BBC article misses the point on “video game addiction,” possible government legislation of MMOs

BBC article misses the point on “video game addiction,” possible government legislation of MMOs

The first thing you should ask yourself when someone threatens the video game industry with government interference is the following: Who has been directly hurt by the content that will be legislated? It’s kind of a grisly way to begin these discussions, but I want to see the bodies. Show me the statistics, the danger of real harm, and then let’s compare it to other aspects of modern life.

“Researchers at Cardiff, Derby and Nottingham Trent universities said some gamers play up to 90 hours a session, developing a ‘pathological” addiction,’” a recent BBC article stated. So we begin by claiming that there are gamers who play for up to around four days straight. We don’t know how many, but some do. They are addicted, the article tells us. Since MMOs never “end,” the addiction can be eternal. If the publishers and developers won't do anything, the government may have to step in!

Depression causes addiction causes depression causes…

Video game addiction isn’t well understood, and there is some debate over whether it exists at all. In most discussions about troubled individuals there is something of a chicken and egg problem: Do people have issues with their personal life because they’re “addicted” to games, or are they addicted to games because they have issues with their personal life? This passage from a section on WebMD about compulsive game playing is illuminating:

Young and Bakker say the overwhelming majority of video game addicts are males under 30. “It's usually children with poor self-esteem and social problems,” Young tells WebMD. “They're intelligent and imaginative but don't have many friends at school.” She says a family history of addiction may also be a factor.

This is why blaming video games themselves is so problematic. They are good at what they do, which is take the player to another place and allow them to escape their problems, but when someone already has major, life-altering problems, mixed with a bit of mental illness… of course games are going to be abused. The trick isn’t to legislate the use of video games, the trick is to create a better support structure so young people don’t feel so alone, and are helped to socialize and seek treatment for their depression or anxiety.

That is a hard thing to do, however; you’ve seen what the political fallout has been from trying to reform healthcare in the United States. It’s much easier to blame the games themselves, and to say that the government needs to put usage limits on games being played online. Allow me to quote a passage from the original BBC story:

Cyber psychologist Dr Zaheer Hussain, from the University of Derby, said warning messages were not enough.

He said: “As a first step online game developers and publishers need to look into the structural features of the game design, for example the character development, rapid absorption rate, and multi-player features which could make them addictive and or problematic for some gamers.

“One idea could be to shorten long quests to minimise the time spent in the game obtaining a certain prized item.”

I can't facepalm hard enough. There is not a single reality in which publishers are going to willfully step in and make sure their games are less sticky because a study suggests that a minority of players are hooked. For-profit companies think all of these things are good things, and without stronger evidence of direct harm, of a product that is hurting the lives of those who use it, there's no real cause to legislate the length of quests, or for “cyber psychologists” to have any say in how often a rare sword is dropped.

We use the term “addictive” to describe games all the time, but perhaps a less loaded term would be “sticky.” Games are designed to be sticky, and to give us a feeling of satisfaction when we play them. Removing that reward, or lessening it, due to troubled individuals losing themselves in the virtual worlds is going to be a hard sell.

Video games, as products, often act as warning signs to larger psychological problems. If you force a well-adjusted person to play a game they enjoy for a few hours a day, it's unlikely bad things are going to happen. If you force a well-adjusted person to smoke a few hours a day? Bad things are going to happen. Same with alcohol. Or fatty foods. Or drinking soda.

It's hard to legislate things that directly and physically harm people, however, making video games an easy target. What if the government did make a move to legislate the amount of time citizens could play games? The problem is how little that would solve.

Why this is scary stuff

Nothing will come of this study, or the original article. It will be written about in a few places, people will cluck their tongues about the evil of video games, but the people who are playing for the reported 90 hour sessions, the four days of straight gaming… what do we win by removing their coping mechanism?

Without available treatment, medication, or therapy, are they going to get any better if we put a limit on their games? If a parent hasn't stepped in when a child has played a game for that long, do we really trust that caregiver when games are removed to then make positive changes to the child's life? Is there any evidence that the games themselves caused these problems, or are we content to waggle our fingers at the symptoms and say that we found the root of their problems?

These stories are scary, but not because of the video games. I agree that the people who play games compulsively need help, but removing the games isn't helping. It's patting ourselves on the back and saying that we did the simplest possible thing, and placed the blame on an external, easily demonized source. It's a bandaid put on our own inadequacy in dealing with mental health, and that idea should scare all of us.