Wednesday, October 25, 2006

MMORPGs and the Government

I recently read a blog post that vividly described how online games – MMORPGs – can take over someone's life. That motivated me to do a quick Google search for the notion that online games are addictive.

I found a lot of comments, stories, etc. to that effect.

One website said the addiction rate for MMORPGs “appears to be about twice that of crack Cocaine.”

As you probably know, stories (and probably rumors) about the consumingly addictive nature of MMORPGs has generated some government efforts to control the (alleged) addiction. China has reportedly opened a game addiction clinic that uses electroshock and psychotherapy to treat those who are seriously addicted to online gaming. And it seems to me I have read other stories about governments either cracking down on online gaming or threatening to do so.

I find that notion interesting, because it looks to me like there COULD be a move to treat immersive online games in a fashion analogous to the drugs we outlaw. Why do we outlaw certain drugs? Think about it: The drugs we outlaw tend to take people away from reality, in good or bad ways. PCP and some other violence-inducing drugs take people away in a fashion I, anyway, would submit is not desirable or acceptable, given the high risk of harm the user poses to others.

But my understanding is that many of the drugs we outlaw – marijuana, heroin and other opium-derivatives, LSD, etc. – are anything but violence-inducing. (Some may argue that LSD is, and they may be right; I read a book a few years ago, which persuaded me that it is not.) Many of them (think marijuana) tend to induce a very passive state, one that is pretty much the antithesis of how people behave on alcohol (which tends to make us more aggressive), which is still legal in most of the US, anyway.

Why outlaw drugs that alter out relationship with reality that, in effect, blur the edges of physical reality? I really do not know. One argument, I do know, is that people who become addicted to these drugs cease to be productive citizens, and consequently tend to commit crime, become dependent on society, neglect their children, etc. If that is true, if certain drugs inevitably result in those behaviors, then outlawing them makes sense for reasons that are analogous to those which, I submit, support outlawing PCP and similar drugs.

I also read, some years ago, that it is possible to function quite well on certain kinds of drugs (like heroin) as long as one has an adequate supply of the drug. If that is true, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is true, then why would we outlaw these drugs? Is it because we believe physical reality is a given that we must confront without the palliative effects of drugs that blur our experience with that reality? If that is so, then I wonder why we believe this. (I’m not sure I believe this.)

There is a view that the current aggressively-anti recreational drug stance in the US is a product of lobbying by Harry Anslinger, who basically created US anti-drug policies in the 1930s. According to this view, Anslinger, who had been a high-level bureaucract in the Bureau of (Alcohol) Prohibition, worked to develop an aggressive federal anti-drug program to give himself job security by essentially transforming that Bureau into the foundation of a federal anti-drug agency.

I don’t know if that is true or not, but from what I have read Anslinger did sometimes play fast and loose with the truth about certain drugs in order to advance his ends. (I read somewhere that when Congress was holding hearings on criminalizing marijuana he told them a story about a “Mexican” who used marijuana, went psychotic and killed one, two, three, I forget how many people. I also read that he used the same story when Congress was considering criminalizing LSD.)

Anyhow, I digress. For some reason – historical, functional, logical, illogical, who knows – we outlaw drugs that blur the edges of physical reality.

Now we have MMORPGs, which take us away from physical reality into realities that are limited only by our imaginations. I’m not a gamer, but I can certainly understand why people might want to spend time away from the aggravations and limitations of their real, physical lives. And I can understand why that experience might become “addictive,” in the sense that we want to repeat it.

But are MMORPGs really addictive . . . in the way “bad” drugs are addictive? I can’t imagine that anyone would say they’re physically addictive, but that probably doesn’t resolve the question. Gambling is often described as addictive, too, and no one, I assume, would say it is physically addictive.

I’m sure people can become overly immersed in MMORPGs. I’ve fooled around a bit in Second Life, know people who spend a lot of time there, and I can understand why. It’s fun, it’s creative, it frees them from the constraints and aggravations of their real-life (not being in charge of things, bosses, traffic, financial issues, relatives, etc.).

What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with escaping from our physical reality for a while? Why can’t that be a good thing? Why can’t that be a coping mechanism – something that lets us put our real-life experiences in perspective and maybe deal with them in a better way than we would otherwise?

Is it just that government feels the need to step in and control certain kinds of behaviors? I may be wrong (it’s been known to happen), but I don’t see how the crack addict kinds of justifications work in this context. Is anyone really going to go out and commit crimes to get money to be able to keep participating in a MMORPG? And if that is not likely, then what possible justification could there be for restricting – even, perhaps, ultimately outlawing – MMORPGs?

I could see a future Harry Anslinger arguing to Congress that we need to outlaw MMORPGs (or restrict access to them) because someone – the twenty-first century’s version of the “Mexican” he used seventy years ago – spent so much time in World of Warcraft they became acclimated to violence and killed five people in the real-world (probably using a virtual sword).

Sorry – I seem to be on a soapbox this morning.

And on a somewhat related but probably more rational note, you may have seen that Congress is considering taxing “virtual economies.” I wonder what effect taxation would have on the “take us away from reality” effect of MMORPGs.

No comments: