a 12 step program for online games?
Hi. My name is Emily Rossiter, and I am addicted to Facebook games. I confess I find immense pleasure in harvesting a crop of strawberries on Farmville or redecorating my cafe in Cafe World. They aren’t my first online love affair either. I’ve spent huge chunks of time on MMORPGs like City of Heroes and Warcraft, or Warcrack as some people aptly call it.
The games themselves are innocent enough. They do give me and lots of others pleasure. They do require, however, an enormous amount of upkeep, hours that I feel should be spent on an activity I find more valuable like reading or even watching a good movie.
Yes, it is pretty silly, but I have written extensively on what I believe to be the only “cure” for depression and anxiety. That “cure” is a value driven life, modifying activities for the handicap of mental illness, and continuing to baby step forward bit by bit towards your dreams. That way no matter how sick you get, you are following a path that you have chosen, and your life has meaning.
When I made my life goals, I failed to account for the mastery of every crop in Farmville.
So why play these games?
What is the appeal? What makes us spend long stretches of time glued to the computer monitor? Aren’t there better things to do? The Atlantic featured an article called Extreme Netflix? Some Users Have Rated 50,000 Movies. When I read this article, I had an “Aha! moment. These games tap into the human need for reward much the way a behavioral specialist trains a monkey by giving him a banana when he does something correctly.
When you really think about it, the Netflix rating system works on the world’s simplest game mechanic: do something, get a point, move to a slightly more complex situation.
It’s not unlike a casual game, perhaps like Zynga‘s smash hit, Farmville, a Facebook game in which you raise virtual crops. Except in this case, what you’re growing isn’t a virtual representation of wheat or tomatoes, but your own personal movie-picking servant, a savant twin of yourself that knows nothing but you and movies.
Suddenly, it made sense. Yes, it’s extremely hypnotic, and it feeds right into the tendency of people to avoid their problems through Zombie Mode. You just click, click, click. No thinking involved. Your brain gets a little reward much like a lab rat pushing a lever for a pellet, and you get a few hours of not worrying about all the problems in your life.
Still don’t see a problem?
For most people, these games are a diversion, but you shouldn’t underestimate their power. News stories in which parents neglect their children appear as a warning. One of the most recent stories was a UK woman who let her dogs starve and rot and made her children eat cold food using their hands out of cans because she couldn’t be bothered to cook or clean. There are other cases. The same article mentions a similar incident in North Korea, and in 2007, a case in Reno, Nevada made headlines.
Thankfully , I am not anywhere near crossing into the land of abuse and neglect. I am extremely aware and attentive to my husband and daughter’s well being, but I still feel that I spend too much time on these games.
aiming for the middle path
On the other hand, on my really bad days when it’s a heroic effort just to get up, these games provide a welcome reason to stay up. Even though they are simple, they do stimulate some brain activity, and they put me on Facebook, where I might have interactions with other people, which is a high value activity for me.
What is the answer? Denying myself the relief of having a no effort activity when I’m not feeling well is at one extreme. Becoming so involved that I prioritize checking my cafe over my priorities on a good day is at the other extreme, where I am now. The answer can only lie in moderation, or the “Middle Way.”
I need to set limits and stick to them. It’s surprisingly hard. I quit smoking a few months ago, so I know I can break a difficult habit. However, to be kind to myself, my willpower may be stretched thin from the effort not to smoke and also recent physical illness. I’ll forgive myself for the excessive time spent baking cakes made of 1’s and 0’s, and work on the problem for now. How much is too much? Are there other limits I should set? How can I motivate myself to stay within these limits? If you’re reading this, what’s your opinion?
Notes from the Author
My rant about Facebook games is in no way intended to be a judgment against anyone. You are in charge of you, and however much time you feel is worth spending playing online games is your decision. I only meant to raise awareness in case you are spending this time unconsciously rather than choosing. Where do they fit in your value system? What role do you want them to play in your life? How much time is too much for you? Sometimes we all need to do a little “self check.”
PsychCentral has some excellent information and resources dealing with Internet Addiction.
I was extremely surprised and happy to be included in A Daring Adventure’s “link love” to blogs focused on quality content. Take a peak. There’s some more great links there.