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Peter's Big Research Paper

Page history last edited by Alicia Miles 10 years ago

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Virtual Addiction

Computer addiction is not yet registered in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM-IV, but is a growing problem.  The commonly known term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) can take several forms such as internet browsing, chatting, games, and email.  Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life for the PC provides an excellent example of a game with high potential to create Internet Addiction Disorder.  Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life grants users the power to attain success that they do not have in real life.  This has the potential to trigger addiction.  Second Life’s social anonymity and freedom to simulate real life activities within the game are the features chiefly responsible for its success.  Psychology principles and various addiction research reports explain why these aspects embedded in Second Life can increase game use to the point of addiction.

People of all ages and cultures can be addicted to virtual worlds.  In 2007, 15-year-old Lee-Chang-hoon claimed to have spent 17 hours per day playing computer games.  He became less enthusiastic in school and reacted violently to his mother when told to go to school (Fackler).  Although Chang-hoon was addicted to a game called Sudden Attack, similar cases of addiction exist for the game Second Life.  Second Life is a metaverse; it is an online virtual world without objectives for the users to follow.  Second Life players are free to reinvent themselves with a customizable avatar, build, and interact anonymously with others like in the picture below.

Here I am interacting with another avatar.  I have no idea who really controls this avatar because of the anonymity Second Life grants users.  This avatar granted me permission to post this photo online.

During an interview with psychiatrist Dr. Jerald J. Block, MD, I learned that computer addiction is a relatively new problem that is similar to pathological gambling, eating and sex addictions.  Block explained that like addictions to drugs, people can be addicted to behaviors.  He reasoned that in the frontal lobe of the brain studies have shown similar “pathways of craving” active for both chemical and behavioral addictions (Block “Virtual”).  He uses the term pathological computer use to represent any type of computer-related addiction, virtual worlds being one of them.  Pathological Computer Use or PCU is proposed to be added to the future edition of the DSM, the DSM-V. According to Dr. Block, PCU consists of four components that separate an avid gamer from an addicted one.  The first behavior indicating PCU is excessive computer use that causes a neglect of basic drives and a loss of the sense of time.  The next is having withdrawal symptoms when away from the computer such as anger, tension, or depression.  The third sign of addiction is a user’s growing tolerance as defined by increased computer use.  The last mark of a virtual world addict is display of legal, financial, academic, or social problems (Block “Pathological”).  The DSM-IV reveals that signs of pathological gambling are very close to Block’s list of symptoms for someone suffering from Pathological Computer Use.  Block reasons that this is because addictions to gambling and computer use are both behaviors, while addictions to drugs are chemically induced.  Gambling addictions reveal symptoms such as mood modification or seeking a thrill; tolerance characterized by increased bet values; social conflict as a result of borrowing money and neglecting other social activities; and failed attempts to quit (“Pathological”).  Chang-hoon demonstrates a tolerance causing him to play 17 hours a day, is angry when not playing, and suffers from a decreased interest in school.  Furthermore, child psychiatrist Ahn Dong-hyun of Hanyang University in Seoul shares a similar view with Dr. Block of what defines a gaming addict.  Ahn Dong-hyun also claims gaming addicts build tolerances to video games, suffer from withdrawal symptoms, crave playing games when not logged on, and become irritable without games (Fackler).

As a Chartered Psychologist and the Director of the International Gaming Research, Mark Griffiths believes that computer games contain reinforcing qualities that promote addictive use.  Griffiths defines a virtual addict as one who demonstrates: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse (Griffiths 62-63).  Salience is when addicts think of their virtual worlds even when not logged into them.  They in essence live in their virtual world.

In his Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova suggests that the psychology of happiness explains why virtual worlds often are addicting.  Castronova declares that virtual worlds offer material relevant to humans’ basic motive of survival (Castronova 96).  Although survival plays a minor role in Second Life other than in some user-created role-playing scenarios, the author argues that even basic human emotions such as the joy of earning resources can intrigue users of a synthetic world.  In Second Life one can acquire friends and virtual money, called Linden Dollars, that can be exchanged for real life money.  It is easy to make friends in Second Life; players can create and change their own identity at anytime, and communicate with other users using voice communication and text chatting.  In other words it is easy to benefit from Second Life.  Success is easily obtainable in the virtual world.

