Joyce Goggin

Joyce Goggin is Senior Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam where she teaches literature, as well as film and media studies. She has published widely on various topics including literature, painting, film and television, as well as computer games, comic books and graphic novels, and addiction.
Contact information:
J.Goggin at

Review of Karlsen's A World of Excesses: On-line Games and Excessive Playing

by Joyce Goggin

Faltin Karlsen’s A World of Excesses: On-line Games and Excessive Playing

Addiction is a very slippery word in so many regards, from the way it has been defined; to the practices it designates; to the ways in which those who fall under this polymorphous descriptor understand what they are up to. Indeed, just a quick glance at the etymology of the word will illustrate my point. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED, (2014) for example, the word addiction derives from the classical Latin addictiōn-, addictiō and refers to the assignment (of disputed property), or the assigning of a debtor to the custody of his creditor. The word entered the English language in the 14th century at which time it was associated with the notion of servitude or slavery, often because of debt.1 Addiction later took on the further meaning of voluntarily binding or attaching oneself to a person, party, or cause, or to devote oneself as an adherent, or disciple. Over the course of the following four centuries the word went through various semantic permutations from meaning a zealous devotee, to someone who does things in an immoderate or compulsive fashion. It was not, however, until the 18th century that the word “addiction” became specifically linked to many of the exotic substances from the colonies brought into Europe with the rich trades such as coffee, tea, tobacco, and cocoa, which were “widely available, heavily promoted, and cheap” (Courtwright, 2001: 22). By the middle of the 20th century, according to Stanton Peele, the meaning of the word had narrowed and become restricted almost exclusively to narcotics, and particularly to heroin (Peele 2010).

But, as just about anyone alive today knows, we currently throw the word “addiction” around like it was going out of style (see for example Peters 2011). While we still use it in association with substances like tobacco, alcohol and chocolate - with the On-line Dictionary (Oxford Dictionaries 2014) offering “a self-confessed chocolate addict” as a contemporary contextualized usage - the word has now come to enjoy a much broader application. Indeed, it is certainly not uncommon to hear people speak of suffering from, or thoroughly enjoying, any number of substances and non-substances from gambling, to gadgets, and from Facebook to lip-gloss. In this regard, it is interesting to consult the on-line American Heritage Dictionary, which supplies a number of notable examples such as comic-book and graphic-novel addiction (i.e. “my addiction to comic books disappeared when graphic novels came out”), fossil-fuel addiction and an addiction to fast cars (American Heritage Dictionary, 2014).Given the panoply of substances and activities to which we now claim (at times with considerable pride) to be addicted, it is remarkable how often - in the public press, on television, in urban legend - computer gaming is singled out for particular attention, derision, vilification and alarm.

It is to a full range of the thorny issues surrounding this topic that Faltin Karlsen directs our attention in his timely and important new book, A World of Excesses: On-line Games and Excessive Playing. Indeed one clue to the expansive reach, as well as the mindful scrutiny and nuance that inform Karlsen’s argument, is immediately apparent in the title in which he, quite intentionally, fails to mention the word “addiction” at all. There are several reasons for this as the author explains, perhaps the first of which being the aforementioned polyvalence of the word addiction and the lack of precision involved in applying it. As he argues in various contexts throughout the book, the word’s lack of specificity draws obvious objections concerning its questionable diagnostic value given its vagueness, the degree of cultural loadedness that the word “addiction” frequently entails, and the implicit failure inherent in the word to help us distinguish between a given subject’s “symptoms and primary conditions” -- that is, where the source of addiction lies, or where to lay the blame (Karlsen 46). Likewise, where some habits are concerned, we may be more inclined to see a behavior pattern - even a productive one - rather than the customary image of a jones-ing “degenerate”.

Given objections such as these and many more outlined in greater detail in the book, Karlsen’s self-proclaimed objective in writing A World of Excesses was to tease out the complexities of problematic gaming in order to advance an interdisciplinary discussion of this contentious topic. As he argues, players of computer games cannot be labeled addicts in a strict pathological sense, and indeed gambling addiction, which we now customarily include in our mental lists of the most heinous forms of dependency, was only introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. What the author sets out to accomplish rather, is to offer some contextual perspectives on a particular kind of behavior-producing engine that permits of a full range of activities both frivolous and serious, unhealthy and salutary, and to direct our attention to the “twilight zone between excessive, harmless playing” and playing that produces seriously detrimental effects (Karlsen 3).

