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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 34  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 197-199

Internet gaming disorder: Can game theory throw some light?

Department of Psychiatry, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India

Date of Web Publication27-Sep-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Abhishek Ghosh
Department of Psychiatry, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_27_18

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How to cite this article:
Ghosh A. Internet gaming disorder: Can game theory throw some light?. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2018;34:197-9

How to cite this URL:
Ghosh A. Internet gaming disorder: Can game theory throw some light?. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2018 [cited 2019 May 24];34:197-9. Available from: http://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2018/34/3/197/242351

Gaming disorder is defined in the draft 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as “a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”[1] This definition is a reflection of the current understanding of gaming disorder as a prototype of addictive disorders. The question is, what is “addictive” in internet gaming? Is it the “medium” (i.e., internet) or the “content” (i.e., the game).[2] There are other viewpoints as well which look at gaming disorders as “contextual” pertaining to the individual, game and gaming environment, and prevailing culture.[3],[4]

Here, I would like to propose a new idea, with concept borrowed from the game theory, to understand the “addictive” nature of internet gaming. Game theory so far has been widely used to understand the market economy and various sociopolitical issues. Here, I would try to apply the finite–infinite model of game theory in online gaming disorder. My first proposition is, it is the game in the gaming disorder, which is inherently addictive, just like cocaine in cocaine use disorders. My second conjecture is, it is the ways in which the games are developed, which make these addictive. To clarify this statement further, I wish to invoke two types of games, talked about in market research, the finite and the infinite games. Finite games have definite and fixed rules, fixed-known players, and a definite outcome. People play finite games with the intent of winning the game. However, in infinite games, the rules are changeable overtime, the players might be both known and unknown, and the sole purpose of an infinite game is to continue it.[5] Another intriguing aspect of the infinite game is, the time is defined internally (not the world time, followed in the finite game); it opens to players a new horizon of times.[5] Moreover, there are no spatial boundaries and there could be many spaces within an infinite game. The example of the former is soccer where there are fixed rules and fixed numbers of known players, and the teams play to win! There are predictability and a definite beginning and ending. The example of an infinite game is the cold war which did not have a definite beginning or ending, in which there were no fixed rules; there were both known and unknown allies and enemies, and which continued for decades before its “apparent” resolution! Nobody won the cold war, finally.

One might wonder how relevant are soccer and cold war, in the context of internet gaming disorder. I would argue that these are very pertinent. Let me discuss the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). In MMOGs, large number of players, running into a few thousand (or maybe more), play simultaneously, on the same server. The players are mostly unknown to each other; they are not always aware of others' strategies. MMOGs are usually played in a persistent, open world, providing the virtual platform of infinite space and time. The virtual world continues to exist even when people/things are not interacting with each other.[6] These games have no particular winners; player will get rewards based on their (or their avatar's) performance and the game will go on until the player gives up! Therefore, MMOGs represent a typical infinite game. The question is, does it actually matter? The answer is yes.

Let me discuss some mismatch scenarios. When a finite player plays a finite game, the system is stable. Think about soccer; each player is aware of the finite nature of the game and they play to win. However, when a finite player plays an infinite game, it destabilizes the system. Here, the purpose will be different for both the groups. The finite player will play to win, whereas the infinite player will play to continue the game; the game will end only when the finite player will give up (may be owing to the exhaustion of their resources).[7] Sinek gives example of the Vietnam War; the US fought the war to win, but the Vietcong fought to survive and the result was apparent![8] Now, apply the same scenario for MMOGs. Here, the players play with the intent to win the game or to outsmart the other players (opponents). Hence, all the players play a finite game, but the game is developed as infinite; this destabilizes the system. The game is over for a particular player only when s/he withdraws himself/herself from the game because of exhaustion (either physical or of resources). In the era of high-speed and cheap internet, exhaustion of resources is an unlikely proposition; physical exhaustion is reversible as well! Therefore, giving up MMOG is an improbable outcome; the player continues to play despite having harmful consequences. The latter is one of the important diagnostic descriptors of internet gaming disorder.

Cognitive theory perhaps provides the most influential model to understand internet gaming disorder. King and Delfabbro reviewed internet gaming-related cognitions.[9] Now, let's see how the infinite game theory snugly fits in to it! According to the cognitive theory, gamers play with the intent to gain social acceptance and to enhance self-esteem; both of these are “cognitive distortions” (improbable outcome to happen in real life) and do not have any definite endpoint. Therefore, players are likely to continue to play for an indefinite period. People with gaming disorder also have “maladaptive and inflexible rules” about gaming; such as, “It is a waste to not try to complete a game once I have invested my time and energy,” “When I have a goal or objective in a video game, I must complete it.” Here, the mismatch of the finite player (with fixed rules and definite goals) and the infinite game (changeable rules and no definite goal) is quite evident. This mismatch could explain difficulty in self-regulation (“loss of control”) and time invested (“preoccupation”) in gaming. Let me borrow the example of near-miss (or near-win) from cognitive psychology of gambling disorder. Loss in a particular game for an individual with problem gambling is perceived as “near-win” and this helps perpetuate gambling.[10] Infinite games such as the MMOGs also give a lot of opportunity for “near-wins” (small rewards, upgradations, etc.) rather than any real chance of winning (as there is no final goal); no wonder, the players continue to play in lure of those perceived “near-wins.”

