose distinction rather than on character and thematic development. Thus the main goal in the video game tends to be score oriented, conflict oriented, task oriented, or some combination of these (p. 105).
What we can take from this is the important point that interactivity is a manipulation of a game character, or targeting-lens or even a cursor, and that the form of the game depends on such interactivity, while successful gameplay requires the training to act as if one with the character. This "as if" is the obvious point here: there is no evidence to suggest that gameplay involves the shirking off of a self-aware subjectivity and a complete immersion in a narrated character that is violent. Nevertheless, the stereotype persists, and it is this sterotype that supports a continuing assertion of gameplay as addictive on the basis of a spurious connection between the stereotype of the drug addict as a violent menace and the understanding of gaming as a "release" from the constraints of identity into some sort of primal, violent mode. Both drugs and games, then, are seen as that which emancipates a subject from the necessary shackles of sociality, civility and the self-discipline that prevents violence, suggesting that a wild, formerly-submerged beast will be released and go on to shoot and kill having, further, been trained by long hours with the game. The mystique which accompanies the idea of the inner beast, a common cultural narrative that appears particularly in horror film but across other representations (Tudor, 1997), is one which likens the act of gameplay to the unintelligibility and unknowability of the hallucinogenic or narcotic substance.
Goal, Tension, Apprehension and Time
A further way in which the signifiers addiction and electronic gaming are frequently conflated in alarmist responses to game culture is through the amorphous and undecidable nature of the games as the "text" and/ or "play." One of the things that worried Young (1998) over internet addiction was the amount of time spent online. This is of course to predicate traditional forms of "spending time" over time spent in gaming and other digital forms, but her articulation of appropriate measurement of time is central to her argument that digital media is addictive. Likewise, the above-mentioned case of the New Zealand censorship of Manhunt represents the argument that immersion in playing a violent game is an inappropriate and socially injurious means to be entertained, and it is the emphasis on the amount of time engaged in this game that is presented as a factor for its classification as objectionable. Losing "track" of time, despite our technologies for its measurement and the perception of the change of measured time through "day shifting to night," is nothing new. As John Grohol (2000) neatly puts it: "Socializing with a friend, reading a book, work and watching television are all activities which people enjoy but sometimes take to an extreme" (p. 140). This "excessive" loss of time is often used to justify the addiction claim-the idea that too many people are spending too much time with a games machine, much as one presumes a drug addict spends too much time "on drugs," as it were. This is to continue the misreading of immersion or interactivity as addiction (p.46). There are two aspects about time and gaming which shift gameplay from common cultural perceptions of normality (as opposed to the "abnormality" of addiction to the drug-again, as it were). The first is the perception of time in gaming as it differs from the previously dominant medium of television, the second is the relationship between time and subjectivity.
Games are a form of digital media that work across the interface between narrative and play or, in Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire’s terms, a hybrid of text and interactive play (Jenkins & Squire, 2002). Play, as Huizinga pointed out in his Homo Ludens (1949), is conditioned by tension through goal-seeking. As he elaborates:
There is always the question: ‘will it come off?’ This condition is fulfilled even when we are playing patience, doing jig-saw puzzles, acrostics, crosswords, diabolo, etc. Tension and uncertainty as to the outcome increase enormously when the antithetical element becomes really agonistic in the play of groups. The passion to win sometimes threatens to obliterate the levity proper to a game."
His notation of the concept of passion is highly significant here: many of the fears invoked about violence and games and around electronic gaming addiction, have to do more with a "passion" for achieving a successful outcome through meeting a goal. Such goal-seeking across many games requires familiarity with the gaming environment and its internal narrative structures; not unlike physical sports, reading, playing a musical instrument or many other aspects of daily life, it requires training, practice and dedication. This is particularly true of electronic gaming, in which various physical and mental skills are necessary for gameplay. The introduction of the joystick in the 1980s into the home computer gameplaying environment was met with initial negative reactions by some over the difficulty of its use-not because it was inherently difficult but because it took some time to gain familiarity with it. Other interface devices such as the mouse also require time to gain familiarity; indeed, switching computers can cause some delay in efficient use of interface devices if they have been programmed differently or are set to have different reaction speeds, for example between a mouse and the cursor. The gaming environment itself takes time: there are instructions either on-screen or in print form to be read, the various goals of more complex games need to be learned, a god game such as Civilization III requires some amount of time to learn strategies for success-often by trial and error-this itself, along with some forms of sociality, is both the passion and pleasure of gameplay for many players. No doubt, for some lifestyles, certain particularly difficult games must be shunned for the amount of time that may be required to become familiar with the internal narrative operations of the game-the goals, narratives, play manoeuvres and possibilities of older games such as Tetris or Space Invaders are far more apparent on first playing than those of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds. A sporting game, such as Stacey Jones Rugby League, will be more easily learned by those familiar with the rules of rugby than by novices to the sport that the game replicates and represents. Whatever the personal or social value in gameplay, it remains that in the discourses of moral panic passion is re-written as addiction, supported by the witness of a player’s time and dedication. It is of course ironic to note that a passion for career, a sporting activity or even legitimate politics is seen as "healthy," whereas passion for that which is in digital form is represented as dangerous or addictive-a reaction to the continued novelty of games as opposed to other, more essentially "physical" or "localised" activities.