Edward Castronova explains that another reason people frequently return to virtual worlds is because to them the virtual world is better than the real world.  Castronova supports this belief with hedonic psychology which examines what makes experiences enjoyable or unpleasant (Castronova 97).  Castronova points to German psychologist Stefan Kein’s discovery in 2002 of positive and negative emotions demonstrable in the human brain to explain why people can be addicted to virtual worlds.  Psychologist Stefan Kein found that different areas of the brain reveal positive and negative emotions.  He also found that positive emotions can be stimulated by taking part in activities that yield a sense of success such as exercise.  Castronova believes that videogames (set on an easy difficulty level) would allow users a simple means of success which can combat a player’s depression (Castronova 98).  The virtual world of Second Life has no difficulty settings to manipulate but it nonetheless offers its users the ability to succeed in activities.  For example, as depicted in the picture below, Second Life allows users to build virtual constructions which can be quite difficult and can yield a sense of accomplishment for builders.  A person suffering from depression or loneliness may resort to creating art in Second Life as a way to be proud of him or herself.


Here I show how avatars are able to build virtual constructions within Second Life.  Users can take pride in their intricate creations.


Internet addiction can be a coping strategy for real life problems according to Mark Griffiths (Griffiths 63).  Similar to Castronova’s explanation of positive emotions, Griffiths claims that games will modify an addict’s mood, creating a temporary high or a feeling of escape much like addictive drugs do.  In interviewing an avatar addicted to Second Life whom I will call SW, I found that her excessive playing was a coping strategy for feeling unnoticed in the real world.  SW granted me permission to quote her as long as I left her name anonymous.  As illustrated below, I interviewed SW in an ancient Greek setting within Second Life.

Here I interview Second Life addict SW in an ancient Greek setting.  She gave me permission to post this picture online.



She informed me that she used to be a Second Life addict but that her playing time has subdued since then because her relationship with her real family suffered immensely as a consequence of her addiction.  I asked questions to determine if she fit the characteristics of a virtual world addict according to the findings of Block and Griffiths.  SW was in fact addicted to Second Life.  SW told me she had developed a tolerance to the game and at her peak addiction she spent 8 hours a day in the virtual world.  She suffered from withdrawals, specifically exhibiting irritability, when not exploring and interacting with other avatars in the metaverse.  The game caused conflict in her family relations yet she kept playing, feeling guilty for spending large portions of her day ignoring her family and sitting at her computer.  Second Life modified her mood by relaxing her and, as SW said was “a way to escape [her] pain” (Avatar SW).  As her guilt for playing grew, she tried four times to reduce the amount of time she spent logged into the metaverse.  She was unsuccessful with each attempt.  SW claimed that she felt a “definite need to be exploring things in game” and started leaving her real life occupation early to log into Second Life and investigate what the virtual world had to offer her (Avatar SW).  It was not until after two months of suffering family ties that she cut her playing time drastically to fifteen minutes per day.  SW was clearly addicted to Second Life.

One reason SW became a Second Life addict was because Linden Lab’s virtual world allowed for her to fulfill her social desire of being accepted, something she was unsuccessful at in the real world. SW informed me that in real life she was shy and felt unnoticed.  SW said “well... sometimes when I didn’t feel valued in real life I would go to a beach in SL and although I knew it was not real, it was nice to be appreciated...even if I did not particularly like a lot of the people I met.  That is what I like about Second Life…there is a certain anonymity” (Avatar SW).  SW felt that people in Linden Lab’s virtual realm virtual world valued her more than those in the real world.

The anonymous interaction Second Life offers gives those who lack social skills a sense of success.  SW simply felt more important in the virtual world than in the real world.  Castronova would argue that the success gained from social acceptance and discovery in Second Life produces positive emotions and makes Second Life enjoyable (Castronova 98).  He further mentions that if the richness of one’s experience in a virtual world exceeds that of the real world, then he or she feels like they ought to return to the virtual realm (Castronova 187).  According to Maria G. Duran on AllPsych Online, an individual who is too timid to make new acquaintances in the real world can experience operant conditioning through rewards and punishments of anonymous online interaction.  The satisfaction and fulfillment of being socially accepted in a virtual world can reinforce the person’s behavior of interacting online (Duran).  In other words, the benefits a Second Life player receives from interacting in the virtual world will encourage them to continue playing.

