Balancing WoW and Real Life: Understanding the Psychology of Addiction

I’m on a quest for balance. Specifically: Balancing WoW and family life. I don’t spit out words that my actions can’t cash. So if I say that my family and my kids are important to me, then I damn well better make them a priority over my games. I lost my baby girl to a rare disease and if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it is to make each moment count.

I find myself playing the game less and less these days, but it has taken me years to get to this point. One thing that brought some understanding was to know the psychology of addiction and the mechanics of how the game takes its hold over me. An article on helped to open my eyes and I want to help others bring that balance to he lives of others too, but first allow me to explain that psychology of addiction.

Here’s the simple truth about WoW: It’s absolutely designed to get you hooked. The entire business model revolves around you paying a monthly fee, and you wouldn’t keep paying if there wasn’t something that kept you coming back.

Don’t believe the developers of WoW have used psychology to get under your skin and keep you forking over your money? Take a look at these three methods of behavioral reinforcement that you’ll encounter in game each and every day:

Instant Gratification.
In the real world, our actions don’t always pay off as quickly as we’d like. There’s often a huge delay between when we put in the work and when we actually receive the reward.

Addictions often trigger because of a reward response, and few rewards are easier to grow accustomed to than the instantly gratifying. This is why prescription drug addicts may start by taking pills orally, but will eventually progress to the quick release of shooting up their drug of choice. WoW has capitalized on this aspect by making rewards occur quickly, especially when you first start the game.

Your first questgiver is right by your spawn point. Your first objectives are steps away. It takes just a few kills before you hit level 2, and you can instantly hearth back and collect all of your rewards at once if you don’t feel like waiting a whole two minutes to travel.

You’re far more likely to keep doing any activity in game because you know it will have a quick payoff.

Random Rewards.
Psychologist B. F. Skinner is famous for an aspect of behaviorism called Operant Conditioning. Skinner placed rats inside boxes and attempted to condition them to press a lever. At first, food was released every time the switch was pressed, but Skinner found that while this method reinforced the behavior initially, when the rats were full they no longer pushed the lever, knowing that when they got hungry again, they could have food.

Skinner found that when the lever triggered a food release only at random intervals, the rats would press it all the time. Between the fear of not getting the food when they needed it and the satisfaction of having the food eventually, he could keep them pressing the lever indefinitely.

While some things in WoW aren’t random, like the amount of XP you need to level or how many skill points you need to craft something you want, many of the truly addicting aspects are.

You may kill the same bosses each and every week when you raid, but there’s no guarantee they’ll drop that last piece you need, so you keep killing them. And while you can generally tell the caliber of your team when queuing into a battleground, you never know just how much honor you’ll end up with, and if you’ll get enough for your next piece.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It’s the win that keeps you glued to the stool in the BG casino. (Some nights, however, I couldn’t get a win to save my life. You know those nights where Horde just isn’t with it? Some nights all I do is get raped by rogues. Do I like getting raped on the battlefield by rogues? Of course not. But it’s the @400 honor points I’m after).

Great Rewards, Little Risk.
Abraham Maslow was the first psychologist to plot out basic human needs in order of importance. Designing the hierarchy in a pyramid, he placed physiological needs like food and water at the bottom, safety above that, love and belonging next, then esteem, and finally self-actualization.

Maslow went on to suggest that if the first four tiers of the pyramid aren’t met, the top of the pyramid can never be realized. Or in layman’s terms, if you’re feeling hungry, tired, unsafe, unloved, and insecure you’ll have a very difficult time actually achieving anything.

That’s absolutely not the case in WoW. You can kill a dragon on an empty stomach. You can PVP on a flickering WIFI connection in the middle of a train station. You can be a complete dick and still get to 85. And because everything is completely anonymous, whatever problems you have with yourself just slip away.

It’s great reinforcement, because you’re getting a massive reward with very little effort on your part. But just like an addiction to alcohol or heroin or anything else, it gives you a false sense of accomplishment. Who cares if the house is clean or the kids are fed or the bills are paid – you feel fantastic!

Now of course Blizzard isn’t designing their game with malicious intent. But it’s important to realize that there is real science behind most of the game’s mechanisms. And when you educate yourself about why you’re getting addicted, you’re better able to do something about it. And hopefully you can have better control over the amount of time you play and achieve that balance between WoW and family life.

Do you ever feel like you’re sitting in front of a slot machine while playing WoW? Have you found that life balance? If so, do you have any tips for people who haven’t quite gotten there yet?

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6 Responses
  1. Bea says:

    I find it hard to fight addictions especially when I’m going through a bad depression bout. That being said, the instant gratification in World of Warcraft with little effort (along with the other factors you mentioned) is what I feel is the most difficult thing to deal with.

    have to admit my life has, at some point, been affected by the intricacies of the game. My life has changed a lot in the past 6 months, and I feel like I spend just the right amount of time playing without neglecting my day to day responsibilities.

    I hope you find the balance you need!

  2. Ami says:

    I too find myself glued to the computer screen playing World of Warcraft when I am in a bout of depression, and especially when I’m angry. I admit that I am introverted, and much of my anger was once directed inward. WoW became a not-so-great tool for keeping the anger from being directed at anyone outwardly OR myself.

    On a summer break in high school, I found myself living and breathing World of Warcraft. I woke up at 5am and played until 10 or 12 that night, sleeping long enough to regain my energy before getting up to do it all over again. My parents even tried to put some sort of firewall on our router, which I cracked and got through with some tunneling experience.

    Years later, I was finally starting to realize the effect WoW was having on my personal, school, and home life. I chose to put down the mouse and step away from the keyboard to spend more time with my family and friends. I had my moments where I would slip up and find myself doing 10-12 hour roleplay sessions with people in the game, but someone would always catch me after awhile and let me know that it was time to get up and go do something else.

    I am now 20 years old, a mother to a beautiful baby boy, and married to someone who was also once a World of Warcraft addict. Admittedly, I was the person that got him into the game in the first place, as I was seeking another person to be able to play online with. We both struggled to work through our addictions to the game, and although I have somehow managed to tackle mine with time and even some therapy, I am still aiding my husband in working through his addiction.

    I hope that you find the balance that you’re seeking, and as a recovering WoW addict, my thoughts are with you in your recovery.

  3. Vuuk says:

    I have taken some time off of WoW (for doing exams and such) and this emphasized what was one of the more addicting factors in the game for me: the social aspect.

    In real life I am not asocial or anything, but I’m the quiet type, I’d say.
    In WoW I feel like I’m one of the more talkative guildmembers.

    This is on top of the other points you mentioned, which you can also find in SP games for the most part.

  4. PastPlayer says:

    i have been “off” WoW since March of 2011.

    unfortunately, i never found the balance i needed between the game and real life. this may have something to do with the fact that my real life is out of balance as well – i work 6 months on a regular day schedule, then i spend 6 months working night shift.

    there is a definite addiction factor to WoW – i considered myself a “hardcore” raider for the better part of 2009 and 2010 (until i got LK in mid-July). by hardcore, i mean i was in the top 300 players on three separate servers as i transferred a few times trying to find a guild that i didn’t have to shoulder half the DPS for. i never downed LK on 10 man. i didn’t want him on 10 man – finding 9 people to listen was easy. finding 24 other people and getting them coordinated enough to follow orders – that’s hard.

    i think i “burned out” when Cataclysm came out for two reasons: i was out on disability for a stress fracture in my foot (i stand on my feet 7 hours each shift, and could not work with the cast on the floor) and was playing way too much, and i came to the conclusion that Cataclysm had gone too far in the effort-expended-reward-gained extreme. heroics had gone from comical (WotLK) to almost-impossible-without-raid-epics (Cat), and had stopped dropping the loot needed to make heroics less fail. in other words, we could spend 2 hours failing at a heroic, and when we finally got it, the loot wasn’t really worth it.

    i don’t know where the balance is. i decided that until i can get my real life balanced, i shouldn’t play. if and when that happens, maybe i can start again and find the balance every player should be looking for.

