Why online gaming is the new gambling

By Damian Thompson on May 24th, 2012

‘Daddy, when are you coming to bed?’

In a basement office in Gillingham, Kent, a former nightclub bouncer is clocking up his twelfth consecutive hour on the online role-playing game Second Life. Dennis, 48, runs his own security consulting firm: a job that doesn’t require much of his time but provides a comfortable income for his family. But the time he used to spend painting, reading and chatting to his wife is now entirely consumed by Second Life.

Most days, Dennis never gets dressed. He insists that meals be brought down to him in the basement according to a specific schedule, to coincide with arrangements for ‘virtual meetings’ that he has set up with other characters in the game. One of his daughters, four-year-old Lily, is used to hearing the sound of a bell ringing loudly from down below.

‘Tea bell!’ she says, cheerfully. When the drink is delivered, Dennis’s eyes don’t leave the screen. Occasionally he murmurs a weak thank-you, but he barely notices food and drink arriving, and he often doesn’t remember eating it.

In Second Life, Dennis plays nine distinct characters to obscure the fact that he plays so much. Each has an entire back story, and he has invented imaginary real-world ‘owners’ to go along with each of them. One character, Sabrina, is supposed to be ‘Lesley’ in real life: a 22-year-old student from Maidstone who chats, shops and deals in virtual real estate when she’s not revising for her exams.

A key feature of Second Life is that, if you really know what you’re doing, you can make quite a lot of (real) money by dealing in virtual property. Dennis estimates that he makes $2,000 a month from online real estate. These are modest sums by a serious virtual realtor’s standards, but Dennis isn’t there for the money.

Truth be told, he can’t tell you why he is – only that, every morning, he wakes three hours before his wife and immediately goes downstairs, locks himself in his ‘den’, and loads the game. He admits that he likes the social element to it: he enjoys making up new personalities. And he also likes the way the game is designed to give what he calls ‘regular feedback’: a sense that his actions have big consequences.

‘A few clicks, and castle shimmers into view, which I can decorate and start a family in,’ he says. ‘Provided I have enough Linden dollars.’ Linden dollars are Second Life’s currency, part of the complex set of reward systems engineered into the game.

Dennis is typical of the most compulsive class of Second Life user – the ones you see in forums explaining that their families are falling apart and that they can’t hold down jobs. But he denies he is addicted to the game. ‘Yeah, maybe I spend a bit too much time in front of the computer,’ he says. ‘But I’m not hurting anyone.’

What he doesn’t tell me, but his wife does, is that last month she threatened to move out of the house, taking his two daughters with her.

‘Sometimes I would love to throw my phone and computer out the window. Not because I’m frustrated with them, but because I feel that they are glued to me and drain me of all energy.’

Ashley, writing on the Tokyo Housewife blog, is not the first American woman to become dependent on technology. While most obsessive internet users are male, academics are increasingly noting that women – especially those in their thirties and forties – are catching up fast.

Where previously American housewives were addicted to gambling and to bidding wars on eBay, now they’re becoming obsessed with simplistic games that have refined the reward dynamics of those two pastimes.

With eBay, users have to wait a week to receive whatever they’ve won. Gambling sites often trick players into spending too much money too quickly, which can cause trouble with husbands. But, while there’s a limit to how much you can realistically spend within FarmVille, there seems no limit to the numbers of rewards and encouragements the game gives you to continue.

For the women who play these games, the ‘virtual goods’ they collect are just as real as their eBay purchases. ‘These housewives are still spending money, but rather than having a garage full of junk they don’t need, they’re the proud owners of cattle and tractors on farm estates in Facebook,’ says one technology journalist. ‘Whether that’s a step forward or a step back, I don’t know.’

Are these women addicted to the internet? Do a Google search on ‘internet addiction’ and you’ll find tests, self-help guides, articles about gamers dying from starvation, and thousands upon thousands of newspaper articles and pieces of academic research on the phenomenon.

