Virtual worlds make human contact obsolete programming

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By Candice Heaviside

By Candice Heaviside

Passion draws you to something out if inspiration; it utilizes your skills and creativity, making your life fuller and richer.

Addiction draws you to something out of compulsion; it may require some of the same strengths, but instead of adding to your life, it takes away from it.

You are driven to one by an internal motivation, and compelled to the other by an external force.

Sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference. And most of the time, it is even harder to draw the line.

Today I read a story which made me wonder if we are not growing increasingly dependent on a new altered state of reality: virtual reality.

In Tokyo, a woman was arrested after killing her virtual husband in the online game “Maple Story.” Police say she confessed to being so angry after her virtual husband suddenly filed for divorce, that she traveled over 600 miles to his residence, logged into his computer, and had his character murdered.

At first this struck me as somewhat humorous, since it seemed no actual harm had been done, until, piqued by curiosity, I decided to investigate the phenomenon further. I found many more instances of disturbing behavior resulting from the unhealthy relationships of virtual gamers.

Players around the world have committed crimes ranging from plotting abductions of fellow players, to identity theft and virtual “money laundering.”

There are stories and blogs all over the Internet addressing the growing concerns of those close to gamers who have taken their hobby too far.

There are countless interviews with anonymous players and recovering gamers who admit that their virtual lives became more important to them than their physical ones.

Often, they neglect family, friends, work, and their physical bodies, in order to allow themselves even one more minute of play.

In 2003, the International Game Developers Association held a panel discussion on game addiction.

One of the speakers, staff psychologist Vagdevi Meunier of the University of Texas, Austin, offered this insight “Initially the benefit can be great because you feel like you’ve discovered something that allows you to feel great about yourself. With online gaming, one additional factor might be that you are not only sitting privately and feeling good about yourself, but you might also have a hundred people saying ‘Dude! You are the best!’ And how many places in our lives do we hear that?”

This initial euphoria can quickly change into addiction, whether we are aware of it or not.

The Gamblers Anonymous Web site gives us the concept of “sunk cost,” which states that when a player who is addicted to gambling loses a lot of money, they believe it is more important to continue playing because of the investment they have already made.

The same principle can be applied to multiplayer virtual reality games; every minute of every hour is an investment-especially since the most popular games like EverQuest, Second Life and World of Warcraft take so much time to learn, get to a certain level, or attain a specific social class, that stopping and walking away is not an option.

In fact several studies have been done showing increased levels of dopamine in the brain of players during similar gambling games. Research has made positive correlations between increased dopamine levels and other forms of addiction. For them, it is like a chemical rush providing an intense high.

Not being a gamer myself, I can’t quite understand the attraction, but I know many who do. It is easily an innocent pastime, and yet a potentially dangerous drug.

Interestingly, the age old debate of which came first, the chicken or the egg, can be applied here as well: do the games themselves cause obsessive behavior? Or are people with pre-existing psychological issues drawn to the games?

Gamers: Do you think about being on the computer, even when you aren’t? Does computer or video game use produce intense feelings of pleasure and guilt? Do you lie about your amount of use? How about this one: have your hours of use increased so much, that your family, social, or work life are being neglected? Do you feel anxious even now?

If you have answered “yes” to these questions, according to the National Institute on Media and the Family, you might be an addict.

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