According to the American Psychiatric Association, an addiction is a pattern of substance use leading to significant impairment or distress as marked by a combination of three or more of the following: tolerance to the amount of the substance, withdrawal from otherwise normal and important activities, increasingly larger amounts needed to gain same effect, a persistent desire to use it, and that its use continues despite knowledge that it is harmful (APA, 2005). Although the addiction to video games is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it should be considered as a valid addiction that can affect the health and readiness of our nation and armed services. Recognition of gaming abuse as a disorder is not an easy argument. The gaming industry has a huge lobby supporting its industry (Jagondzinski, 2006) and the audience of users is enthusiastically pumping money into the products that are arguably weakening their ablity to deal with reality (Winn, 1985). As gamers grow less adapted to reality, the Army argues that they become better soldiers. Success on the battlefield through video game agility (Holguin, 2005) is potentially being exchanged for the higher incidence of domestic violence, suicide rates, disenchanted service members and dependents. Is the military’s easy fix of utlizing enchanting video games as a recruitment and training tool skipping the personal realtionship skill-building steps of a productive and heathy long-term workforce? The government does not think so.
The central problem that makes video gaming addiction an exaggerated problem for the military is that the culture of family mobility causing its isolation, the desensitizing of violence, denial of emotional outlets, and the young impressionable age of service members (Hall, 2008) are all contributory factors to a vulnerability to addictive behaviors (Anderson, et al., 2003). While “cultural environments with strong sanctions against violence within the group mitigate the expression of any aggressive behaviors learned from media violence” (p. 99), the culture of the military actually sanctions violence as the solution to problems (Grossman, 2009; Hall, 2008). Service members run the risk of a translation from the imaginary world of video gaming to the sanctioned world of violence as a solution at work then into the home environment where violence is never the right solution. The military culture often encourages aggressive solutions to mundane problems and so does gaming addiction. In an abstract sense, the two cultures (military warrior and addicted video gamer) compliment each other insofar as each seeks the ultimate victory through bravery and aggression.
All humans are motivated to seek attention from, and attachment to, other humans based on the inherent need for pleasure and gratification (Pervin, Cervone, & John, 2005). Similar to more in-vogue substance addictions, an online gaming addiction is prompted by the individual’s need to replace real-life connections and circumstances with more desirable cyber-personalities, abilities, and situations. Flores (2004) wrote that poor interpersonal relationship skills cause individuals to become dependent on addictive substances and behaviors. The rigor of military life predisposes its members to have a hard time maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships (Hall, 2008). The problem for military abusers is that in seeking to fill these internal needs for interpersonal relationship gratification through compulsive gaming, one may fill the short-term desire for belonging, but unfortunately gaming does nothing to aid the user in learning how to develop the skills needed to fill those needs in the real-world (Jagodzinski, 2006). As the addictive behavior takes more time away from real-world interaction, the sought-after real-world relationships suffer and the supplementary relationships from gaming become more attractive and therefore more abused. It is under these circumstances that any behavior can become additive. A key element attracting people to gaming is that for the gamer (in his or her game) there is no end; if he or she makes a good decision it is rewarded immediately; a bad one means almost nothing since he or she can recover quickly by resetting it. People who are socially disenchanted, disenfranchised, misfits, or socially awkward can use video games to reinvent themselves and concur their fears (of girls, the enemy, or anything). They can experiment, without risk, with personalities and otherwise risky decisions. In SIM games, where players create online personalities and interact with other artificial online personalities, these player interactions lead to simulated business deals, fights, and even sexual encounters (Andersen, et al., 2003). This does not mean that this learning is positive growth for the players; users skip the learning points of relationship failures, subconscious body language, and rejection by the very nature of the anonymity provided by the SIM environment.
The problem here is that the military is operating under the dichotomy of wanting its membership to be the most active and healthy they can be, while having a great deal invested in the benefits some officials feel they gain from actually encouraging SIM-oriented and violent video gaming among the populace at large (Holguin, 2005; Shachtman, 2001). This may be contrary to the long-term goal of recruiting and maintaining a steady fighting force. Some authors have suggested that compulsive video gaming not only contributes to health problems but also is indicative of the predisposition to some mental disorders or can be a contributing factor to other mental maladaptations (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006; Jagodzinski, 2006; Winn, 1985).
