Is addiction a deeper form of distraction or a desperate escape from it? What the video game Dota 2 can teach us
DEPRESSION and addiction are hard to distinguish when they happen simultaneously; they seem to overlap and reinforce each other, becoming an endless cycle. I know I’d be less depressed if I stopped playing Dota 2, but I don’t know how I’ll find the willpower to stop playing Dota 2 as long as I’m this depressed.
My depression didn’t start when I downloaded the game. And 500 hours of play later—an amount that might seem absurd to the uninitiated but which marks me as a novice in the Dota 2 “community”—I know it won’t disappear when I stop playing. Nevertheless, these days Dota feels like the specific block to my ability to live a happy life. It’s also the only thing I want to do. Even as I type these sentences I realize that my body is tilting left, literally straining toward the computer in the other room on which I play.
User reviews of Dota 2 on the Steam marketplace, where one gets the game, show my experience to be typical. Rather than rate the game from, say, one to ten, Steam has reviewers choose to either recommend (thumbs up) or not recommend (thumbs down) a game as part of their review. The reviews also automatically and handily include the number of hours the user has played. Phux, with 2,734 hours in Dota 2, gives it the thumbs up with a four-word review: “Regrets, so many regrets.” Inkubeytor, with 4,412 hours in game, does not recommend it, writing only “Suffering.” A user named “happy new year” (7,885 hours) recommended Dota 2 on July 27 with “HELP ME,” while Fierce (1,550 hours) does not recommend it: “PLEASE GIVE ME MY LIFE BACK.” About two thirds of Dota’s reviews in the marketplace are in this vein, if not all so pithy.
Though Dota 2 is entirely built around multiplayer engagement and teamwork, the first genuine feeling of social togetherness and empathy I ever got from the game was when I read these reviews/cries for help. I also only read these reviews because I was stuck in the Steam marketplace waiting for Dota 2 to redownload, after I had uninstalled it 20 hours earlier in a hopeless attempt to be free.
FOR those blissfully unaware, Dota 2 is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), which is a strategy-game subgenre somewhere between MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft) and RTS (real-time strategy games such as Starcraft II). MOBAs take multiplayer gameplay, vast player populations, and RPG-style leveling up from MMORPGs and join them with the resource management and direct head-to head competition of an RTS. Though Dota 2 is not the most popular MOBA—that would be League of Legends, with a monthly player base of 67 million, or 1% of the world’s population—it still boasts 12 million unique players a month. It is also one of the most important games in making e-sports big business: Dota 2 has the best-funded tournament in professional video gaming, and its most recent annual championship, the 2015 International, featured a prize pool of over $16 million.
Each game of Dota lasts, on average, around 40 minutes and comprises 10 players total, five on each side, who attempt to storm the other team’s base and destroy their central structure, called the Ancient (hence Dota: Defense of the Ancients). Every player controls a separate “hero” chosen from a field of 111 available heroes, all with different strengths, weaknesses, and tactics, different strategic modes and peak power timings. Each of these factors is also influenced, combined with, or countered by those of other heroes, both those on your team and the opponents’. Just choosing heroes, which you do simultaneously with the opposing team, is a huge component of the game and determines both your win conditions and how each player will try to play.
In every game, all heroes start with zero experience and 625 gold, carrying nothing over from previous matches. Players gain gold and experience points through killing opposing heroes or the other team’s non-player-controlled monsters, called creeps—little goblins that spawn constantly for both teams. Players use this gold and experience to buy items from among the 142 available and to level up spells and abilities. The map is always the same, the creeps always spawn in the same pattern, the available items are constant, and in general the game setup is static. The field, rules, and goals are always the same, which makes Dota and other MOBAs similar to traditional sports. But that basic stasis is also a key part of the game’s addictiveness: Every match is simultaneously totally identical and completely different.
With so many possible combinations of heroes, items, and scenarios, most of them coming to a head in split-second confrontations reliant on intense mouse and keyboard speed, there is an almost infinite learning curve (not to mention the fact that the game is regularly patched, with the developers changing the nature of abilities, items, and heroes). An entire game can be won or lost by the particular order in which one of the 10 players decides to purchase their items, or by one player being a few steps out of position and getting caught out before a crucial fight. The game is hard—really hard—and the most famous introductory guide to it is called “Welcome to Dota, You Suck.”