Drawing insights then from game studies, media studies, psychology and sociology, Karlsen very wisely and productively limits his discussion to the huge and highly complex story universe of World of Warcraft (WoW), and gets us off to a rapid start by discussing the development of the genre. This section provides useful information for readers who might be somewhat unfamiliar with the medium of computer games, the history of MMORPGs, or with some of the basics of WoW. And while this chapter also serves to focus Karlsen’s approach to the question of excessive gaming for WoW players, readers who might not fully grasp the intricacy of this digital world will learn about engagement-enhancing features, such as expansion packs that serve to deepen and enliven players’ gaming experience. In part, these details support one specificity of Karlsen’s investigation, namely his attempt to take steps towards answering the question of whether players spend more time in MMORPGS than in other kinds of computer-mediated games, and if so why, based on contributing factors such as aesthetic richness, narrative depth or team-driven involvement.

Chapter 3 of A World of Excesses is particularly enlightening because it places computer gaming in the greater context of “Media Narratives and Public Concerns”. Here, Karlsen addresses how shock waves that gather around new fads, social practices and gadgets are disseminated (i.e. through stories in the news media, images of various kinds, in various kinds of fiction and so on) and how, from an historical point of view, collective public worries have always followed technological shifts. The objective here is to situate media and moral panics in the larger context of this phenomenon, in order to understand addiction discourses within the greater network of such panics, while also making visible “alternative ways of understanding and handling this subject” (29). Although he suggests a very deep historical discussion, going back to Socrates’ warning against the potential of writing to weaken the mind and induce forgetfulness, the specific object of Karlsen’s inquiry begins with the emergence of computer culture in the 1970s, and early comparisons of nerd behaviors and geekdom to cultures and practices associated with gambling and addictive drug use. That said, Karlsen then steps back into the past, filling in details in order to ground his contention that video games belong to a long history of utopian and dystopian discourses on the effects of various (entertainment) technologies, from serialized fiction, which began attracting large devoted audiences in the 18th century and gathered steam throughout the 19th, to “the introduction of the cinema, comic books, cartoons, [and] television,” which were all initially received with much public out-cry and panic (39). As the author surmises, this well-established pattern of media and moral panics that surrounds the introduction of new technologies into the public sphere accounts at least partially for the current reception of video and computer games.

In a similar vein, the section on “Moral Panic” helpfully draws our attention to how young people regularly “become symbols of larger social contradictions and power struggles,” which is important because such struggles are ultimately played out in the political arena and are expressed in the language of regulation (43). Given this, Karlsen urges us to keep in mind cultural differences from the West to South East Asia, for example, as well as the “undulating set of ideas and commonly held concerns that spread and gain momentum under specific historical and cultural circumstances” (51). It is such widely disseminated popular notions that circulate at any given time with the moral panics that shape what we perceive, and then label it as an “addiction” (51).

The following chapter on “Addiction and Randomness” is highly significant and joins, while moving beyond, the study that Loftus and Loftus conducted back in 1983. In their work on the psychology of video games, Loftus and Loftus explained how variable-ratio schedules are built into games so that player reinforcement is meted out at variable intervals. As they wrote, “[i]rregular schedules of reinforcement are, in part, what causes video games to be so compelling and irresistible” (Loftus and Loftus, 1983, 19). More recent work on machine gaming such as Natasha Dow-Schüll’s Addiction by Design (2012), a comprehensive study of machine gambling in Las Vegas, likewise links addictive gaming to rewards delivered at variable intervals, and further, to near-miss algorithms that keep Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) gamblers in the game. These mechanisms keep people hooked and playing like rats in a Skinner box, who slavishly persist in pressing a lever that releases treats on a randomized schedule. The ensuant mind-set is known as the “zone” -- a place that players and developers alike recognize as a highly addictive mental state that is difficult to get out of. Digital slot machine developers, therefore, program “near-miss” effects into their machines in order to help gamblers get “into the zone” where, “once caught in the loop of repeat play,” they will stay in until the money’s all gone (Dow-Schüll, 2012, 97). But while VLTs are designed with a specific set of hooks (like those just outlined) to keep gamblers feeding the slots, on-line games likewise offer variable or random reward schedules, continuous, high-event-frequency experiences, near-misses and entrapment schemes, but they also offer a number of other things and this specificity should not, argues Karlsen, be ignored. As he explains, studies of on-line games show that “there is a wide range of factors that influence how people play, including the possibility of exploring the game universe, mastering the gameplay, cooperating with fellow players and pestering other players’ lives (sic.),” as well as compelling and frequently surprising story lines that evolve over time (57).

