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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster