John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated May 96, revised June & Aug 96 (v2.0)

Why is This Thing Eating My Life?

Computer and Cyberspace Addiction at the "Palace"

Psychologists are buzzing with discussion about a new type of addiction - internet addiction. Of course, those psychologists who avidly dive into cyberspace to research this phenomenon may be experiencing the very thing they are studying, but that's another whole story. Several important questions still stand before us: What forms does this addiction take? What causes it? Is it always a symptom of mental pathology, or is there a positive side to being "addicted"? In this article I'd like to explore these questions in the context of the relatively new virtual environment known as the Graphical Multi-User (K)onversation - or "GMUK." These GMUKs are similar to the familiar, text-only chat environments, except you interact with people in a visual scene with little graphical icons ("avatars") to represent yourself. An excellent example of a GMUK is the Palace - an environment that has been a focus of my research as a cyberpsychologist.

In several of the rooms at the Main Palace site, a curious thing happens whenever you mention the word "Palace." For instance, if an unsuspecting user types "Where can I get the new version for Palace?", he may be quite perplexed by what actually appears on the screen: "Where can I get the new version of this thing that is eating my life ?" When the user finally figures out that the Palace program itself is making this silly little substitution of words, his confusion may turn to delight, and then, perhaps, to a self-conscious, even worrisome realization. This thing really IS eating my life! Just hang around the Palace for a little while and you will hear the jokes:

"How often do you come here ZeroGravity?"

"Too often."

"Hey, Tippy! You still here? Get a life!"

"I don't have one, Gyro!"

"Hiya Smokey! You back again? I saw you this morning."

"I needed another fix!.... LOL!"

Or, as one member simply told me, "I practically live here."

Early in the development of the Palace software, Jim Bumgardner, it's creator, discovered that users found the program quite addictive. The humorous substitution of words reminds us of this fact, should we even mention the name of this thing that has cast the spell over us. The question is: WHY is it so addicting? The substitution joke suggests that we don't even have a word to label it. The power that addicts us is an unnameable THING! While hanging out at the Palace, I've often tossed out this very question to the group, "So why do you think this place is so addictive?" Often, the reply is "I dunno." Can it really be that we don't understand this thing that threatens to gobble up huge chunks of our existence, like some insatiable but mystifying creature beneath our beds?

We psychologists have long thought about why people become obsessed. There are a variety of theories on the topic. One common denominator is the idea that people become preoccupied with a thing, person, or activity because it satisfies a NEED. Humans are complex beings, and so the needs that fuel their behavior are complex and many. In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, charted the wide variety of human needs according to a hierarchy ranging from very fundamental, biological needs to higher order ones of an aesthetic and self-actualizing nature. When a person is able to satisfy needs at one level, she is then prepared to move upward to the next. Perhaps, to answer the riddle posed by the Palace substitution script, we should take a similar path. By starting at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy and working our way up, we can attempt to place some words around and onto that PalaceThing that can be so captivating, consuming, and delightful (BTW, I should add that some of these explanations apply to MANY chat, newsgroup, and MOO environments on the net).

And They Laughed at Freud!

One afternoon when I asked the group at Harry's Bar why they thought the Palace was addictive, someone gave a simple, one word reply that I hadn't heard before.... "SEX." I had to LOL. Of course! A hundred years ago Freud claimed that sex was the primary human motive. And Maslow placed it at the bottom level of his hierarchical pyramid (along with other essentials like the need for food, water, warmth, shelter, and physical safety). It's a basic biological need that commands attention. While most people at the Palace are not out to bed someone, some people definitely are. If you take a quick look at the list of rooms, often you will find that some of the "guest rooms" are "closed" - i.e., the door is locked so no one else can get in. The list will also tell you how many people are in the room. If it's two (and sometimes even three), you can be pretty certain what they are up to.

Exactly what goes on behind those closed doors is a topic for another whole article. In fact, many of those articles are already out there for the taking. Nowadays cybersex is a hot topic in the media precisely because sex IS one of those basic biological needs that commands everyone's attention. I prefer not to dwell on this topic right here and now because I think the prevailing attitude among many uninformed people ("the internet is nothing but pornography and cybersex") is simply a defense against underlying feelings of ignorance, inadequacy, and FEAR concerning the internet. I'd rather not encourage that distorted attitude which hides this cyber and techno phobia.

But let me say this about cybersex at the Palace or anywhere on the internet. When people get preoccupied with it, they do so for the same reasons people get obsessed with sex in any context. Sure, cybersex is very accessible if you have the technical know-how, it can be very anonymous and therefore emotionally safe, you can act out all sorts of fantasies by altering your identity and gender, you easily can bail out of an encounter and try again later, it's about as "safe sex" in the medical sense as you can get... and at the highly visual Palace, you have the added goodie of being able to display "props" (avatars, or simple "avs") to suit any of your desires, as long as you know how to create those props. All of this makes cybersex attractive. But the underlying needs being satisfied are the same as in the real world. Some people are enticed by the opportunity to not just satisfy but also experiment with their sexual appetite - and that may be perfectly healthy. Others are driven to cybersex out of loneliness, dependency, anger, or a deep insatiable emptiness that demands to be filled.

Most cybersex at the Palace doesn't even involve flashing pornographic icons or lewd language that sounds like it came from the Penthouse Letters or a cheap adult novel. Maybe the word "cybersex" doesn't even apply to most of the "sexual" activity taking place there. The good old fashioned word "flirting" is much more appropriate. The Palace often feels and looks like an ongoing cocktail party - and like any good party, there is a hefty dose of natural, playful flirting. Some of it is a prelude to sneaking up to one of the guest rooms. Much of it is just normal fun that doesn't progress to anything more sexually intimate. What makes it even more delightful than real world flirting are the same features that makes cybersex attractive. It's relatively anonymous and safe, so you can be a bit more open, bold, and experimental than you would at the real world office party. The highly visual/auditory Palace program also lets you do things that you usually can't do in pure text chat rooms. You can "play" with someone's personal space, you can snuggle up next to or mount yourself on top of a flirtee, you can blow him and her an auditory kiss, you can wiggle and "dance" together by maneuvering your props or running macros. Most alluring of all, you can enter a playful little pas de deux where you tease and court each other by displaying avatars that reveal your mood, intentions, likes and dislikes. In fact, the prop you wear can be a clear expression of whether you are in the mood to flirt or not. Most of the time this is all done rather tastefully. Sometimes not.... just like the real world.

Like at any party, this flirting can be a lot of fun and quite addictive. It also points to needs that go beyond the simple satisfaction of biological sex drive. It points to interpersonal needs. Here is where we move on to the next level in the hierarchy.

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

When I ask people why they keep coming back to the Palace, the most common response is "I like the people here." The addictive power of the Palace goes far beyond that of a video game because it has something that video games never will. There are people. And people need people. On the second level of Maslow's hierarchy is the need for interpersonal contact, social recognition, and a sense of belonging. As a human, you instinctively want to go to a place where everyone knows your name.

Another stereotype in the minds of the uninformed public is that the internet is populated mostly by misfits and socially inadequate people. They can't form "real" relationships, so they resort to safe, superficial contact offered through the cold wires and glass monitor screens of cyberspace. Once again, this stereotyped thinking is more a defensive reaction to the internet than an accurate reflection of reality. Sure, some shy, interpersonally anxious, and downright pathologically schizoid people may be drawn to cyberspace relationships. They may even become "addicted" to such relationships (and who's to say that is "bad"?). However, many users are perfectly normal social beings who use the internet to find people who share similar interests and lifestyles - the kinds of people who may not be available in their immediate, real-world environment.

At the Palace users automatically have something in common with everyone else. They are USERS! They share an interest in computer technology and the internet, which offers the strong possibility of instantaneous camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Jokes about being "addicted" may be half serious, but they also boost this feeling that "we are all in this together." This is true of almost all online environments, but what makes the Palace unique is that it is a NEW technical and social environment. Unlike other places on the internet, it is a highly visual, spatial, and physical habitat. The software, the behaviors, and the social norms associated with this environment are brand new and evolving quickly. People at the Palace take great pleasure in sharing ideas about this. Many feel that they are participating in the birth of a new generation of online community. They feel like pioneers who, together, are settling new territory. It's a very addictive feeling of "belonging" to a creative process.

What makes the territory so new and challenging is that the visual/spatial qualities of the Palace have dramatically enhanced the way people can satisfy that very basic human need for social recognition and exchange. You aren't limited to text-only communication. In addition to talking, you have at your disposal the subtlety and poetry of non-verbal communication. While these non-verbals can be conveyed through action-statements in text-only environments ("Starman pats Lily on the back"), it doesn't have quite the same subtle power as a pure nonverbal behavior. At the Palace, you can run to greet friends when they enter the room. You can sit next to, above, below, or on top of people to express your mood towards them. You can place yourself into the corner of the room, float above the room, get down onto the carpet with the others, hop into a pool or a bathtub, use a chair, a table, tree, statue, or any of the other numerous objects in the environment - all as ways of showing your intentions and feelings towards others. With "thought balloons" you can express what you are thinking without expecting a reply, and with "excited balloons" you can add zip to something you want to say. Most important of all, you have props as powerful tools to express your attitudes and feelings towards others, and as social tokens to exchange with others. Add all of these visual features to the ability to "whisper" privately to others (a feature common to many chat environments) as well as the ability to write scripts to automate behavior - and you have an almost infinite array of methods to interact with others. Experimenting with these methods is quite addictive.

There is also something very captivating about the feeling that many Palace sites are like an ongoing party. Almost everyone loves a party, especially one where you can leave easily. Almost everyone can relate to the delightful nuances and complexities of hanging out and wandering through a house full of people. This social climate offers everything from casual chit-chat and goofing around to very intimate, meaningful conversation (and, of course, cybersex). A whole range of social needs can be fulfilled. While the uninformed public may claim that cyber-relationships are superficial, every experienced online user will tell you otherwise. People feel that they have made good friends, and, in some cases, lovers.

When you think about it, what's are the differences between a real relationship and one at the Palace? At the Palace you can communicate by talking and sounds, you can "do" things with people (like go for a walk), you can see them via their avatars. Words, sounds, physical actions, sights....what basic expressive dimension is left out? Well, you can't (yet) hear a person's voice or (yet) see their physical body in motion. Communication is limited by how good you are at typing and writing. But then in the real world you can't express yourself as quickly or symbolically as you can through props. And it's a well known fact that people tend to be more open and honest in cyberspace, probably BECAUSE people usually don't see or hear you.

There are indeed pros and cons to both real and cyber interactions, which simply makes them DIFFERENT. The Palace is so captivating because it is a unique ALTERNATIVE, and not necessarily a poor substitute, for satisfying social needs.... with one major exception. In cyberspace, you will never be able to touch another person. While we don't do this with just anyone in our real world lives, it IS a very important component of our closest relationships. Human physical contact is an extremely powerful need - so powerful that it also extends down into the first level of the hierarchy. Babies sink into depression and die without it. When adults are chronically deprived of it, they feel a pervasive sense of loss and longing.

There are other potentially frustrating aspects of Palace socializing. One of these frustrations can, paradoxically, foster addiction in some people. Because Palace feels like a new, pioneering territory with lots of potential rewards, a land rush has set in. Lots of new users are showing up. Among the increasing flood of people, if you want to develop and maintain friends... if you want people to know your name... you HAVE to keep coming back. The more time you spend there, the more people get to know you, the more you are considered a member who is "one of us." If you haven't signed on for a few days or longer, you may feel like you are losing ground, that you will be forgotten. You don't want those relationships you developed to fade out. So you feel compelled to go back and reestablish those ties. For many people, it is precisely those social ties that keep you coming back. Without them, the Palace would be just another video game addiction that would quickly wear off.

Hey! Look at My New Av!

On the next level of Maslow's hierarchy is the need for learning, accomplishment, mastery of the environment, and the self-esteem that arises from one's achievements. Operant theory in psychology adds that learning is most powerful when small units of accomplishment are quickly reinforced. Computers in general are so addictive because they do all of this in a highly efficient and rewarding fashion. You confront a problem or an unfamiliar computer function, you investigate, you try solutions, you finally figure it out - and the computer does something specific and concrete for you that it never did before. Challenge, experimentation, mastery, SUCCESS! It's a very addictive cycle that makes you want to learn and do more.

The Palace, being a complex technical and social environment, poses few limits on how much a person can experiment and learn. New members take great pleasure in learning the basics of how to talk, use props, play standard scripts, and navigate through the rather complex maze of rooms. Creating NEW props is a very popular hobby that requires both technical and artistic skills. Indeed, some members have refined it to an art form. For those who really want to stretch their technical prowess, there lies the challenge of learning the rather arcane computer language for writing scripts - known as "iptscrae." For those people who are not attracted to the technical side of Palace, there is the challenge of learning its social culture, i.e., discovering its people, norms, social structure, history and legends, and participating in the shaping of its future. Exploring and mastering the many levels of Palace can be a never-ending satisfier of curiosity, and a never-ending source of self-esteem. Like the cyberworld at large, it is not a static environment. New technical and social features are always appearing. To stay on top of things, you must be like a shark... you must keep moving.

For the most part, attempting to master the technical and/or social environment is a very normal, healthy process. However, for people driven to compensate for deep-seated feelings of failure, inadequacy, and helplessness, or to overcome desperate needs for acknowledge, admiration, and love - the obsession with cyberspace accomplishments can become a true addiction that never fully gratifies.

The ultimate badge of prestige at the Palace is to be chosen as "wizard." Wizards possess special abilities that ordinary members don't (like being able to kill, gag, and pin misbehaving users). They also participate in decision-making about new policies for the community. Many members, secretly or not, wish they could attain the social recognition, power, and self-esteem achieved through this promotion. To get it, one must demonstrate commitment to the community, which includes spending a considerable amount of time there. Wizardship can become a very enticing carrot that stimulates addictive attendance. For those few who do attain that position, it is a powerful reinforcer of one's efforts and further bolsters one's loyalty and devotion to Palace life. Even though the position does not include a salary, many wizards see it as a job to which they are responsible. The wizard now has a viable reason for being so "addicted." As one user stated the day after receiving his surprise promotion, "I WORK here."