Simultaneously, the question of time emerges as something in gameplay that is measured differently from those more traditional forms of media activity and engagement, and causes a certain amount of anxiety among those suggesting gameplay is addictive or overly immersive. Time, as we have long known, is purely subjective, and multiple conceptions of time exist for any social or media formation. As Paul Virilio (1991) has remarked, "time is lived-physiologically, sociologically and politically-to the extent that it is interrupted" (p.82). This is a useful way for thinking about time spent with older media forms as opposed to electronic games. The television as a concomitant set of media texts and a form of media flow is temporally segmented (Cubitt, 1991). Its schedule is produced and familiar, generated within what Manuel Castells (1997) refers to as Clock Time which "characteristic of industrialism, for both capitalism and statism, was/is characterized by the discipline of human behavior to a predetermined schedule creating scarcity of experience out of institutionalized measurement" (p.125). The television schedule is media time that both disciplines and is disciple to the conventions of western human time as they arise through patterns and standards of work, sleep, dinner, family arrangements and so on. The rise of new, networked, digital and recorded media forms, however, has worked to change the ways in which "media time" operates. These changes are not determined by media form or alterations in media programming but again emerge simultaneously with changes in the temporal structure of labour such as in the growth of flexi-time (Cooper, 2002); the growth of a consumer society and changes in consumer practices such as twenty-four hour and seven-days-a-week shopping in the rise of a consumer society; and the rise of a network society in which digital forms of communication produce a now-ness in which information and communication are present and patience is (sometimes) unnecessary.
There is nothing inherent about television, radio or print that prevents, alters or produces different uses of time: television can be watched for an entire day, whether stationary on one channel or zapped endlessly for hours. A book can be read with few breaks throughout the night. And like electronic games, they invoke a particular imaginary "space" where time operates in different cycles-the temporality of a television narrative is generally not "working" at the same speed as the clock time of the viewer; the narrative of an epic novel can span generations but be read in a matter of days or hours. Likewise an electronic game such as a god game, can narrate interactively the events of a thousand years but be played in five hours. I would suggest that these invoked and imaginary spaces can be related in the same way that Joshua Meyrowitz (1997) separates and differentiates the conceptual physical place from the communicative social space imagined through television and telephone use. The difference in temporality, then, is not that one entices or immerses the reader/ player to a greater or lesser extent, but because television is structured around scheduling and time and a standard print work of fiction is likewise visibly structured by chapters and an ending-both in the sense of the narrative ending (Kermode, 1967) and the physicality of the book produced in its limitation of pages. Indeed, in the case of the television programme, the clock on the VCR beneath or above the set seems to indicate clearly how long you’ve been accessing that virtual and imaginary world, and how long you can expect a particular programme to continue. Because of (a) the interactive nature of most games that relies on human input, user familiarity and user-training, (b) the random generation of events, situations and configurations that emerge through the programme and the CPU and (c) the frequent lack of clarity over, say, the number of levels in which a player might be engaged in, say, a first-person shooter, game time is unknowable, unforeseeable, external to Castell’s clock time and beyond measurement according to our contemporary social criteria of time use.
