Toward a Neuroanthropology of Immersive Online Gaming and Cyberdependence

Since Spring 2008, I’ve been studying videogaming, conducting participant-observation research in and around the World of Warcraft (WoW), interviewing and surveying the citizens of this online community. I have been particularly fascinated by players’ relationships to their WoWavatars,” the in-game graphical representations of their characters. Via avatars, gamers can temporarily separate or even “dissociate” from their actual-world persons and enter WoW’s fantasy-scape.

Anyone will tell you games are fun. But I thought that immersive gaming might have gotten a bad academic rap, predominantly viewed as leading to compulsive and non-productive activity, rather than also providing positive possibilities to break cycles of chronic stress. Like Chris Lynn (2005), I consider the possibility of pathological “under-dissociation” and the importance of WoW immersion to provide needed respites from the offline world. Examining the positive dimensions of online gaming, such as how it can contribute to life satisfaction and happiness, has been the focus of a number of my recent publications (Snodgrass et al. 2011a-d, 2012).

Nevertheless, I can’t ignore the fact that a certain proportion of WoW players in my various interview and survey samples—typically between a quarter to a third—report distressful and problematic play. They play even when they know they shouldn’t and want to quit. They try to cut back but can’t. They play in ways that disrupt, or even destroy, other important dimensions of their lives. They regret, often in profound ways, their WoW play. This too became a focus in my writings.

Further, this out-of-control play seems linked to gamers relative level of psychological “immersion” in the World of Warcraft. As discussed in my 2011 Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry publication, the two scale constructs found on the online survey constructed by myself and my research team, immersion and problematic or “addictive” online play, are correlated at an astonishingly high .76.

A growing body of scholarship on Internet and online gaming “addiction,” implicitly compares out-of-control online behaviors to substance abuse (e.g., Clark and Scott 2009; Young 1998, 2004). While some scholars prefer the term “problematic Internet usage” (PIU) to “Internet addiction,” (Yellowlees and Marks, 2007) these scholars still associate PIU with symptoms resembling classic addiction, such as compulsion to stay online, cognitive preoccupation with online activity, maladaptive use of the Internet to regulate mood, experiences of withdrawal when unable to use the Internet, preference for online to offline interactions, spending excessive time online, and experiencing disruptions to work and relationships because of online activity (Caplan et al., 2009; Seay and Kraut, 2007). For these scholars, the phrase “PIU” avoids the connotations of drug abuse, a label that might lead to “moral panics” rather than objective understandings (Golub and Lingley, 2008). Indeed, a term such as “addiction” can seem to attribute an almost chemical-like content and structure to the Internet that propels players into compulsive cycles of play and dependency, a set of assumptions that have yet to be demonstrated (Holden, 2010; Widyanto and Griffiths, 2006; Yee, 2002).

As a result of this contested terrain, Internet and videogame “addiction” is not yet recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s (2000) current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The most recent APA recommendation is to include pathological gambling in the DSM-5 (slated to appear in May 2013) as an example of such a behavioral “addiction” but to table Internet and videogame “addictions” for further study and review (APA 2011). Is the “addiction” frame  appropriate for problematic online play (on this frame, see Room 2003). or is it merely a label that manifests cultural and moral concerns? Might there be good reasons to model problematic online behaviors after forms of substance abuse that have a more clearly biochemical basis? In my work, I focus on how “immersive” play in particular might contribute to the problematic or even “addictive” character of certain forms of online gaming.

Perspectives and tools are now available to assess whether problematic online gaming resembles an addiction to substances that have a clear neurological and biochemical basis. Further, given what we now know about substance abuse and addiction and contextual learning, neuroanthropology would be particularly well-placed to address issues related to problematic online play and to make clinical recommendations that could importantly shape future versions of the DSM. But to effectively assess the character of problematic online play requires looking at three mutually determining levels of analysis: biological (brain), psychological (mind), and contextual (sociocultural). In reference to theory, the challenge is to model the way these three levels interact with each other to produce specific kinds of compulsions. Methodologically, we need to precisely and systematically measure phenomena on each of these levels in order to understand their interrelationships. In discussing these issues of theory and method, I present my vision of a neuroanthropology of “cyberdependence.”