By this time, I believe, I am able to hold your attention by showing how the game theory could be applied to understand the phenomenology and cognitive distortions, specific to internet gaming disorder or other behavioral addictions. Now, let's look at some other corroborative evidence for my proposition. MMOGs are infinite type of games, but there are other video or console-based games which are finite, i.e., with a definite ending. If my proposition is valid, MMOGs must be more “addictive” than other finite non-MMOG games. Both in longitudinal and in cross-sectional studies, MMOGs have been found to cause more dysfunctional use, more hours of use, and worse health outcome.[11] In fact, most of the recent researches on internet gaming disorder are centered on MMOGs.[12]

However, the explanation which has been proposed so far ascribed a set of factors for the “addictive” nature of MMOGs: “permanent world, advancement and reinforcement system, social interactions aspects” and immersive experience of gaming.[12] These do not have anything to do with the characteristics of the game but describe how it is being delivered. I agree that these are important to create the illusion of reality (a parallel space and time of virtual reality); these are necessary but not sufficient. Had these been sufficient, all other virtual reality–social interaction-based games (such as real-time strategy games) would have been equally addictive. In my opinion, addition of the infinite nature of MMOGs and the finite–infinite mismatch must be invoked to complete the full circle.

Finally, according to Popper's falsification and criteria for demarcation, my proposition would only be labeled scientific if it is falsifiable.[13] One stream of falsification could come from qualitative studies, in which regular players of MMOGs (with gaming disorder) could be interviewed for their expectation (how and when is the game going to end) and motivation (purpose of playing the game) to play these game. Their narratives could either refute or verify the present conjecture. The second stream of research could come from longitudinal studies of individuals who play MMOGs on a regular basis. If a large proportion of people are making transition from MMOG to non-MMOG games, the posited proposition will seem to be improbable.

Having discussed and argued at length for the addictive nature of games conferring the risk to online gaming disorder, I, by no means, am trying to undermine the role of the individual and the contextual risk factors.[4] I hope that the risk mitigation strategies, which focus on enhancing individual resilience and bringing about changes in the immediate environment, should also look at the construct and content of the online games and push for modifying the infinite games to the finite ones.

  References Top

International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Available from: http://www.apps.who.int/classifications/icd11/browse/l-m/en. [Last accessed on 2018 May 04].  Back to cited text no. 1
Petry NM, Rehbein F, Gentile DA, Lemmens JS, Rumpf HJ, Mößle T, et al. An international consensus for assessing internet gaming disorder using the new DSM-5 approach. Addiction 2014;109:1399-406.  Back to cited text no. 2
Yee N. Motivations for play in online games. Cyberpsychol Behav 2006;9:772-5.  Back to cited text no. 3
Griffiths M. A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. J Subst Abus 2005;10:191-7.  Back to cited text no. 4
Carse J. Finite and Infinite Games. New York: Simon and Schuster; 2011.  Back to cited text no. 5
Achterbosch L, Pierce R, Simmons G. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games: The past, present, and future. Comput Entertain 2008;5:9-32.  Back to cited text no. 6
McNaughton R. Infinite games played on finite graphs. Ann Pure Appl Log 1993;65:149-84.  Back to cited text no. 7
Sinek S, Mead D, Docker P. Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team. London: Penguin; 2017.  Back to cited text no. 8
King DL, Delfabbro PH. The cognitive psychology of internet gaming disorder. Clin Psychol Rev 2014;34:298-308.  Back to cited text no. 9
Potenza MN. The neural bases of cognitive processes in gambling disorder. Trends Cogn Sci 2014;18:429-38.  Back to cited text no. 10
Kuss DJ, Griffiths MD. Internet and gaming addiction: A systematic literature review of neuroimaging studies. Brain Sci 2012;2:347-74.  Back to cited text no. 11
Billieux J, Deleuze J, Griffiths MD, Kuss DJ. Internet gaming addiction: The case of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. In: Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives. Milan: Springer; 2015. p. 1515-25.  Back to cited text no. 12
Popper K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge; 2005.  Back to cited text no. 13


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