So, the other day the UK tabloid “The Sun” took a swing at video games with the infuriatingly sensationalist headline “Gaming as Addictive as Heroin”, which nearly made want to metaphorically flip my own desk.
As part of an “investigation”, the article in question (which is behind a bloody paywall) claims that the United Kingdom “is in the grip of a gaming addiction which poses as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse.” Even though addiction in itself is a very serious matter, it just seems all too easy to point the finger at videogames for having addictive properties rather than point the finger at people with addictive tendencies.
Unsurprisingly, a few gaming-focused websites went ape at The Sun, outlining counter-arguments, debates and refutes against the headline and The Sun’s bollocks on the matter. Not to mention that all the headline has to go on for “gaming being addictive” are the cold hard “facts” that are detailed below, courtesy of MCV.
“Brits reach next level of mental health risk”
“5,000 calls to one clinic for help’”
“Call of Duty link to three suicides”
“Dopamine levels increase in the brain’”
“It gives you a kick and a chemical buzz”
Can I just call The Sun out on the blanket bs on the matter of “dopamine levels increase in the brain”--of course they bloody do! Dopamine is a endorphine that sends pleasure responses whenever someone is stimulated, which plays a role in reward-motivated behavior.
Games have a way of triggering those responses in the same way food, sex, excitement and pain does--it does not pave way for the sensationalist claim that because videogames activate our reward-motivators they’re therefore as addictive as something that’s far more serious and actually detrimental, like heroin.
After taking a day to properly read the appropriate material, it turns out that this rabbit hole goes deeper than I initially thought, and I soon climbed out of said hole for the maintenance of my emotional stress.
According to Eurogamer, the headline claims--as detailed above--that a singular London-based clinic receives 5,000 calls a year from parents seeking help for their child’s supposed gaming addiction. Because a microsample is enough to generalize the entire country of Britain (Scotland, England and Wales), of over 63 million people since 2011, as being “gripped” by “gambling addiction”, right? That makes great sense, The Sun. Well done.
Furthermore, the headline also includes case studies, would you believe. These “case studies” are really just testimonies from a few people. As detailed by Eurogamer, a student from East Yorkshire details that he spends 12 hours a day playing League of Legends. He’s a student, chances are he may have a lot of spare time to spend--hell, I did.
Another person from Sheffield details that she spends £100 a week on apps such as Candy Crush. Sorry, The Sun, that’s not video game game addiction--that’s bad video game design, with a batch of way too much expendable money on something that’s menial.
The headline also references an number of cases regarding video game related deaths from around the world.
This seems very typical of the very nature of generalization: take small, isolated instances and project them as blanket assumptions across a broader demographic.
Despite his contribution to the Sun’s article of 10 yes/no questions regarding “video game addiction”, Dr Mark Griffiths, a researcher at the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, downplayed the sensationalist title of the tabloid, explaining to Eurogamer that “there is no evidence the country is in ‘the grip of addiction’.”
“Yes, we have various studies showing a small minority have problematic gaming,” Griffiths continue. “But problematic gaming doesn’t necessarily mean gaming addiction. They’re two very separate things. Yet the media seem to put them as the same.”
"I've spent well over 25 years studying video game addiction. If we're going to use the word addiction we have to use the same concepts, signs and symptoms we find in other more traditional addictions, like withdrawal and tolerance. By doing that the number of people who end up being addicted by my criteria are actually few and far between," he told Eurogamer.
"The little thing I did for The Sun is actually based on real criteria I use in my research. The number of people who would score seven out of 10 of those items I put in The Sun today, I'd find it very hard to believe there would be more than a handful of people out there that would score high on all those things,” Griffiths added. “You'd probably get a lot of people who might endorse three or four of them, but that doesn't mean they're addicted. That might be somebody who has problems with it.”
Griffiths went on to say that should “video game addiction” be an actual addiction, it may be as addictive as other more traditional addictive things in terms of signs, symptoms and components. For the moment, there is an incredibly small minority of cases that are reported to be genuinely addicted to video games. Whether that’s part of the game’s design or a neurological tendendency or deficiency on part of the minority is up for speculation, a speculation which I pick the latter of.
"Most kids can afford to play three hours a day without it impacting on their education, their physical education and their social networks. Yes, I believe video game addiction exists, and if it is a genuine addiction it may well be as addictive as other more traditional things in terms of signs, symptoms and components. But the good news is it is a very tiny minority who are genuinely addicted to video games."
He concluded that, as mentioned above, there’s no evidence of the country being in a state of “video game addiction” and that while there are cases showing a small minority having problematic gaming, Griffiths counters that “problematic gaming” doesn’t necessarily mean “gaming addiction”.
