The International Classification of Diseases first recognised “gaming disorder” as a legitimate addiction in June 2018. Previously, the idea that someone could be addicted to playing video games in the same way one could be addicted to, for example, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or gambling, was absolutely unthinkable – mostly because the psychology of addiction was (and still is) often misunderstood. However, many people know first hand that video game addiction is no joke, and trivialising it only puts more people in harm’s way.
According to addiction experts, the three most addictive genres of games are Solo-Competitive Online Games (such as Fortnite), Team-Based Competitive Online Games (such as League of Legends) and Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (such as World of Warcraft.) These types of games are recognised as the most likely to cause addiction.
Some of these games are famous for their overzealous, “no-life” player base. Everyone knows the stereotype of the World of Warcraft player – he’s a 30 year old loser, his apartment is always a mess, he never sees his family or friends, he is terribly overweight, and he never showers or goes outside. What started out as just a funny meme, is finally being recognised as a sad representation of what video game addiction can do to a person – for some people, this is real life.
I’ve never played Fortnite or League of Legends, but I did become extremely addicted to World of Warcraft whilst I was unemployed. For about 5 months, I would play World of Warcraft for 8-9 hours a day, almost every day of the week. I stopped eating during the day and I went to the toilet as little as I possibly could. World of Warcraft was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about before going to sleep. If I couldn’t play World of Warcraft for at least a few hours every day, I became angry, anxious and depressed. The thought of getting a job completely freaked me out, and leaving the house felt wholly unnecessary. It was bad. But, like most addicts, I refused to accept what was happening at the time.
Eventually, I knew it had to stop. I was very lucky to have a great support network around me to help me see the problem for what it really was – an addiction. I went ‘cold-turkey’ for over a year, and found enjoyment from my other games instead.
However, I still loved the game. I really wanted to give World of Warcraft another shot, but this time, be smart about it. So, I did some research into exactly why MMOs are so addictive, so I could learn how to counteract a lot of the most addictive features of the gameplay, and prevent myself from becoming hooked again. If you treat MMOs with the respect they deserve, I found that there are some handy workarounds you can use to avoid some of the most common pitfalls that start people on the path to addiction.
Before I begin, let this be a disclaimer: the point of this article is not to scare potential players away from playing MMOs, or to imply that everyone who plays MMOs is psychologically dependent on them. MMOs are truly fantastic and enjoyable games, when they are played responsibly – which they are, the majority of the time. These are simply my tips for how to play MMOs whilst minimising the risks of suffering as a result of their addictive nature. In short, these are all the lessons I learnt the hard way, so you don’t have to. Here are my 7 ways to avoid becoming addicted to MMOs.
1) Understand that MMOs are not like other games.
Nowadays, it is relatively common for games to have no definite ending, but MMOs are truly the masters of the infinite gameplay loop. It is impossible to “finish” and it is impossible to “win.” The sheer size and scale of MMOs, especially the older ones like World of Warcraft, means that even if you played for twelve hours a day, every day of the week for a year, there will always be more achievements to earn, areas to explore or armor to collect. And even if you were to complete 100% of what the current version of the game has to offer – which in itself is impossible – you would only have to wait 18 months before the next expansion pack is released, and the process starts all over again, ad infinitum.
MMOs take advantage of “the Zeigarnik effect”, whereby leaving tasks unfinished or incomplete causes psychological tension to build in our brains, making us more and more desperate to see them finished. This is how they keep players playing for thousands of hours, and still coming back for more.
For a completionist, playing an MMO will feel like fighting an unwinnable war. To enjoy an MMO, you must be OK with feeling like there is always more to do, otherwise it will drive you mad. You must also accept that, no matter how well you play or for how long, you will never get a satisfying ending cutscene to wrap up the story, and you will never see that glorious “Congratulations” credit screen. If you go in expecting any closure, you’ll be very disappointed.
2) Always be aware of the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”
The “Sunk Cost Fallacy” is a phenomenon in behavioural economics, describing when someone continues to engage in a behaviour or activity just because they have already invested their resources (time, money, energy, etc) into it. Sometimes called “loss aversion,” it can also be described as “wanting to get your money’s worth.” You’ll most likely have experienced this phenomenon for yourself if, for example, you have continued playing a game that you don’t enjoy playing, just because it was expensive, or because you’re already 20 hours in. Quitting would feel like a “waste” even though, by continuing, you’re investing even more of your time into playing a game you don’t even enjoy playing – this is the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.”
