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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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