Can Video Games Be Addictive?

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A federal judge in Hawaii is allowing a man to sue the computer-game manufacturer NCsoft for negligence — with allegations that the plaintiff grew addicted to an online game and that it consumed his life for years, reports.

In court documents, plaintiff Craig Smallwood claims he played the game Lineage II for over 20,000 hours during a six-year period from 2004 to 2009. For those of you doing the math, that works out to a staggering 64 hours per week, on average — and that’s assuming he played only 20,000 hours, not more, and that he played every single week of those six years. (In fact he did not. Game regulators locked him out of the game starting in September of 2009, a court document alleges.) No wonder, then, that Smallwood claims the game left him “unable to function independently.” He also claims he’s suffered serious emotional distress, that he requires therapy, and that he would not have bought the game if he’d realized it could be addictive.

Lineage II is what’s called a “massively multiplayer online roleplaying game,” where thousands of players can be using the same game-scape at the same time, interacting with one another. That means there’s basically no limit to the amount of unique game experience that can exist, so you won’t just finish the game and get bored within six weeks. Lineage II  transports its players to a medieval-themed virtual world — and indeed Smallwood’s story, too, does sound a little outlandish. Can a video game really be addictive?

In 2007, the American Medical Association decided not to call excessive video-gaming an addiction, saying there was insufficient evidence to warrant the label of a diagnosable disorder. But the jury’s still out, and psychologists simply do not agree. To be sure, psychological addiction can exist in the absence of physical substance dependence — how else to explain compulsive gambling? As stories abound about (usually) men who devote weeks, months, or even years of their lives to on-screen games, addiction experts have begun to take note, and some even offer treatment despite the lack of officially recognized pathology.

For its part, the defendant in Smallwood’s claim — South Korean game manufacturer NCsoft — asked to have the case tossed out. Among other things, the firm has claimed that Smallwood repeatedly approved online limitations of liability through the years, asserting he understood that the company would take no responsibility for any possible damages. As of Wednesday, no trial date had been set.