The anonymity of players in Second Life can cause addiction to its virtual world.  In his I, Avatar : The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life, James Meadows explains that in the real world humans are taught from a young age not to associate with strangers.  However, James Meadows stresses that “Second Life, and other role-playing games are engaging because they serve the primary human drives of socialization and being competent at a skill set” (86).  Second Life allows players to meet their needs of socialization.  Avatars can safely explore and meet others in Second Life’s virtual environment because of its anonymity or non face-to-face interactions (Meadows 87).  One who lacks social skills in the real world can safely practice them in Second Life.  Mark Griffiths conducted a case study of a subject he called Jamie.  Jamie used his computer 70 hours a week and demonstrated blatant signs of addiction.  Jamie revealed that social interaction was his primary motivation for his excessive use of the internet (Griffiths 71).  Griffiths suggests that since this obese teenager lacked a social life in the real world, the text-based, anonymous style of communication of the internet offered the self-conscious Jamie a comfortable setting in which to meet others.  Second Life provides this mask of anonymity for all of its users.  A player can put forth any façade they wish.  The appearance of an avatar can be changed at the user’s discretion as illustrated in the picture below.


Here I show how Second Life users are free to edit their avatar's appearance.


The freedom to change one’s identity in a virtual world is a particularly addicting aspect of Second Life as it helps players fulfill their need for socialization.  James Meadows claims that when a person creates an avatar he or she invents a personality.  He believes that the personality can be either the same or different from his or her real life personality.  Meadows warns that the personality spawned after making an avatar can eventually replace the owner’s original personality (Meadows 82). This concept seems to apply to the interviewee SW.  Avatar SW claimed that she was glad that Second Life helped her become a more social person in the real world.  She invented a more outgoing personality and it began to affect her real life shy personality.  Meadows claims that “for some users, virtual worlds provide an alternative, online social life and actually provide access to more social living in real life” (85).  James Meadows supports this argument with a study done by researchers at Nottinham Trent University in 2007 called “Social Interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Gamers” in which 75% of 1,000 gamers interviewed had made good friends online and half of those had met their virtual friends in real life situations.  According to Psychologist Abraham Maslow, founder of the hierarchy of human needs theory of humanistic psychology, social acceptance is a human need.  He argues that humans need to satisfy physiological needs such as hunger before moving to the higher level of needs.  After physiological needs comes safety and security followed by belongingness and social acceptance, then ultimately self actualization (Huitt).  This theory is widely accepted by psychologists and supports Meadows’ belief that virtual worlds fulfill a player’s need for socialization.  Because Second Life allows users to fulfill this need by creating new identities and socializing, users who fail to socialize in the real world may feel they must satisfy this need in the virtual world.  Second Life gives players an easy means to socialize with others just as the internet had for the obese, social outcast Jamie in Griffiths’ case study.

Furthermore, James Meadows insists that Second Life awards users the freedom to create entire synthetic communities which satisfies the human need for belongingness in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Second Life encourages a person who does not belong to a real world community to spend time in virtual world where the person can easily fulfill his or her need for belongingness (Meadows 87).  It is easy to belong to groups in Second Life; players can invite other avatars to groups as easily as members of Facebook can invite other members to groups.  In a survey of 300 Second Life users in 2007, Meadows found that in real life most came from small communities, had no siblings, and more than a third moved to new cities every four years.  Meadows found that all of them wanted to “leave a system they disliked” in the real world (Meadows 87).  Second Life gives these Second Life players the ability to fulfill their need for belongingness.  Creating or joining synthetic communities allows Second Life users to be an element of a group.  Meadows reasons that “It only makes sense that another life offering greater engagement might start to compete with one that, for many people, is not what they’d hoped” (Meadows 87).  Meadows hints that if a person hopes for something but can not reach their goal in the real world, they can turn to Second Life for a solution.  Second Life can indeed fulfill a human’s basic need for belongingness, encouraging users to play in order to remain satisfied.

