My Research Programme (2002 - Now)

The Dark Side of Video Games

Are you addicted?


What is it with us today? We are giving over control to the machine and losing touch with the physical world around us [1]. We are witnessing the decay of our meaningful relationships— sucked into electronic vectors of nothingness—right before our very eyes [2]. Sometimes we are at a loss to describe this phenomenon, reflecting on how members of our own family have been duped by the promise of a Second Life.

It is true that some people are predisposed to different types of addictions—e.g., drugs, alcohol, and gambling—all of which act to curb an underlying condition, usually obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and/or anxiety. However, we are now confident that a compulsion toward excessive playing of video games will be added to that suite of newly defined behavioral addictions that need our urgent attention.

This article is dedicated to video game addiction, given its widespread reach, but we would be the first to admit that this is simply one of a dozen types of computer applications that can trigger deep-seated dependencies [3]. Although video game addiction was not included in U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for 2012, there was an appendix on further research into Internet use disorder [4]. In contrast, the Chinese have already defined the disorder, and some studies have claimed that as many as one-third of mentally ill patients who stay at home are addicted to the Internet [5], [52].

Nintendo Game & Watch: Donkey Kong Jr. [Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Francis Bijl (Frenkieb).]

We can point to the increasing number of video game and online Internet detoxification clinics around the world that have been in existence since at least 2005, especially in China [6], [54], South Korea, and Taiwan [7]. From PSs and DSs to Wiis and Zappers, from iPods and iPads to Xboxes, our high tech gaming toys are enslaving children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, partners, friends, parents, and teachers [8].

Are you addicted to video games?

If you do not wish to admit to the possibility that there is such a thing as video game addiction, then you can just log into one of your avatars in your favorite massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), and, while your terminal is booting, ask yourself a few of the following questions.

▼ How long do you spend on your favorite MMOG each day? [9]

▼ Are you preoccupied by your favorite video game when you are not playing? Is it all you can think about, even at the expense of your closest relationships?

▼ Over the last 12 months, have you put on weight as a result of your gaming habits?

▼ Do you have any friends outside those connected to your online avatar(s)?

▼ Are your grades at school slipping, or is your employment suffering as a result of playing games day and night? Are you suffering from sleep deprivation as a result?

▼ When you are on the computer engrossed in a session of play, do you lose track of time and forget about basic needs like eating, sleeping, or going to the restroom?

Moths are positively phototactic. Cockroaches are negatively phototactic, which means they search for dark spots and crevices. Humans are like moths—they are drawn to the light. But video games can change that. Many gamers who are addicted don't know the difference between light and dark, save for the light emitting from their screen. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Accassidy.)

We visited the Xbox homepage and were confronted with the following message: “A new generation has begun.” Yes, indeed it has. It is the generation drawn to the screen culture, like the moth is drawn to the light. But as soon as the moth touches the artificial light, it is no more. We can say that humans are also prone to the “moth effect.” Like moths, humans are naturally drawn to the light during the day, as opposed to cockroaches, which scurry into dark corners and crevices to avoid detection. We investigate what transforms the gamer—analogously from light to dark phototaxis—and what the ensuing social implications are for him or her and his or her close relationships [10]. How is it, you ask, that the screen emits bright light but the gamer is enveloped in visual and persistent perceptive darkness? Curtains drawn and lights out, the gamer retreats to his or her bedroom to play, and, if engaged in a first-person shooter MMOG, he or she continues to hide in the crevices to avoid being shot. There is a significant body of literature that needs to be studied in relation to target fixation [11] and video gaming. What is it that draws gamers to the console when they know that what they are attracted to has no real tangible benefit?

Just to set the record straight, this generation is not really “new,” as Xbox would have us believe, but about 40 years in the making. It is little wonder that the average gamer is a 35-year-old male [12].

In the beginning was Pong, then came MMOG

Pong interface—the instructions were simple: "Avoid missing the ball for a high score." Pong was akin to a game of ping-pong, but play was electronic in style and versus a computer.

We started off with Atari’s launch of Pong in 1972. The graphics could not be simpler, and, on first viewing, Pong is an innocuous game compared to today’s standards. The instructions were simple: “Avoid missing the ball for a high score” [13]. But what was it about Pong that brought millions of players to the TV screen? Psychologists point to the feedback loop, the anticipation of the response from the terminal, a sense of achievement at gaining high scores, a mastery of sorts over the game, the chance to fill the void with some fun, and a momentary escape from the realities and responsibilities of life.

