Should games companies be held responsible for the woes of addicted gamers?

Game companies have started taking responsibility for an unfortunate byproduct of their success – “pathological” addiction - after a series of studies at British universities.

It’s 11.55pm. The big hand is leaning precariously towards the number 12 and it’s time to face the truth; there’s only time for one more Deathmatch before it’s officially tomorrow. You join the match lobby, plug in your headset, and wait for the countdown. For the majority of gamers, sleep is victorious and the selected console is switched off to see another day. As for the rest? They crave one more hit, a hit that never satisfies. Or so say researchers at Cardiff, Derby and Nottingham Trent universities.

Games trick us into impressive periods of screen gazing in order to reach the next must-have achievement, or into defeating that menace: Level 65 of Candy Crush. That’s the whole point. In order for a game to be played, it requires playability. The very reason why we choose to devote time to the PC, Xbox, PlayStation, iPhone or whatever your platform poison, is to be entertained. But can games be too good at their job? The universities’ study, published in July’s issue of Addiction Research and Theory Journal seems to think so, warning online game companies to start taking responsibility to combat a byproduct of their sales – “pathological” addiction. And they’re right, companies do need to flag up the side effects of their success, but not purposefully smother the “addictive” game mechanics.

“Take everything in moderation ... Bring your friends to Azeroth, but don’t forget to go outside of Azeroth with them as well”. The new addition of a welcome message to popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), World of Warcraft, is reminiscent of friendly tobacco or alcohol packaging, warning punters from overdosing on the delights within. Likewise, Final Fantasy XI greets its users with a few helpful hints on how to scale the world of Vana without developing real-world travel sickness: “Don’t forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work”. 

Both games are MMORPGs, which, more so than other video game genres boast “an inexhaustible system of goals and success in which the character becomes stronger and richer by moving to new levels.” So far, so safe. Right? But the handy life advice upon entry to these virtual realms doesn’t exist for pure aesthetic value; it does so because of very real circumstances.

The idea of an uncontrollable urge to level-up, a burning need to find the Manslayer of the Qiraji or an overriding concern to hoard piles of ‘gold’ around – and all for a character who exists solely through a computer screen is, on the surface, laughable. Nevertheless, the infinite nature of these worlds and their seemingly limitless gameplay – more so than other game types - has hooked some players into marathon-long sittings. The study records individuals continuing to play 40, 60 and occasionally 90 hours in a single session. That’s enough time to raise some serious parental eyebrows, especially when The American Medical Association predicts that “more than 5 million children” may be fellow addicts.

Game addiction is hardly a new phenomenon. Gambling addicts have been successfully losing their money for centuries, the mechanics of gambling based on a similar premise to MMORPGs. There is no ultimate end goal, but a faint hope of striking lucky spurred on by occasional rewards. What is more problematic is classifying gaming addiction. How many hours of FarmVille do we have to commit to before rewarded with the diagnosis of addict? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there is no certified definition for game addiction, but a simple Google search will show you that it isn’t an urban myth. Popular listings include “How to get rid of your game addiction in 15 easy steps” and “Wowaholics Annoymous – a community for suffers from World of Warcraft compulsion.

For most of us, video games can be enjoyed in healthy doses without any real blow to psychological wellbeing – except perhaps a slight sense of guilt that our simulated character is both richer and more skilled than its living counterpart. But the cheerful creed-like messages to “take everything in moderation” is an example of game developers and publishers “tak[ing] some responsibility into their own hands” of potential misuse.

While these cautions should be applauded, as indeed should practical time monitoring tools for players and parents, to alter the entertaining gameplay itself to make it less entertaining is ludicrous. Dr Zaheer Hussain from the University of Derby calls for an amendment of “character development, rapid absorption rate, and multi-player features” to discourage potential addicts. Why purposely manufacture a game to make it less playable? Yes, publishers produce games with the intention of seducing its audience, if they didn’t there would be no gamers to purchase the software in the first place. And what a place would that be. Rather, what is needed is a greater awareness and acceptance of the addictive effects of online games, and a knowledge that Wowaholics Annoymous are there to pick up the pieces.

Gamescom 2012 Gaming Convention. Image: Juergen Schwarz/Getty Images.
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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories