I recently heard about some local teenagers that have become addicted to computer games. This led me down the rabbit-hole of trying to understand what video game addiction is, what it means and what can be done.
Now to be clear what we’re NOT talking about here is just someone who likes playing games. Nor are we talking about someone who plays more games than their parents would like: Teenagers have always done too much of something their parents disapprove of whether that’s watching television or playing football. We’re talking about someone whose obsession with playing games is causing a problem with other parts of their life and who’s unable to take steps to ameliorate that situation.
Officially there’s no such beast as video or computer game addiction – it has specifically not been included in the relevant diagnostic manuals; but there’s no question that something a lay-person would see as an addiction exists. In fact a very recent Australian study showed that “… the attention system of an excessive gamer gives top priority to gaming information. Even if they don’t want to think about gaming, they are unable to stop themselves. This likely makes stopping or cutting back on gaming even more difficult.” The study went on to say: “This phenomenon, known as attentional bias, is found across heroin, nicotine, alcohol and gambling addictions, and is thought to be a significant factor in the development of an addiction.”
So whether it gets a formal diagnosis or not, excessive gaming can show all the signs of an addiction. And the practical consequences for families that find themselves confronting this as a real problem are indistinguishable from any other sort of addiction.
When you think about it, the idea of impressionable teenagers becoming compulsive about, or addicted to, computer games really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Computer games are big business and they can afford to hire the best marketers and psychologists to ensure that they create a thoroughly compelling environment. Combine that with the fact the multiplayer games provide a social group and you have a heady mix for anyone.
Now I would argue that many computer games can be educational, and many are just good fun. I see nothing wrong with kids playing computer games. But if we accept that it’s possible to become compulsive or addicted, then the question is how can we prevent healthy fun deteriorating into an unhealthy addiction?
I must admit when I first started talking to people about video game addiction or computer game addiction I was disturbed by the catch-all nature of the phrase ‘video game’. Were the teenagers involved really addicted to all video games or to just one game – should it really be “World of Warcraft addiction” or “EVE addiction”? In the same way that we wouldn’t say that someone was sport-obsessed when they were obsessed solely with cricket.
I thought, and still think, that there’s a crucial distinction there because not all computer games are the same, they don’t all press the same social, emotional and psychological buttons. I’ve written before about how I wont let my kids play open-ended games like EVE or WoW simply because it is too easy to get sucked into an endless spiral of online achievement. I accept that it’s possible for someone to become addicted to playing games generally but I’d argue that this is less likely than the single-game alternative where they’re actually addicted to one game, one experience. As far as I can see people more often become addicted to a single game where they get achievements and rewards and where they have a social group within which those achievements give them standing. Almost invariably that means subscription games.
It’s certainly worth bearing in mind that often what’s seen from a distance as addiction to a game is often really all about the social group the player spends time with online. These are real friends and turning off the game means withdrawing access to that social group. What makes this more complex is that often the group wont be local, there will be people in different time-zones and meeting up requires a late night or early morning in Australian terms. Wrenching your teenager away from their social group can be devastating.
I would argue that the way forward is not to ban all computer games; the issue is more about choosing the right ones to allow kids to play.
In many ways the simple test for games to avoid is: Is the game subscription based? If it is, it is designed to keep people playing and paying month after month after month. That is far more likely to be a problem than playing a game which you pay for outright and which has a beginning and an end. Some of the cleverest marketers and psychologists have designed subscription games to encourage if not addiction then at least obsession to keep bringing players back and keep the subscription dollars rolling in.
So what can be done to prevent addiction? Simply banning all games is neither realistic or healthy in today’s World. A good starting point is to let kids play games; but not open-ended subscription or freemium games where the story never ends and there’s always another level or achievement being dangled tantalizingly just up ahead. That means avoiding Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games like EVE or World of Warcraft.
There are many games that do have a single story-line that comes to an end – Bioshock might be a good recent example. And then there are games that although they don’t have a clear ending, because they have no story-line, are by their nature episodic – a game might last for 20 minutes and then have a clear round-ending: Counter Strike would be a good example of this style of game. It is, I think, much harder to become compulsive about this type of game.
In every example I can think of, a game involving an outright purchase seems less likely to become a compulsion than one involving a subscription or freemium model; but it would be simplistic to say that was the only factor involved. It’s important to understand what the games are like and how your child is acting in the game – and one of the best ways of doing that is simply to try to play games with your kids.
I wouldn’t presume to offer a view on how to cure an addiction once someone has become trapped. There is a local Sydney psychologist who specialises in this area and other professionals can provide appropriate advice and responses.
Most kids are not going to become addicted to computer games. In the same way most people do not become addicted to alcohol, food or sport. But there are sensible precautions that a parent can take in the early stages to steer kids in a safer direction. Steer them away from open-ended subscription games. Try to encourage a healthy, controlled relationship with gaming rather than banning it outright. And, if you can, play games with your kids so you understand what they are experiencing.
Image: ALAMY via DarkGovernment.