Virtual Gains, Real Pains?

Video games are more addictive than ever, with online virtual economies and never-ending game structures. But what can be done to overcome what China dubs its ‘biggest youth problem’? Sam Bliss reports.



These five young men sauntering up Bourke Street are undeterred by the relentless downpour. On either side, camouflaged by the sheets of rain, blurry faces huddle under umbrellas and in shop fronts. Despite the weather, a Big Issue vendor soldiers on. “Get your Big IssueBig Issue here. Nice and moist! Come and get it.”

“That’s what she said,” one of the guys jokes. The vendor’s withered face smiles back, albeit wearily, as though he’s heard that one before. The group strides on; the urban noises soon consume the vendor’s cries.

Upon reaching their destination, they meet two friends who are outside smoking rollies. Like the others, these two appear to be in their early 20s. Exuberant handshakes are exchanged; no one is left out. Many within the group were not born in Australia and speak with clipped metonymy. The last syllables of many words are sacrificed.

One member of the cluster, tall and bookish with a mop of hair dangling down the left side of his face, eyes up their cigarettes. “Aw, c’mon, give us a toke. I haven’t had a smoke all day!”

“Fuck off. Get your own. There’s a 7-Eleven right there,” his friend responds, the stern sentiment betrayed by his jovial expression.

“I’ll buy the next lot if you let me roll one now.”

The negotiation ends and tobacco is exchanged. In a flash, the conversation turns to sport, another favourite topic of theirs. “Did you see the game earlier? Man, they got beat bad.”

After the vultures have finished ‘borrowing’ cigarettes from their pals, they’re keen to head in. Inside, rows of computer monitors, black leather office chairs and plywood desks greet them. So too does the din of voices, talking animatedly into headsets. With their headsets, these people look like the red-faced AFL coaches on TV, but there are no swans or magpies in sight. Here, dragons, zombies, aliens and terrorists are the order of the day.

This internet café is open 24 hours and for good reason judging by the crowd assembled here at 10pm. The diverse clientele are involved in a range of internet activities. Over in the corner, a backpacker is concluding a Skype session with a loved one.

“Muchos besos,” he repeats, moving his fingers from his Spanish-speaking lips to the webcam in gestural kiss fashion. “Muchos besos.”

Others are busy hunting for accommodation or jobs. But the vast majority is here for one purpose: to play online video games.

The group finds a row of vacant computers and settles in. With a few savvy clicks, they are online vanquishing monsters together. It could be the copious amounts of soda they consumed at dinner, or perhaps the nicotine charging through their bodies, but these guys seem high. Hell, they are high. Engulfed by colourful pictures, stimulating sounds, it’s an extra-sensory overload and they’re lapping it up. It’s Marshall McLuhan’s hot and cool media on steroids.

Although they’re touching distance from each other, nearly all conversation is conducted via headset. As the virtual battles intensify, their dialogue employs militaristic themes (no wonder gamers are being recruited as drone operators).  

“Go left! If you two go over that hill, we can flank them.” One voice rises above the rest, sounding strained in the heat of combat.

“It might be a trap,” a more cautious member chimes in. But before anyone can respond, he adds, “Ah what the hell. Let’s do it.”

Their bulging eyes fixate upon their respective screens. Nothing short of a Scarlett Johansson striptease could break their focus. Throughout, there is much laughter, interspersed with gaming advice and encouragement, but their concentration is unwavering. Luckily, they encounter no ambush this time and emerge victorious, which prefaces a brief lull in proceedings.

Video games achieved mainstream popularity in the 1970s with arcade and home computer games. In 1978, the year that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John got the world’s feet and hips moving in Grease, Space Invaders achieved a similar feat with fingers and thumbs. Tetris soon followed, beloved for decades, the Citizen Cane of the burgeoning video game industry.

Since then, video games have developed exponentially as has the uptake. 70 per cent of Australians now play video games and the average gamer plays 18 hours a week. In 50 years, the video game industry has gone from being non-existent to substantially surpassing Hollywood movie revenues (although this excludes any Mel Brook’s Producers-esque movie studio tax write-offs).

The latest phenomenon is the virtual economies within video games. In 2011, 35 per cent of gamers had purchased virtual goods at some point.

The emergence of virtual economies has generated some truly bizarre stories. One of particular note was an entrepreneurial gamer who took out a mortgage on his house to purchase a virtual space station for $100,000. But the story doesn’t end there. He then converted it into a virtual nightclub and over five years made $635,000 profit. Suffice to say, he paid off his mortgage.

Yet, for each of these success stories, there is a tragic equivalent, more Hamlet than As You Like It. In 2010, a couple was found guilty of abandoning their newborn daughter, who starved to death, while they played an online virtual economy game. The bitter irony is that they were raising a virtual child.

