You and I are lucky in that we don't get addicted to games easily. A few times a year I'll binge hard, but after a couple of days I'm back to normal life, usually feeling refreshed. I know that lots of people don't find it so easy to stop.

In college I made the biggest decision of my life: pursue novel writing OR pursue game development. (Most people's biggest decision is 'Who to marry?' but I'm single and will likely remain that way). I chose writing because I've been challenged, edified, and changed by books more than games. But writing and reading are both low on the Supersensorium scale, so I have to carefully limit how much time I spend on other forms of entertainment - especially gaming - in order to preserve the quiet headspace I need. That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Reading slips under the radar. It's not as flashy as TV, movies, or games, but it leaves me satisfied and sedate in a way nothing else does. I'm hoping more people join the de-dopamine push and start to value the slow, healthy forms of entertainment like books. Partly because I know how much it has helped me. Partly so I can sell more copies. It's a win-win.

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I hadn't thought of snobbery as a defence against the constant availability of low quality addictive stuff — games, TV, and other media, but also food, alcohol, drugs — but put that way it makes perfect sense. I, uh, might be 5% more of a snob after reading your essay.

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Have you figured out a way to substitute the social aspect of gaming? I still talk to my best friend since middle school because we play DotA 2 twice a week. We both agree it’s sort of miserable (we suck, games are toxic, it’s extremely hard to control the outcome because of the sheer number of variables in each game, not to mention the ever-shifting meta game), but we do it anyway because to not do it feels like a huge loss. We still get together in real life every so often, but when we do we usually talk about DotA and play a different game (like smash, which is usually more actual fun). Gaming is just what we do, it’s what we’ve always done. I still associate Halo 3 with the smell of his basement.

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I love your idea of aesthetics > ascetic.

In a documentary about Tolkin, a reader compares the impact of Lord of the Rings with cheap fiction:

Cheap fiction makes our own ordinary life feel less magical. It saddens us that we aren't great detectives, warriors or princesses.

Great fiction makes our own ordinary life feel more magical. It rubs off on the ordinary homely things of life. It fills them with meaning.

Again here is art similar to nutrition. Eating sugar makes life without it hard. Eating healthy advances base reality.

Not that this is a condition (I am not a utilitarian) but it can be a symptom.

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Jan 20Liked by Erik Hoel

I found my undergrad-age video game semi-addiction decline significantly when my work became more interesting (picking up research in grad school) and then again when I picked up hiking. Of course, these are somewhat luxury solutions in our world, not available to everyone (and tricky even for myself at times). But they are convincing me that "external locus of control" about gaming addiction isn't as wrong as people are making it out to be. (Arguably, the games I used to play -- adventures and RPGs such as TES -- were substituting for the same exploration experience that I got out of research and of hiking. Ten years ago, I knew Vvardenfell far better than my home country.)

Games occupy a strange place in my mind right now. I almost never have the time to play them, and when I do, I don't usually enjoy them much. But I do get pissed every week or so about not having the time for them. It's some sort of vexing nostalgia that doesn't actually lead to much satisfaction when pandered to. Although that might be a thing with any kind of nostalgia...

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This is a very thoughtful post, Erik, and I may well cross-post it to my own Substack (which just happens to be about gaming, would ya look at that) if that’s cool. Every time I go on a non-gaming podcast, I can always count on addiction coming up at least once (along with violence, though, mercifully, not usually simultaneously), so I’ve definitely developed and refined more than a few…. *thoughts* on the subject.

I personally dislike the term “addiction” re: problematic gaming, as there’s some nuance between compulsive gaming and more well-known addictions (as well as, crucially, not nearly as much research into the former). It’s less like an alcohol or gambling addiction (unless gacha/loot boxes are involved, but that’s another question entirely), and more akin to binge watching—another problematic compulsive behavior born from the supersensoric era, engaged in for similar reasons as video games (usually escape), and similarly optimized to keep eyes glued to screens for as long as possible.

