Tom Chatfield: Why do people disappear into virtual worlds?

The thing is...
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The Independent Online

The thing is, I was an avid reader of video games magazines as a teenager, and one of the criteria many used to grade a game was "addictiveness". Claiming that you could barely wrest yourself away from a game was high praise indeed. Here was an index of the marvellous, immersive intensity the best interactive media could generate – a standard of excellence for a young industry to aspire towards.

Today, that aspiration has been more than realised. The US author and academic Ryan van Cleave has described his pathological relationship with the massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft, in terms that will be familiar to many gamers. Playing it "makes me feel godlike", he argued. Here was, unlike real life, a place of endless rewards and progress, one into which he withdrew from family, career and colleagues, with dire consequences.

Along with 12 million globally, I also play World of Warcraft and consider the game – and others like it – a positive part of my life. I'm also aware, though, that experiences like van Cleave's aren't simply sad, isolated stories. They point towards a troubling and under-addressed issue within not only video-gaming, but digital culture in general.

It is, I believe, tempting but ultimately unhelpful to see games as a potential addiction akin to drugs or gambling. Yet it's clear that the psychological rewards video games offer are, for some people, a seductive alternative to the uncertainty of daily life. I've known some people gain hope, confidence and real-life rewards from in-game relationships. But this is by no means everyone's story.

This is as much a criticism of society as it is of games. Far more needs to be done in engaging with the practical ethics of virtual environments in which many millions increasingly invest time, money – and senses of self. It is not enough to praise "balance", although it is a start; and it is certainly not enough simply to scaremonger or scapegoat. Society, players and creators need a shared framework for understanding what it means to become a discerning user of new media; for identifying and helping those trapped in pathological patterns of use; and for escaping the anecdotes, panics and mutual misunderstandings that still dominate much of the so-called debate around this topic.

These are simple enough things to demand. But they will, I suspect, be a long time coming.

Tom Chatfield is the author of 'Fun Inc'