Part 2 of 2
August 2007 – In November 2006, the world witnessed another first. According to ContractorUK.com, a teenager from the United Kingdom was one of the first children to be treated for a computer game addiction.
This teen is not alone. Without question, countless people are engulfed by these virtual worlds, so much so that it’s changing their lives.
For example, in 2005 a Korean couple faced criminal charges for the death of their four-month-old baby. The child suffocated when left at home alone while the parents went to a local Internet cafe to play a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) known as World of Warcraft (WoW).
According to Eurogamer.net, the couple said, “We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home like usual, but the game took longer that day.”
WoW is one of the more well-known MMORPGs, alongside EverQuest, commonly referred to as “NeverRest” or “EverCrack” because of its addictive qualities. In fact, Wikipedia.org cites broken relationships and even suicides among EverQuest users.
While there are a number of these virtual worlds out there, AFA Journal decided to focus on a popular and alarming Web site known as Second Life (SL), an imaginary world where a computer user creates a representation of himself that enables him to be and do whatever his heart desires – from starting a business to building a dream home to fulfilling his sexual fantasies. (See AFA Journal 7/07.) SL is not a game, but research indicates that it is likely to be just as addictive.
In addition to mere entertainment, creating a personal paradise also carries spiritual, physical, and emotional consequences, especially when it moves to a point of addiction.
According to MediaWise.org, “When time spent on the computer, playing video games or cruising the Internet reaches a point that it harms a child’s or adult’s family and social relationships, or disrupts school or work life, that person may be caught in a cycle of addiction.”
This cycle is becoming a common occurrence among gamers and Internet users, as is apparent from the establishment of self-help organizations such as On-line Gamers Anonymous and the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery.
While professional help is necessary in many cases, Dr. Edward T. Welch, counselor, faculty member and director of the School of Biblical Counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, gets to the heart of all addictions in the following interview.
AFA Journal: Define addiction.
Ed Welch: When we think of addiction, we think of the drug addict, the alcoholic, the person who is down and out. But Scripture shows the addiction in us all. It goes like this: It begins with liking something. Then we want the thing – drugs, alcohol, a person, video games, music, whatever it might be – that we like. It moves from “I want this” to “I must have this” to “I worship this.” And what happens is those things can easily grow to idolatrous proportions in our lives.
That’s the development of addiction, which I think the Scripture would re-label as false worship or idolatry.
AFAJ: Does something happen to the chemicals in the brain, or is an addiction more of a heart issue?
EW: People talk about pleasure pathways in the brain and potential chemicals that mediate that particular pathway. But the brain is very complicated, and ultimately nobody can say, “The brain made me do it.” Put it this way: The brain can be a temptation for us. It can say, “That is good. Follow that.”
But all addictions are ultimately a decision of whom will I serve. Will I serve myself, my own desires, or will I serve my God? Who is in control? Ultimately, all addictions are fundamental expressions of our spiritual allegiances.
AFAJ: Can people become addicted to life in a virtual world such as Second Life?
EW: Can a virtual world change from being something that somebody likes to something that somebody wants to something somebody must have so much that it becomes the idolatrous center of his or her life? Can people lie about it to spouses, to parents, to friends? Could it become an activity that refuses to go public? Absolutely!
We live publicly before God, and if there is anything in our lives that we are reluctant to have announced, then the chances are we are moving into the realm of false worship and idolatry.
AFAJ: Can addicts differentiate between the virtual and real worlds?
EW: Typically, the brain can differentiate between the real world and the virtual world. Here’s a place where I think we can put the world of virtual games onto a continuum that includes cartoons and movies and things like that. Most people are fairly open to their children watching movies or cartoons. Well, those are virtual worlds for some people. They enter into those worlds as if they were their own and the movies, TV programs, and cartoons they watch can become guiding forces for them. If they don’t know how to live, they will sometimes use their heroes to teach them how to live. So in that sense, it can certainly affect real life.
AFAJ: What effect can the virtual world have on real relationships?
EW: When people practice addictions, they’re often saying that the real world is a place where they would prefer not to operate. In a virtual world they have a world that is a little bit more of their own making.
So in that sense, does it function as pornography? Does it function as athletics for some people, for example, playing golf all day Saturday and Sunday? Can it have that kind of function in relationships? It certainly can.
AFAJ: Are virtually simulated sexual relationships considered adultery in the real world?
EW: Your virtual world is an expression of your own heart and desires. The Scripture blurs the distinction between our imagination and what we actually do. The Scripture does not let us get away with, “Well, I can imagine one thing, but as long as I don’t do it, then everything is fine.” Scripture talks about the heart, and the heart can be expressed in imaginations or it can be expressed in actual physical activity. There’s no question that cybersex is an expression of our own hearts, and it is adultery.
AFAJ: What is the difference between prospering in the real world and prospering in a virtual world, considering that neither is eternal?
EW: Is it possible that we could say the same thing about a game of Monopoly – that someone plays Monopoly because it gives him a sense of power in an alternative universe? We can say the same thing with more ordinary, low-tech kinds of entertainment.
So as we critique the virtual world, it is a call for us who don’t participate in it to look at how we manage our own worlds apart from God. In what ways do I escape from reality to try to create my own world? I don’t want the extraordinary to keep me from seeing the dangers of the ordinary – such as TV, movies – which are virtual worlds for many people.
How can we all grow in wisdom to know that God is over all things? He has put us in this world. He expresses His love to us in this world. We serve His purposes in this world. How can we live wisely in the midst of the ups and downs, the joys and the sufferings and the trials of daily life?
That’s part of the call to us as parents and as people in the church. How can we learn how to find wisdom from God in the details, especially the hardships, of life? I think that is the best protection against these addictions.
AFAJ: What advice would you give to those involved in a virtual world?
EW: The way of change is not simply education and accountability. The way of change is a turning. It’s ultimately a turning away from our allegiances to our own kingships and turning to the true King – Jesus Christ. That is the heart of change. If you skip the step of repentance and faith, or skip the step of knowing that Jesus Christ is more beautiful than anything you can imagine, then it’s just this revolving door. Somebody feels guilty and stops her game for a little while. Then she goes back into it.
So go public, which is basically saying to another human being, “I feel like I’m stuck.” That is a huge first step. Then, together, consider the kingdom battles going on in our hearts and who we’re worshiping. Why are we worshiping something other than the true God when He has revealed Himself so wonderfully in Jesus?
AFAJ: What can family members and friends do to help an addict?
EW: The question is, how do we love someone who seems to be ensnared by these things? The challenge is that love is so multi-dimensional. Love has to move toward someone rather than simply wait for someone. How do we do that?
We move toward the person and give him actual, concrete reasons why this is a problem. If the person doesn’t hear, we get help. We ask a pastor. We ask a wise friend to pray with us and advise us. It might mean going together to meet with the person again. I guess it’s the way we would deal with any particular sin that someone seems ensnared in. We continue to pray for the person, and we continue to move toward him in love, seeking to reclaim him by calling him away from those things that are dangerous.
Books by Ed Welch
▶ Blame It on the Brain? (P&R Publishing, 1998)
▶ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (P&R Publishing, 2001)