In a way, it’s a sort of “pick your poison,” only the poison is your preferred flavor of mass medium. I’m very much a gamer, whereas my wife—who gets practically zero enjoyment from games—binges shows like crazy. One of my relatives is always holding a book every spare minute. I can only speak for myself, obviously, but I reckon the three of us indulge in our chosen escapist media more than seems healthy.

But barring deliberately exploitative and addictive game design (a hallmark of most recent MMOs, as you mentioned)—which could very well be addictive in the more commonly understood sense (alas, there’s a dearth of research into video games generally, and compulsive gaming specifically, so we can only make an informed guess for now)—if someone’s playing Breath of the Wild or Fortnite all day, it’s almost always to fulfill an unmet need.

The three “pillars” of self-actualization are competence, agency, and social connection—and video games provide all three in spades. This is why games were such a crucial social outlet during the lockdown years, as well as why a bullied and awkward teenage nerd who’s terrible at sports (*raises hand*) spends untold hours getting good enough to top the leaderboards or break a speed running record—to get that feeling of being competent at something. And, of course, you already mentioned agency, so I won’t rehash it.

Now, I do think it’s important to reiterate your point that these are ultimately *simulacra* of attaining competency, asserting agency, and forging connections IRL, so deep down inside, getting that rare Steam achievement ultimately feels hollow. So you keep playing, in search of that elusive feeling of accomplishing something. But if your IRL circumstances adequately and regularly fulfill your needs for self-actualization (say, through a job where your skills are needed and appreciated), then you don’t need to plug into a virtual world for an inferior substitute.

Which I suppose is a VERY long-winded way of saying: if you address the deeper issues that make excessive gaming so appealing, then 9 times out of 10, the excessive gaming takes care of itself, and the player dials back to a more moderate and manageable play schedule, or stops playing altogether.

Now, does this mean that there are NO “addicted” gamers, in the “classical” sense? Of course not—there obviously are, and I suspect we’ll see a lot MORE as the industry continues its shift towards cynically designing games that are barely even “games,” and more like glorified slot machines or Skinner boxes. If, even after making changes in lifestyle, environment, etc., the gamer STILL can’t control their playtime, then maybe it really is best for them to put the controller down and “touch grass”—for good. But from what I can gather (because, again, more and better research into this area is DESPERATELY needed), these cases are not nearly as widespread as news reports make it seem, and may well be exceptional cases.

Now, I’m not saying that to diminish or minimize their struggles, or their families’, in any way. Even if only one person were the grips of a gaming addiction, that’s still a human being (and even more human beings who care for them) going through a harrowing and torturous ordeal. We should be helping to ensure these folks get the support they need to live a life free from such acute emotional (and sometimes physical) hell.

I’m just skeptical of claims that *video games* are to blame for whatever the social malaise du jour is. And frankly, I’m over it—as I mentioned, when I’m presenting at a panel or on a podcast, the amount of time between my concluding remarks and the first audience question on video game violence or addiction is so precise I could set my watch to it. I will grant that the addiction question is more nuanced—partly because of the sheer emotive power of games’ interactivity, and partly because for some developers, addiction *is the point.* But I’d wager my left joy-con that in most cases, excessive/problematic gaming is more likely a *symptom* of mental distress than a *cause.*

Not that the two can’t be operating at the same time, of course. Buuuuut… I’ve said enough already. Sorry about that! But again, great article, great food for thought, and great discussion fodder 🙂

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Ah, gaming addiction, I know thee well.

One thing that people often miss when discussing gaming addiction is the pursuit of mastery. Infinite games with high-skill ceilings often have this effect, with many gamers identifying their ability in their game of choice as their most proficient skill. When I was studying to become an Architect and lamenting that I probably wouldn't be the next Santiago Calatrava, it seemed very fulfilling to be better than the other 99.99% of players.

An interesting niche that never entirely caught on is Life RPGs: the gamification of habits where you get new gears, abilities, and level up by self-reporting your real-life habits or tasks. Wouldn't it be nice if we were all addicted to calling our mums, doing our homework, and flossing our teeth 😬

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Really great article, sometimes I wonder how you manage to find so many relevant but relatively niche quotes and sources. You're a diamond miner, Erik.

I would add that a lot of the appeal comes from escapism, if not escapism of time then escapism of thought. For me, my worst bouts came when I was gearing up to go to college and when my first semester in college. It was useful for me to take up the time and mental capital thinking about the game rather than all the new responsibilities and new relationships I would have to make. I imagine and have seen this translate into other challenges in life.

Honestly, this thought wasn't provoked until reading this article, so thanks for that.

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Jan 20Liked by Erik Hoel

Erik, I have one to add to your list. In my experience, becoming a game developer is a lovely way to beat the addiction. Like any illusion, seeing how games are really made tends to spoil the magic. For myself, I play games more like a researcher nowadays and only occasionally find myself spending more time than I intended.

Thanks for sharing your story, as usual you’ve done a lovely job exposing nuance. The current mix of practices, incentives, and discourse about this issue isn’t getting us anywhere. Most sides of the debate need a little help. I would love to read or even someday contribute to a Substack that illuminates such issues as:

- Game developers who could use a little more sobriety about the negative impacts of the overuse that we are specifically trying to engineer.

- Domestic and global market forces that push game developers to design highly engaging and long-lasting experiences.

- Addiction being a scary word that drives a lot of media engagement. There are many properties of gaming overuse that don’t fit the clinical definition of addiction, which is very important in regards to how you treat the issue in a patient.

- Gaming culture needing to grow up a bit in terms of its relationship to overuse. Looking at user reviews, it’s clear that some people are seeking addictive experiences.

- Widespread cultural perspectives needing to become a little more informed and less judgmental of people who player games.

- Gamers who need to accept some responsibility for how we choose to spend our time. This is also related to the clinical addiction debate, since there is no factual evidence of physiological mechanism in someone “addicted” to games.

- Friends and family of gamers, especially parents, who need to accept responsibility to intervene when they see a problem. If allowed, my young child will eat cupcakes until violently ill. It’s my responsibility to prevent that from happening, not the bakery.

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Jan 23Liked by Erik Hoel

On the point about reality vs. simulation, I think “reality” is what doesn’t require error correction. In “reality”, there can’t be a single subatomic particle in the entire universe that fails to follow the laws of physics for even the briefest moment in time, because there’s nothing “running” reality that can make a mistake. In even the best simulation, a “bit” can in principle be out of place with respect to the ostensible “rules” of the simulation because there is an intermediary system that could in principle fail to render flawlessly.

I think this is Eric’s point from a slightly different angle, and it’s a good distinction. I’m just having trouble connecting error correction (or lack thereof) to the meaning of life, which is why I ultimately come out on the Chalmers side.

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Jan 21Liked by Erik Hoel

As a lifelong gaming aficionado (I won't quite say or admit to addict), your solutions ring all too true. Namely, "get older" and "play finite games". As an aging 'gamer' in a now parental role, I find that I can no longer play any game that does not meet the very strict criteria of: 1) I can pause the game with a 10-second warning, 2) Once paused, I can leave the game for a possible duration of 2-4 hours without effect, and finally 3) I can abandon the game for weeks/months at a time without significant loss of narrative/immersion/enjoyment. As you can imagine, this significantly limits my current enjoyment of games to the land of rouge-likes, puzzle games, and story-light single player games. No longer can I enjoy the modern masterpieces that are deep, 100+ hour RPGs nor the infinite depth multiplayer games such as DOTA 2 or League (or so many others including Overwatch, Rocket League, Call of Duty, Apex Legends, and so on).

I find that in this new role, I lose a depth I once appreciated. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall and Titanfall 2. I soaked many hours losing myself in the fluidity and complexity of movement, hair-trigger responses, and map awareness that were required of the multiplayer first-person shooter games. While the spirit (and lore) of these games lives on in Apex Legends, which takes place within the same fictional universe, I find that the genre has sadly left me behind. No longer is it a place where I can actively participate and hope to truly be involved. I find this an unfortunate loss.