  5. Heidy says:


    I can totally relate to feeling the addiction creep up, but lately I’ve naturally just find myself disinterested in playing WoW. It’s funny that once you just let something go, it’s easy to detach, like a spectator watching a baseball game.

  6. Annuin says:

    WoW playing ebbs and wanes for me. Off-and-on I’ve played since 2006, but I’ve taken breaks of a year or several month blocks at various points.

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for solving the problem with WoW addiction, or finding a balance. I do think it’s important to realize consciously that these games are specifically made to keep you coming back for more, as the articles and psychologists you’ve quoted point out. (Likewise it’s important in venues such as Facebook to realize that they’re not trying to be magnanimous and provide a social experience for free, it’s that you are the product that’s being mined for data for advertisers. A company is always looking for some gain to you being there.)

    Certainly it helps to identify the issues in your life that make you more susceptible to playing. I started back when I was up most nights with a (mentally handicapped) infant who had no discernible sleeping pattern, a (now ex-) husband who didn’t help with the nighttime parenting at all, and who would happily wander off to bed stating he had to work in the morning, a job where he had to think and I was just home all day and the implication was that obviously mothering isn’t something you use your brain for. We were relatively new in the area, few friends, none of my family and only a few more distant members of his. I was lonely and overwhelmed, and the social aspect of WoW was what hooked me.

    Even the social aspect of WoW is deceptive though. It’s easy to feel closer and more connected to people, especially through the relative safety and anonymity of your screen and keyboard, I think it throws some things out of whack, makes you sometimes feel more deeply than you would if real-life filters were being applied to the interaction you were having with that person face-to-face. And I realized that all too often, friends in-game would fall away swiftly if you weren’t around in that world with them. I was putting too much meaning into these friendships and relationships, and using those as a reason to stay in-game, even though they weren’t as deep and meaningful as I had thought or hoped. It’s also easy to eschew real-life interactions and choose to spend time online rather than try and cultivate the off-line ones, keeping you in the cycle of not having enough people in your real life and keeping you coming back for the online camaraderie. Another trap.

    Things that made me take steps back from the game were when there were some issues in my marriage, and some in-game drama caused by mixed signals and weirdness with some other people. Also I would sometimes be very aware that time spent in-game was time not used in any valuable or meaningful way, taking time away from doing other things, family time, hobbies that have a real tangible output (sewing/craft/etc.). If I spend time making things, or even reading a book, I find it more productive than being in WoW. And there’s nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of something that has no tangible reward or end result, but it started bothering me that I had so much time invested in something that means nothing outside of WoW stats or iLvl or virtual “achievements” that vanish the moment you log out.

    PastPlayer also pointed out some things that happened with my boyfriend and I. We burned out a lot just after Cata for the reasons s/he listed. That made walking away a lot easier too.

    I can’t be all negative about WoW. Through the interactions there with people, I ended up coming to some important realizations about my marriage and my life. The marriage ended, some other friends have come and gone (necessarily, as while knowing them initially held value, it later turned toxic), and some other friends have stuck around. One of those friends is now someone I’ve been together with for almost 2 years, in the happiest and healthiest relationship I’ve had. We used WoW to play together when he lived interstate, and now we just started playing again together after having not played for a year or so.

    I still have the addictive tendencies. Wanting to farm up for that bit of rep, those last few tokens, that little extra gold. I think it’ll always be a bit difficult as long as the game is installed. When I don’t have it, I don’t miss it as much. I do also have a healthier social life now, a healthier and happier overall life, and find enjoyment in some decidedly computer-free hobbies that give me the gratification of completed tangible items. The gratification there isn’t as fast as WoW’s, but it is certainly better.

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