Then, arcade games for just a nickel a game came into prominence at the same time that video-based poker machines surfaced to draw gamblers [14]. It used to be that Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), Donkey Kong (1981), and Mario Bros. (1983) ruled—you used a laser canon to ward off the aliens, you got to eat the pellets and fight off the ghosts and monsters, you gathered ammunition to defend yourself against anthropomorphic enemies, and, as Mario, you got to exterminate the pests threatening to rise from the sewers below New York. But something happened to the nature of the gaming industry after personal computers were introduced into homes. Space Invaders gave way to DOOM (1993), Pac-Man to Grand Theft Auto (1997), and Mario Bros. to Manhunt (2003). Unsurprisingly, the promise of flight- and car-simulator games gave way to war and debauchery. The impact of the rise of the Internet was no different to that which followed the printing press for the production of propaganda and pornography [15].

Sergeant Shane Perry of the 401st Military Police Company displays his new Call of Duty: Ghosts game during the midnight release at the Clear Creek Post Exchange GameStop. (Photo courtesy of Sergeant Cody Barber, 11th Public Affairs Detachment.)

The defining point in the history of video gaming, however, came in 2003 with the introduction of Call of Duty, when a cinematic experience was introduced, tending away from traditional robotic-like behavior by personas. Call of Duty also provided the illusion of a more organic and dynamic game made possible by some clever programming, despite the fact that it still relied on linear scripting. It was much less formulaic than what gamers had experienced with previous first-person shooters. In the same year, massively multiplayer online gaming was touted as having well and truly arrived, as Financial Times measured the per-capita gross domestic product in the EverQuest game to be equatable to that of the 77th-wealthiest nation in the world. This was followed by a large number of subscriptions in the millions with Happy Farm and hundreds of millions with World of Warcraft and, more recently, Minecraft.

On the dark side of the…

The video gaming scene really came of age when the social networking elements of instant messaging, chat, video conferencing features, and presence information were added to the real-world-like online environment. All of a sudden, gaming became a fusion of unified communications that, if misused, could easily appeal to the darker side of the human instinct. Again, we contend that this medium is no different than other entertainment—such as movies with dark themes, music with dark lyrics, or even books with dark messages [16]. But there is something about MMOGs that differs from books, music, and movies [17]. The latter have a beginning and an end, whereas MMOGs seemingly go on forever—a little like the continuous pieces of music on each side of Pink Floyd’s famous album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Is there something in this distinction? The flesh is mortal, yet MMOGs carry with them a seeming infinity. You can die a million times over and spawn back to life in a game like UberStrike (2010), but on Earth you only have one life.

We contend that killing people in a game, no matter whether the characters are just animations, cannot be good for the human spirit, that is, the spiritual and mental part of our humanity. Spending a great deal of time, many hours per day, transfixed by high-impact violence (gross and unrelenting), high levels of gore (decapitations, dismemberments, and excessive blood-letting), offensive depictions of cruelty, and prostitution and heavy sexual themes means that we cannot break free from the endless loop. The same argument can be made for any video game that begins to impede our ability to be productive or that affects our ability to take care of fundamental personal hygiene needs [18]. We should be focusing our time toward positive and constructive play with long-term benefits as opposed to spending copious time building a world that does not exist when the power goes off.

We know what some of you are thinking: Not all video games are bad for you. Support your positions with real evidence and scientific studies [53]. Just because I maim and kill online, virtually, it doesn’t mean I’ll do it in the real world, and, if I have virtual sex every so often or even rape a prostitute in a game, it’s not like committing a real physical act. It’s all just make-believe… Who are you fooling? We are building games today in our society that are not only distasteful but are extolling what are generally labeled in the legal domain as cyber crimes against the person [19]. The worrying part is that these violent depictions of everyday life are becoming more callous and entering the mainstream. Are you going to tell us that when you perform these vile acts online that you are actually feeling true love, peace, and joy? Whatever happened to extolling morals and values in our society and to ethical codes of conduct in the game-development industry? It is not even a question of traditional ethics anymore but of plain old common sense.

Yes, yes, having an online affair has naught to do with the real world and has no real-world repercussions. Poof! Smokescreen! What is your heart telling you? What is your body saying to you? Are these acts just our imagination, or are they real, with real-world repercussions? When I spend more time online than with the person with whom I share a bed in the physical world, isn’t there something wrong? [20] When your first thought when you awake is to make contact with your favorite gaming community so that you can go out on another mission and pick off a few more fraggers, you need to reassess your behavior [21]. Things and people around you will start to suffer—how can they not if you are spending 10–15 h glued behind the screen playing? [22] Something must give [23].

