I spoke on the panel “Logging Off: Are Online Games Addictive?” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. As it turned out, the group conversation served a dual purpose. It was an adjunct to a screening of the film Life 2.0, which portrays various inhabitants of Second Life, but it also opened up a larger conversation about online experiences, the nature of addiction, and when and how we might decide that our online behavior is “a problem.”

The panel consisted of the director of the film, two of the film’s subjects , two senior staff members of Linden Lab, and myself as a psychotherapist who works with both online relationships and substance use behaviors. Noted online journalist Wagner James Au moderated.

Behind us, on a wall-sized screen, we could see the and read the comments of residents of Second Life who had gathered to participate in the conversation. In fact, one of the film’s subjects attended in the form of her Second Life avatar.

There was a fascinating split in audience orientation: those attending in-person (at least those who spoke up) seemed by and large oriented to the popularly-understood addiction model, and applied it readily to online experience. Those participating from Second Life, the chat log shows, largely rejected the idea of being “addicted” to online life.

I presented the notion that it’s not helpful to say that any activity simply Is Addictive or Isn’t Addictive, because that’s too simplistic; it implies that any given behavior (online activity; consumption of alcohol; shopping; exercise) is All Good or All Bad. We know from real life that anything, including online gaming, can provide both benefits and possible consequences, and it’s important to take both into account when deciding whether you have a situation you want to change.

In talking about virtual worlds particularly, I described Second Life as a “playground of personality,” where you get to find out what it would be like to live life in some radically different way than you do offline. What would it be like to have a different appearance? A different sex? A different age? A different species? The one we all enjoy, right at the start of 2L: What would it be like to fly? This means of shaping your own identity in 2L can offer enormously gratifying personal and interpersonal benefits which have to be measured against the possible harm that sometimes occurs, so that you can make an informed and empowering decision about whether and how you want to change your online life.