Why Do We Accept Addiction?
When we think seriously about addiction we think of a chemical dependency. A heroin addict tying off a vein when he has it, and lying on the floor in agony when he runs out. When we play loosely with the idea we speak of inanities like “addiction to shopping.” Yes there are substance addictions but the foundation of the phenomenon is neurological and it can be completely independent of anything chemical or even physical.
You actually can become addicted to shopping, or to running, but there’s a big difference between a wistful craving and having simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea for days.
The easiest way to describe the mechanism of addiction is intermittent reward. If you have a chocolate every time you think of it you won’t become “addicted” to it, and your craving will be occasional, related to actual hunger. Most times you think of chocolate you won’t get some and it’s this occasional satisfaction that addicts. Addiction is related to not getting what you crave most of the time.
You can read more about the neurological mechanisms and the basis of addiction in the resources below; this article is about the morality of enslavement by addiction, something we have come to accept and should not, and it is about to get a whole lot worse.
In American society there are several prominent chemical addictions, and two of them are to legally sanctioned substances: alcohol and cigarettes. There are addictive pharmaceutical substances like oxycodone, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates and there are illegal ones like heroin.
The Shocking Ubiquity of Alcoholism
Around 2006 I was arrested for possession of marijuana (marijuana is not addictive). I was tremendously stupid with it and smoked a bit in my car. A moment later I was pulled over by a policeman for a minor driving infraction, he smelled it, called another policeman; since I only had a tiny amount and I was fully cooperative they released me and it was exactly a year before I was summoned to court. I paid a small fine and was ordered to undergo counseling. Ironically, marijuana is now legal in Washington State.
After several months of weekly meetings I was asked for a record of attendance in Recovery Based Support Groups, RBSGs; I had heard nothing about this and had not been attending. They were alarmed, told me that I had to catch up, attending two or three meetings a day until I met the requirements or I would be reported to the court as noncompliant and go to jail.
They gave me a booklet of meeting places and I looked for groups nearby; I discovered that even in my sylvan and sparsely populated rural location I was within easy walking distance of over a dozen AA meeting places.
A lot of people are having major problems with alcohol.
I’d wondered why I, caught with less than a gram of weed, was in a group with junkies and hardcore alcoholics; by the time the counseling center called me to tell me it had all been a mistake, I had been assigned to the wrong group and didn’t need to go to RBSGs at all, I’d learned that serious alcohol problems were very widespread all around me.
To become an alcoholic requires a genetic predisposition; it’s not enough to drink every day. My family lacks that gene, nobody has married into it, and I have never drunk alcohol past a single try in my teens. It was a distasteful experience in both senses of the word, it had almost no effect on me and no aftereffects but I watched my friends getting stupider. I’ve never been militant about being a teetotaler, most of my friends and family drank moderately.
I’d never knowingly met an alcoholic aside from those wrong-group meetings. That changed a few years ago when a friend came to visit me in Vietnam and went through a case of beer (24 cans) every night. The personality changes from the person I had known fifteen years were startling; as he drank he became nastier and nastier. Since then I have encountered the same personality in several coworkers where I teach English.
I no longer feel so neutral about alcohol, particularly with addiction. Alcoholics are not merely unpleasant people; the effect of alcoholism on personality is as toxic as the chemical itself.
Ask anyone who had withdrawn from both heroin and nicotine which was harder, and the answer is always nicotine. Smokers are, barring supreme and prolonged willpower, enslaved people. Ninety percent of people who smoke a second cigarette go on to become addicted. Physically, not psychologically addicted.
It is simply ghastly to know that a substance which is
- savagely addicting
- lethal when used exactly as intended
- fatal to a full third of its users
can be sold openly and legally. And the only point of smoking cigarettes is to become addicted and then keep the near-continuous withdrawal at bay. Why would anyone voluntarily enter into such a condition? WHY is this legal?
A lot of prescribed medications have to be used carefully, take them too long and physical addiction is inevitable. Barbituate withdrawal can be fatal; benzo withdrawal can be immobilizing. America is in the grips of an oxycodone addiction epidemic.
But these medications have distinct and real uses. Anyone with sleep problems is comforted knowing that if sleep just won’t come there’s a pill that will bring surcease from insomnia. Anyone in severe pain can reach for relief. We have made the choice that the risk of addiction is worth the relief from suffering.
Withdrawing from heroin is a nightmare of a few days; withdrawal from nicotine is very prolonged and has very high recidivism since tobacco is available anywhere.
But addiction is neurological, not chemical, and one can become addicted to activities as well. The same receptors that are stimulated by heroin can be stimulated by running or related activity since it’s naturally produced endorphins that those sites are meant for. But addiction can be invoked by manipulation with timing and intermittent reward.
I’m talking about games.
It’s clear that games are addictive to a lot of people, and it’s no accident. A lot of the large game software companies hire psychologists to help make their “entertainment” addicting. The timing of reward is crucial; make it too easy and there is no hook. There have already been a few deaths, though not many; abandonment of responsibilities, loss of social contact, this however is now commonplace. A gamer goes to college, sits in his dormitory room all semester playing, goes home at the end having never attended a single class. A dozen teenagers meet for dinner, not a word exchanged, all tapping on phones and tablets.
And this is where Virtual Reality games are going to start.
I regard addiction as slavery. And while self-enslavement is something people need to be protected from, deliberate enslavement should be illegal, perhaps a capital crime.
Certainly any executive in the tobacco industry is a slaver and a murderer many millions of times over, since the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes were known for decades before all doubt was finally removed. A smoker is enslaved to a poison that is killing him. Smoking kills a million Americans in less than three years. The fact that this remains legal is the greatest indictment of our economic system anyone could ask for.
Games are not as lethal but just as alcohol ruins so many lives game addiction is only starting out. VR games have addiction potential that makes silly RPGs look like pellet guns next to automatic rifles.
Why do we allow this? OK, yeah, “freedom,” something for which we have been so inculcated with reverence that you can stop almost any argument by figuring out how to shoehorn “freedom” in somewhere. You’re “free” to smoke or not smoke, to drink or not to drink. Let’s just forget about the careers and lives destroyed by alcohol, the flowers on graves of smokers who died decades before their time, the kids with belt-buckle scars because daddy likes his bourbon too much. Yeah let’s just genuflect to freedom some more.
As if addicts are freely making choices. They absolutely are not. They are slaves.
People love to rhapsodize about the glory of freedom but you can clear a room in seconds talking about responsibility. It’s my view that we need protection from enslavement, because it’s getting too easy to do. We already have controlled substances and the sky does not fall; Prohibition created crime opportunities and did nothing to curtail the availability of alcohol.
But I worry about games. I already see a generation with critically abbreviated attention spans and worry what we will have in another decade, with gloves and goggles and gamers who sit on sidewalks in urine puddles gesticulating madly at the air; are we just going to accept this? Are we just going to nod sagaciously about free choice?