A classic horror story surfaced in February 2012, when a Taiwanese man died while playing video games at an internet café in Taipei. Dozens of other patrons carried on for hours afterwards, apparently unaware that they were sitting near a corpse. Police said that a waitress found the 23-year-old sitting rigidly on a chair with his hands stretched out. He may have been dead for nine hours. Despite his youth, however, he did have a history of heart problems and may have been killed by low temperatures. So he wasn’t a victim of internet addiction, unless you choose to define it extremely loosely.

Most psychiatrists are suspicious of the term internet addiction, with good reason. In my opinion, it’s best avoided: it’s a bit like saying people are addicted to pubs rather than to alcohol. Logging on to the internet is like flicking between shopping channels, each dedicated to a different compulsion. Shouldn’t we be blaming the underlying compulsions themselves rather than the technology that mediates them?

This isn’t to deny that, for many people, it’s getting harder and harder to drag themselves away from the internet. The addictive aura of these websites is becoming stronger – and it’s undoubtedly the technology that’s tightening the screws.

Everyone knows that online gambling, gaming and pornography are addictive. It’s less well known that their addictive potential is constantly being refined – dangerously so in the case of porn, as we’ll see in the next chapter. Also, the lessons designers learn from experiments with gambling and porn are being applied to online pursuits that, on the face of it, seem too innocent and childlike to get people seriously hooked.

As the case of Dennis illustrates, it isn’t just children who are getting trapped in cyberspace. Increasingly, we’re taking our toys with us into adulthood. Like those fun cognitive-enhancing drugs, social technology is meddling with the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘play’. Where previously a service like Twitter, which is essentially a chat application like the MSN Messenger of the 1990s, would have been regarded as a social plaything, it’s now part of the professional arsenal of communicative tools – sometimes even replacing email as a primary means of communication in the office.

But Twitter is different from email in important ways. Like other ‘web 2.0’ products of the past decade, it is becoming increasingly ‘gamified’, as product companies pick up tips from gaming engineers about how to keep people hooked on their services. Your old email client was never designed to keep you in it for as long as possible, but Twitter is.

And consider Foursquare, an application that lets you ‘check in’ to real world venues to let your friends know where you are at any given moment. (Mysteriously, the need to check in is felt most strongly by users when they are eating in a swanky restaurant or arriving in an exotic foreign city.) Foursquare awards ‘badges’ for various levels of accomplishments – ‘achievements’, they’re called – using language and user interface elements that are plucked straight from a video game.

Applications developers look to social gaming companies such as Zynga in San Francisco for tips when building their products, because they know that the games its engineers create are among the most addictive experiences on the internet.

One of the ways developers such as Zynga keep people hooked is with ‘design cues’, elements of the user interface that signal some sort of reward. These get people excited and, like other addictive cues, generate dopamine.

In the case of Zynga’s FarmVille, players receive visual hits every time they accomplish a task: for example, when they water or harvest a square of crops, they’re treated to a short animation and cutesy sound effect. And as they watch the gold coins they’ve earned from growing and selling pile up in their virtual handbags, and are also rewarded for their actions with the pleasing ‘whoosh’ sound, they’re encouraged to repeat those actions.

What’s interesting is that such actions should be ‘rewarded’ at all. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders rarely derive any reward from them, but in this case meaningless, repetitive OCD-style actions are encouraged rather than frowned upon. It’s not by accident that these pieces of software deluge the user with little fixes of social reinforcement and ego massage.

Significantly, these tricks are being picked up by non-gaming software companies. Modern applications are engineered to provide dozens of little hits per hour: the modern computer is becoming overloaded with intrusive notifications from Skype, Twitter, email, Facebook and any other software with a communication component. There’s a piece of software for Macintosh computers called Growl that was specifically designed to streamline the various notifications.

In practice, it’s almost as invasive as the higgledy-piggledy world of individual notifications: it showers dozens of translucent rectangles across the screen every time a programme wants your attention. Infuriating, you might think. But the people who install Growl welcome the distraction. It makes them feel needed – and if the stream of notifications slows down they wonder why.

The user interfaces of applications that perform perfunctory office functions are beginning to resemble dashboards. Apple’s OS X actually has a dashboard. The Dock, from which applications can be launched, has red status indicators – which are there to tell you, for example, that you have unread email. They are lifted directly from the video games of the late 1990s.

The result of this crafty borrowing is that people find it ever more difficult to drag themselves away from the screen. They admit as much, even if they don’t use the word ‘addicted’. But in terms of stickiness and brain-hijacking, every operating system pales in comparison with the latest video games.

Online gaming is the new gambling, and its growth in the last decade has been explosive. Gaming appears to be replacing online gambling as the addict’s poison of choice. It does an even better job than virtual roulette wheels at hanging on to players.

Dennis used to gamble and drink excessively in his twenties and thirties. When he found himself with less disposable income in his early forties, these pursuits became less readily available. But business picked up again as he approached fifty – and so did his addictive behaviour. Presented with the choice of returning to drinking and the blackjack table or throwing himself into computer games, he chose a digital fix he could enjoy from his swivel chair.

Like many gaming addicts, Dennis was also lured in by the false impression that no money was changing hands in Second Life. He purchases Linden dollars with money from his PayPal account – but, as he says: ‘It’s like the foreign currency you spend on holiday. You don’t think of it as real expenditure. At least, not until you check your fucking bank statements.’

The impetus for the switch from gambling to gaming was a law passed by the US government in 2006. After several failed attempts, Congress made online betting illegal and prevented any company from providing it to the US. The reverberations were felt worldwide.

Jason Trost is an American who was forced to move to the UK in 2008 to establish his online betting company, Smarkets. He says: ‘As it stands, many Americans engage in illegal online betting with offshore operators. But, obviously, the number of people gambling online in the US has been dramatically slashed since the law changed. These people are now looking for something else to do.

‘Of course, with the big online US gambling providers getting shut down overnight, the global gambling scene became much more fragmented.’

Game developers had been watching enviously for years as people got hooked on internet gambling. That’s why so many former online gambling mechanics are now being recruited by gaming companies. These people aren’t so much game programmers or gambling programmers: they’re brain-hijackers with transferable skills, as one Silicon Valley gaming company CEO explained privately:

We have a lot more flexibility than the old gambling sites did, in a way. They have to build experiences around real-world games like roulette and slot machines. We don’t. We can make up whatever we like, and toy with the mechanics behind the scenes to keep users engaged.

We design an environment in which losses are insignificant and there are regular reassurance mechanisms. Then we make modifications to that environment and monitor which combinations of punishment and encouragement keep users playing for longer. We engineer the game very precisely to keep players enjoying it for the longest possible time, and we use complex software to help us monitor what the entire installed user base of players is doing with their copy of the game.

We are learning what works by measuring it – we don’t have to guess. That’s what is so great about these new mobile social platforms – they offer us so much real-time data about the users.’

In other words, as Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka said in the opening chapter, they just run the numbers.

Games don’t only use rewards as a way of keeping players hooked: they also invent obstacles, or ‘frustrations’. Carefully engineered frustrations exist in games of all complexities. For example, every so often a level is made significantly more difficult to complete than the last one. Often, the hurdle can be overcome by paying your way out of it – by purchasing a ‘power pack’, for example, via in-app purchasing. (Needless to say, purists look down their noses at these short-cuts.)

Even an apparently simple game like Angry Birds has little tricks up its sleeve to coax players out of a few more cents. Not everyone finds the game as easy to play as the whizzkids who get three stars on every level. For those who struggle, an in-app purchase called the Mighty Eagle is available. The Mighty Eagle will clear any level the player is struggling to complete. It costs $0.99 and can be reused infinitely.

‘The thing about in-app purchases is that Apple has designed them to be as ‘frictionless’ as possible,’ says the CEO quoted above, who was reluctant, like any app developer, to reveal too many ingredients of his secret sauce. ‘You almost don’t realise you’ve made a purchase with iOS [Apple’s mobile operating system]. Once you’ve entered your email address, you can keep purchasing more virtual goods with a couple of clicks.

‘It’s a nightmare when children get hold of their parents’ iPhones and start tapping away. Their parents inevitably come to us for refunds. That tells you something about how easy it is to keep spending money: two-year-olds can do it.’

Today’s games offer a cornucopia of reward systems, each of them designed to toy with players’ brains in a slightly different way. One of them is ‘levelling up’, an acknowledgement of social status within the game and the 21st-century version of an old-fashioned game score. The players who put in the most hours get the highest rewards: they are given the opportunity, for example, to purchase more advanced weaponry than their peers. Showing off about your ‘level’ is intoxicating. Players feel anxious about their place in the social hierarchy of the game and devote ever more time to raising their score.

The games are carefully geared towards different categories of player. Boys are targeted with solitary but immersive fantasy universes, which are often better suited to consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation. If Call of Duty produces addiction in its players, it seems to be a characteristically male form of it.

But how do you addict women to gaming? Manufacturers have done a lot of research into this, and established that women enjoy social games that are played out in a context that includes contact with strangers and, often, a chat feature. FarmVille and Words with Friends are designed with these innate gender differences in mind. Housewives who spend most of their day looking after the home or their children often crave interactions with adults. Their boredom has a special quality that games manufacturers exploit ruthlessly.

A game designer who has worked for the BBC told me, off the record: ‘It’s well known in the industry that certain companies are quite deliberately making their products addictive. But it’s something that isn’t talked about very much, because it’s hardly something to be proud of.’

What we’re looking at here is the same clever opportunism displayed by coffee chains that force customers to pass by artfully arranged slices of carrot cake before they can order a cappuccino. The result in both cases is to create yet another social epidemic, born out of the marriage of marketing and reward-responsive brain chemistry. And yes, I know that using such language in these trivial contexts seems a bit pompous – but, make no mistake about it, that’s what is going on.

In the words of one FarmVille addict: ‘As I sit there, gazing at my pretty hedges and cherry trees, I feel like some lobotomised housewife from Mad Men.’ Except, of course, she’s far from lobotomised: with every minutely calculated purchase she makes for her farm, the chemicals in her brain produce a delicious little surge of gratification.

Ryan van Cleave is an American professor whose life was turned upside down by World of Warcraft (fans call it ‘WoW’). He published a book about his experiences in 2010. Van Cleave wasn’t as lucky as Dennis: his first chapter opens with an abortive suicide attempt he describes as the ‘rock bottom’ that jolted him into changing his habits. As van Cleave recounts his battle with WoW, he says things about gaming addiction which remind me of the obsessive behaviours we’ve examined in previous chapters.

In fact, remove the computer and his confessionals could have come from the pages of any drug addict’s or alcoholic’s memoirs. (Incidentally, van Cleave isn’t in fact the professor’s real name. He changed it in 2006 from Ryan G. Anderson. Van Cleave is the name of his World of Warcraft ‘arena team’.)

Van Cleave, like Dennis, would often eat meals at the computer: ‘microwave burritos, energy drinks, foods that required only one hand, leaving the other free to work the keyboard and mouse’.

World of Warcraft made him feel positively godlike: ‘I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent … a computer malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cellphone battery – the littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering.’

His academic career imploded thanks to his video game addiction. ‘I took out a ton of student loans. That’s how a gamer handles something: put things off until tomorrow.’

Van Cleave distinguishes between ‘intrinsic’ reward strategies, which include a player’s position on the in-game ‘hall of fame’, and ‘extrinsic’ rewards – like the admiration of your friends after impressive in-game accomplishments. This is an arbitrary distinction. What matters is that we recognise the strategies of game developers who are intent on getting us ever more fixated on their products, their methods fortified by powerful data analysis tools and testing methods. These are made possible by new social platforms and pocket gaming systems like the iPhone. The point can’t be stressed enough: people aren’t getting addicted to these games by accident.

Game manufacturers love to tease players by offering them hints about the sorts of benefits they’ll get at the next level. For example, in Z2Live’s Battle Nations, the buildings you’re able to buy are shown in colour, with gold ‘prices’ next to them. The ones you can’t quite purchase yet are shown in grayscale. They feel tantalisingly close, but you can’t have them until you’ve put in the hours, or dropped the cash, to level up.

Game developers layer their creations with different sorts of feedback mechanisms: World of Warcraft has ‘quest rewards’, ‘talent points’ and ‘honour points’ – each designed to tease and tickle the brain’s reward systems in a slightly different way – while Battle Nations encourages users to collect resources to build cosmetic improvements to their military camps. You can see how these games flirt with self-esteem: a college drop-out in Connecticut with acne and coke-bottle spectacles can be a mighty warlord online.

‘When you look at the time people waste on these games, you discover that the simpler ones aren’t as dangerous, from the point of view of addiction,’ says Kernel editor Milo Yiannopoulos. ‘Angry Birds, for example, can be a mesmerising habit. But it’s more of a time-waster than a home-wrecker.

‘It’s the large-scale games with the immersive fantasy universes that take over people’s lives. That’s partly because, like the famous Tetris game responsible for the Game Boy’s success, they are unwinnable. Angry Birds can be completed – though there’s always the option of going back and reworking old levels to get higher scores, and of course fiendishly tricky new spin-offs are released every few months. But there’s no end to games like World of Warcraft.

‘In other words, once it’s got you sucked in, only a trigger from the real world – like a marriage breaking up, or a P45 landing on the doormat – is likely to get you out again.’

As you might imagine, gaming is terrifically big business. To date, retail sales of just one franchise, Call of Duty, have topped $6 billion. One game in the series, called Black Ops, raked in $650 million after being on sale for just five days.

Modern Warfare 2 took $550 million over the same period. Its sequel, Modern Warfare 3, took a staggering $400 million in Britain and the United States after just 24 hours on sale. It was the highest-grossing entertainment launch ever, dramatically overshadowing every Hollywood blockbuster.

Subscription games are just as lucrative. In November 2008, there were an estimated 11.5 million World of Warcraft subscribers worldwide.

Market researchers Forrester predict that computer gaming will soon overtake both recording and film as the number one entertainment industry by gross revenue. Zynga is currently valued at $6 billion, with over 220 million users. Eight million of them are paying players. And Zynga is just one company, which makes games primarily for the Facebook platform. Other developers, like EA and Blizzard, are raking in fortunes from other subscription models and the high cost of purchase of console games.

Though the costs of gaming are relatively small – subscriptions vary for the online fantasy games, but they’re generally well under $100 a month, and even the flashiest new console games only have a list price of $60 or so – when users get hooked, as Dennis did, they often duplicate these amounts to maintain the parallel accounts required to sate their feverish appetites.

We’ve seen that the extraordinarily complicated reward mechanics engineered into modern games are designed, quite simply, to keep people playing for longer. Well, the tactics are working. So widespread is the phenomenon of video game addiction and related online obsessions that an entire secondary industry is springing up all over the world to cater specifically to those with addictions to gaming, texting, surfing and even email. There are 300 internet addiction clinics in China alone, catering to some of the estimated 17 million game and internet addicts in that country.

‘They believe the virtual world is beautiful and fair,’ says Dr Tao, one of the doctors pressing for internet addiction to be classified as a recognised mental disorder. ‘In the real world, they become depressed, upset, and restless – they are very unhappy.’

Tao says that as China’s culture and society undergoes unsettling transformations brought about by its rapid economic growth, its citizens are struggling to adapt. ‘[Internet addicts] can’t adjust to school and society, so they try to escape their difficulties and avoid problems. They lack self-confidence and often don’t have the courage to continue their lives,’ he says.

