Friday, October 28, 2005

A non-psychotropic vulnerability to addiction (?)

Clive Thompson recently published a column in Wired about a fascinating phenomenon: It’s quite common, after getting addicted to a computer game, to suddenly break free of that addiction, go cold turkey and stop playing. Thompson (whose Blog is here) speculates about what makes it possible for game addiction to release its hold so quickly and easily.

I wonder, when scientists understand how games can release their hold on us, whether they might figure out how to place seriously addicted people in a similar artificial framework, enabling them to intensively experience and then genuinely escape their addiction sickness.

Thompson and I corresponded briefly, and he asked a related question: Are any games considered "good" that are not *also* "addictive"? I.e. do we ever play a game, think it's really superb and amazing, but without getting sucked into the "need to play" mindset? Or is good play so inherently seductive that it always has this addictive property?

Now most people do not become addicted to most games, so the question here is whether there are good games that practically never addict people. I thought about this, and I have – I believe – a painful insight to share with you: People will become addicted to any activity that differs from the real world the way games do, to the slightest degree. Games set up artificial rules, esthetics and/or goals. Here are some other examples of non-game activities that fit my suggested similarity to games. You can think of hundreds of others, and we know people get addicted them:

  • playing music
  • chopping wood
  • being absolutely correct about good manners
  • buying shoes
  • ballroom dancing
  • collecting comic books
  • walking or running for long distance or speed goals
  • modeling large chunks of the real world with Lego pieces
  • correcting other people's grammatical mistakes
  • writing letters.

Perhaps the simple decision to abide by rules of behavior or evaluation that differ in an abstract way from the natural world places us at some risk of addiction.
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