Another reason Second Life hooked interviewee SW is because it grants players the freedom to digitally simulate activities he or she may desire to but are unable to perform in the real world.  For SW this was investigating her surroundings.  SW told me that in real life she did not get out of her house much because of strict family policies and that Second Life allowed her to “quench [her] desire to explore” (Avatar SW).  SW indicated that exploring in Second Life made her feel accomplished.  Avatars in Second Life have the ability to fly as illustrated below which can make people with a passion for discovery like SW feel successful in the synthetic realm.

In this picture I demonstrate how avatars can fly, making exploration of Second Life's virtual terrain an easy task.


Second Life is a virtual playground.  Activities that can provide fulfillment, success, or happiness to participants in Second Life are nearly endless as users are able to create and shape structures to their preference and even implement digital scripts of coding to give their virtual creations real world properties. For instance a player is able to create a virtual car and embed in it functions to allow for motion and sounds such as horns, engine noises, and tire screeches.  In using the psychology of happiness to explain virtual addiction, Castronova would reason that positive emotions result from the feelings of success players can get in Second Life.  Therefore SW feels happy in the virtual world when she succeeds at exploring and may even prefer the virtual world over the real world.  According to behavioral psychology, something positive provided after a behavior will increase the probability of the behavior to occur in the future (Heffner).  This can be applied to Second Life.  SW’s behavior of exploring increased during her first two months of playing because she was rewarded with success and ultimately happiness.  After two months she felt that exploring gave her less of a reward than it initially had and the consequences of her addiction outweighed the pleasures gained from using Second Life, forcing SW to limit her gaming time herself.  As Castronova would argue, the freedom to find happiness or success in Second Life can cause addiction if the user feels better while in the virtual world than in the real world.  When that balance tips back the other way, a player can return their life to the real world.

            I interviewed another avatar I will refer to as Bob.  Bob gave me permission to quote him as long as I left his name anonymous.  Bob is 26 years old and spends eight hours a day purely DJ-ing music in Second Life.  He too fit the qualifications of an addict.  In the picture below, Bob said “I am bored and easily upset when not mixing music.”

Here I interview the DJ Bob.  He gave me permission to post this picture online.



He now spends a third of his waking hours in the virtual world compared to only a few hours when he started Second Life months ago.  Clearly Bob has developed a tolerance for the synthetic world.  Second Life modifies his mood by giving him a mental high that combats his boredom.  Bob told me that his excessive use of Second Life was ruining his marriage.  When asked why Bob DJs in Second Life for eight hours a day, Bob answered “It is fun way to spend my time because I like music and am good at mixing it.”  Coming from a poor household with three kids, Bob explained that “DJ-ing in SL is cheaper than in RL and I can do it at home” (Avatar Bob).  I asked Bob about his social life and he informed me that he does not leave his house much.

            It is clear that Bob is addicted to Second Life.  According to a telephone interview with Dr. Jerald Block, to discover what makes Second Life addicting, one first must investigate the appealing aspects of virtual worlds (Block “Virtual”).  Second Life grants Bob the ability to take part and be successful in an activity he is financially unable to support in the real world.  This is why he is addicted.  Like SW’s addiction, positive reinforcement can help explain Bob’s addiction to Second Life. By mixing songs Bob is rewarded with enjoyment thus is reinforced to continue DJ-ing in the virtual world.  Stefan Klein’s discovery that success creates positive emotions suggests that Bob can use DJ-ing in Second Life to subdue any negative emotions he may have such as worries brought along by poverty or the drama of being involved in a crumbling marriage.

            Overall, the social success users seek in Second Life can trigger addiction.  This social success is achieved primarily through the anonymity players are given by Linden Lab which allows them to socialize comfortably to fulfill the basic human need of socialization and belongingness.  In addition to meeting these human needs, Second Life is addicting because, according to Meadows, it satisfies the human need for being competent at a skill.  Psychological doctrine supports that being successful at an activity leads to enjoyment which reinforces the initial behavior.  Because there are endless activities at which users can succeed within Second Life, frequent game play is encouraged.  If a player is unable to live happily or Boxing Glove with fulfillment without Second Life, then the use of Second Life will likely turn into an addiction known as Internet Addiction Disorder causing conflict in the user’s real life, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, and mood modification.


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