Is This the Real Me?

At the top of Maslow's hierarchy lies the need for "self-actualization." This need subsumes many of those from the lower levels - the need for fulfilling interpersonal relationships, to express oneself, to satisfy one's intellectual and artistic needs by successfully engaging the world around us. The key to self-actualization, though, is that it specifically involves the striving towards the development of oneself as a unique individual. It is the ongoing process of realizing and cultivating one's inner potentials. It is the flowering of the "true" self.... Not everyone reaches this level of Maslow's pyramid.

Are users self-actualizing at the Palace? People feel they are developing fulfilling relationships with others. They express their intellectual potentials by exploring the technical and social dimensions of Palace. Using the variety of communication tools available, ESPECIALLY props, people are perhaps even realizing inner interests, attitudes, and aspects of their personality that were previously hidden. Are people then truly moving towards the cultivation of themselves as unique, creative individuals?

I've heard quite a few people say that at the Palace they feel they are MORE like their true selves than in real life. They are more open, expressive, warm, witty, friendly. Once again, partial anonymity (not being seen or heard in person) allows people to be less inhibited. In some ways it's not unlike the poet, writer, or artist who through their work learn to fully express themselves - without fully being in the presence of others.

One other important aspect of self-actualization, according to Maslow, is the development of one's spirituality. This raises a fascinating question. Are people discovering their spiritual life in cyberspace? At first glance, this may seem an absurd idea to some people. But for some users - and these users are probably in the minority - cyberspace does pose some mysteries about the nature of consciousness, reality, and self. As I move through cyberspace, where is my mind? Where am "I"? Am I really just in my body, or is the essence of me somewhere "out there" mingling with the consciousness of others, merging with that larger consciousness that is the "internet." Is this consciousness less REAL than what I experience in "real" life - or more so? If the internet encapsulates the evolution of a world-mind and world-self into a universal Whole, and I am part of that Whole, then where is it leading? Is "God" somewhere out there in all those wires and microchips?... What could be more captivating and addictive to a user than the search for God?

But is It an Addiction?

"Addictions" can be healthy, unhealthy, or a mixture of both. If you are fascinated by a hobby, feel devoted to it, would like to spend as much time as possible pursuing it - this could be an outlet for learning, creativity, and self-expression. Even in some unhealthy addictions you can find these positive features embedded within the problem. But in truly pathological addictions, the scale has tipped. The bad outweights the good, resulting in serious disturbances in one's ability to function in the "real" world. I have to admit that, so far, I have been a bit guilty of waxing the poetic about cyberspace and the Palace. So let's get down to the brass tacks. Is it a sickness or not? If this thing is eating people's lives, aren't they truly addicted to it? Isn't there something wrong?

People get addicted to all sorts of things - drugs, eating, gambling, exercising, spending, sex, etc. You name it, someone out there is obsessed with it. Looking at it from a clinical perspective, pathological addictions usually have their origin early in a person's life, where they can be traced to severe deprivations and conflicts at the first two levels of Maslow's hierarchy. I have seen a few people at the Palace who, unfortunately, are indeed addicted because of these types of problems. On a more practical level, problematic addiction can be defined as anything that never really satisfies your needs, that in the long run makes you unhappy - THAT DISRUPTS YOUR LIFE. Here are some questions that psychologists offer to people who are trying to determine if they are indeed addicted:

An affirmative reply to one or two of these responses may not mean anything. An affirmative reply to many of them means trouble. It may be a variation of what psychologists are calling the "Internet Addiction Disorder."

The fact that Palatians frequently joke with each other about their "addiction" may be a good sign. They have some perspective, some self-awareness about what they are doing. One common feature of hardcore addiction is an almost unrelenting, rock-solid denial that there is a problem. *If* these Palatians do indeed suffer from a problematic addiction, then at least they recognize the problem. And that's a good start.

One final note about cyberspace, how well it satisfies the range of human needs, and exactly how much of our life we are willing to devote to it. Ask yourself these two questions. Do you want to spend all your time sitting at a computer monitor? Do you want your child to? Answer these questions, and you will better understand when cyberspace is maliciously eating your life, and when it is nourishing it.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

To Get What You Need: Healthy and Pathological Internet Use
Cold Turkey: Messages from an Ex-Palace "Addict"
Computer and Cyberspace Addiction
An Internet Addiction Questionnaire
An interview with John Suler about internet addiction
Internet Addiction Disorder Support Group
Internet Addiction in a Nutshel

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