Jia Chunyang, a typical patient at the centre, stole money from his parents and went on a 15-day gaming bender at a local net café while his parents scoured the city looking for him. That was what landed him in internet ‘boot camp’, as it’s been called. Note the similarity between his escapade and an alcoholic binge: the boy was physically as well as psychologically lost for over two weeks, which is a long time for even a bender to last.

Such problems aren’t restricted to the Far East. ReSTART, in Fall City, Washington – appropriately, a suburb of computer-obsessed Seattle – is one of America’s first specialised digital addiction treatment centres. Its 45-day rehabilitation course, which treats those addicted to gaming, texting and the internet, costs $14,000.

Ben Alexander, a graduate of the course, told the Associated Press how his addiction began at university. ‘At first, it was a couple of hours a day. By midway through the first semester, I was playing 16 or 17 hours a day.’

Alexander claims the treatment, which involves ‘counselling and psychotherapy sessions, doing household chores, working on the centre’s grounds, going on outings, exercising and baking cookies’, was a success. ‘I don’t think I’ll go back to World of Warcraft anytime soon,’ he said.

Even Angry Birds, which doesn’t wreak anything like the same levels of havoc on people’s lives, is responsible for some eyebrow-raising statistics. According to AYTM Market Research, 28 per cent of players reported feeling either ‘always’ or ‘often’ addicted to the game. Twelve per cent of people who have played it more than 25 times have deleted the app because they were worried it might eat up too much of their time. A further 12 per cent have considered a ‘radical cure’ for their habit.

According to this research, 58 per cent of regular players reported an improvement in their mood when they fired up the game – clear evidence that Angry Birds is functioning as a portable and easily accessible quick fix for the millions of people who have installed the various editions of it on their mobile phones over 300 million times since it was released in December 2009.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that specialised websites should spring up to limit the damage caused by online gaming. One called wowdetox.com enables World of Warcraft addicts to share their stories about quitting the game, and just as often failing to. Enabled by the same technology that encouraged players to get addicted in the first place, it’s a support group which provides a place for WoW players – and their ‘WoW widows’ – to share stories. There have been over 55,000 posts to date. Some make for reassuring reading:

I started playing the evil known as WoW in December of 2008. 3 years later and countless numbers of hours logged into this game and i can finally say that I am WoW free. I just finished my first month of not playing this game at all. I actually logged on a few nights ago to send gold to people that i knew and had real life conversations with whiel playing, although i knew sending them gold wont help them quit, i still shared my sympathy with them about how i would like for them to consider quitting just like me. This game makes you a social reject and always keeps you coming back for more. Just like all the other testimonials on this site, they are almost all true. This game is so bad in so many ways. IT WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE IF YOU LET IT!!!! I actually just got married on the 17th of december and honest to god, my gift to my wife was quitting this horribly addicting game. And let me tell you, the both of us have never been happier.

But other messages are less encouraging, suggesting that for those who quit WoW, the next temptation is just around the corner: ‘Done playing WoW, i’ve moved onto Star Wars the Old Republic!’ The messages reek of desperation, loneliness and helplessness.

Isolated teenagers often form the most significant relationships in their lives online. The consequences are often miserable. Former addicts point to the transitory nature of friendships born online: people become ‘friends’ too quickly, because in online role-playing games you need to be part of a crew to get the full experience. For example, in WoW you have to join a gang to participate in ‘raids’ on enemy stockpiles.

But these relationships end just as quickly. ‘Friends’ become another component in a player’s virtual arsenal – an asset to be discarded when no longer useful. Friendships operate on an accelerated timescale. They become gamified.

Combine this ethos with the inbuilt volatility of social media interactions, and you end up with a generation of young gamers who have alarmingly ruthless approaches to ‘friending’ and ‘deleting’ other human beings – something that’s a problem for users of social networks generally but is made worse by the competitive, impulsive ethos of the games themselves.

The most explicit video games create scenes of digital violence so extreme that they are closer to a serial killing rampage than even the bloodiest warfare. Some games even allow players to simulate an act of necrophilia on the body of a fallen opponent.

‘Corpse-raping has become this cool joke among gamers,’ explains Kevin, 24, himself a passionate gamer. ‘The other day I saw my little brother get his character to squat on the face of a dead soldier and I was like, dude, what the fuck is going on? And he said, “Don’t you know about corpse-raping?” – as if it was the most normal thing in the world.’

The raging passions aroused by video games have provoked an interesting and occasionally bad-tempered debate in the media. Digital utopians, who seem to think anything with an on-switch is intrinsically a good thing, scoff at warnings about gaming addiction. On the other side of the fence there are anti-gaming campaigners such as Baroness Greenfield, who despite her professorship at Oxford University has often been accused of spreading portentous pseudoscience. Guardian columnist and author Ben Goldacre, a qualified psychiatrist, has criticised her for, among other things, failing to present her findings in a peer-reviewed academic paper.

Nevertheless, the latest research would appear to support some of Greenfield’s concerns. A 2009 paper in CyberPsychology and Behavior highlights some of the real-world consequences of excessive gaming and social networking for young people. These include the compulsive need to check status updates and the negative effects on interpersonal relationships caused by Facebook-engendered jealousy and feuding.

There’s also the cross-pollinating effect of addictive urges to consider. In March 2010, the novelist and video game addict Tom Bissell wrote a powerful article for the Observer in which he described his struggles with cocaine and Grand Theft Auto.

His ‘cross-addiction’, as 12-step groups would describe it, began with a celebratory line of coke he shared with a friend the day he purchased a new instalment of the game. A toxic relationship between cocaine and videogaming soon established itself. He became unable to enjoy video games without getting high. ‘I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser,’ he wrote of that defining moment. ‘Grand Theft Auto was ready to go.’

Later, as his addiction took hold, Bissell began to feel powerless to resist the two obsessions.

Soon I was sleeping in my clothes. Soon my hair was stiff and fragrantly unclean. Soon I was doing lines before my Estonian class, staying up for days, curating prodigious nosebleeds and spontaneously vomiting from exhaustion. Soon my pillowcases bore rusty coins of nasal drippage. Soon the only thing I could smell was something like the inside of an empty bottle of prescription medicine. Soon my bi-weekly phone call to my cocaine dealer was a weekly phone call. Soon I was walking into the night, handing hundreds of dollars in cash to a Russian man whose name I did not even know, waiting in alleys for him to come back – which he always did, though I never fully expected him to – and retreating home, to my Xbox, to GTA IV, to the electrifying solitude of my mind at play in an anarchic digital world. Soon I began to wonder why the only thing I seemed to like to do while on cocaine was play video games.

It would be interesting to know how many gamers are cross-addicted. A substantial number, I suspect, though the other addiction needn’t be drugs. Ryan van Cleave was prone to overeating and other obsessive behaviours.

Perhaps even more troubling, though, are the ways in which new social technology is encouraging dramatically anti-social behaviour.

Increasingly, the lives of people under 30 are being played out through social software and games. Social technology isn’t just helping them to express themselves by providing convenient ways to self-publish online, or by providing a space to list their favourite books and recording artists. It is beginning to define who they are. As Facebook becomes ubiquitous, the worry is that relationships in the real world will resemble those in the digital one: transitory, accelerated, pragmatic associations that provide a hit of narcissistic reassurance rather than lasting bonds between close friends.

Facebook’s insistence on feeding ‘nostalgia’ to us in the form of old photos – say, of our partner with his ex-girlfriend, or a particularly injudicious update from two years ago – is forcing social media junkies to maintain, update and police their profiles as regularly as they water their crops in FarmVille.

The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2012 that puberty seems to be kicking in earlier and earlier for young people. ‘What teenagers want most of all are social rewards,’ wrote Alison Gopnik. It isn’t obscenely fanciful to suppose that endless social reinforcement from new media and over-rewarding video games are having an effect on human development.

Does all this sound far-fetched? Consider one last statistic: by the end of 2011, Facebook was being cited in a third of divorce cases in the UK.

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