Last year, a 24-year-old gamer died after playing a game 86 hours straight. He had spent $1,500 within the game the month he died. Numerous cases of sleep deprivation, hospitalisation and death have also been publicised.

What these unfortunate examples highlight, other than dystopia at work, is the need for greater awareness and scrutiny. At present there is scant infrastructure in place to manage what can only be described as video game addiction. And with these virtual economies, the risk has never been greater. 

For those unaware of virtual gaming economies, let’s take a step back and deconstruct the necessary lingo. Within video games, the virtual economy refers to the exchange of often-scarce virtual goods acquired in game. It is separate from the digital economy, which encompasses online services and shopping, such as Amazon and eBay. 

Virtual economies actually became widespread in the late 1990s in online Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (with its hard-to-pronounce acronym MMORPG) like Ultima Online and EverQuest. In these games, hundreds of thousands of players traded items accumulated in play. The designers intended the games to be like Monopoly: no real money would change hands. But players began to put their goods up for auction on eBay. As such, an exchange value could soon be observed. A castle can be worth hundreds, a World of Warcraft character can fetch thousands.

While virtual economies have existed for over a decade, experts estimate that they have now exceeded a whopping $10 billion in total revenue. That’s the GDP of Mongolia spent on virtual swords, virtual clothes, virtual sheep, virtual you-name-it. To profit, game companies themselves offer add-ons or downloadable content (DLC). This might be a map, a specific item or a random pack of items. Third-party services also generate colossal revenues. 

World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular MMORPG – the main genre for virtual economies – boasting over 12 million users and pioneering the subscription service; the game company charges users a monthly fee. Like the games that came before, players obtain virtual gold and items by completing quests and defeating monsters. However, this is a time-consuming process and like many such processes, shortcuts abound…at a price.

Virtual goods in game obtain a social status value the way consumer goods do in physical environments. Some would rather pay than spend the time and effort to obtain them. A myriad of third party providers have seized the opportunity and offer virtual gold and items in exchange for real money. Items vary in price depending on their scarcity. In WoW, at the upper end of the spectrum, for a meagre $449, the Hellscream’s Decapitator is yours. Not your cup of tea? Then how about the Tusks of Mannoroth for $339?

In typical fact-being-stranger-than-fiction fashion, The Guardian has reported on Chinese prisoners being forced to play WoW at night. Sleep deprived and manual labourers by day, the prisoners must meet quotas or they are physically abused. The wardens then sell the virtual goods the prisoners have collected for around £500 ($Aus912) a day. The prisoners, of course, do not see a penny (or Yuan in their local currency).

Collecting virtual currency to sell is termed ‘gold farming’ and is considered a full-time job in China and Korea. An estimated 100,000 young, low-skilled workers earn their primary income by harvesting virtual resources and providing player-for-hire services in online games such as WoW. Gold farming has become popular as no formal training or qualification is required.

The Australian Taxation Office recognises it as an income source. One example publicised was a 45-year-old Australian woman, a nurse by day, who made $75,000 gold farming at night. With her income, as though gold had implanted itself firmly on her mind, she purchased real gold bullion.

The demand for gold farming exists due to the tens of millions of gamers who are drawn to virtual economies and it’s not just MMORPGs that prosper. The latest frontiers are social networking sites and mobile phones, such as FarmVille and Angry Birds respectively, which continue to revolutionise train commutes worldwide.

Internet cafe


Stephen, one of the teenagers from earlier, has spent hundreds on various games. Of the group gathered at the internet café, Stephen is arguably the most articulate. His thick-rimmed glasses and sanguine manner help convey this quality.

He is currently taking a break from his keyboard-bashing, mouse-wresting, sweat-generating pursuits. From the entrance of the café, he surveys the late evening revellers bustling past, a hybrid of young professionals and students.

Growing up in the Philippines, he shares how his video game passion originated. “In 1994, I played the original Street Fighter. I remember the date because my father could no longer work in Liberia because of the civil war there. He came home for six years.”

“In order to make money, he created a sideline business,” Stephen says. “That business was video games. People would come over to our house, pay a dollar and play. At times it felt like half the town was round at our house. Over the years we had lots of other games too.”

“Naturally, I was pretty popular at school,” Stephen laughs.

Since then, Stephen has never looked back. He plays video games regularly at home and pays for virtual content. “At first, I just wanted to look different from another guy,” he says. “So I bought my avatar a costume. It’s just about wanting to stand out, like a status symbol, not dissimilar to the real world.”

“If you don’t buy them, you get this feeling that you’re playing an incomplete game. You simply need that item.”

This never-ending fulfilment is common. For gamers who did not find traditional games addictive, there is now the allure of standing out or one-upping their friends with rare items in never-ending virtual worlds, oftentimes more appealing than the real world. 

Former video game addict Scott Mannion has written an article titled Virtual Addiction, in which he describes his journey and explains how game companies are increasingly manipulating the human psyche with virtual economies.

“These games are seductive because there is no end. It allows the reward of fantasy fulfilment without the hard work and time required in the real world. A new goal is always placed in front of you, with a shiny new item, in an endless cycle of digital consumption.”

Smartphone games are a good example. These often start out free but progression is nearly impossible without spending money. Countless children, often unknowingly, spend hundreds on in-app items with unsuspecting parents left to foot the bill, their credit card statements resembling a video game convention schedule.

Studies have subsequently highlighted a dangerous convergence of gaming and gambling amongst youth. As the games entice and manipulate users to spend money, countless thefts – mostly teenagers stealing from their parents – have been reported.

“The game plays you, you don’t play the game,” Scott, who is now a filmmaker in Hollywood, says in his article. “Living in vast, online game worlds became an obsessive escape from my physical existence. You have the desire to spend every waking hour logged in, because this is where you have invested all your time and effort.”

Carolyn Brewer is an Australian psychologist who works mainly in public schools. She has spent years analysing the ubiquity of the internet in modern life, as well as working for the Network for Internet Investigation and Research in Australia (NIIRA). 

To Carolyn, the serious risk with virtual economies is that people are not considering the real cost. “Even small amounts of money add up in an online realm and the costs are to wellbeing, time management, sleep, relationships etc.,” she says.

Addicted gamers often show signs of withdrawal symptoms when not connected, notably frustration and distress. Furthermore, they see nothing wrong with the game’s manipulations. On the contrary, they value their achievements so highly that any restrictions are taken as an attack on everything they value and have worked hard for.

Someone equipped to discuss video game addiction is Daniel Loton. Melbourne based researcher Daniel has written two comprehensive psychological studies on video game addiction and the personality traits of those addicted. This included following addicted gamers for nine months.

Daniel’s studies focus on the psychological reasons why gamers become addicted. He asserts that video game addiction is linked with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. However, his study postulates that video games are not the cause of the associated problems, but more a symptom, a coping mechanism of pre-existing issues.

Daniel agrees with Scott’s scepticism of virtual economies. “Micro-transactions are certainly a big focus of many game companies now. Some have employed prominent economists to study and maximise their revenues. Game companies encourage continuing play to get continuing revenue from players.” 

However, Daniel sees games as similar to those that came before. “Game companies have always tried to make games with lasting and sustained enjoyment.”

Back at the internet café, Stephen and his friend Xavier concur that video games have always had a tendency to be addictive, that this is part of their foundation.

“The games themselves shouldn’t change because to make them less addictive is to make a bad game. We wouldn’t play it for long,” Stephen says.

Xavier is taking a break to meet his girlfriend. Apparently she has just finished her shift at a restaurant and is keen for a drink. Before long she arrives, still dressed in work uniform. Her shoes though, all heels, have no doubt been changed. After some basic chitchat, Xavier turns to her and remarks, “We’ve been unstoppable tonight. No one can beat us!”

His girlfriend has a smile that says ‘that’s great, I’m happy for you’, but her eyes imploringly ask, ‘what’s so special about these video games anyway?’

Xavier promises Stephen he’ll be back within an hour to continue playing. This time, his girlfriend’s eyes are even easier to read, a spitting image of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry glare. Even so, they walk away holding hands, their bodies conjoined as they converse in hushed tones.

With that, Stephen heads back inside. After all, these games never end. There are always foes to crush and realms with infinite treasure. The topic of overcoming video game addiction will have to wait. 

The American Psychiatric Association evidences the rise of video game addiction. Recently, they introduced a diagnosis of ‘internet gaming disorder’. This is designed to curb addiction of online virtual economy games.

And this international mental health authority is not alone. In the past couple of years, China has begun to recognize internet gaming addiction as its biggest youth problem, which is now seen as a clinical condition there. It has even set up government-funded intern camps for addicts. Korea is trialling Bupropion, a smoking cessation pill, in order to curb newfound levels of addiction.

Although lacking, information on virtual economies and video game addiction exists in Australia. Carolyn’s non-profit organisation NIIRA has helpful articles and information on its website, along with a list of video game addiction therapists.

Carolyn believes the NIIRA is a work-in-progress, which was originally established to create resources for people who have issues with overuse and to create more outreach and education work. But more is required before the NIIRA becomes a prominent resource.

