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The Harsh Reality of Video-Game Addiction

Mar 21, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Jonas Odell

Jonas Odell, a Swedish filmmaker, has long been interested in animation and game design. Like many in his field, he has been keeping up with the recent spate of articles about video-game addiction. One thing Odell noticed, though, was that the addicts themselves were almost never interviewed. “Mostly it was experts or concerned parents talking about the subject,” Odell told me. “I was simply interested in hearing these people’s own stories firsthand.”

With the help of a therapist who specializes in addiction, Odell conducted interviews with gaming addicts. Three of these compelling personal stories form the basis of Odell’s inventive short documentary I Was a Winner. The interviewees are embodied in animated re-creations of their gaming avatars, which the filmmaker and his team created based on descriptions the subjects offered of their characters and the worlds they inhabit in game play. Odell based the avatars’ behavior on an experience he once had while watching a friend play Grand Theft Auto. “Whenever he stopped playing but left the game on, the character would suddenly seem at a loss of what to do,” Odell said. “It would start to wander aimlessly back and forth. I found that quite moving—this aggressive [avatar] who normally dragged people out of their cars suddenly seemed very vulnerable.” That was the feeling he hoped to re-create.

In the film, one young gamer describes how he sought approval from his family but only found it in video games: “My parents said to me, ‘You little shit, you’re nothing special.’ So when I do something well in this world, I think, I am special.”

Not all of the gamers Odell interviewed were young—a fact that he said surprised him. “There was a greater age range than we had expected,” Odell said. “The oldest person we interviewed, who didn’t wind up in the film, was a successful businessman in his 50s when he started playing. He subsequently wrecked his marriage, lost his home, and ended up living in his parents’ attic.”

In December 2013, in a decision that created much controversy among the gaming community, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized the potentially pathological nature of video-game addiction as internet gaming disorder. Among the eight criteria listed in the DSM-5, mental-health professionals were instructed to look out for the following behaviors, which must cause “significant impairment or distress” in several aspects of a gamer’s life: withdrawal symptoms; continuing a game despite problems; deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming; and an inability to reduce playing or quit gaming altogether. In 2018, the World Health Organization followed suit, classifying gaming disorder as “characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior.” The most recent research indicates that 1 to 3 percent of gamers are at risk of becoming addicted to the pastime.

While making the film, Odell identified a through line in the addicts’ stories: Most of the interviewees seemed to be chasing affirmation they couldn’t find in the physical world. “Within a controlled environment, you get to feel successful and proud of your skills,” Odell said, “whereas in real life, success is a much more complicated thing that is never ‘fair’ or just based on skills. The world in the game is easier to navigate, especially if you are experiencing problems in the real world, where subtle social skills might be more important than competence in other fields.”

The filmmaker added that many gamers seemed to struggle to find their place in society. “In our modern meritocratic society, you don’t have an obvious place in the way people used to have,” Odell said. “You have to create it for yourself. That’s complicated. Fleeing into the more regulated world of the game—a Manichaean populist worldview—is an easy way out.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.