Are games addictive?

   07/12/2010 at 09:13       Phil May       3 COMMENTS.
 - Panorama, Games Addiction, Raphael Rowe, UKIE, Nottingham Trent University

Last night, the BBC’s Panorama current affairs programme tackled the controversial subject of games addiction. In Raphael Rowe’s film, the reporter attempted to highlight a growing problem emerging as games become more sophisticated, more mainstream and more online-orientated.

The programme started off with heavy use of a particularly irritating phrase that is often used as a blanket term for some sort of insight or expertise into what’s best for the nation’s children. “As a parent” you are suddenly qualified to know how much benefit or harm can be derived from any activity your children engage in. I’ll return to that phrase later on as it becomes an important part of the bigger picture that was largely ignored in Rowe’s summary of the underlying problems facing the UK’s youth.

Early on in the programme, screen time was devoted to several clips of what would be coming up later. “This game is a disease” said one hopelessly addicted World of Warcraft fan. “These are dangerous tools in our homes” said a concerned parent. Immediately gaming is painted as the villain of the piece and the powerless, hapless individuals caught in its vice-like grip cannot do a thing about it.

Statistically Rowe’s reseach was questionable at times. He stated that “some 30,000 people are employed in the UK’s game industry” which is a figure worth putting under further scrutiny as it obviously focuses purely on developers and the people who make games, not the millions employed in other sectors of the games industry, for instance games journalism, tech support and higher educational research and teaching of the essential skills a would-be games developer would need to compete in today’s gaming jobs market.

This is an industry that makes a huge and substantial contribution to the UK’s economy and though you’d struggle to recognise how important that revenue is because of the atrocious treatment of the industry by the government, running the UK games industry into the ground would be massively detrimental.

Picking the programme’s content back up, Rowe expressed surprise at the amount of gamers turning out for the UK midnight launch of Starcraft 2 (improperly called Starcraft in the programme). Without bothering to give the launch any proper historical context, this was the midnight launch of the sequel to one of the biggest PC games of the last 20 years so it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see a lot of people turning out for the midnight launch. What was surprising was it didn’t actually look that busy. Had Rowe gone to any stores opening at midnight for the recent launches of Call of Duty: Black Ops, the numbers would have been significantly greater but the underlying message would still be the same. People will obviously turn out for big game launches, but this does not necessarily mean that they’re hopeless addicts, just passionate about their hobby.

The programme returned again and again to one game in particular – World of Warcraft – a game that even gamers jokingly refer to as “World of WarCrack” because of its addictive qualities. In the film we saw a student who could not control his gaming, to the extent that he needed to go “Cold Turkey” in order to try and get his life back on track. The student’s grades were affected, and even after strenuous attempts to cut the game out of his life, he still found himself drawn back to it “because of boredom, because there was nothing else to do”.

Slowly but surely the film began to build up its own psychological profile for a so-called addicted gamer, a person who probably already had an addictive personality in the first place, and very few other interests outside gaming.

From there, we were shown clips of Robbie Cooper’s photography work on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Cooper’s work involves putting cameras behind a games screen, filming the subjects in high resolution video and taking snapshots of their faces while they play. The photos are then post-processed (mostly to accentuate the dark circles under the eyes of players) and displayed. Naturally the expressions on the faces of the subjects are those usually associated with deep concentration and though Cooper’s work is internationally celebrated and has won awards, the photographer is unapologetic about the way he produces his work. Anyone might argue that if Cooper placed hidden cameras behind drawing pads, children’s books or even a television screen showing a child’s favourite programme, the same expressions could easily be reproduced.

Rowe pointed out that the general consensus is that gaming addiction is a product of mass media hysteria and that the problem is not widespread enough to be taken seriously. Speaking to games industry veteran, Ian Livingstone, the President for Life of Eidos, Livingstone’s view is that gaming is the latest in a long line of activities to come under close media scrutiny as somehow being the root cause of problematic behaviour in young people. The waltz, movies, even television have previously been under the spotlight for the same reasons as gaming now is and despite several high profile news stories berating gaming and the industry, no formal published medical evidence exists anywhere in the world to prove that games are clinically addictive.

Arguments presented by the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) suggest that games boost intelligence, reduce stress and are valuable media tools. With the advent of motion controlled games, they can also be an aid to physical fitness and well being if used correctly. Though these sound like weak anecdotal benefits of gaming, there are very few official research programmes ongoing in the UK to look into either side of the benefits or detrimental effects of gaming.

