Video Game Junkie Tells It to the Judge

A lawsuit that is moving forward in the state of Hawaii adds another dimension to the ongoing debate over Internet addiction — while prompting more than a few cynical guffaws from tort reform advocates.

The suit, filed by plaintiff Donald Smallwood against the company NCSoft, claims that he became “psychologically dependent and addicted” to the fantasy massive multiplayer online role-playing game “Lineage II,” as it gave him “great feelings of euphoria and satisfaction.” His charges against the game publisher include negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

Smallwood maintains that he played the game on average for up to nine hours a day between 2004 and 2009. He also claims that NCSoft did not warn him that it might be addicting.

NCSoft has tried to have the suit dismissed on the grounds of lack of subject matter jurisdiction — a petition that U.S. District Judge Alan Kay refused. Because Smallwood is proceeding without an attorney, Kay noted that his pleadings would be allowed more latitude than if an attorney had drafted them. However, Kay has dismissed other charges by Smallwood, including unfair and deceptive trade practices.

There is some additional background to this case: NCSoft locked Smallwood out of the game in 2009, alleging that he was planning to create real money transfers for the multiplayer game, according to news accounts. Smallwood denied those allegations, claiming that what NCSoft really wanted was to get users such as himself to upgrade to another game, “Aion,” by locking them out.

Addiction and the Law

Leaving aside the allegation of money transfers and possible seedy motives on the part of NCSoft, the case at face value poses several challenges for the plaintiff, Christopher M. Collins, an attorney with Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, told the E-Commerce Times.

“There is always a problem of attaching legal liability for an addiction to the producer of a product,” he said.

For instance, beer makers cannot be sued by alcoholics who have broken sobriety because of their products; nor can an obese person sue a candy maker because of its products, he said.

There are some shades of gray, of course, as famously reflected in lawsuits against cigarette makers that were deceptive about the addictive nature of their products for decades.

Gaming, though, is a different matter, said Collins. “There is simply not the same recognized duty of care expected from a game manufacturer as there is from a product like a cigarette.”

Addictive Technology

That doesn’t necessarily mean Smallwood was not addicted to this game, said BJ Gallagher, the author of Why Don’t I Do the Things I Know are Good for Me?

“People with compulsive-addictive personalities can get addicted to all kinds of substances and/or activities,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “Anything that triggers the pleasure centers in the brain can become an addiction to someone with addictive tendencies.”

In short, to some people video games can be addictive, Gallagher said. “Just as everyone who drinks doesn’t necessarily become an alcoholic, or everyone who plays poker doesn’t become a gambling addict, there are millions of people who play video games with no ill effects. No one knows how many thousands, or tens of thousands, of video game addicts there are in the general population, as it’s a relatively new addiction.”

Whether or not these people — including Smallwood — can win damages, though is an entirely different matter, she concluded.

“Bottles of wine and beer do not come with labels warning of alcoholism. TVs do not come with labels warning of TV addiction. Chocolate does not come with warnings of chocoholism. Credit cards do not come with warnings of shopping addiction. Why should video games come with warnings of gaming addiction?”

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