Well folks, it’s happening again. Broadcast media did a thing and there is, on some level or another, discourse on whether or not video games are (or can be) dangerous. It’s one of those weird fringe things, as I wasn’t even aware of this particular event until we received an unhappy email from the “Video Game Voters Network.” Here’s the skinny: Last week, the ABC joint 20/20 aired a special on technology addiction. The aforementioned VGVN shot out a response with some choice counter-arguments. I’m here to think about who’s right, who’s wrong and who’s being silly. The answer is everyone, but the real problem is of course delivery and spin.
The special doesn’t focus entirely on, but is mostly about, video game addiction. In the hour-long special, three different families are introduced, each with a unique story. In one, a young boy is so bent on playing video games and nothing but that he even stops going to school, until his concerned parents send him away to a recovery camp. The next, not about games, is about a girl who can’t put her phone down, who’s behavior takes a downward turn if her parents take her away from Snapchat, Facebook, etc. She eventually ends up in a bad online relationship and on the verge of suicide. Finally, a father comes home from work every day to play games, neglecting his family and household. It comes to the point of intervention, and a promise and struggle to give up gaming for 90 days.
The VGVN claims that video game “addiction” (quotes theirs) is “the new hotness in the game of let’s blame video games” and the 20/20 special featured “treatment specialists who use doomsday scare tactics to prey on parents and spouses that this could happen to them.” The statement then cites data from sources like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Video games are not and cannot be a Problem at all, says this organization.
What we’re looking at here are two sides of a coin, a coin that is lopsided and a little rusty. A coin that has been flipped many times over the past several decades, but hasn’t managed to decisively land yet. The truth is, we’re all still trying to figure this thing out. There are countless cases of some pretty awful things happening, and video games oddly seem to be involved. It’s almost a joke at this point that people have perished in Asian Internet cafes, too absorbed in whatever competitive online game to take care of themselves properly. There is something to that, and a reason stories have been bumbling around of places like China pressuring the World Health Organization to codify video game addiction as a disease, something this 20/20 report likely intended to explore.
To think about how we should look at a concept like video game addiction, I think we (and the people more intelligent and relevantly studied than anyone else involved) need to look at how gambling addiction is handled. They aren’t the same, because nuance is a thing neither ABC or VGVN seem to be into, but the logic is similar. Let’s take a brief look.
Humans are kind of a series of bizarre chemical reactions, right? Two of those chemicals are norepinephrine and serotonin, and they are relevant to our dilemma. The former is related to, and I’m admittedly quoting Wikipedia here, “mobiliz[ing] the brain and body for action.” Serotonin is more commonly known, and associated with feeling good, or happy. Just like any other chemical, people can, for no reason, have deficiencies. And, certain external triggers can kickstart whatever part of the brain isn’t quite doing its job, producing more of the needed chemical. This is where addiction comes in.
Addiction often happens because, whatever the external trigger is, loses its effectiveness over time. Your body gets used to it, but still needs it, so the degree of stimulation needed goes up over time. A dependency is formed, and you end up with situations like the ones shown in our lovely 20/20 special. People do things they probably know is self-destructive, but they struggle to do anything about it because the relief they get from their video game/drug/social media platform/etc of choice is a chemical necessity. This is why gambling, over time, shifting from being considered a matter of obsessive-compulsiveness to something more resembling substance abuse.
Gambling addiction being a Thing is totally accepted by most people, in a thoroughly cultural sense. We all know gambling is Bad, because we’ve been told gambling is Bad for decades. Because, if one of us happens to have that vulnerability to addiction, and gets that first taste of a slot machine or whatever, that could be the beginning of a brutal, downward spiral. Who says video games can’t be a similar trigger?
I ask that, especially considering today’s gaming climate. How many games are free to play, or just have gambling-like structures inside of them? Games like Overwatch are not only competitive, but have chance-based mechanics in Loot Boxes that are tied to real money. But even without that, these kinds of games have “carrot on a stick” style systems that are constantly, constantly rewarding the players, but dangling the carrot further and further away over time. See where I’m going here?
Sure, from the perspective of most people, who play games as a hobby, maybe not even more than a few hours a day or less… it seems silly. It doesn’t help that so many cultural issues have been pointed directly at video games over the past several decades. We’re used to being defensive for the medium we love. But corporations are not our friends, and we should also acknowledge that while video games are awesome, they can have problems too. Or rather, people can have problems that video games can contribute to, or worsen over time.
When somebody who has an undiagnosed problem with our friends norepinephrine or serotonin, and gets a hold of Candy Crush or hell, World of Warcraft, it happens. I’ve seen it myself – lives nearly ruined by games that kind of are explicitly designed to take advantage of human psychology. When you boil it down to nuts and bolts, it gets harder and harder to distinguish from gambling.
I’m not ready to start throwing labels and legislation at video games, though. Gambling is different in that it is deliberately predatory. That’s the distinction between it being illegal all over the place, and many scientists and organizations hesitating so much to drop classifications on games. Same with me – video games are important to me on a personal and academic level – equating them 100% to gambling addiction isn’t on the table. But the parallels are hard to deny. The situations in 20/20 are real, albeit hand-picked with intent to stir up emotions in people who are clueless otherwise.
I think what we need to do here is chill out, and let the science work itself out. These are discussions that are ongoing, and every time some Thing happens everyone on either side has to get their commentary and flavor of spin on top of everything. There is a clear percentage of people who manage to fall into bad situations, and that is legitimately unfortunate and not even necessarily a matter of personal accountability. This kind of research needs to continue as long as people need help. That help will only come the way it needs to when this stuff gets figured out. There’s a point to be worried, sure, but we aren’t quite there yet.