Brain-Mind in the Neuroanthropology of Immersion and Cyberdependence

The online survey constructed by myself and my research team ( points to a high correlation (.76) between what I call “absorption-immersion” and “problematic” or even “addictive” online play. On seeing such a number, newcomers to the research assume, understandingly, that the two measures must overlap and thus capture similar phenomena. But observe the scale items and note they are in fact quite different:

A biomedical or neuroscientific explanation of the relationship between WoW immersion and problematic online gaming might go as follows. Addiction represents a loss of a capacity to direct one’s own behavior. It arises because of problems in the brain’s reward and motivation circuits. Certain activities, whether taking drugs or playing online games, increase the concentration of dopamine in parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation such as the ventral tegmentum. The release of dopamine, which feels good, insures that the rewarding activity will be repeated in the future. Here, dopamine release ties rewarding stimuli to emotion and memory parts of the brain, generating the drive to pursue the same behavior when the stimuli are encountered again. However, certain drugs can hijack this dopamine response, even flooding the system with extraordinarily high levels of this chemical, so that the compulsion to engage in the rewarding and pleasurable activity becomes overwhelming. Certain behaviors might do likewise, though probably producing less of a dopamine response than a chemical substance like cocaine, which can lead to 1000-fold increase in the dopamine response in rats as compared to encountering food or opportunities for sex that produce only a 50 to 100-percent rise in dopamine in this pathway.

In the WoW case, the experience of online immersion would feel good, even overwhelmingly good, especially when linked to the clever system of rewards and achievements Blizzard Entertainment builds into the game. Within this framework, feeling like you are actually in the World of Warcraft—especially one where you are continually rewarded and even honored—would lead to an ever growing compulsion to remain in the world. In the end, the pleasures of the game would lead to uncontrollable compulsion to continue playing—that is, to online gaming “addiction.”

The first point that a neuroanthropologist might make about these processes is that gamers’ experience matters. That is, these processes are not just brain but also mind. Drugs like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and heroine connect dopamine pathways to particular brain parts and processes that are unique to the substance. If we believe that online gaming addiction actually exists, then we might think of various gaming activities and experiences as equivalent to different addictive substances. It may be the case that different states of mind activate the brain’s reward circuits in their own particular manner. Capturing and describing precisely gamers’ mental states of immersion, then, becomes central to tracing the ways, neurological or other, they might be importantly and differently “addictive.”

As an anthropologist, I tend to think that the best way to understand such experiences is by talking to, or even becoming, an insider to the culture. Through interviews and also in my own play, I identified three important gamer states of consciousness: deep focus and concentration leading to feelings of losing oneself in time and space; becoming so engaged with WoW play as to feel as if one is really in the game, and, in some cases, the feeling that one’s primary self is more in the game than out. In this sense, one actually becomes one’s avatar-character, if only temporarily.

I refer to the first instance as what Tanya Luhrmann (2005, 2010) terms “absorption,” described as a profound narrowing or concentration of attention, cognitive resources, and sensory experience. I call the second state “immersion,” a term more common in game and media studies (e.g., Bartle 2004). “Immersion” emerges from an initial focused “absorptive” narrowing and subsequent broadening of such attention, cognition, and sensory experience. Here, gamers imaginatively lose themselves in an online artificial world that comes to feel as rich and complex as the offline and so-called “real” world. I reserve “dissociation” for the third situation. In this case, “absorption-immersion” is so extreme as to lead to a deeper and more lasting partitioning of in-game from out-of-game experience. This can potentially have a lasting impact on the offline self’s perceptions, memory, and identity in the form of amnesia, “depersonalization,” “derealizatrion,” and so forth.