Paraphrasing a critic commenting on the new HBO series "The Last of Us", they commented that the video game comprising the source material is already cinematic and the TV series is akin to a live-action Disney adaptation. In other words, a retelling of a known story in a familiar medium. I vehemently disagree. Not because the adaptation is not bound to its source, but because video games and television are fundamentally different media. Video games require an involvement and an investment that television simply cannot mimic. No matter how involved or engrossed in a television series or movie you are, your input or interest will never change the outcome, timing, or results (let's not mention American Idol). I personally believe that the fan fiction or "head-canon" explanations of any TV series could never hold a candle to the data-mining and statistical analysis that takes place for games such as League of Legends. Anyone not convinced only needs to look at some random person's 30-page explanation of "Nasus's optimal build".

Gaming addiction looks different for everyone I'm sure, and is certainly tied to a modern sense that social fulfillment can come from such games, whether they involve other humans or not. As indie games become more popular, varied, and cheap, I can only be reminded of a common phrase uttered by fans of the popular single-player automation game Factorio: "The factory must grow".

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A phenomenon intuitive to the average gamer but not to the outsider is that video games allow us to experiment with means and ends without facing the consequences of doing so in real life. Even though there might be similar emotional responses.

The actions you take in video games are not real, neither are the incentives, means, or ends. Yet, we might be able to argue that the existence of a drive to do those actions is real, although bound by the game's rules.

In multiple-path games, you will, at some point, have the option to betray, kill, or hurt someone the character loves. If you are curious to do so, you should ask what you would do in real life.

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Jan 20Liked by Erik Hoel

This was really excellent, and I share your perspective on how empty virtual worlds are. Like you, I experienced many virtual worlds but never felt addicted, and largely evolved into a snob in my 30s. The only addition that I have is that if the sim is deep enough with a market economy and social interaction and you have mastered that well enough, why not graduate from the sim and do that in base reality too? If you have the discipline to grind for what you want, how is that different from lifting weights, studying, or preparing healthy meals?

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I really liked your point about infinite vs. finite games. My experience with infinite-type multiplayer games was that the most addictive feeling was right at the end, when you're deciding whether to play again. The boring or tedious parts seemed insignificant until starting a new match and committing your next 45 minutes to a repeat of the cycle.

Video games have a few hidden advantages. In hindsight, kids who played a lot of MMOs tend to have more miscellaneous historical and combat vocabulary :P. And as video games have gained more respect as an artistic medium, we can see a larger proportion of high quality creative output coming from video games. It seems like the best way to enjoy them is for video games to just be a small addition to a lifestyle you're already satisfied with.

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I don’t game. My sons game routinely after school. I like the application of the Supersensorium concept as the attractant. But, as we say in social science: what are the conditions of possibility for addictive gaming? Or any addiction? The addict has to get access to the substance. This is a social process. When we look at the conditions that permit this behavior, the most critical ones to me are: social alienation and lack of communal supervision of that individual. And the incredible belief in privacy that forbids us from questioning monomaniacal sensory stimming behavior until it has become pathological. Stimming is normal only for autistic people, not 99% of humans. I’m the former.

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I went one better than the snobs and had my taste in video games calcify at around the age of 10 - sort of an extreme version of how old people only listen to music that came out when they were young. So as a rule I've only ever loved games that I actually played as a kid (e.g. Sonic), that came out around that time (Spyro), or that might as well have come out around that time (Super Meat Boy). By definition, these games have a definite beginning, middle and end, don't take long to complete and don't have much replay value. Games that are too complex or open world just stress me out, and I generally feel the ones that try to be movies would be very bad movies if they were actually movies.

At the moment I'm playing through Detroit: Become Human with a friend at a rate that makes me think we may have it finished by the end of 2023. Fantastic game, but it's just not...primitive enough.

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