Abstract This paper examines the tension between human agency and social structure in the policies governing addictive substances. Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest, a so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), is an example of an electronic community with many labels. It has been lauded as an environment in which people can express themselves and feel a sense of camaraderie. At the same time, it has given rise to numerous debates that it is an addictive game and playing it is a condition for which people can and should seek medical treatment. The game has been implicated in cases of suicide, as well as the inspiration for policies regarding game usage and warning labels. Through an ethnographic study we review the role played by community in EverQuest, testing the potency of the game's reportedly addictive properties, while attempting to unpack the role of the gaming community in fostering that addiction. The equation of community with addiction and the regulation that accompanies that designation is timely and pertinent. In this paper we consider the idea that 'addiction' is a word by which western society has learned to distinguish different communities. Through interviews and participant observation we also test the hypothesis that, due to certain forces of social fragmentation, people form community identity around certain types of behaviour, legitimizing that behaviour by calling it an addiction. As Alexander notes, "Membership in something seen as destructive is far more endurable than no identity at all" (2000:1). The term addiction itself is inherently problematic. We outline how the discourse surrounding addiction has been coloured by media reports and official narrative. Mainly a result of different political agendas at work, these fluctuations in social protocol led to actions such as the nineteenth century Temperance Movement. In the present day, we see both the medicalization and pathologization of addiction. It is in this context that a review of official and lay perspectives of addiction in literature, biomedical discourse, and the media reveal the larger social forces implicated in this discussion of a difficult and controversial topic. This study explores the experiences of EverQuest players through participant observation of the EverQuest community and in-depth personal interviews of experienced members. Of particular interest are those aspects of community that make this game more or less compelling than other games, and the players' experiences of initiation and personal change in this rich online community. We compare and contrast player views with popular folklore about the addictiveness of EverQuest, along with our discussion with medical personnel who have been in contact with people classified as EverQuest addicts. Are players addicted to the game because of something in its design that warrants a warning label, or is it something more than that? Is it the attraction to community? This combination of insights serve to elicit information about the range of perspectives on games and addiction, as they are indeed in contention with one another. In our conclusion, we consider the possibility that addiction is a construct that comes from a human need for community. If so, is it appropriate to think of addiction as a disease by which people are helpless victims? Or is it a choice? Can obsessive behaviours involving electronic community be considered an addiction, and the community itself an 'addictive substance?'
About the Author(s)
Florence Chee is a Graduate student in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, Canada. With a background in Anthropology and Honours Communication, her primary academic pursuits include research on the social implications of technology and online gaming communities, as well as how ethnographic narrative can inform technological design. Florence is part of the research staff actively involved in SFU's Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) and the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC).
Richard Smith is an Associate Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is also Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at SFU's Harbour Centre campus, in downtown Vancouver and a Research Scientist at the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC). Dr. Smith studies the social construction of our relationships with technology. He is currently researching: 1) new tools to help designers and policy makers think about the future in creative and constructive ways, 2) the role of social capital in clusters of high technology firms in the new media sector, and 3) new applications for information technology in support of scholarly publishing.
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