A further chapter on “Game Structure and Loyalty Programmes” addresses topics such as data mining and the well-neigh boundless opportunities for data collection with which gamers in on-line games provide developers -- ironically while helping them “to learn what makes players stay in the game, and what makes them spend money” (70). In a section on Gamification, Karlsen likewise discusses various issues connected with what we now refer to as the attention economy, and argues that we should take more factors into account when examining computer gaming than simply reward systems, among which would be socializing, community and, following Deterding, the “aesthetic joys of beauty and pattern,” “strategies,” “the creative expression of [one]self; novelty and humor; excitement in suspense and its release; the sensual pleasures of physical movement; the immersion in exotic fictional worlds and stories” and so on (73).

The chapter on “Theorycrafting: Between Collective Intelligence and Intrinsic Satisfaction,” explores a further aspect of computer games’ potential richness for serious geeks and powergamers whose goal is to understand how the game works. Here, again, excessive engagement is triggered not by one, or even several basic and easily delimited factors, but rather involves a full spectrum of surrounding factors such as “cultural practices, set[s] of distinctions, and bod[ies] of knowledge,” and what Henry Jenkins has called the collective intelligence of media consumers who try to uncover the deeper logic and mechanisms of media products, which in turn leads to discussion groups and a sense of community (Karlsen 115, 120). But while the pleasures involved in the formation of a knowledge culture and community are intrinsic to theorycrafting, Karlsen offers one further motivation for potentially excessive engagement with games. Taking his cue from Richard Bartle, the author explains how theorycrafters may self-identify as explorers and understand their enterprise as being about achievement based on the ability to analyze the underlying system of rules that structures the game, in order to enhance player performance. And this, of course, lends the game the added attractions of advancement and competition. But ultimately the goal of this chapter is, once again, to problematize simple deductions as to the nature of excessive gaming that might lead one to isolate irregular schedules of rewards as the single most salient factor. Karlsen is keen here to view the potential addictive attractions of WoW in conjunction with multiple practices and subject positions, and ultimately to look at wider aspects of players’ motivations. This is undertaken in order to approach WoW,not as an entirely self-contained universe, bracketed off from the real world, but rather as one that intercepts and overlaps with our own at numerous points (132).

This last argument brings me to Karlsen’s sixth chapter on “Pathological Gaming and Social Context,” in which he reproduces parts of interviews he conducted with three groups of players: players showing no signs of detrimental effects; players showing signs of short-term detrimental effects; and players showing signs of long-term detrimental effects as a result of heavy playing habits. As Karlsen interprets his findings, the results support his contention that “although it is possible to see where gambling, drinking and play share similarities” one must also take into consideration the importance of the “psychological, social and cultural layers” that his study adds to the mix (113). With the addition of these layers of contextual factors and added complexity, he concludes, “the more insignificant the notion of rewards appears” as a stand-alone explanation for excessive play. Karlsen, therefore, suggests taking the full “heterogeneity of playing practices” into consideration rather than “constructing frail theoretical bridges to phenomena with alleged similarities” (ibid.). Now while this assertion considerably reduces the complexity of gambling and drinking behaviors, which come with their own psychological and social layers, it does go some distance to answering a question that has plagued me for years.

The question to which I refer concerns my experiences teaching games and my students’ answers to the routine first-day query as to their motivation for taking the class. Invariably, a good number of students explain that they used to be “totally addicted” to playing video games, but then “sort of grew out of them.” And while I have never undertaken a formal study on the topic, my informal findings jive with some of Karlsen’s informants’ stories as to how or why they quit, or got their habit under control. For example, one informant with short-term detrimental effects cites “moving away from home” as a reason to leave “excesses behind,” another got a new girlfriend, one started a degree in media studies, and one gamer with long-term detrimental effects explained that once he began living on his own he had “to pay the rent and stuff” and “obviously [had] less time for playing” (106, 109).