Most MMOs operate a subscription system, where you’ll be charged a set subscription fee either monthly or annually. How much you’re charged does not depend on how much you actually play the game, which means, theoretically, the more you play the game, the more “value for money” you’re getting out of your monthly subscription. It also means that there is a perceived minimum number of hours you need to play per week in order for your subscription to be “worth it.”
Everyone hates to feel like they’re wasting their money – MMOs developers know this, and design their subscription system to put constant pressure on players to play as much as possible, as often as possible, to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. The fear of waste can be especially jarring if you’re a frugal or money-savvy individual. Every second you’re not playing the game can be perceived as a waste and the desire to avoid this can start you on the road to addiction.
Playing an MMO for months or years is always going to end up being far more expensive in the long run than purchasing regular games, even at full price. This is the nature of the MMO. Always be prepared to cut your ties, end your subscription and walk away from the game, regardless of how much you’ve paid out in subscription fees so far.
3) Avoid taking out an automatic monthly subscription.
Unfortunately, most MMOs operate the subscription system described above. However, you should do everything you can to avoid using this payment method. Instead, use a game time service or opt to pay for your subscription month by month – anything to make the payment of your subscription a deliberate act instead of a passive background cost. This makes you, the player, far more proactive in continuing (or discontinuing) your subscription, and forces you to make a decision at the end of every month as to whether to continue paying the subscription or not.
For World of Warcraft, I would at least recommend that you do not set up a direct debit or rolling subscription, to remain in control of exactly how much you’re spending on the game.
4) Avoid joining guilds and communities.
In an MMO, social interaction with like-minded players is a huge part of the gameplay experience. Therefore, it might seem completely bizarre to recommend abstaining from such a defining feature of the genre. However, the more you interact with other players, especially if you’re interacting with the same players regularly, the more vulnerable you are to manipulation and peer-pressure from your team-mates.
In World of Warcraft, for example, running through “raids” and “dungeons” with somewhere between five to twenty-five other players is an integral part of how the game works. Traditionally, the way to access raids and dungeons was to join a guild, which is a small group of players who would play together regularly and team-up to access higher level group content. The purpose of a guild was to coordinate players within a guild more easily, and build better relationships between players as they get to know each other personally.
The big problem with this is that the more time and energy and personal attention you invest into a guild, the harder it is to maintain proper boundaries and think independently. The more you like your guild mates, the more you want to impress them and make them happy.
If your guild decides that they will raid on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 6pm-10pm realm-time, then the pressure is on you to conform to those demands even if it doesn’t work for you. Nobody wants to disappoint their friends. Nobody wants to be seen as awkward, or demanding, or uncommitted. So, you agree to raid on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 6pm-10pm realm-time. Before you know it, you’re raiding Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes on Tuesdays too. Your guild’s demands keep piling up. Your responsibilities to your guild become increasingly important, whilst your responsibilities to your “RL” (real life) friends and family struggle to compete. It’s a vicious cycle, and a recipe for complete social self-isolation without even realising it.
If you are a people-pleaser, or someone who is validated by other people’s praise and admiration of you, you should think very carefully before getting seriously involved in a guild. If you want to join a guild, always join “casual” guilds and communities. These are the guilds and communities that make maintaining a good “work-life balance” for guild members a priority, and are less likely to make demands of their members. Always be prepared to walk away immediately if your guild or community becomes too hardcore, too demanding of your time, or goes in a direction which conflicts with your day-to-day life. Set your stall out early with your guild-mates so you can manage expectations and nip peer-pressure in the bud.
5) Do not attempt to “Keep Up with the Jones’”
There are people who do absolutely nothing with their lives apart from play MMOs. There are people who play World of Warcraft PvP every single day as if it is their full-time job. They have all the best weapons and armour. They have the rarest mounts and items with the 0.01% drop-chance. They have all the in-game achievements and accolades. They know all the hidden in-game lore tidbits. They look like professional, accomplished, special individuals. They might even be incredibly friendly and charismatic.
You will meet these people, and when you meet them, you will probably be impressed by their highly sought-after items and achievements. You might be jealous of the commendation and praise they get from other players. You might wonder how they managed to acquire all these stupidly rare items while all you have are the basics, despite playing every day for the past six months.