In the meantime, Carolyn hopes to raise awareness among parents, teaching them to exert greater control and have a better understanding about the digital habits and media consumption of their kids.

“Lower parental controls usually predict higher usage patterns,” Carolyn says. “Boundaries and rules based developmentally are important and we need to keep researching the impacts on the brain and behaviour.”

Undoubtedly, raising awareness for gamers and parents is important but there are those who call for more stringent regulations on virtual economies. 

Countries are beginning to introduce legislation to combat growing addiction, including Vietnam, the Philippines and China. However, legislation is mostly content-based or focused on profit-making ventures (like gold farmers). Moreover, gold farmers and other third-party services are often seen as an innovative growth industry to be supported, as well as a social problem to be dealt with.

Tom Apperley is a lecturer in digital ethnography and new media at the University of Melbourne. He has difficulty foreseeing how legislation would tackle virtual economies. Instead of going after game companies, he believes the emphasis must be on overcoming addiction.

The obvious choices, in terms of informing and aiding the public about video game addiction, are the Australian Department of Communications, which oversees internet safety, or Responsible Gambling and similar initiatives, designed to help addictive gambling tendencies. 

Tom believes the latter is more likely. “In the future, gambling regulations may consider moving into gaming spaces as the value and impact of virtual economies are recognised.”

“But further legislation is unnecessary,” Tom says. “Better understanding of games is more important. Right now they should be in school curriculums, just like novels and film.”

Daniel agrees that it’s about helping those with addiction problems, not changing a game’s structure. His studies are, after all, attempting to pinpoint behavioural traits that cause it, and may one day contribute to solving this issue.

Daniel says further research is the most necessary step to overcoming video game addiction. “What is needed is more research into the topic, rather than educational campaigns or dedicated treatments.”

The broader components of the Australian health care system, which routinely deal with mental health issues, are a good foundation for anyone who feels like they need help.

“Australia has universal health care that allows anyone to access a GP, and a subsequent mental health plan, if required,” Daniel says.

But to counter growing levels of addiction, other researchers and experts propose more explicit intervention. Dr. Emil Hodzic, for example, has set up a Sydney-based video game addiction clinic, which adopts specialised behavioural-cognitive therapy to gaming addicts.

And NSW University professor Vladan Starcevic has repeatedly called for rehabilitation facilities in Australia, like at London rehab centre Broadway Lodge, which recently opened its doors to gaming addicts. Traditionally a drug and gambling addiction centre, Broadway Lodge now employs a 12-step programme for troubled gamers. Prof. Starcevic is adamant facilities in Australia should follow suit.

At around 1am, Stephen, Xavier and the rest of their group conclude their gaming session. The internet café is still doing a roaring trade but the guys have trams to catch. Otherwise they’d stay longer. Some admit they’ll probably play another hour or two when they get home.

Unbeknownst to them, these guys fit the bill of heavy video game users…addicts. But throughout the night, it is apparent that they have their heads screwed on. They perform well at school. They retain ambition, social skills and healthy relationships.

“Addiction is about personality. Look at us,” Stephen sums up, pointing towards Xavier and his other friends. “We’re not doing so badly. We still have our priorities in check yet we still play video games and spend money within them from time-to-time.”

Xavier wanders over and wants to elaborate on what he discussed earlier.

“At times, I become addicted,” he admits, his manner more subdued than before, as though he’s trying to justify his video game habit. “Video games are becoming so realistic. They offer a special kind of temporary respite. Reality can be so boring, so stressful. But games help me escape that and give me a great feeling.”

Amongst this lot, video game rehab centres and behavioural therapy sounds like overkill. They might admit to having an addiction but none of them think these methods are necessary. The mention of China’s intern camps generates a proverbial shudder, more frightening than the most feared virtual monsters.

To them, the latest video games are just part of the cultural paradigm where the lines between reality and virtual are blurred. In an age where Facebook and other social networking sites are changing social interaction, where smartphones are constantly in palms, where virtual worlds are more organic and alive than the real one, perhaps this video game virtual dependence was inevitable.

The implications of this paradigm on personalities are unclear. But two precious commodities, time and money, are being invested heavily in immersive virtual worlds. As virtual and real worlds amalgamate, the need to play is heightened with detrimental effects on wellbeing for some.

Through lucrative virtual economies, video game companies are striding headfirst into the future, with an army of potential addicts behind them baying for more.

Stephen and Xavier are part of this army. But right now, they’re missing in action. First, they must wait for their confounded tram. They must find a place that still serves food. They must walk home. They must log in. Then and only then can they rejoin the army, most likely atop regal chestnut mares and wielding battle-axes, but who knows for sure? Theirs is a world of infinite possibilities.


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