No doubt by now everybody is wondering why I’m not doing the old New Year’s thing of looking back at what happened over the past year in the column. Well, I’ve already done that with my one-year anniversary installment, and I’d like to do something far more interesting. So, I hope everybody had a happy holiday season, and, on that note, I’m going to talk about addiction.

    (Yes, it’s incongruous, but I’ve got to have my fun somehow…)

    It’s happened to everybody who plays computer games at least once. You start playing Diablo, Civilization III, or some other game around nine o’clock at night, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and the sound effects are making everybody else in the house dream about squishy things from the dawn of time.

    I don’t think it’s anything new. I was chatting with a friend from Sweden recently, and he told me that a friend of his over there had been playing Civilization III late at night, figured on spending just half an hour or so conquering the world, and was finally startled out of the game when he heard his alarm clock go off the next morning.

    It’s almost easy to say that this is addiction. And that would be completely wrong.

    I am not going to try telling you that game addiction doesn’t exist. On the contrary, it is a psychological condition on the road to professional recognition, known as Computer Addiction or Internet Addictive Disorder, among other terms. However, recognizing it can often be difficult. Many of the symptoms of game addiction are the same as the effects that a great game has on the average player.

    It can be extremely tricky. Around a year ago, a reader wrote in to me, worried that he was addicted to Diablo II. As he put it, it was almost all he did. I ended up telling him two things: first, the very fact he was worried about it was a good sign, and second, all he needed to do to find out if he was addicted or not was to try to walk away from the game.

    Sure enough, he turned the game off for a couple of weeks, and suffered no ill effects whatsoever. It looked like game addiction, but it wasn’t.

    The big problem lies in the fact that human beings are, by nature, creatures of habit. It is easier to stay in a pattern of behavior than to break out of it. So, if somebody is using a computer game as their primary source of entertainment, it is much easier for them to keep playing the game, even to the detriment of their social life, than to go and do something new. This is not addiction; this is simply people being human beings.

    Computer game addiction is a much different, and darker, story.

    The computer game addict has to play the game in order to just feel normal. Unlike most people, who are capable of turning off the computer and walking away, the game addicts cannot. They are obsessed. And, to make matters worse, playing the computer game actually reinforces the addiction and makes it stronger, forcing them to play even more.

    As a result, game addicts are literally torn away from their social lives by the addiction, and there is nothing they can do about it. Eventually, the need for the game consumes the addicts’ entire life; they cannot hold down a job, simply because all they can concentrate on is the game.

    To make matters worse, there are physical side effects as well. Using a computer for any large amount of time causes some stresses on the human body (let’s face it, most people either use computers that are not designed for human comfort, or don’t know how to use the computers that are). Carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, sleeplessness, and a lack of personal hygiene causing a body odor that could kill an elephant are all commonplace for a true addict.

    I remember looking at a poll on this site about how much time people spend playing Diablo and Diablo II. Around ten percent said that they played for more than fifty hours a week. Are they addicts? Even with that number, it’s difficult to tell. Like watching television, it’s possible to spend massive amounts of time playing computer games without being addicted.

    (Mind you, I think that anybody who spends that much time on the computer needs to turn the machine off and do something else for a change; I write for a living, and even I don’t spend that much time with my computer on.)

    As I mentioned to the reader who contacted me earlier, if you’re concerned about computer game addiction, there is an easy way to find out if it is a problem or not: turn off the computer and walk away for a couple of weeks. If you can do that, you were just following the path of least resistance to your entertainment in the first place.

    If you can’t, then you have a problem, and a serious one. In that case, the best thing you can do is to consult a professional therapist. Any addiction has a cure; it isn’t easy or quick, but it is possible.

    Next installment: Real Stick and Stones, in which your wondrous author examines some issues behind hardcore characters.

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