Give up your day job
As the debate about whether violent, addictive video games spell the end for society rages on, James Fryer tracks down five of the most habit-forming video games on the planet.
5: MILDLY ADDICTIVE
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
PC | PS2 | Xbox
SYMPTOMS: NERVOUS TWITCH
Hardened gamers will be all too familiar with the GTA games – you take on the role of a hardened criminal in a big city and fight your way through the underworld, completing missions in order to progress. Your criminal skills are tested to the limit as you’re required to rob banks, assassinate mafia bosses, drive taxis, fight fires and learn to fly an aircraft.
What takes the game to another level – and, arguably, gives it an addictive edge – is the option to roam freely around the immense virtual environment, not having to worry about completing tasks. Instead you’re left to go about your daily business, gunning down pedestrians, stealing cars and trying to avoid being caught by the police or killed by rival gangs.
A 45-minute session to complete a mission can easily turn into a needless four-hour quest to find and steal 10 of the game’s fastest cars before lining them up and setting the lot on fire. Or how about spending a couple of hours on top of a hill, picking off innocents with a sniper rifle before the army hunt you down?
The latest installment is set in 1992 in the fictitious American West Coast region of San Andreas, including three cities based on LA, San Francisco and Vegas. Whereas previous GTAs were inspired by the likes of The Godfather and Scarface, this latest release is more akin to Menace II Society. Be careful not to cross GTA with real life. You got that, fool?
4: HIGHLY ADDICTIVE
GameCube | PC | PS2 | Xbox
SYMPTOMS: LOSS OF FRIENDS
It’s the best-selling PC game of all time, proving it isn’t just violence that sells. More than 10 million gamers got hooked on controlling the lives of the lovable Sims when the game debuted in 2000. For the uninitiated, a Sim is a tiny, virtual person who lives in a mini world and speaks Simlish, a gobbledegook language.
Like looking after a baby, you can’t understand their wants and needs from what they say, and must interpret their body language and mood. But gamers are given a advantage over real-life parents in that they have a set of visual ‘need bars’ displaying everything from the hunger and comfort to bladder and hygiene levels. To keep your Sim happy you’ll need to juggle tasks and instruct them to cook, find a job (so you can enhance their houses with capitalist delights), nap or invite the neighbours over – depending on how they feel.
Making sure your Sim’s life doesn’t get out of control becomes eerily addictive (partly due to the Stepford Wives-esque music) and after, say, six hours at the keyboard, you’ll return to normal life thinking about your own needs in a systematic way, trying to balance fun with work. And, like Tamagotchis, by neglecting your Sim, you risk them starving, drowning, being electrocuted or contracting a deadly virus from the guinea pig’s dirty cage – and who needs that guilt?
3: SCARILY ADDICTIVE
Championship Manager 2006
PC | PS2 | PSP | XBox
SYMPTOMS: SOCIAL OUTCAST
You don’t have to love the beautiful game to get addicted to Championship Manager. But the worst bit is that it’s really just a big database, and all you’re doing is number-crunching. Still, budding Sven Goran Erikssons end up spending hours trying to take their team to victory, choosing squads, haggling over players, studying opponents’ form, picking tactics and watching their pride and joy take to the pitch.
The obsession comes from striving to be the best, taking the underdogs with a rundown stadium to the top, and it’s probably the only time gamers (outside of Manchester) will see their local club in the English Premiership League. The game’s developers even built an addictiveness rating into the game which changes in line with how long players have been on the virtual sideline. Play for a couple of weeks non-stop and ‘remember to feed the fish’ will be raised to ‘officially a football manager’.
And, just as football is the main topic of conversation in pubs the world over, online discussion forums have sprung up giving players a place to air grievances and discuss their best players, future stars, craftiest tactics and generally how much they love Championship Manager. All you need now is a sheepskin coat.
2: SERIOUSLY ADDICTIVE
PC | Xbox
SYMPTOMS: LOSS OF MARBLES
After spending years pitching their skills against the likes of computer chips and motherboards, the prospect of taking on actual human beings (albeit in a virtual world) must have sounded too good to be true for the world’s first-person-shooter fanatics. CS is a derivative of the cult classic Half Life, and involves taking on the role of a terrorist or counter-terrorist, then fighting on a pre-destined mission. Depending on which map you play – from ancient Aztec lands to office complexes – the terrorists defend hostages or plant bombs, while the opposing force rescue and defuse.
Although this might not sound groundbreaking, the whole scenario is repeated every three minutes so even if you die you only have to sit tight for a short while before you’re back in the action again – that’s how you get hooked. Players battle away for hours at a time in the hope that they’ll survive that little bit longer, or finally kill their arch nemesis.
It’s scary just how many players end up spending most of their waking hours on CS – always connecting to the same server to ‘meet’ friends. Some even form clans and practise for hours before fighting rivals. True geeks dream of getting into the CPL, or Cyberathlete Professional League, to compete for cash prizes running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and achieving cult status with fellow gamers the world-over. Most only get as far as achieving the thousand-yard stare, wearing microphone headsets to bed and sporadically shouting commands such as ‘enemy on your six, defend bomb site B!’ Don’t say we didn’t warn you...
1: LIFE-THREATENINGLY ADDICTIVE
World of Warcraft
SYMPTOMS: LOSS OF HOUSE, WIFE, DOG ETC…
Remember the school geeks who spent their lunchtimes playing Dungeons and Dragons? The ones who lived on salt and vinegar crisps and had a slightly musky smell about them? Nobody understood their mythical game of orcs and druids, or why they weren’t playing football. Ten years on, more than five million of those nerds have culminated en masse in an alternative society – the online virtual World of Warcraft – a massively multiplayer online game, where players battle it out against each other in Azeroth, playing as anything from a dwarf hunter to a troll warlock to undead warrior.
Instant addiction results from starting off as a lowly minion and completing quests and challenges to enhance your powers, learn spells and collect magical armour and weapons. Come across an advanced player in your first few months of gaming and you won’t know what hit you. Destroy other players’ in-game characters and you’ll soon be perfecting your evil laugh.
Anti-gaming activists must have been licking their lips and rubbing their hands together in 2005 when the world’s media became awash with the story of a girl nicknamed Snowly who died after a three-day marathon session playing WoW. She had apparently been training and preparing for a mission to kill the in-game Black Dragon Prince, and hadn’t stopped to sleep. Her fellow online warriors reported how she had been complaining of feeling tired, and were shocked to hear of her death. It impacted upon the game’s virtual communities so much that a huge online funeral was subsequently held for Snowly where characters could been seen kneeling down side by side to show their respects.
The game’s controversy didn’t stop there. There have even been stories emerging of Romanian virtual sweatshops where workers play the game for hours to create high-level characters which are then sold to lazy players who can’t be bothered to put the hard work in, and websites which offer in-game gold in exchange for cold-hard-cash. It isn’t all bad news, though, some gamers have donated their in-game gold to charities. Even so, it might be safer to stick to Dungeons and Dragons cards after all.