Just a Game?
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“Just a Game?” Ensign, August 2009, 46–51

Just a Game?

Online role-playing games may be more than a way to pass the time. For some, they can become addictive, leading to lost spirituality, lost opportunities, and lost relationships.

Two weeks ago, Jason* quit the high school track team because the meets and practice times conflicted with his online “guild quests” and “raids.” The trumpet he used to love to play now sits in the corner of his bedroom collecting dust. Instead of being at track practice or band rehearsals, Jason spends his free time playing an online computer game. He often stays up so late at night playing his game that he has begun to sleep through early-morning seminary.

Or consider Michael, at his typical spot after midnight: in front of the computer, headset on, playing an online adventure game with his “friends,” none of whom he has actually met. When his wife, Jenny, gently reminds him, “It’s late, and we haven’t read our scriptures or prayed together,” he replies, “I can’t come right now. We’re right in the middle of a raid, and my guild needs me.”

Then there’s Sara, who discovered online gaming** about a year ago. She was a top salesperson in her department, winning prizes and earning bonuses for outstanding performance. Online gaming, however, has negatively affected her work. She now plays most evenings and weekends, and she has stopped attending singles activities in her stake to make more time for gaming. She often leaves church early so she can continue her online adventures.

Jason, Michael, and Sara are representative of the growing number of people who demonstrate compulsive behavior in playing massive multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs). In these games, social networking meets virtual computer fantasy to bring players into exciting, collaborative quests. Tens of millions of players are active worldwide, with new players joining every month. The growth of the activity shows that an increasing number of men and women enjoy MMORPGs as a relaxing, recreational activity. But some people (like Jason, Michael, and Sara) are letting recreational, virtual life interfere with their actual lives.

Although many online gamers do not become addicted or even compulsive players, prophetic warnings about the use of our time in this mortal life indicate that online gaming is an activity that warrants caution. Of course, MMORPGs are not the only form of recreation that have the potential to cause problems. There are many activities that can become so absorbing that they rob participants of spiritual, intellectual, and social development. We hope that the explanations, suggestions, and prophetic counsel included in this article may be helpful to individuals and families as they seek the guidance of the Spirit in finding balance in their lives.

Why Are These Games Cause for Concern?

Professional counselors are seeing an increasing number of individuals “hooked” on video and computer games, especially the online “quest” variety. Individuals most commonly seek help at the urging of friends or family members who are concerned with the excessive nature of their game playing. Many of these players recognize the emerging imbalance in their lives and earnestly seek help to restore a healthy balance. Others resist the idea that their online gaming is a problem, insisting that they are only relaxing, or that since they play with other people, it’s a social activity. Still others argue that since it’s a game, it cannot be addictive.

The fallout from compulsive gaming can be temporally and spiritually devastating. News reports include stories of broken marriages, lost employment, failed health, even children removed from parents because of criminal neglect caused by the parents’ excessive online gaming.1 We personally know of young men who have forfeited mission opportunities because, they say, their online gaming group needs them, and they simply cannot be gone for two years.

How Are Online Role-playing Games Different Than Other Video Games?

MMORPGs are different from traditional stand-alone computer or console games in two primary ways:

  • The virtual world of the game moves in real time. When a player logs off, the game continues. There is no pause key.

  • Characters in the game are controlled not by the computer but by actual people scattered around the world. Most online role-playing games encourage the formation of teams, or “guilds,” that band together to carry out quests or challenges. Membership in a guild creates social pressure on players to be present when other guild members are playing.

These unique characteristics make the games more demanding as well as more socially stimulating, which has led to greater addictive tendencies.

Why Are Online Role-Playing Games So Compelling?

One reason that online role-playing games may potentially be more addictive is that they are essentially a social network with an exciting graphical interface. They fill social needs that may be unmet in the real world. For instance, a teenage boy may not feel popular or successful at high school, but in the online world, he gets a fresh start and a new set of friends. His problem-solving skills and intelligence make him socially important in his virtual community. He steps into a role in which he feels needed and successful.