Consider the Korean couple who, in 2010, let their threemonth-old baby girl die from starvation as they spent hours devoted to raising a virtual character of a young girl named Anima in the game Prius Online [24]. Think about the case of a young Korean man who collapsed at an Internet café in 2005 and went into cardiac arrest after playing Starcraft (1998) for 50 h straight, of a young Chinese man in 2007 who suffered a heart attack after spending almost seven straight days behind a computer screen (save for restroom breaks) [25], and of two Taiwanese men in separate incidents in 2012 who also collapsed in Internet cafés playing Diablo (1996) and League of Legends (2008) without a break for 40 and 23 h, respectively [26]. Consider the number of wives and husbands who have divorced their spouses over their gaming behaviors [27], especially for infidelity in Second Life and World of Warcraft [28]. And ponder the number of people who have lost their jobs because they cannot work and play video games simultaneously, later moving in with friends and relatives as a result of losing their income [29], [30].

Yes, we know what you’re thinking yet again—that these are just one-off tragic stories, and they’ll never happen to you or your kids [31]. To respond to this, we ask, “really?” It is not difficult to come to the same conclusions we hold. Do your own field observations on your way to work or the next time you are at a coffee shop or on a school campus. How many people, young and old, are absorbed by their mobile phone— immersed in the screen [32]? Parents, it’s time to admit it— there’s a problem with how technology has taken over your family, your workplace, and your headspace. What are you going to do about it? Will you keep believing that resistance is futile? Do you think that you cannot change because you fear that little Johnny will make life hell for you if he doesn’t get his 8 or 9 h online?

Don’t we realize as a technology-reliant community that we are keeping these gaming companies alive by logging in for our kids on 17+ games when they are barely ten years old? What are we willingly exposing them to? We shudder in horror when African dictators enlist ten-year-olds to fight in wars, but we turn around and buy our ten-year-olds the experience of killing far more virtual people than any real war would ever make possible.

When we give in to the demands of our children for yet another video game, we are feeding the darkness in their imaginations and sullying their spirits [33]. What happens when we get so entangled and lost in this virtual world that we do not even see what is happening to our household?

Ask the difficult questions

Stop and ask yourself: Where are your kids? What activity are they engaged in? Are they outside or inside, sleeping or awake? Chances are that every single one of them is behind a console of one form or another, for one reason or another. Now go and do a physical reconnaissance—how many of them are playing games? That has to say something about what we’ve become, and what we hope to become is a question for an entirely different article.

Games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City promote a host of vices that are contrary to positive societal values

There’s an epidemic of parents failing to care for their kids, to feed them when they are hungry, to change their diapers, make sure they’ve brushed their teeth and gotten enough sleep for the day ahead. There’s also an epidemic of people failing to take care of themselves because they are addicted to electronic gaming or, more precisely, addicted to Wi-Fi. Why is everyone so bent on walking around and deceiving themselves that technology has not pervaded their life with a whole lot of ugly negatives? [34] Why are we all so scared to admit that what we are potentially creating is a road to nowhere? [35] For some, gaming has become a pathological addiction, and they cannot break free from the screen. Is the problem that we, too, are so engrossed by the screen that we cannot lend a hand?

We each know people who treat Facebook (or Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr) as if they were online games. What’s the difference? Instead of shooting a character in a videogame, we can just like or Tweet some news. It is all “button pushing” and “screen scrolling,” reactionary, and stimulating to the prefrontal cortex, is it not [51]?

Enter locked-in syndrome, a medical term used to describe “a condition in which a patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes” [36]. Similarly, being in a persistent vegetative state is defined as “a wakeful unconscious state that lasts longer than a few weeks” [37]. We borrow the terms here to question whether society at large is presently undergoing some kind of locked-in technology scenario. In our analysis, addicted gamers go into a comatose state of affairs, where their heart is pumping blood, they are clinically alive, but they are barely conscious. Only their fingers around the console are moving spasmodically, showing us, the bystanders, signs of life in the form of a reflex action. Some even ceremoniously prepare with food and beverage beside them before choosing the addictive stance within which to use the social media elements of gaming.

Have you noticed when you try to talk to an addicted gamer that his or her gaze does not leave the screen, remaining transfixed? If he or she happens to make a mistake while you are trying to talk to him or her, you get blamed for the error in the most extreme way [38]. In the end, that is what the creators of these games want from us: a mind-numbing sense that what they are feeding us is good for our spirit [39]. Many of us, however, would not wish to believe that the primary driver of the gamedevelopment companies is to get us addicted from the start because it means more revenue for them [40]. These games have a spirit behind them, but it’s not one that lifts our souls or causes us to reach for greater things. It is the spirit of the times, that pervasive, uneasy feeling that things are not going so well toward the goodness and natural inclination of life.

This spirit of anarchy or nihilism is leading gamers of violent virtual realities to see and to dream of hells in the games they play as opposed to goodness, to be influenced by the images they see in strange visitations called nightmares, and to ponder demonic thoughts. We do not need to provide you with our evidence, which would only act to pollute your minds. Most players of these abhorrent games will not go out and conduct a massacre in the physical space [41], but surely there are other ways to spend one’s time—outside playing games with the children, admiring natural beauty with a sense of awe, going for a surf or a hike? Why do we choose a psychological prison, trapped not only inside but within ourselves? Those versed in the writings of Carl Jung can take much from here in the context of the “shadow aspect” of our personalities.

The next time you walk past your child’s door (whether he or she is a teenager or an adult living in your home), why don’t you spend ten full minutes together looking at how he or she is interacting with the virtual world through the computer device. In addition, ask about the music your child listens to and the movies he or she gets a buzz from. It is all one and the same: lyrics (auditory), multimedia (visual), consoles (touch and feel) enveloping the faculties of the human body. Immersing oneself in a whole lot of bad stuff is like immersing oneself in a cesspool. The problem with our life today is that we are swimming in the cesspool, surrounded by soft e-waste, and cannot see it for what it is. It is enveloping us on all sides and suffocating our freedom. We can only see things more clearly if we decide to get out of it, wash afresh, and then look with open eyes at what is before us. Yes, this does mean limiting our screen time.

Enacting change

When was the last time you embraced your children or told them you love them in the real world, not just over SMS or e-mail? There’s your challenge—get up off your chair right now, let go of that iDevice, and go searching in the physical space to reach out to that family member right now who is absorbed by their favorite high-tech gadget. It won’t be easy to get him or her to stop and to make eye contact with you, but that’s just the first step [41]. Be patient. It may take several weeks, or even months, but try detoxing the whole family from the dreaded technology that has bound them hand, foot, and mouth [42]. At first, try taking the family away to a location that is a complete dead zone—without even mobile connectivity [43]. Go away for at least a week. When you return, tell yourself you will not go back to your old ways and will hold your ground [44].

The screen is coming closer and closer, and it now seeks entry into the subdermal. Consider it this way: in the last 60 years, we have seen the advent of television, the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and now the wearable device that can distort and augment reality itself. What will come next? Will it be a translucent contact lens that completely replaces our actual field of view with another in a pervasive gaming environment? When we cannot make the distinction between fantasy and reality, are we really living? [45]

We must do better [56]. There is still a chance to resist. We can recapture our human rights and our dignity, reaffirm the rights of our children to have undistracted parents, and get back to a time when our children looked us in the eye clearly and brightly when we spoke to them [47]. We still have time to reaffirm the value of reality. We can change. We can do better. We have to remain in charge of the “screen” so that we can not only enjoy the great innovations of our times but also put them to good use.


There are people out there who are not slaves to technology and who are able to play games casually without any ill effect to their health. We are not asking people to live the life of an Amish community [48] but to consider how technology is impacting their home life and start drawing some lines. Children are especially vulnerable [49], but parents are struggling with the same addiction and the same detachment from the real world, staring into a screen instead of sharing real hugs, real smiles, real conversations, real activities, and reality itself with their kids. And it’s not just video games. Answering e-mails, talking on the mobile, texting, Facebook, web surfing, YouTube, all can be equally draining if misused [50].

We would be remiss not to point out the downsides that everyone around us is experiencing. It’s the elephant in the room, the emperor parading naked down the street, the skeleton in nearly every family’s closet. We are calling for people to wake up and admit that, collectively, we have a very big problem on our hands and to begin a thoughtful discussion of how we want to handle it. And lest you think we speak from some lofty, technology-free form of purity, we assure you that, one way or another, we have been down the ugly road we are describing. If we were not challenged by these matters ourselves, we would not be able to speak of them with such passion.


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This article was adapted from “The Dark Side of Online Gaming,” written by Katherine Albrecht, Katina Michael, and M.G. Michael for the International Conference on Cyber Behavior, 18–20 June 2014, Taipei, Taiwan; it was awarded best paper at the conference.

Citation: Katherine Albrecht, Katina Michael, M. G. Michael, "The Dark Side of Video Games: Are you addicted?", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, 2016, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 107 - 113.