One of the latest pieces circulating in the news cycle is the New York Times’s story that an Internet addiction treatment center has opened in the United States — a story that was also covered on NPR and therefore now officially exists for all bougie academics. Since the single patient at this single Internet clinic is a World of Warcraft player and I am writing a book on World of Warcraft players which involves scandalous amounts of time playing the game, I’ve had these reports forwarded to me more than a few times. So I thought I might say something here about what anthropology has to say about Internet addiction — or at least what this anthropologist might say about it.
First, as someone who is not a neuroanthropologist or a psychological anthropologist I can’t really weigh in on the way that broad cultural patterns mold that ever-so-plastic organ that is our brain. Nor can I really speak as an expert on the clinical aspects of Internet addiction. To the best of my knowledge, however, the broad weight of opinion on Internet addiction is that there is no such thing. Or, to be more specific, although people with psychological issues might find the Internet as one place to work them out, there is no clear sense that the Internet is ‘addictive’ in the sense that chemicals are — something that is obvious to anyone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, or has helped friends and family who have suffered from substance abuse.
There is, for instance, the finding of Europe’s only Internet addiction clinic that 90% of people who seek treatment for compulsive gaming are not addictive. In 2007 the American Medical Association declined to make Internet addiction a recognized disorder. As one doctor said “There is nothing here to suggest that this is a complex physiological disease state akin to alcoholism or other substance abuse disorders, and it doesn’t get to have the word addiction attached to it.”Now to be sure, there are some psychologists who advocate the classifying ‘Internet addiction’ — which as far as I can tell really means ‘porn and World of Warcraft’ as an addiction. This is not unusual. Despite how Science is sometimes taught and perceived, ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ rarely speak with a single unified voice about what The Truth is. There is a minority group which has been arguing vigorously for some time that Internet addiction is a real thing. My position, as you may have guessed, is that ‘Internet addiction’ does not exist, apart from a very small portion of unusual individuals.
What does anthropology have to say about this? One of the most important discoveries that anthropology made in the nineteenth century was that people do not believe things simply because they are true. Our perception of the world is underdetermined by its properties. One factor that causes us to believe that things are true or false (or exist or don’t exist) are the arbitrary and conventional structures of meaning — in other words, cultural structures that can be described, their histories and transformations traced, and so forth. So as an anthropologist when I see questions like “does Internet addiction exist” the first question I ask is: how and in what forms do preexisting cultural structures predispose people to think something is true?
Kate Lingley and I have tried to do this in an extremely tentative and provisional way in our brief paper entitled “Just Like The Qing Empire”: Internet Addiction, MMOGs, and Moral Crisis in Contemporary China. In this paper we examined media coverage of ‘Internet suicide’ in China. In China, Internet addiction has become a focus of popular attention because of the way that it crystallizes concerns about the country’s standing in the world: is the Internet like opium, and must we attempt to protect China from this foreign malevolent influence just as the Qing did? Or, on the other hand, must we adopt foreign technology like the Internet in order to avoid making the mistakes of nineteenth century Chinese, which suffered serious negative consequences from refusing to modernize. We also found that much of the discourse surrounding Internet addiction was compelling to people because it focused on China’s middle-class children, who grew up in a post-Tiananman age and experimenting with lifestyles different from those of their parents. Thus in the United States people take their children to Internet addiction clinics because they don’t spend any time outside or socializing with people. In China, people take their children to Internet addiction clinics because their children are playing basketball, dating, and playing video games instead of studying eight hours a day in order to get top grades in school.
Now, there are many more things that Chinese Internet addiction is about — the changing nature of the Chinese healthcare system, inherited organizational models for (re)education and group therapy, democracy and free speech on the Internet and in wang bas, and so forth. All of which is just to say that failing to appreciate the cultural context out of which Chinese Internet addiction occurs means giving up what we know about the phenomenon in order to understand it — and in particular it means that we will be fail if we assume that ‘if they’ve had it over here it must be the same thing as this stuff we are starting to get over here’.
Of course, the United States shared several traits with China — indeed, China and the US have been part of the same global system for as long as there has been a United States (that’s why your fancy dishes are called ‘China’). In the case of Internet addiction we see a similar set of concerns and understandings, albeit in a different context. The big one that leaps to my mind here is the medicalization of mental illness. The United States in particular is the inheritor of a cultural tradition which sees the world as composed of individuals decanted into bodies, and biologistic explanations of individual behavior are incredibly popular. MMOGs are replacing television as the thing people do in their free time — at least people in their twenties — and as people become more and more aware of the problem they are taking models from wider trends in American therapeutic culture and applying them to MMOGs.
I’ve argued that we need to move beyond approaches to video games which see them either as 1) pathological escapes from an Actually Fulfilling world or 2) emancipatory spaces which off the possibility of True Human Flourishing which our soulless modern age has denied us. Rather I think we need to understand them as the locus of projects for action, projects which communities form around (both in-game and out- of it). If we could generate a general model of projects and communities as they move through different media (whether it be face to face linguistic interaction, a MMOG or snailmail correspondence) then we could understand not just MMOGs but lots of other communities of practice and make some headway on comparing MMOGs with other phenomenon. And clearly, I’m not the first person to advocate this approach.
I will say one thing, though, that particularly bugs me about this discourse of Internet addiction: it seems at times to rely on an underlying model of human desire and commitment that I am not very happy with. It seems to imply that a proper human life is one in which you chose freely and autonomously what will make you feel happy and fulfilled. I would even go further to say that in the case of the rise of ‘spirituality’ as an idea and its subsequent marketing in the form of scented candles and white yoga clothing, Americans are increasingly urged not to care about anything at all. This sense of ‘bliss’ or ‘serenity’ or ‘calmness’ is seen as what people naturally want.
This sense of choosing freely — the ‘vending machine’ theory of well-being — or simply doing your best not to care at all offends several of my sensibilities, only some of which I’ll discuss here. In particular, I must admit that I think there is something wrong with a society that increasingly understands commitment as ‘addiction’. Many things in life — the most important ones, I think — are things that we commit ourselves not because we chose them, but because they chose us. Partially this is the appeal of craftsmanship — the idea that good work is worth doing for its own sake: that you are drawn into a project because of the worlds it discloses to you. But partly it is because human beings exist in webs of meaning and caring that they themselves have not spun, and this communal nature of life is too often overlooked American society today. Are we making passion, commitment, and dedication dirty words? Are we turning them into illnesses?
As someone who is a very successful raider in World of Warcraft and dedicates 15-20 hours a week to the game, I am not surprised to hear that people can get swept up in the game. But people who do not play these games need to recognize that people play them not because they are like drugs, but because they matter to people. As a serious player, I recognize that my achievements in the game are hollow compared to the things that really matter in my life — my research, my teaching, and especially my family. For various reasons — including my status as an embodied subject and my various cathections to long-term biographical self-conceptions — those projects matter to me more than in-game projects. I hope that people who consider themselves ‘addicted’ to Internet gaming realize that these sorts of things matter more than obtaining the last fragment needed for Val’anyr, Hammer of Ancient Kings. But at the same time we need to make sure that they understand that the problem is the projects they are pursuing, not the fact of caring itself.