Another draw is that online gaming provides an unending source of goals or objectives. Unlike games installed on a home computer, MMORPGs prevent players from ever actually winning the online game because each victory brings yet another task, goal, quest, or skill level to be obtained.

Moreover, as players perform quests and rise in their achievements, the time investment for each skill level normally rises. So while players may gain 5 or 10 levels in their first few days playing, the next week may bring only one or two new levels, with each new level after that requiring longer and longer time investments. Players who have spent significant time attaining a certain skill level tend to be reluctant to walk away from the game and lose their investment.

Finally, the collaborative nature of online role-playing games can result in a strong form of peer pressure. Each person’s involvement matters not only to himself or herself but also to guild or team members, so a player who cuts back on playing time or fails to show up at agreed-upon times may face criticism or rejection from fellow gamers.

How Do I Avoid Problems?

A critical element in avoiding problems is to understand the importance of balance in our lives. Leaders of the Church have been clear in their counsel about doing things in “wisdom and order” (Mosiah 4:27). For example, Elder Donald L. Staheli of the Seventy has warned: “Distractions and discouragement are some of Satan’s most effective tools. He finds ways to help us make excuses about why we can’t do this or that. He gets us involved in wasting our time and resources in things that lead us away from improving our lives and developing our talents. He blurs our focus by diverting our attention. This can happen to the very best of you.”2

One way to protect ourselves is to follow the counsel given by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “We need to limit the amount of time our children watch TV or play video games or use the Internet each day.”3 Of course, this counsel to limit the time we dedicate to media applies to parents as well! We can do this by establishing reasonable time constraints for online recreational activities. Then, if the attraction of the activity begins to pull us beyond our own guidelines, we can recognize a potentially dangerous situation and stop participating in the activity. As Elder Ballard counseled, “Virtual reality must not become [our] reality.”

Restoring proper balance in our lives is something we decide to do. As Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Seventy has taught, “When we are out of balance, we have a choice. We can delay making changes and experience the tragedy of a failing family or the sorrow of losing our own spirituality; or we can be attentive and continually nudged by the whisperings of the Holy Spirit to make necessary adjustments. Seeking balance among the essential responsibilities of life is preparatory to salvation.”4

The choice to overcome a distraction or diversion may be very difficult because an addiction is much more than a “bad habit” to be overcome by willpower alone. In fact, “many people become so dependent on a behavior or a substance that they no longer see how to abstain from it. They lose perspective and a sense of other priorities in their lives.”5 President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught this idea when he said, “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency. It can rob one of the power to decide.”6

As you think about the compelling nature of online role-playing games, you might also consider your own potential for addiction. Some studies have shown that online gaming addiction may be correlated with other emotional challenges.7 In addition, if you have struggled with other forms of addiction, including Internet-related addictions (such as pornography), you might be more vulnerable than others to an online gaming addiction.

Where Can I Find Spiritual Help and Hope?

But even cases of addiction are not without hope. The scriptures teach that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is sufficient to help us overcome the “natural man,” whatever unhealthy or unbalanced forms our “natural” tendencies may take. (See Mosiah 3:19.)

President James E. Faust (1920–2007) taught, “While some addictions require professional clinical help, let us not overlook the spiritual help available to us through priesthood blessings and through prayer. The Lord has promised us, ‘My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them’ (Ether 12:27). Let us remember that the power to change is very real, and it is a great spiritual gift from God.”8

Spiritual help is available through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Such a promise can be especially poignant for those caught in a trap of obsessive online gaming. Hope in the Atonement, coupled with the guidance of the Holy Ghost and counsel from inspired leaders, will help individuals as they seek to apply principles of balance and move toward a life—an actual one and not merely a virtual one—that is rich and full.

Illustrations by Greg Newbold