The coordination, strategy, and reflexes that Dota demands would be challenging enough on its own. But you have to play with nine other people—for the most part, random people, strangers, of whom most, on U.S. servers, will be white boys and probably well-off ones, considering the hardware required. Of these, at least one is likely to be non-communicative and ragey, will inevitably play like shit, and then yell at everyone else for throwing the game. You have to hope that he is on the opposing team.
When you’re playing with a good, well-coordinated team (or just playing well on your own) you can enter an almost euphoric state of competitive flow. But most of the time you’ll watch teammates—or yourself—wander aimlessly around the map, getting killed seemingly for no reason, all the while telling each other to buy wards, throw their ultimate, or stop being such noobs. And beyond the game-related insults, there is the homophobia, racism, and misogyny endemic to any space dominated by well-off white boys, who, in the case of Dota, also yelp xenophobically about the Peruvian, Filipino, or Russian players who are well-represented in the Dota community.
In other words, Dota 2 puts players in a dysfunctional and horrifying social space while offering an addictive set of opportunities to grow individual skills and exhibit mastery in competition. No wonder it can feel so familiar. No wonder there’s so much money in it.
IN trying to deal with depression by losing myself in meaningless activity, I stay right where I am, only a little more so. Whole lives, no doubt, can be spent in such holding patterns.
It is hard to explain to people that you are emotionally incapable of basic tasks: that you literally can’t do the laundry, can’t reply to a text message, can’t give more advance notice before cancelling. But if it’s hard to explain to others, it’s equally hard to explain to yourself. I don’t know why I can’t send an email right now, when a lot of the time it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Video games, and addictions generally, give depression an explanation: “I’m not emailing anyone because I’m spending all my time playing this game.” This is still really depressing, but at least it makes sense. You know where the time goes—you can see what happened, the hours are (depressingly) tracked in game. Without the metrics of addiction, the days just melt in a morass of incapability, a catatonic ennui that consumes your time without reason.
Addiction as a response to depression is, in a certain way, the response of a perfect capitalist subject. The system’s requisite growth depends on the generalized principle that our pleasure comes from increasing consumption: More will make us happier. The addictive impulse attempts to salvage this ideology from the disappointments it repeatedly delivers. Rather than reflecting on the fact that consuming more never provides the promised happiness, addiction just keeps upping the ante: just one more game, one more win will do it.
Addiction is thus an effort to reconcile yourself with an abusive society that makes unlimited demands of its subjects. But it gives the game away that these addictions are seen as pathological only when they make you unproductive—i.e., drinking becomes a “drinking problem” when it interferes with your work or the reproductive labor of your personal relationships. Addiction is a produced, fully anticipated response to the vicissitudes of consumer capitalism and a diagnosable pathology of legal consequence.
This makes it an incredibly effective weapon of control. Not only is addiction presupposed, but if you are not addicted in the right way, the state can intervene with punishment. Contraband drug markets (and the concomitant wars on them) produce optimal consumer-subjects while also generating a social “crisis” that allows the state to intervene and enforce the racialized, gendered, and classed stratification necessary for maximum profit production for the few who benefit from the system.
THE addict, then, can be recognized by her overidentification with capitalism’s ideological promises. From this vantage point, drug addiction appears as a sort of utopian version of consumption: There is no use value to drugs except enjoyment; you directly buy “pleasure.” This validates the promise that consumer goods can provide pleasure without complications, mediations, or social relations to facilitate that pleasure.
If the drug addict, in this sense, is the too perfect consumer, whose extreme consumption ultimately makes them unfit for further productivity and consumption, the video game addict is the too perfect worker. To see this, it helps to recognize how many video games are utopian work simulators: You advance and progress by getting better and better at an expanding series of repetitive gestures. As you put more time into the game, the keystrokes transition from deliberate and difficult into muscle memory, and you go from being focused on what your hands are doing to making choices on behalf of your character, eventually inhabiting the fantasy of their power and ability. The repetitive gestures become your skills, your abilities, rather than those of a diegetic avatar. You become capable of making instantaneous decisions and acting on them with maximum effectiveness.
This is the pleasure of learning, of “building knowledge,” even if done within a closed system that makes it both more reliably achieved and more meaningless. There’s a reason both marketers and game reviewers always discuss how many hours of gameplay you’re liable to get from a particular product. It is desirable to lose countless hours memorizing and studying an intricate system of rules and effects, to imagine endless combinations of outcomes of different wizard battles. That this learning occurs within the closed and technologically mediated context of a video game makes it difficult to transform the skills into something meaningful, consequential, potentially liberating or socially constructive.