The Army claims that their creation of a virtual warrior-centric world aids in the training and readiness of its membership by acclimating them to situations and decision-making processes associated with battle (Associated Press, 2003; Holguin, 2005; Shachtman, 2001). But is the short-term benefit worth the long-term cost to their service members’ futures as healthy and productive family members at home?
“Numerous studies have found significant effects of media violence on aggression even when the media violence is clearly fictional and unrealistic” (Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth, & Wartella, 2003, p. 98). This exposure to violence is unlike the exposure previous generations had in the form of the grizzly fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm or scary stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Unlike those passive interactions with a book that can be set aside, spoken about, and rationalized, modern video gamers feel as though they are actually taking part in the storyline, without the benefit of pausing for reflection. Video gaming demands its users absorb and take part in the violence, then immediately move on to the next stage or scene of violence without time to be horrified, contemplate it, or rationalize the meaning of slashing throats of ‘bad guys’ or whatever enemy the producers have provided (Jagodzinski, 2006). Success is predicated on the player’s ability to actively ignore the senseless violence and move on to the next act of violence to gain mastery or points. In this sense the characteristics of quick temper, over-reaction (through aggression), and little consideration for negative consequences to opponents are all rewarded in game play. “The rise of new media – particularly interactive media (such as video games and internet) – has introduced new ways children and youth can be exposed to violence” (Anderson, et al., p. 81). Hall (2008) reports that the U.S. military is younger than ever, and more influenced by modern media outlets and interfaces than at any other time in history.
Combining these two factors is something of rather great importance if our country’s leaders are to make informed decisions about balancing the brevity and budget benefits of video game training syllabi verses the long-term effects of having a fighting force lacking the societal filters needed to live productive, non-violent, and socially acceptable lives when not on the battlefield. Contrary to the past several years, the U.S. military actually spends most of its time off the battlefield. Being able to adapt to and from the battlefield environment must be mastered, not just being in one or the other.
“The squad leader orders a point man to peer around the corner, his quick glance revealing several foes lying in wait behind a smoldering car. A few hand signals, a quick flash of gunfire, and it's over. The enemy is defeated, but no blood is spilled, no bullet casings spent: All the action is in an upcoming Xbox-based training simulator for the military, called Full Spectrum Warrior” (Associated Press, 2003). To the budget conscious military trainer reading this it appears that the value of placing a soldier in this virtual position outweighs whatever intrapersonal ramifications may follow. The Pentagon thinks so too; even the Central Intelligence Agency is creating role-playing video games to guide and train its staff in hard-to-replicate situations. Both government agencies told the Associated Press staff writer that “big, sophisticated simulators with hydraulics, wall-size video screens and realistic cockpits” are “far too pricey, even by military standards” to be a reasonable platform for wide distribution. There is big money to be saved in using portable war-game simulation. “Training aside, video games are increasingly viewed by top brass as a way to get teenagers interested in enlisting” as well (p. 1). The Department of Defense is not only trying to save money for training the people they have, but are making a conscious effort to attract the next generation of battle-ready soldiers to replace them.
U.S. military recruitment already takes advantage of one social battle it is on the winning side of. The American male social dogma which forces men to decide between hero and coward leads many to seek the potential heroics of actions that prove their placement in society as heroes (Baron, et al., 2006). In video games, the “forces of evil (of the traumatic event itself) are faced despite overwhelming odds, and the unknowability as to what may happen as the self is vicariously put in danger brings an adrenaline rush” (Jagodzinski, 2006, p. 286) that feeds the real-world ego with its artificial nutrients.
A popular game commissioned by the Army to draw in young recruits and train new ones is Full Spectrum Warrior. Herein the prospective warrior can call in his own an airstrike, defeat the terrorists single-handedly, retrieve ‘health’ points for acts of bravery, and essentially become the perfect, “[v]ideo-gaming armchair generals” (Shachtman, 2001) from the comfort of his mother’s basement. By dispensing with the grim realities of emotional and physical fatigue, hunger, heat, comrade loss, and the inconvenience of single gunshots causing debilitating pain and death, Full Spectrum Warrior is able to sell Army combat as an enviable lifestyle choice. One gaming executive, Jim Korris, from the Institute of Creative Technologies touted the value to the military of training being created by his affiliates. “The explosions will be bigger. Smoke will develop more quickly. A squad leader could call in an F-16 strike… That doesn't happen in the real world” (Associated Press, 2003).
Violence and the confidence to survive it are preached to be quintessential parts of the battlefield success (Grossman, 2009). Because people playing violent video “games are active participants rather than observers, [like they are while reading the stories of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm,] they may be at increased risk of becoming aggressive themselves” (Anderson, et al., 2003). This is what the Army is counting on.
Anderson, et al. (2003) theorized that humans learn specific behaviors from the modeling of influences like media violence and video games. From there humans learn more complex social scripts in the form of rules on how to understand and rationalize a variety of situations, including conflict. Once learned, such scripts serve as cognitive guides for future behavior. For instance, “from observing violent people, children may learn that aggression can be used to try to solve interpersonal conflicts. As a result of mental rehearsal (e.g., imagining this kind of behavior) and repeated exposure, this approach to conflict resolution can become well established and easily retrieved from memory” (p. 95). This is the same as the aggressive learning and reflexes on video gaming. It causes the development of social filters to assist gamers in deciphering between the acceptability of either hostile or benign reactions to stimulus. This imitative learning is the mainstays of the Army’s plan to instill aggressive techniques for problem solving within its troops on the battlefield. The trouble is that statistics seem to show that the predisposition to use violence as a solution is following soldiers to the home front as well (Hall, 2008).
Unlike the lessons learned during real-life trial and error, an unhealthy dose of video games shield users from discovering the true consequences of poor judgment. Unlike the bruises or broken bones from actual downhill skiing and extreme sports, where participants learn about the values of measured risks verses rewards, the video game has no such boundaries. “Given that the danger of physical pain drops out, the risk holds no bounds. Video games enable a vicarious experience to take place: the thrill without the danger” (Jagodzinski, 2006, p. 291). The lack of boundaries, and real-time feedback, create a social schema in the mind of the gamer where patience and measured response are not valued. Again, this impulsiveness and severity of reactions to adverse stimulus are known, and valued, quantities in the lives of service members at work, but not at home (Hall, 2008).
The gratification needs fed by the artifice of popularity and success inside the gaming world placate the low self-esteem, shortness of personal relationships, and dissatisfaction with life in general of addicted users (Jagodzinski, 2006). Like all addicts, addicted users of gaming are not dealing with a life of reality anymore; rather they freely escape life by sinking into the games that prove they are smarter, sharper, and more successful than others will allow them to be in reality. Once involved in addicting behavior, people are so involved in the activity that nothing else matters (Henry, Thornberry, & Huizinga, 2008).
When the gaming inhibits healthy interactions at home, the damage is all but done. Even for single soldiers, there are social ramifications to slipping into a world of video games and media stimulation instead of real-world interactions. Being absent or late for work from all-night gaming sessions, loss of social appointments and invitations, and general shedding of people skills are by-products of the living outside of reality that gaming allows (Baron, et al., 2006; Winn, 1995). Identifying an addiction problem may be easier than getting the person to admit they are addicted and need help (Henry, et al., 2008). While research about addiction to media is abundant, treatment recommendations are not so prevalent. With any addiction moderation and intervention are key. It is extremely unlikely that an 18-24 year-old would take seriously the suggestion to stop outright the use of video game entertainment, especially if they have become victims of excessive use and abuse. Dependencies on video games, and subsequent withdrawal have been shown to have the same chemical reactions inside the body as other addictions (Jagodzinski, 2006). Irritation, short-temperedness, increases in heart rate, the skin’s conductance of electricity, and other physiological indicators of arousal (Anderson, et al., 2003).
Like smoking or drinking, weaning the person out of the habit may be a more realistic approach. Introducing other activities to take place of the addictive behavior, different social settings in which the behavior is not available or glorified, and preserving some the self-respect the addict gained from their artificial source until it can be replaced with reality can all be effective means to stop. Unfortunately the culture of the military still encourages violence, it still encourages the machismo attitude available online, and it still seeks for its members to believe in aggression and strength over communication and compromise. But with obsessive violent video gaming replaced with openly social and non-violent off-duty activities, perhaps the demands of work and the culture it enforces can be mitigated by the positive forces of a healthy family and social life.
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