Where the television is thus thoroughly marked by cycles of clock-time, gaming is marked by unstructured time, and it is that which causes anxiety enough for those who would in conservative terms see time as responsibly measured (by work, family) that they look to the analogy with drugs and drug rhetoric, as well as the concept that lengthy periods of play are an indication of addiction. Playing an action-adventure game such as Myst or an online game such as EverQuest between 2.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. might have been either difficult or impossible for some traditional twentieth-century labour, familial and temporal arrangements. However, in emerging social formations in which these activities are frequently disconnected from standards based on measured time, it is possible to choose to play at such times. This, however, is subsequently read by alarmists as addiction as if a compulsion towards gameplay has distracted from those traditional activities rather than viewing the game player as exercising a choice to play at those times. Indeed, under new conditions of contract and casual labour, such temporal flexibility is imposed: if gaming is an increasingly dominant entertainment form among those from teen-years to late thirties-loosely constructed as "Generation X"-then it is a group who is more likely to be long-term unemployed (Davis, 1997) and a group who has experienced a growth in casual, flexible and shift-based employment over permanent salaried positions with their standard operating eight-hour day beginning at nine in the morning (Hardt & Negri, 2000). It is also a group who has more amorphous family living arrangements including single-parent and blended families (Colebatch, 2002), therefore schedules that are less easily engendered by and through cycles of child-feeding, family meals or Sunday outings. However, rather than examining the ways in which various alterations to social arrangements or their general diversity can be represented and understood in the context of electronic game use, alarmists of game addiction look only to the differences in time and to the extent to which games are played (as opposed to watching television or reading print)
The Real and the Virtual in Gaming Addication
It follows within the diction of addiction that there is an addiction of the "self" or the body or the personality or some other facet of performative selfhood to something. While drugs are seen as a physical supplement (a pill, a powder, a liquid) that is ingested, penetrating the body through the hypodermic or otherwise consumed, it is what the drug represents-"effect"-that is considered virtual, unreal, without reality or outside of reason. Addiction is generally given in terms of an addiction to the un-real, something that is less real than that which is categorised as natural, righteous, appropriate, beneficial. Pornography has often been accused of being that unreal thing to which men, it would seem, are easily addicted: as one "expert witness" in the Minneapolis Ordinance Hearings on pornography put it: "Men masturbate to pornography only to become addicted to the fantasy" (Pornography and Sexual Violence, 1983, p.126). The gameplay experience is, in the similar rhetoric of addiction, given as the unreal or the virtual not because of something that takes it outside of physicality and normal behaviour nor because it relies on technologies which are relatively new. Rather, it is because the narrative, communicative, articulable "worlds" that are evoked interactively have no physical substance. The representation of digital cultures under the category of real/ simulacral social or media activities is a visual one. Concerns about digital addiction continue to invoke a separation between the real and the virtual through the invocation of the "seam" that is represented best by the video screen and interface devices (Sorkin, 1993). The real and the virtual, as a number of writers have pointed out, are birthed simultaneously, such that both are represented as pure, self-sufficient and separate. Both apologists and luddites view the virtual scape of video games, internet usage and other VR-related technologies as the realm of a new world order, post-human, post-culture. As Elizabeth Grosz (2001) argues:
Whereas many see in VR the ability to aspire to God-like status, to create, live in, and control worlds, to have a power of simulation that surpasses or bypasses the uncontrollable messiness of the real, others (sometimes even the same writers) revile and fear VR’s transformation of relations of sociality and community, physicality and corporeality, location and emplacement, sexuality, personal intimacy, and shared work space-the loss of immediacy, of physical presence…. Unashamed apologists of cybertechnologies and nostalgic Luddites yearning for days gone by see VR as a powerful force of liberation and a form of ever-encroaching fascistic control, respectively (p.77).
The salient point here is that whether those who celebrate or denounce new media forms from within a binary concept of real/virtual, all see a transformative potential for the real and the "real self" (whatever that might yet come to mean) in the encounter with the virtual, such that repetitive, frequent, passionate and even obsessive encountering of digital media sparks an anxiety that equates the virtual with the unreal drug, with the fantasy of pornography, with lesser status of casual sex, and with other un-reals related to addiction. Gaming is understood as addictive not because games are compulsively used, but because in representing their conceptual universe as "unreal" they are likened to drugs, and thereby become subjected to a discourse of drug addiction.
As Derrida (1995) puts it, we reject the drug addict because
he cuts himself off from the world, in exile from reality, far from objective reality and the real life of the city and the community; . . . drugs, it is said, make one lose any sense of true reality. In the end, it is always, I think, under this charge that the interdiction is declared. We do not object to the drug user’s pleasure per se, but to a pleasure taken in an experience without truth (p.235-236)
Although I am arguing here that the connection between drug addiction and gaming addiction is more than a metaphorical comparison, for it is indeed rooted in a perception of what constitutes the "real," a simple insertion of the signifier "game" in place of drugs in the above quote would indicate quite neatly the ways in which the digital addict is produced in contemporary culture. Because they are not within the knowledge of objective reality, interactive entertainments are a pleasure experienced "without truth." That is to say, the user or player who returns to this pleasure or experience again and again, as the tension and goal-seeking attributes of much gaming encourages, the rhetoric of addiction comes into play and a logic is established whereby it is possible to refer to the heavy user as an addict. The digital world is seen as a paradox that makes it foreign to the representation of the "real"-it is both ordered and chaotic. In the rhetoric of digital addiction, games are understood as chaotic, neither structured around time nor centralised; categories are mixed, crossbred, hybridised and blurred (Gaillot, 1998). At the same time, digital forms are viewed as being too-structured-a sealed world, such that the narrative space of an interactive game, no matter how complex, is seen to have a structure that is over determined and simplistic (Newman, 2002); a set of rules that one can imagine breaking but are impossible to defy (Humphreys, 2003; Beavis, 1998); or they are understood to lack the random pleasure of "real life" physical play and face-to-face communication.
Grosz (2001) and other writers point out that what the world of the digital does best is "reveal that the world in which we live, the real world, has always been a space of virtuality" (p.78). Thinking about gaming addiction can be productive for thinking about the relationships between new media and sociality only through breaking down the artificial distinction between the real and the virtual that is so pervasive throughout both celebrationist and alarmist discourses of new media.
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