Video games rechannel what would otherwise be an impulse toward real unproductivity into a form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work. In video games, discipline is pleasurable, designed and done for fun, and it places you into a fantastic and fictional world in which you are empowered beyond human possibilities. In the midst of gameplay, you enter that vaunted neoliberal state of flow, you achieve Malcolm Gladwell’s mastery in far fewer than 10,000 hours, you are working at something. Discipline, learning, and productivity melt together into an ecstatic experience of achievement, achievement whose pleasures are individual and internal.
This “flow” is stripped of social meaning and decontextualized from networks of power. It makes any repetitious activity—and by extension, any kind of work—capable of appearing as individual progression, creative production, skill learning, and strength building. The ease with which work, exercise, and other disciplinary tasks have been “gamified” indicates how much games are already about discipline to begin with.
Of course, there is a whole world of games that do not fit the above description, that approach games from a more surreal or liberatory or creative or philosophical angle. Games built around communal storytelling—for example the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse series of tabletop role-playing games, or the avant-garde work being done on Twine and other open-source game-development platforms—depend much less on a player’s technical or tactical mastery of gameplay constraints. Such games, by their very nature, do not structure or give way to compulsive, repetitive, addictive relationships.
MOBAs achieve the opposite. Not destructive enough to really destroy most players’ lives, nor featuring real play—the actually anarchic play that challenges your perception of the world and the way it functions—MOBAs instead funnel energy, attention, time, and money toward the quest for more perfectly epic and entertaining wizard battles: a quest whose material result is a more perfectly disciplined capitalist subject. Is it any wonder Gamer Gate drew its recruits partly from these communities?
Playing video games for 40 compulsive, depressing, and exhausting hours a week is addiction, but going to work for 40 compulsive, depressing, and exhausting hours a week is having a job. Addiction is not defined by the way you feel; it is not about levels of compulsion or willpower. It is defined by what those feelings and compulsions do to your productivity. If people with thousands of hours of gameplay on League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm maintain relationships, work, or school, then they’re not “addicts”; they’re healthy individuals with an intense hobby.
Addiction is when the pleasures to which one becomes addicted no longer smooth out capitalist relations and social reproduction but disrupt the ability to work. It is not to deny the real suffering and considerable damage that addicts and addiction can wreak to see in addiction a social demand. Is addiction a potential beginning of resistance, rather than merely individual pathology?
Perhaps. But the ways in which video-game play reproduces neoliberal subjectivity and productivity make this political transmutation of addiction almost impossible to achieve through video games. The sensation of progress, achievement, and learning in games is both genuinely pleasurable and just effortful enough to satisfy that neoliberal itch toward constant productivity, at least as long as the game is booted up and the endorphins are still pinging: Afterward, guilt sends us back to work, chastised and full of self-reproach. Indeed, the DSM-V, hardly shy about classifying new mental disorders, found there was “insufficient evidence” to include gaming addiction.
We have entered a historical period where work in the Global North feels as meaningless as it ever has. Our work isn’t making the world any better—in fact, the world is dying of our productivity. The likely political horizons, as the nation-state loses its last shreds of sovereign power in the face of global capital, are merely different cultural organizations of the police state: Do you like your fascism theocratic or liberal-humanist? Video games reflect back and mimic our work’s pointlessness. If leisure is as pointless as work, then maybe work isn’t so pointless after all. And so I just keep playing. There’s rent to be paid, after all.
Such is the nature of this addiction that even as I critique it, I’m anticipating my next game, thinking through what heroes and strategies I want to try. A good session—where I play well, win a few, and don’t play so long that I enter a zombified state—will give me enough positive feeling to significantly improve my day. A bad one does the opposite. My daily affect has come to rely on my ability to wield a computerized wizard. At least it gets me out of bed.
A gaming addiction is perfect for the lazy workaholic, too resentful of authority to actually work hard for a boss. Trapped within myself, in this insufficient individual subjectivity, a fully engaging method of wasting time is the easiest way I can quiet the insistent internal reminders that productivity is the only virtue, which has been the main cop in my head for most of my adult life. What a trap: The things that best quiet the cop make him stronger.