To my mind, the concept of “growing out of” something that is purportedly an addiction seems quite remarkable, or at least jars my sense of what addiction is all about, as it would, I think, for anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking. To my mind, Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom tobacco was essential to writing and therefore also to his career, typifies the “true addict” profile. Indeed, some biographers claim to remember ashtrays and notebooks being filled in direct proportion to one another, as the French philosopher wrote Being and Nothingness (Klein 1993, 25). More significantly however, while many of Karlsen’s informants were concerned about relapsing into excessive play, Sartre took up smoking again after just a brief hiatus that he suffered on the advice of a doctor who warned him that if he did not quit, “his toes would have to be cut off, then his feet, and then his legs” (Ibid. 39). As Simone de Beauvoir recalled, Sartre “said he wanted to think it over” (Ibid.). In other words, for Sartre, as for just about anyone else, addictions like smoking are not something out of which one simply “grows”, or one day relinquishes to meet the demands of working life. Indeed, in Sartre’s case, the habit was inseparable from the work of writing, from which he earned at least part of his livelihood.

I would like to connect this observation to one made by Karlsen when he writes that it is doubtful that “many parents would see excessive computer game playing as part of a grander plan for a prosperous life” (Karlsen 139). As intuitively correct as this observation may seem, it is not supported by the market. In an IBM report entitled “Virtual Worlds, Real Leaders: On-line games put the future of business leadership on display” (IBM 2007), IBM executives explained why avid gamers are the future of the economy; namely because they are comfortable in simulated worlds, they make decisions quickly without considering previous scenarios, they believe that management is awarded on a case by case basis and is not long term, and they become rapidly immersed and can concentrate for seemingly endless periods of time. Likewise, in “Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft” Scott Rettberg (2008) analyzes the game as an instrument for educating players in behaviors and skills specific to the situation of conducting business in an economy controlled by corporations. As he claims, “the game is training a generation of good corporate citizens not only to consume well and to pay their dues, but also to climb the corporate ladder, to lead projects, to achieve sales goals, to earn and save, to work hard for better possessions, to play the markets, to win respect from their peers and their customers, to direct and encourage and cajole their underlings to outperform, to become better employees and perhaps, eventually, effective future CEOs. Playing World of Warcraft serves as a form of corporate training” (Rettberg 2008, 33).

I have included these last observations in order to re-join A World of Excesses at the last sentence wherein Karlsen urges that, “when we raise our concerns about media usage, […] we remember the broader context of which the media are a part” (Karlsen 140). Perhaps it is precisely the social complexity of WoW and many other features of the game such asaesthetic depth, the variety of activities it contains, narrative richness and so on that makes WoW appear to be a self-contained world, but it is also a world that dovetails at many points with the one of which it is a part - and more so than other, simpler games such as poker in various media that potentially encourage excessive behaviors. In other words, it is perhaps WoW’s similarities with things like corporate strategies, the market, society, our notions of community and the like that distinguish it (and, to a varying extent, other complex computer games and MMORPGs), and facilitate an eventual process of “getting real” and getting back into “real life” on the part of players.

Likewise, my own approach to addiction in the past has been to see it from a long historical perspective, drawing on the work of scholars such as Courtwright (2001), Kowaleski-Wallace (1997), Alexander (2008), and Jáuregui (2002). My natural impulse is to see addiction as an out-growth of capitalist modernity beginning with the financial revolution in 1688, which gave rise to excessive speculation and a parallel increase in many forms of gambling. At the same time, the West began the mass importation of psychoactive substances which has continued apace ever since, and which is now a global phenomenon. As such, I have understood addiction as being of a piece with financial capitalism and its powerful capacity to keep us hooked on “fairy dust”, on money, the real drug, as Jordon Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) reminds us in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and therefore on borrowed wealth and time that fuels constant captive craving for, and consumption of, everything from candy to crack that the market requires to keep grinding forward.

In Karlsen’s book I perceive a similar impulse to add nuance to our understanding of excessive playing which would take into consideration the intricacies of digital worlds and their practices with the hope of yielding more satisfying results and better answers as to how players negotiate life-worlds when engaged in excessive play. The brilliance and strength of his work however, resides in the ways in which he manages two distinct moments at once. First, Karlsen steps back and contextualizes excessive WoW in the long history of addictions, fads and panics as well as in the greater economy that produces all of these, and helpfully moves away from treating WoW and, by extension, other video games as the current spectacular grounds for panic. At the same time, he wisely limits his research to this one persistent game universe which itself is arguably enormous and crazy-complex. That said, however, this gives him a fixed if broad point of reference from which we may begin to understand various kinds of addiction and excessive play from within a globalized world and economy that open out endless expanses of ways to get hooked.


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1. Note that the current word for addiction in Dutch--verSLAVING--still contains the original root association with slavery.

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