“Immersion” could thus be used to describe a kind of a kind of transfer of the actual offline self into an online fantasy world. We might reserve “dissociation” for situations where one more fully becomes an alternate in-game character-self, seemingly distinct from one’s offline persona. But as Rebecca Seligman (2010) points out in relation to her study of Candomble spirit possession and trance, the deep focus of absorption can disconnect higher levels of the self involved in the conscious monitoring of one’s actions from other levels of perception and experience. Absorption in certain WoW contexts, then, might also lead to a certain form of loss of self, or a loss of a certain dimension of self, rather than to feeling like one is enveloped by a new online environment (immersion) or like one’s primary offline self has been replaced by an alternate online character-self (dissociation). Players absorbed in these ways might be less self-conscious and more fully present, unified in mind and body, and thus more “embodied.”

I think each of these self processes, though separate and distinct, nevertheless revolve around attentional shifts and thus probably belong to a family of psychological experiences (Seligman and Kirmayer 2008). An “absorbed” WoW player finds his or her attention shifting away from the outside world to inside the fictitious world of Azeroth. Such attentional shifts could precondition feeling like one is enveloped in a particular online reality (immersion) or that one has become one’s in-game character (dissociation). Or, by contrast, it might lessen self-consciousness, creating experiential unity of mind and body, and thus potentially decreasing the sensation that one is even anyone at all (embodiment).

I do not think that other researchers need to use these terms or name these experiences in the manner I sketch. However, I do think analytical clarity and some level of conceptual agreement is necessary if we hope to advance cross-contextual comparisons of these processes. The trick will be to refine insider categories into a common scholarly language which can be used to map potentially underlying states of consciousness and brain activity while still accounting for culture- and context-specific insider attributions. Following Wierzbicka’s (1986) approach to emotion, one potential scholarly path would be to develop a grammar of basic “absorptive” states. Such analytical clarity, especially when unfolding in dialogue with insider attributions, is necessary if we hope to tie a concern with mind to that of brain. I believe that the specific qualities of WoW gamer experiences will eventually be shown to shape processes of online addiction at the neurological level.


Cyberdependent Brains and Minds in Context

It used to be thought that the pleasure of drug ingestion itself was the source of addiction. Much recent research points to the important role context plays in chemical addictions (e.g., Volkow et al. 2004),. It is thought that over time the contextual stimuli within which a drug is consumed, rather than the drug itself, becomes the source of the feelings of reward and pleasure that drive addictive behaviors. Thus, brain imaging shows how drugs stimulate for a user new to the substance a flood of dopamine into certain reward centers of the brain. However, individuals accustomed or “addicted” to a drug no longer show such a flood of dopamine when taking the drug. Instead, it is the contextual cues linked to drug taking activity that stimulate the production and even flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward system. Sapolsky (2004) thinks this reveals how the pleasures of drug addiction are more about the anticipation of reward or pleasure rather than the rewarding or pleasurable “kick” of the substance itself.

I believe this shift in addiction studies to recognizing the importance of context provides an enormous opportunity for neuroanthropologists of cyberdependence. Certain sociocultural contexts might be more likely to become the sites of compulsive online play as compared to others. Other contexts and constellations of online activities might in fact shield individuals from becoming “addicted” to the Internet. Neuroanthropologists need to figure out how to distinguish the former from the latter. Further, they need to identify exactly what it is about those contexts that either increase or decrease the risks of addictive online activity.

Of particular interest, certain play contexts might enhance or interfere with the ability to absorb, immerse, dissociate, or become embodied in the World of Warcraft. I and my new student research team found this out recently when switching to Ventrilo, a Voice Over Internet Protocol that allows players to communicate through headsets rather than via text chat channels, and also when playing together via a local café’s wireless Internet connection. In each instance, we found ourselves less able to immerse into WoW’s fantastic universe, though we connected to the game, and to each other, in other interesting ways. Context, then, impacts immersion, which may further impact compulsive play, an issue I have begun to map more systematically in my recent research articles.

For example, in a 2011 article in Computers and Human Behavior (Snodgrass et al. 2011b), I and my co-authors (hereafter, I simply say “I”) show how levels of problematic WoW play depend on the extent gamers play with offline or “real-life” friends and relations. Interpreting these results through ethnographic and interview data, I suggest that playing WoW with real-life-friends allows gamers to transfer in-game accomplishments and experiences into offline social networks. Rather than competing and conflicting with the world outside of the game, WoW played in this way tends to enhance gamers’ offline lives. Further, by keeping gamers in touch with perspectives outside of WoW, playing with real-life-friends instills critical distance and greater awareness of how excessive play can damage offline commitments and relationships, allowing gamers to better monitor, evaluate, and ultimately regulate excessive game-play.

In this same article, I find that levels of absorption-immersion partially mediate between play with real-life-friends and the level of problematic WoW play. A substantive interpretation consistent with this finding would be that gaming with friends changes the experience of play in a way so as reduce the extent of immersion, which in turn reduces the chance of the “addictive” experience of problematic play. My observations, interviews, and own playing experiences—that is, again, the qualitative dimensions of my research—further suggests how this mediation might work. In inhabiting WoW with offline friends, players continually snap back into the out-of-WoW world as they laugh, converse, and adventure in this MMO’s fantastic universe. As such, playing WoW in this way creates cognitive and social bridges between on- and offline worlds, which gives gamers more objective perspective on their MMO use and thus potentially allows for better self-regulation. Thus, playing with friends would have both a direct effect on levels of problematic play, perhaps by enhancing real-life relationships so as to increase social and psychological resilience, and also indirectly, by changing levels of immersion as described here.

Likewise, in another recent piece of writing of mine from Cognitive Technology (Snodgrass et al. 2011c), I use survey data—interpreted through ethnographic interviews and my own game-playing experiences—to model the way culture impacts the therapeutic dynamics of WoW play. To do so, I utilize cognitive anthropological understandings of “cultural consonance” (Dressler and Bindon 2000)—that is, the extent to which individuals embody or fail to embody socially shared and sanctioned models of success. I find that players who report more individual “consonance” with culturally shared models of “real-life” or offline success are more likely to play in healthier ways as assessed through players’ self-reports of the impact of WoW on their life happiness, stress relief, and patterns of problematic play.

Interpreting these statistical results again alongside ethnographic observations and interviews, I reason that players with lower levels of real-life success are less capable of playing WoW in a healthy manner. Out of line with normative notions of the good life, they are in their own eyes and perhaps perceived by the wider society as less than successful. It is not unreasonable to expect such players to seek solace and respite in a more predictable virtual world where success is more easily garnered. Individuals with lower real life success, then, may play not only for temporary stress reduction but also for more long-term stress avoidance. Indeed, as these players increase their time playing WoW, they further forsake real-life roles and obligations, which in turn augments both the stressors in their lives and thus also potentially the time they spend in-game, in an ever-growing cycle of addiction. By contrast, players with higher real-life success can play WoW in ways that do not infringe on their actual-world obligations. These gamers play with more balance and perspective, in ways that neither compromise their actual-world commitments nor unbalance their lives. They use WoW in much the same way that they might play a quick pickup game of basketball or lose themselves in a movie for a few hours, therapeutically separating themselves temporarily from real-life responsibilities.

Once again, the statistical evidence shows that levels of absorption-immersion partially mediate between cultural consonance and my survey’s mental wellness outcomes also is of interest. An interpretation consistent with these findings would be that perceived levels of offline success change the experience of WoW play in a way so as change the extent of immersion, which in turn changes the chance of experiencing negative experiences. More highly culturally consonant players are less likely to immerse or even dissociate while playing WoW, and this lower dissociation in turn tends to make such players less vulnerable to problematic play. By contrast, less consonant players tend to immerse more fully in WoW, which renders them more vulnerable to problematic play.

Overall, the take-home message of these two articles is a simple one: sociocultural context structures compulsive online play. In the first case, staying connected to offline friends, in part because it interferes with immersion, lessens the risk of problematic gaming. In the second example, the relative degree to which WoW players embody offline cultural ideals of success also shapes whether online gaming becomes problematic. That is, a U.S. culture of success and achievement, gradually becoming global in scope, may stimulate patterns of addictive play in ways that other contexts do not. Driven by achievement frames that dominate in such a context, WoW players are drawn to the Internet, I reason, in an effort to compensate for perceived offline failings. Again, immersion plays a role here as well: tending to immerse less readily, players more successful by offline standards are at a lower risk of playing WoW problematically.

It is heartening that contemporary studies of addiction increasingly attempt to account for the important role context plays in driving substance abuse and also behavioral compulsions. However, I would suggest that it is up to neuroanthropologists of the Internet to use their nuanced understanding of both off- and online culture to map the specific ways that particular contexts enhance or stymie the likelihood online gaming becomes compulsive and even potentially “addictive.”

Elsewhere, I and my co-authors show that there are many ways to play WoW, loosely structured around three broad motivational categories and styles of play, which we and others term immersion, social, and achievement (Snodgrass et al. 2011d, 2012; Yee 2007). It may be the case that each of these motivated forms of play involves particular kinds of learning, reflected in a different neurological profile. We sketched earlier some ideas in relation to immersive play, suggesting that dopaminergic pathways might get linked, depending on the form of the absorptive experience, to parts of the brain as different as the frontal lobes, the amygdala, and/or the cingulate cortex. But this does not exhaust the possibilities. Social play might link the previously discussed dopaminergic pathways to parts of the brain linked to emotion, even moral emotions like shame, leading to very particular experience of compulsion. WoW achievement gaming, if it unfolds in collaborative social contexts, might connect dopamine pathways to similar neurological structures. But if the play is solo, the brain structures involved might be very different, and the felt compulsive or “addiction” urge to go online could take on its own particular flavor.

I mean to emphasize that neuroanthropologists might direct their attention to the way particular psychological experiences and sociocultural contexts activate complex neurological circuits by linking different areas of the brain. Such activations might link dopaminergic pathways to almost any other region of the brain, creating an array of compulsive behaviors each with their own particular character. It feels like more standard methods from psychological and medical anthropology need to be paired with neuroimaging and other techniques if we are to begin to test these ideas and unravel the circuitry of online addiction—a topic to which I now turn.


The Method of a Neuroanthropology of Cyberdependence

Several recent articles in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking investigate the biopsychology of Internet activity. Lu et al. (2010) observe differences between high- and low-risk “Internet addiction abusers” in four physiological assessments when surfing the Internet: blood volume pulse, skin conductance, peripheral temperature, and respiratory response. And they find important differences between Internet browsers at high- and low-risk of Internet abuse in terms of their levels of autonomic nervous system arousal. For example, stronger blood volume pulse and respiratory responses and weaker peripheral temperature reactions of the high-risk Internet addiction abusers indicate the sympathetic nervous system was heavily activated in these individuals when surfing the Internet. However, paradoxically, skin conductance measures also show greater parasympathetic nervous system activation in high-risk users, pointing as well to evidence of a possible relaxation response for these individuals when using the Internet. Likewise, Mauri et al. (2011) used psychophysiological data like skin conductance, blood volume pulse, and respiratory activity to compare subjects accessing their personal Facebook accounts to performing a relaxing and also a stressful task (respectively, watching a slide show of natural panoramas and performing a Stroop mathematical task). Their analysis showed that Facebook use was different somatically in many respects from both the relaxing and stressing tasks. They interpret their data to reveal that Facebook use evokes a psychophysiological “core flow state” characterized by high positive valence and high arousal. Further, they suggest that such an affective state helps explain the successful spread of social networking sites like Facebook.

Studying autonomic nervous system arousal is important in these contexts given that research reveals how stress can exacerbate addictive behaviors. For example, circulating levels of the glucocortisoid cortisol, which are elevated in stressed individuals, can lead to increased bursts of dopamine, with stress in uncertain situations promoting even greater rises in this neurotransmitter. If the stress is short-term, the increase in dopamine levels can lead individuals to feel focused, alert, alive, motivated, anticipatory—in short, stimulated in a good way. Longer-term stress, however, does just the opposite, suppressing the release of dopamine and even making receptors less responsive to this reward-circuit chemical. Chronic stress, then, is associated with dysphoria and depression rather than pleasure. This means that chronically stressed individuals potentially need more feel-good activities in order to release dopamine and thus elicit desirably focused, alert, and anticipatory states. This can lead such individuals to be more likely to abuse drugs and engage in other addictive behaviors like excessive online gaming. Indeed, research into links between cortisol and dopamine leads scientists like Sapolsky (2004) to conceive of addiction in its various forms as a stress disease.

My research results up to this point are consistent with neuroscientific and endocrinological models positing underlying processes related to the way the brain’s attention (or lack of attention) to environmental stressors might activate (or deactivate) the autonomic nervous system. For example, in Snodgrass et al. 2011a, I show how WoW players’ emotional identification with in-game second selves can lead either to better mental wellbeing, through relaxation and satisfying positive stress, or, alternatively, to risky addiction-like experiences. States of relaxation and arousal could be best achieved, I suggest in that context, if players imaginatively immersed themselves in this game-world and felt heavily identified with their character-avatars, experiencing Seligman and Kirmayer’s (2008: 34) “profound narrowing or concentration of attention and focused deployment of cognitive resources.” In relation to addiction, I suggested as well that it is WoW’s promotion of dissociative experiences, especially in conjunction with stress relieving and producing mechanisms, that led certain players to these ultimately negatively compulsive experiences. These results led me to think that WoW play might potentially tap biological systems of relief from stress and trauma involving dopamine and the brain’s reward systems.

As evidence of this, I relied on self-reports of gaming experiences like absorption-immersion and stress as proxies for underlying neurological and physiological states, allowing me to relate my research to more universalizing models relating absorptive activities to the autonomic nervous system and thus also to health processes. However, future research would be well served, by incorporating more direct “biomeasures” of states of consciousness and stress, for example, in relation to EEG bands or salivary cortisol levels displayed in relationship to particularly absorptive WoW tasks and challenges (for integration of minimally invasive biomeasures gathered in “naturalistic” research contexts such as these, see, e.g., Travis and Shear (2010) for EEGs and Lindau and McDade (2008) for cortisol).

Neuroscientists have used controlled comparisons of addicts and non-addicts to unravel important processes associated with drug abuse. For example, brain scientists have used neuroimaging techniques to clarify how it is context and behavioral cues associated with substance abuse that elicit a dopamine response in addicts to drugs like cocaine, while the drug itself does so in the case of non-addicts. Likewise, neuroimaging studies have illuminated other important processes, like how drug abuse can interfere with activity in the frontal lobes involved in executive monitoring and impulse control. Measures of autonomic nervous system activity are undoubtedly useful in studies of compulsive Internet activity. Still, it feels as if we need to follow recent trends in the study of addiction and use neuroimaging techniques if we are to more deeply understand at a neurological level processes related to Internet addiction.

The success of future neuroanthropological studies of cyberdependence as tied to immersive gaming will depend in part on how successfully we construct clever experiments that allow for controlled comparisons at a neurological level of different forms of Internet use. For example, following neuroscientists studying drug addictions, we might use psychological scales to distinguish between so-called “addicted” and “non-addicted” WoW gamers. Then, we might use neuroimaging techniques to compare the way individuals in these two groups process dopamine. Ambitiously, we might have WoW players in each of the two groups engage in different kinds of online activity—for example, forms of online play that are varying absorptive and social—observing how the processing of dopamine and the activation of brain circuits are impacted potentially differently in the two groups. If we believe stress drives compulsive play, we might collect self-reports of life stress in addicts and non-addicts lives, comparing how the presence or absence of stress might impact patterns of neurological activity in these two groups. (Assessing preexisting mental health problems like depression or loneliness also seems important.) Or, we might expose members of these two groups to alternately stressful or relaxing pre- or in-game tasks, seeing how this impacts brain circuitry potentially linked to addiction or even post-play cortisol levels.

