Gaming addicts have spoken to MPs about the dangers of obsessive online behaviours as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s (DCMS) inquiry into addictive technologies.
Matus Mikus, a self-confessed gaming “addict”, told MPs that parents should set time limits on the amount of game-time children have each day; a suggestion supported by a fellow gamer, James Good.
“I would say first that parents need to talk to their children, as each one is different, but I’d say that three hours at most per day. More than that is when it starts affecting you.”
“Games by their nature are addictive,” Mikus added.
Rewards systems in games often draw people and encourage them to spend more time playing to earn achievements or points, Mikus said.
“Sometimes I’d come home and I’d want to go to bed but knew I had points so had to play a game and then if I lost I had to play another game.”
Good also told MPs he had become engrossed in several games and admitted that he had preferred virtual worlds to the real one.
His gaming addiction led him to lose track of his studies at university and, at the peak of his addiction, he spent 32 hours playing without a break.
“I was falling behind, my grades were slipping as a result of playing too many games,” he told MPs. “I didn’t eat, sleep or leave my room, I escaped my problems via games.”
Good’s comments on reward systems echoed Mikus’, and he said that these fuelled both his competitive nature and exacerbated the addiction.
“Games fire up response systems in your brain and other things don’t bring you as much joy,” he explained. “It felt good to get points, trophies, beat people. It fuelled my competitiveness but I realised I wasn’t truly happy.”
Good sought to address his addiction by contacting Game Quitters, an online forum with users who have also battled gaming addiction.
The forum offers users a quiz to establish whether they exhibit symptoms of gaming addiction and then sets challenges such as giving up any form of gaming for 90 days.
The two aforementioned gamers aren’t alone in their addiction struggle. Across the UK and worldwide, an increasing number of people are coming forward to say they have struggled with addiction and being unable to detach from computer games.
Addictive behaviours and withdrawal symptoms, which Good told MPs he suffered from when giving up, are some of the tell-tale signs.
The NHS is taking the issue very seriously and began work to establish a first-of-its kind counselling clinic in London to offer help to those addicted to computer games. This followed a move by the World Health Organisation to define gaming addiction as a legitimate mental health disorder.
‘Gaming disorder’ is defined as a pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by “impaired control over gaming, increased priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities”.
Although there are concerns over the effects of both technology and games on human behaviour, the question must be asked whether this is a ticking time-bomb of addictive, obsessive behaviour or an overreaction fuelled by media hyperbole.
Media coverage and public discourse on impact of video games often coincides with the rise of popular titles. Fornite, in particular, has found itself in the crosshairs and regularly subjected to claims from parents that children are becoming addicted.
Previous notable titles subject to scrutiny include World of Warcraft and a string of popular MMORPG’s.
Lack of Evidence
At an earlier inquiry hearing, gaming industry representatives told MPs the issue of gaming addiction was being exaggerated.
Written evidence to the committee from UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) said there was a “lack of evidence” surrounding the issue of gaming addiction.
Games can offer a number of social, recreational and psychological benefits, the organisation told the inquiry
“They encourage critical thinking skills, empathy and, for many millions of players, highly valuable social platforms.”
Matthew Barr, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow and Vice Chair of British DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association) said that “most of the discourse around the topic is pretty ill-informed” and fears mirror previous debates on the effect of other forms of media.
“The response to games is similar to the moral panics we have seen around every new form of media, from the ‘video nasties’ of the 80s to concerns about comics and eve, if we go back far enough, the humble novel,” he said.
“As a parent, I totally understand why there is concern about game addiction, but most of the discourse around the topic is pretty ill-informed,” Barr added. “Clearly, too much of anything is bad for you and parents need to keep an eye on how much time their kids are spending on games.”
Barr asserted that research into this issue is often flawed and that a degree of bias in how it is reported serves to perpetuate negative views of games, and the gaming industry as a whole.
“The research on the negative effects of games is extremely patchy. There is no consensus in the research community, and this is for a number of reasons, but it’s a difficult area to research for one thing,” Barr explained.
“There is undoubtedly bias in how any work in this area is reported, with a small number of researchers apparently determined to show that games can be harmful. Of course, when they publish their research, it catches the public’s attention regardless of the quality of their work,” he added.
Dynamic and Diverse Challenges
Dr William Huber, head of the Centre for Excellence in Game Education at Abertay University, echoed Ukie’s sentiments regarding the power of video games as a captivating media form and said that a key challenge in understanding behavioural effects falls down to the “diverse and dynamic” nature of the effects themselves.
“I would say that digital games are an engrossing and captivating cultural form. Their ability to engage players deeply is both relatively unique and also bound up with other aspects of our deeply networked software culture,” Huber said.
“The challenge in understanding their effects on behaviour is that they are diverse and dynamic, and new design concepts and game mechanics are being developed all the time,” he explained. “The use of games to provide behavioural change is an active research agenda; the motivations for this research range from the therapeutic to the commercial.”
Huber concluded that while game designers aim to engage players to a great degree, this is an area taken seriously throughout the industry. Robust ethical discourse over the effect of games is a key focus of designers.
Barr added that a central talking point of this debate should be parental responsibility and vigilance. Engaging with children about their activities is key to maintaining healthy practices.
“The best way for parents to address the issue is to be aware of how much their kids are playing, talk to them about the games they play and for how long,” he said.