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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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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