Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Game addiction controversy

Game designers used to be very proud of how addictive their games were. During the nineties, designing an "addictive" game meant having a great success. And so behavioural psychology was raided for knowledge of what extrinsically motivates people, this was rebranded as gamification, and used as an argument about how it is possible to use game design strategies in order to make any apparently boring or insignificant chore... well, if not fun, then at least more engaging and, yes, addictive.

But was this really addiction?

Addiction is a tricky word. It is currently used in several news articles in order to warn about the dangers of video games, but the WHO classification of diseases doesn't talk about addiction, but disorder, underlining it as a warning sign. There is however no specific list of what a gaming disorder might be a sign of. There is however already a decent body of research that points out that by treating gaming as an addiction and a disorder in its own right, the real problems go ignored. And if you disagree with all of these researchers since they are critical of the term, here is an article co-authored by Mark Griffiths, one of the strong voices arguing in favour of obsessive behaviours being classified as addiction.  Here's the list of other problems this article finds that "gaming addiction" is associated with:
In terms of the results, the following personality traits were found to be significantly related to Internet gaming addiction: avoidant and schizoid interpersonal tendencies (Allison et al. 2006), loneliness and introversion (Caplan et al. 2009), social inhibition (Porter et al. 2010), aggression and hostility (Caplan et al. 2009; Chiu et al. 2004; Kim et al. 2008; Mehroof and Griffiths 2010), boredom inclination (Chiu et al. 2004), sensation-seeking (Chiu et al. 2004; Mehroof and Griffiths 2010), diminished self-control and narcissistic personality traits (Kim et al. 2008), low self-esteem (Ko et al. 2005), neuroticism (Mehroof and Griffiths 2010; Peters and Malesky 2008), state and trait anxiety (Mehroof and Griffiths 2010), low emotional intelligence (Parker et al. 2008), low self-efficacy in real life as opposed to high self-efficacy in the virtual world (Jeong and Kim 2010), and diminished agreeableness (Peters and Malesky 2008)
It's like treating the fever, without asking if the patient has meningitis or the flu.

It is important to note that no game researcher today will claim that gaming has no problematic aspects. Just the one-sided use of time that for many very dedicated gamers could be better spent maintaining face to face communication, a healthy exercise habit and some variety in their general life experiences is worth considering when we talk about how games should be used. From there we see problems all the way from the development of cultures of exclusion based on game performance, by way of a language of aggression developing from the very direct communication ingame, to the huge economic losses caused by microtransactions. No, games are not always a fun and healthy habit. Neither is gardening, if you take it to an extreme that ruins your health, isolates you from friends and drains all your money. The only thing that makes excessive gardening better is that if you avoid pesticides and invasive species, at least you add to the production of oxygen and help counteract the heating of the planet, rather than adding to it through the support of the massive server-farms running to keep the games up. That is a huge benefit. Please go with problematic gardening, if you can choose.

The main danger of the decision to treat gaming disorder as a disease is that it shuts down too many other venues of exploration in order to understand why people play. It's becomes simple: It's because there is an addictive component to games, and like with drugs, alcohol and gambling, the only way to avoid the very wide range of problems ascribed to gaming is to shut down the games. But we don't know that. All we know is that there are a large group of people who wish it was that easy. If school shootings were caused by games, they would end if there were no games. If games cause teen-age pregnancies, they will disappear when there are no games. If games cause young men to become shut-ins and isolate themselves from the world and their families, they will emerge from their basements when there are no games. Students will finish college, grades will rise, drugs will disappear from the streets, crime-rates will drop. So many of society's ills can be cured, if we just remove games!

OK, the above was a touch of hyperbole lifted from the many, many articles describing what may happen unless we restrain games, and what games cause in society. The WHO classification underline that it's a very small part of the population that gets problems with games. But already the knowledge that this is a registered disorder has caused the business of treating it to bloom. And if that is allowed to happen without more research and more understanding of what is really going on, that means another boom of bad treatment clinics.

I rarely recommend comedy shows as references, but John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, May 20th 2018, had a long section discussing the rehab industry. Look at that, and then consider the potential for a gaming addiction rehab industry. There is after all a long history of strategies and research on drug rehabilitation. The so-called need for gaming addiction treatment comes with none of this, only concern and rumour.

When we, as games scholars, are worried and concerned, protesting the classification of gaming disorder, that is the real nightmare scenario.

Elsewhere on this:

The Verge on Gaming Disorder

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