(*Editor’s Note: I am not a trained psychological or legal professional. If you are having problems, please see a professional.) I’ve worked in gaming for a long time and it wasn’t always the larp industry. For two years, I was a table games dealer at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, PA. As a part of maintaining a gaming license in the state of Pennsylvania, dealers have to pass yearly training in recognizing the signs of addiction and how to direct people to help once those signs are discovered. Gaming — all forms of gaming — can be dangerously addictive. There’s been a prevalence of studies on video gaming addiction which marks it as an up and coming addiction in our country. Larping often gets a pass because it dodges many of the social stigmas around gaming addiction: It gets people out of the house socializing, it promotes physical health/action, and there are set costs involved. However, I have seen the signs of gaming addiction in larpers just as often as I have in other forms of gamers, and I think it’s something worth addressing. I mentioned game obsession in my blog about bleed, but it deserves its own examination as a form of unhealthy gaming
- A shift in mood, attitude and motivation
- A new friends and new hangouts
- Poor performance at school or work and/or being absent
- Secretive behavior such as lying
- A sudden, unexplained increase in spending
- A giving up once-favorite pastimes and hobbies
- Being preoccupied with [gaming], such as constantly planning how to get more [gaming] money
- Needing to [game] with increasing amounts to get the same thrill
- Trying to control, cut back or stop [gaming], without success
- Feeling restless or irritable when you try to cut down on [gaming]
- [Gaming] to escape problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression
- Jeopardizing or losing important relationships, a job, or school or work opportunities because of [gaming]
- Asking others to bail you out of financial trouble because of the amount of money used in [gaming]
- Putting [gaming] before other priorities in life like food or rent
While I don’t know a lot of larpers who check all the boxes, I know many of us have met gamers that fall into more than a few of the above habits. Heck, probably everyone has done one or two of them in their larp career, but once you start stacking up the signs, it creates a fairly clear picture. And it’s not surprising. Many for profit games (larps, online games, computer games) are designed to create return customers. (See: “What Causes Gaming Addiction?”) Specific choices are made in the games to activate the pleasure centers in a person’s brain — just like the rat learning it gets a treat every time it pushes a lever, if a gamer completes certain tasks they get rewarded. Then they want to do those tasks more often as the reward feeling wears off through repeated exposure. Eventually, that game is their drug of choice, as it’s the only game that can give them the thrill they are seeking.
Sadly, this reward seeking behavior happens far more often in younger gamers, or those in tough life situations. With the current North American economy, and the difficult prospects millennials and xennials are facing, a good game is often the only time they feel like they have power or control in their lives. Larp is extra dangerous in this situation, because it’s not just power over points or videos, but power over other people. In larp, someone can create a situation where they feel empowered socially in a way that often feels impossible in the current socio-economic environment. No wonder some larpers will endanger paying their rent or car insurance to go to a game — it feels like there’s never going to be an escape from economic stress so they might as well go do something that feels good a few times a month. The current economy, and young adults still developing their own boundaries, is the perfect storm for gaming addiction.
Addiction is a sickness. Gaming, drugs, gambling — it creates an impulse control disorder which, once it gets to the point of addiction, is not in the gamer’s control. It means that gamers who have fallen into this category will often do things that we would never dream of doing at a game: cheating, bullying, dodging staff, etc. This is often what happens when people we would consider friends, people who we’ve gamed with for ages, get caught cheating or worse. We never thought them capable of it, but the gamer in question felt a threat to their fix and so act in completely out of character ways. It’s scary to seen when it happens, but I’ve come across more than one instance of this in the last year alone. It’s easier to understand why your friends have turned into toxic players when you realize their enjoyment of the game might have turned into an obsession and what that obsession can do to someone’s mind. I’m not saying this excuses that kind of behavior, but it gives some reasoning behind it.
So, the questions become: 1. What do we do as game designers to help our games be less addictive and 2. What do you do when you realize your friend is an addict. As designers, beginning to move away from the monthly gaming model is a great step in the right direction. Having a monthly game, especially one with between game actions and roleplay, means a heavily addicted gamer can drown themselves entirely in that fictional world — often to the exclusion of many other games. I saw it in myself as a young woman involved in the Mind’s Eye Society. Online and proxy roleplay meant that I could effectively never unplug from the game. It created ways I could constantly escape from the real world. I wish I knew then what I know now. Secondly, encouraging your players to try other games, or take weekends off even if games are running elsewhere, is a great culture to promote. Lastly, enforcing a culture of ‘game is at game’ and between game play is not encouraged by staff can also help players pull out of the temptation of addiction. I spoke a lot more about these dangers in the piece I wrote about the downside of between game roleplay. I’m also open to suggestions from other designers about what we can put into our campaign games to help players not fall into the obsession trap.
But maybe you’re not a designer. Maybe you are just a player who is seeing a friend going down a dangerous road. What do you do? First off, it’s not your job to fix other people. It’s a time honored cliche` that you can’t push help onto someone, they have to want to get help first. Talking with them, helping them recognize the signs of obsessive behavior around gaming, and giving them other options on the weekends is a first step in the right direction. However, as with any addiction, it’s not something non-professionals can often fix. If you think you, or someone you love, is having an issue with larping addiction, reaching out for professional help is an important step. In all my research, I wasn’t able to find direct support about larping addiction, because we’re such a niche community the study about this simply doesn’t exist. But there are resources here on video gaming addiction, and here on gambling addiction, which are good places to start. Be prepared to explain what symptoms you’ve been experiencing and that it’s a specific form of gaming, but still falls under the gaming umbrella as addictions go. The first step is recognition of a problem, and the second is reaching out for assistance. I’m not a professional, but those are the best recommendations I can give. I hope this blog at least gets a few people thinking before developing unhealthy behaviors and maybe helps some others recognize they need to start on a path to getting help.
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