In my research on WoW play and mental wellness, I have this far drawn explicitly on formal anthropological approaches such as cultural consensus and consonance analysis (e.g., Dressler and Bindon 2000). For example, in Snodgrass et al. 2011c and 2011d, I rely on small sample surveys utilizing “free-lists” and rating tasks to understand cultural conceptualizations of success and achievement. There, data collection culminated with a formal Web questionnaire, posted on WoW blogs and gamer sites. As part of the Web survey, my research team and I developed psychocultural scales to measure players’ level of involvement in and with the game, such as those described above related to immersion and problematic or addictive play. The formal methods allowed me to identify meaningful associations between variables like consonance with cultural models of success, social patterns of WoW play, relative degree of WoW immersion, and self-reported problematic play. Analyses of relationships between these variables revealed patterns invisible to qualitative analysis alone. They would also allow us to pair such variables to biopsychological or neuroimaging data and thus to assess their significance in relation to somatic and neurological processes.

Using formal anthropological methods allows us to speak directly to quantitative psychological investigations of problematic MMO play. Still, neuroanthropologists should by no means dispense with the qualitative methods. Ethnography and interviews play important roles in my own research in the way they led me to construct meaningful survey questions and also to interpret the results of survey data. Dopamine is undoubtedly important in the way it links certain online activities to reward and emotion circuits deep in the brain. Genetic susceptibilities might shape these dopamine pathways. But the fine textures of psychological experience and cultural context seem also to direct the manner that the circuitry of addiction is formed. It is up to neuroanthropologists to connect the experiences and contexts to the brain circuitry.



We do not yet know if compulsive patterns of online play might usefully be labeled “addictions” or, by contrast, if such a frame merely reflects “moral panic.”  We need to understand the relationship between the three levels explored in this paper—the biological and neurological, the psychological, and the sociocultural and contextual—if we hope to assess the nature of compulsive online play. All the pieces are in place to understand parallels and differences between substance abuse and problematic online play and thus also between, more generally, drug and behavioral “addictions” (if that turns out to be the right word). The pieces just need to find their proper positions in the addiction puzzle. I believe a proper neuroanthropology, if it continues to mature in its theories and methods, is particularly well poised to help solve this puzzle.

Of course, we need to be careful not to pathologize online activity or videogame play. Most gamers, readers should recall, see few to any problems arise because of their WoW play. I have chosen to focus on the negative dimensions of this game-play in part because the addiction science is so exciting, especially the new research tying together brain and context. Exciting, yes, but sometimes blind as well to things obvious to anthropologists. Neuroanthropologists might importantly shape debates on this potentially important public health issue, even influencing whether future versions of the DSM include or exclude “online videogame addiction” as a mental disorder. However, we might also look to the experienced fun of videogames to help track happiness, life satisfaction, and psychological resilience down to their brain circuits. That is, neuroanthropological studies of online activity like WoW play might also contribute to the new science of happiness, an equally exciting project.



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Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colorado State University, has published widely on caste, performance, and religion in India. He is currently working on two projects. First, he is interested to understand how culture-specific absorptive experiences, achievement motivations, and social interactions contribute to virtual worlds’ therapeutic and addictive dimensions. This research has begun with primarily U.S. gamers with plans to extend the project to France and India. Second, in NSF-funded research, he is working to understand how loss of access to forest spaces and resources – for example, through deforestation and displacement from a newly established wildlife preserve in central India – impact indigenous peoples’ health and systems of healing. He hopes empirical results from these and other projects will help him fuse insights from cultural psychiatry and neuroscience into more synthetic “biopsychocultural” accounts of mental health resilience.

2 replies on “Toward a Neuroanthropology of Immersive Online Gaming and Cyberdependence”

[…] Anthropologist Jeff Snodgrass suggests there’s a correlation between real-life success and ability… Players with successful lives can sit down to WoW “in much the same way that they might play a quick pickup game of basketball or lose themselves in a movie for a few hours, therapeutically separating themselves temporarily from real-life responsibilities.” […]

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