Uncovering the Truth about WoW Addiction
Last week, as I was vox popping the assembled crowds in Leicester Square, London before the UK's World of Warcraft: Cataclysm launch, the British Broadcasting Corporation (aka the BBC or just the Beeb) aired a film on its topical Monday night current affairs programme Panorama called "Addicted to Gaming".
This half an hour look into gaming culture focused on a number of MMOs but the chief culprits - and the programme took a very negative, almost sensationalist stance on the subject of gaming addiction - were Blizzard Entertainment's StarCraft II and, of course, World of Warcraft. The programme had, of course, been timed to coincide with the launch of Cataclysm and the BBC was well aware of the launch, having run numerous articles in the preceding week while the film itself included footage from July's London StarCraft II launch at GAME in Regent's Street.
The film left me with the overall impression that it was there as a warning, almost as public service to parents and family, that games - especially WoW - are addicting and, while mainstream, should be treated in the same way as one would alcohol for an alcoholic or drugs with a user, as suspicious and potentially dangerous. It also highlighted the fact that the teenagers in the film had no self control and their parents did little to limit their game time.
Now I've been playing WoW for four years and there have been points where I can honestly say I've been addicted but, when you make your living as a journalist specializing in games, particularly MMOs, then that's to be expected. Adding to that, I suffered brain damage as a child and have OCD. This means I have a predisposition to find almost anything addictive yet because I'm aware of it, I'm able to control these impulses and channel them into a constructive career. Most of the time at least.
But it has allowed me to watch as people raced to level 85 this week. Within three days half my guild had hit the magic number, having mysteriously become ill on Tuesday morning with a condition I like to call Skiveitus in order to play. It happens a couple of times a year, whenever the next must-play game comes out. I have no doubt that many folks on my server are addicted, it's amazing who you run into at three in the morning while mining in Vashj'ir but that doesn't mean that everyone is the same. You can't tar the entire 12 million souls who adventure in Azeroth with the same brush as a small selection of people.
You see, Britain has a history of sensationalizing the negative effects of popular video games, our tabloid newspapers have been doing it since the nineties whenever a big release comes along or it's a slow news day. The same applies to other forms of entertainment like violent films or certain kinds of music and I'm sure, in ten years time, some other form of entertainment will gain the ire of the tabloid press. As a gamer and a journalist, the whole thing drives me absolutely nuts.
Now I'm not saying that WoW isn't addictive, but it's all about how you play the game. If you're under the age of maturity, normally 18, then it's up to your parents to set limits on play time. If you're an adult, then - in theory, at least - you should be old enough to know when you're playing the game too much. Blizzard added in parental controls ages ago and they are now part of Battle.net. This allows them to limit the hours that can be played, receive reports on account activity and choose whether voice chat can be used or not. The trick here is using these facilities and it was obvious the families in the film didn't even know they existed.
I'm not saying that playing games like WoW and StarCraft II aren't a problem for some people, from the case studies featured, it's obvious they are, however, I think the problem lies in the lack of personal or parental responsibility. Instead the games these kids play are vilified and turned into scapegoats. If World of Warcraft is addictive then so are other games, they have exactly the same chance to be addictive as something like Bejeweled or Minesweeper or even that old favourite Solitaire.
To remind us of this, the film mentioned other games like Medal of Honor and Prius Online, even visiting a Korean boot camp for game addiction. I think gaming addiction exists and needs to be recognized but just because a small number of people are addicted that doesn't mean every human being who enjoys games, whether on or offline, is addicted to them. That's like saying everyone who enjoys a glass of wine or a frosty beer on a hot day is an alcoholic. It just doesn't make sense.
And the thing is, documentaries like this don't help. There was nothing constructive just sensationalism. And right at the end, there was just one, lone comment from Blizzard in which the company stated, "Our games are designed to be fun... but like all forms of entertainment... day-to-day life should always take precedence. World of Warcraft contains practical tools that assist players and parents in monitoring playing time." It felt like the filmmakers only made the effort of contacting Blizzard to justify their crusade, not to get the company's side of the story or even to give them the chance to defend themselves.
Christmas and a new game launch are periods when gamers traditionally play in a more intense manner than they might usually enjoy. There's time to kill on cold winter days and what better way to enjoy time off work than with friends, real or virtual. You just need to be able to tell the difference between this and addiction, something which the Panorama obviously aren't able to do.