But every single rare mount, impossible achievement and limited edition customisation came at a high price. These are the people with a real psychological dependence on MMOs that has probably dominated a large portion of their life for a long time, and affects them negatively almost every day. They might be incredibly insecure, using MMOs as a way to prove their worth to others and pretend to be someone they’re not. They might be socially and emotionally stunted, with MMOs being the only form of interaction they enjoy on a daily basis. They might be battling a serious mental health condition which they self-medicate by staying at home all day playing MMOs.
You absolutely do not want to emulate these people, no matter how charming or accomplished they might seem. If you yourself struggle with insecurity or feelings of low self-worth, be very careful of falling into that same trap. Everything in the digital world is, in real terms, as ethereal and meaningless as the pixels on your screen – you control your online avatar, don’t let it control you.
6) Avoid playing competitively, especially in PvP.
MMOs are inherently competitive. Instead of playing against an AI, you play against a real person who is trying their best to beat you. A competitive drive is part of human nature, which is why the most popular games throughout history – from chess to football to first-person shooters to MMOs – have competition at their heart.
This competitiveness is no better illustrated than though MMO PvP gameplay (player versus player) where two or more players attempt to mercilessly slaughter each other online for honour and rewards. PvP brings humanity’s nastiest and most aggressive characteristics to the fore – watching a PvP match is like watching two people slug it out behind the bike sheds after school.
PvP is another vicious cycle. The more you win, the more honour and glory you enjoy. The validation and kudos becomes addictive in itself, encouraging you to play more and more, to reach greater and greater levels of self-satisfaction and self-congratulation. Then, the more you lose, the more embarrassed and disrespected you feel – your desire for revenge or redemption keeps you playing for hours and hours more so you can make your comeback. This is the same vicious cycle that hooks people on gambling – the more you win, the more you have to lose. The more you lose, the greater your desire to win.
If you have a competitive nature (or a fragile ego), give MMO PvP a wide berth. The amount of time it takes to get good enough at the game to compete competitively against players with far more time on their hands than you is never worth the temporary high that winning a PvP match awards you. If you let your sense of self worth become tied up in kill-streaks and rankings (which is easy to do) you’ll be fighting yet another un-winnable war.
7) Involve someone else in your play.
Very few people with an addiction have the self-awareness to diagnose their own addiction. Often we rely on other people to identify negative patterns of behaviour, so steps can be taken to prevent them. If you consider yourself to be socially awkward or reserved, or live a solitary lifestyle, you will unfortunately be particularly vulnerable to the various pitfalls and addictive habits I’ve outlined above. That’s why I always recommend new and returning MMO players to involve someone they trust in their gaming experience – perhaps a spouse or significant other, a good friend or a housemate. They will find it much easier to notice when you are playing too much, or for too long, or at unsociable hours of the day. Preferably, it should be someone who you live with, who can keep an eye on your day-to-day habits – or alternatively, if you live alone, any close friend or family member who checks in on you regularly. Most importantly, it should be someone who you can be brutally honest with, and who can be brutally honest with you.
Lots of people resent having to involve other people in their hobbies or pass-times – perhaps because they are scared that the extent of their bad habits will become immediately obvious when analysed by a fresh pair of eyes!
I’m sure a lot of people will scoff at this article – the measures I recommend here might seem like an absurd overreaction to a video game. It’s an online game, not a rabid animal.
The simple fact of the matter is the MMOs are specifically designed to be addictive; the developers make their money by keeping players playing. Everything, from how you pay for your subscription, to the implementation of multiplayer content, is designed to sink its hooks into you as deep as they can possibly go. They want you to keep playing, because as long as you keep playing, you keep paying. It’s just a videogame in the same way that slot machines are just pieces of metal and plastic, and alcohol is just fermented yeast.
Addictions always start small and appear innocent. It is so important to remain in control of your own feelings and impulses when playing MMOs – it is laughably easy to let videogame addiction creep up on you and start doing damage without you ever realising there is a problem. This is why I recommend implementing checks and balances to identify bad habits before they metamorphosize into full-blown compulsions.
I hope someone somewhere has found these tips and observations useful. Playing MMOs has been my best and also my worst gaming experience. I hope this article will help new players, or returning players, or lapsed players wondering if they should return, to play MMOs responsibly – so you can enjoy the best of what these games have to offer, whilst deftly side-stepping the worst.