Dr Jo Twist, the CEO of Ukie, the UK’s trade body for the country’s interactive entertainment industry, also told Eurogamer that the The Sun’s article also ignored the positive effects gaming has on people, and the fact that millions of people play safely and sensibly.
"There is currently no official medical diagnosis of video game addiction, either from the American Medical Association or the World Health Organization," she told Eurogamer. "A big focus for Ukie this year is to get more proactive positive press stories into national news to dispel these kinds of pieces and we will be working hard over the next few months to achieve this."
In an effort to prove The Sun wrong in its allegation, Stick Twiddlers started the Twitter campaign #HelpsNotHarms, which is an effort to convey the all the outweighing positives gaming has brought to people by asking others to tweet about how gaming has helped their lives in some way.
“After reading the article in The Sun, I find it both full of incorrect facts and actually vying away from the problem that is addiction,” Dr. Luxman Parimelalgan told Stick Twiddlers, who is a respected professional in the field of alcohol and substance misuse. “Addiction is defined as both a physical and a psychological need to undertake an action. Not all addictive behaviour can be classed as being negative; indeed an example is exercise which can have a positive effect on an individual.
Humans are born with an addictive nature, we crave pleasure and once we find a way to enhance this we like to repeat this action,” Parimelalgan went on. “This may come in the form of eating chocolate, working, exercising, playing video games, gambling or using illicit drugs. Addiction is also very personal in nature, not one of the examples previously is more addictive than the other but rather depends on the individual.”
Parimelalagan also offered their two-cents on The Sun’s headline, “Gaming as Addictive as Heroin.” His response is pretty much what I said above about dopamine being sent around the body, stating that such a thing is a normal biological process, and so experiencing pleasure (in all sorts of the word) when playing games is an “expected and normal” experience.
“All pleasurable responses in the body lead to the release of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin; this a normal biological process. So the fact that video gaming releases dopamine when a gamer is enjoying his/her experience is expected and normal,” Parimelalagan said.
“To compare this with the dopamine release when using heroin (which is also pleasurable to the user) was only to create headlines and not a true reflection of the biological process. The neurological scans if comparing for a person close to winning a bet on a horse race or eating chocolate will be very similar but less headline grabbing,” Parimelalagan added. “I am sure The Sun would not publish an article that gaming is just as addictive as chocolate or exercising.”
As part of MCV’s own piece on the matter, The Office of National Statistics reported back in February that there were 8,367 proven alcohol-related deaths in the UK back in 2012, and The International Centre for Drug Policy at St. George’s, University of London reports that an estimated 1,750 deaths were related to illegal drug use back in 2011.
Out of over 10,000 proven deaths relating to drug and alcohol abuse, there is no proven record of deaths relating to videogames in the UK.
Furthermore, according to MCV (who actually had to buy into the online version of The Sun’s article), Dr Aric Sigman told The Sun in its article their own iteration of the chemical process of dopamine being circulated throughout the body, using heroin as a starting point.
“When you do something like shoot heroin or drink alcohol, your brain produces dopamine to make you feel good, which you learn to associate with the activity,” Sigman said. “Video games can do this too. When young people play them, their brain produces a notable increase in this addiction chemical. That’s something that gives you a kick and a chemical buzz. The faster, more violent games are a more intensive experience, so will produce more dopamine.”
MCV also calls out Sigman for their reference to violent games offering a more intensive experience, and thus producing more dopamine, bringing up that video games such as Burnout, Need for Speed, Guitar Hero and even Tetris all offer an “intensive experience” in their own way, and satirically questions that--surely--those games would presumably have the same risk, too.
I believe the underlying issue of this is because dopamine is such a ubiquitous thing in all humans, anything that triggers a dopamine response that is associated to anything that’s confirmed to be addictive is automatically compared to other substances that have yet to be proven as such and so labeling them as “addictive”. There’s a term for that: false equivalency, the fallacy of something sharing a similar property to something else being automatically equal.
Heroin releases dopamine into a human’s system, as does an intensive gaming experience. Heroin is addictive, ergo gaming must be too, apparently.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there are more proven cases of sexual addiction than of “video game addiction”.
Addiction is a real issue, and allegations such as The Sun’s headline, despite a very small minority of confirmed, isolated cases, only exacerbates the whole thing. Addiction isn’t the fault of video games, it’s the fault of people, and those people struggle and die because of that fault (whether it was instigated out of curiosity or pressure or neither).
Throwing around sensationalist headlines derives from the real issue of addiction itself, and all it has done has effectively given people minute tidbits of information--that are metaphorically stretched out to incomprehensible pixelation to be the broader picture--as facts that apply to a majority that just isn’t there.
No doubt people have learned nothing from The Sun’s headline, but hopefully a hell of a lot more people learned something when it was called out for its bs.
You can read the full reports of MCV, Eurogamer and Stick Twiddlers via the source links below.