Nottingham Trent University houses one of the few research teams actively involved in the study of the effects of gaming. Professor Mark Griffith’s team at NTU have concluded that gaming can indeed be described as a contributing factor to exacerbate certain types of obsessive compulsive behaviour in a small number of individuals who are predisposed to such behaviour. Though Griffiths admitted that not enough research has been conducted into the broader suggestion that gaming is as addictive as, say, gambling, he suggested that government-funded research and a long term study would be needed to truly be able to make a case that gaming addiction exists and is a growing problem.

Rowe’s film moved to Korea where gaming addiction is significantly more widely recognised as a problem. According to official figures, Korea’s government consider 2% of the nation’s 11 to 16 year olds to be addicted to gaming. A contributing factor is that Korea has one of the fastest internet networks on the planet, with fibre optic high speed connections commonplace in Korean homes. The UK government has plans to bring the country’s broadband network into line with Korea by 2015 and already there are concerns that high speed limitless broadband would trigger the same cycle of addiction to online games in this country.

Though gaming and internet cafes are fairly rare in the UK still, you can find 24 hour internet cafes proliferating in every town and city in Korea. The culture difference is that rather than going out every weekend and getting smashed, Koreans will spend an evening playing online games at an internet café instead.

A high profile case in Korea caught the headlines when a young couple’s child died after being neglected while the parents obsessively played online games at a local internet café. Ironically, the game the couple played involved raising and nurturing a virtual child. This case found that both parents had low IQs, low incomes and the mother is now under psychiatric evaluation at one of Korea’s newly established research centres for the study into gaming addiction.

Korea has a national programme of boot camps to wean children off gaming and develop a better relationship with their parents and it’s in this section of Rowe’s film that the true key to the solution to gaming addiction was hinted at. Parents attending the boot camp are encouraged to interact with their children, to become keenly involved in their child’s interests and develop a better understanding of what gaming involves. If anything could be concluded from the parallels being drawn between the UK and Korea, it’s definitely that parents do need to become more knowledgeable, more actively involved and definitely more firm with their kids when it comes to gaming.

Once again Rowe’s focus moved back to the student with a World of Warcraft habit. Though the student had made some inroads into conquering his addiction, he found himself drawn back into playing for up to 6 hours a day because of boredom, or a lack of other things to do. In the student’s own words, he could not find an adequate substitute for gaming. Rowe expressed surprise and also pointed out that the student could not properly respond to him while he was in the room while the student was playing games. Editing the film in such a way made the student look irritable, unresponsive and unable to conduct the interview in a satisfactory fashion.

Next, Rowe interviewed an award-winning games designer who warned of the clever psychological tricks games companies use to keep players hooked. Variable rate of enforcement is often used to randomly reward players who continually play a particular game. Parallels were drawn between the way a game keeps players hooked by offering prizes, achievements or extra lives the longer they play. Certainly it’s a fair case that certain games feature high-level rewards that can only be attained through lengthy playing sessions (for instance the ranks and perks in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops or Battlefield: Bad Company). This compulsion loop as described by the developer is an increasingly common way of ensuring that games drip-feed rewards in the same way that a slot machine will offer small wins with the occasional substantial payout, that could keep a gambling addict locked in a cycle of pay to play.

Rowe once again interviewed Michael Rawlinson from UKIE, and suggested that UKIE does not yet do enough to warn of the dangers of gaming addiction, and that the organisation’s website contains warnings about age ratings, inappropriate content and the like but nothing warning parents of the potential signs that their child may be addicted to games. Rawlinson concluded that not enough evidence was put forward for a change in policy but UKIE would support ongoing research into the dangers of addictive games.

The film described one person’s two year long battle to conquer their World of Warcraft addiction with the person receiving very little external help with his particular problem. Even though “Chris” acknowledged his own battle, he did not lay the blame at Blizzard’s door. “They made a bloody good game” he said. “It’s not their fault.”

Blizzard pointed out that World of Warcraft contains practical tools to help gamers and parents monitor and limit their game time whereas seldom few other online games do.

Returning back to the top of this feature and certainly highlighting one of the points made in the sections of the documentary filmed in Korea, there are clearly problems with a small number of individuals developing obsessive compulsive behaviour around games. What came across from Korea though, was that one of the most powerful influences and inspirations for a child is their interaction with their parents and if parents can become more involved with anything their child does, the problems can be headed off early enough to never develop into an addiction. The same advice given to parents about drugs or alcohol or underage sex is still as relevant to games or any other compulsive interest a child develops. Get involved. Get informed and do not immediately look for someone else’s door to lay the blame at if your child ends up in the same state as some of the people featured in this programme.

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