The dangers of an adolescent, abusive relationship with gaming

We need a proactive and empathetic understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens.

Confusion, embarrassment and an overwhelming sense of disappointment are all emotions people associate with their first time.

This isn’t the case however, when it comes to discussing the first time you fall in love with a video game, especially if that game happens to be Pokémon Red/Blue. For me, it was playing Crash Bandicoot Warped on my friend’s PS1. After my first taste of the enjoyable platformer I was totally and utterly enchanted with gaming of every sort. Many of my friends moved on as they grew up, but my fascination only increased. By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world and I did little else with my time. Gaming was no longer a leisure activity – it was the focus of my existence.

This was, as you can imagine, a profoundly unhealthy relationship. It wasn’t just that I was wasting my time – I was actively avoiding the pressing emotional realities of growing up. I don’t believe that I was alone in experiencing this enforced hermithood. Innumerable young men across the planet use gaming to hide from the unpleasant process of growing up, to the bafflement of their parents and wider society. This is my attempt to convey what is really going on in the minds of the world’s young couch potatoes.

As well as having to deal with a hormonal tsunami and appearance of acne, teenagers are obligated to contend with an array of societal demands on their character. Along with added responsibilities, adolescents are imbued with the desire to claim some level of status and respect from wider society. Young men have always been obsessed with gaining recognition – in some cultures this might take the form of military service, or in gang culture, or in higher education. Video games can meet the same longing, but in the form of a solitary, unproductive leisure activity.

When one achieves a high level in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (games like World of Warcraft) there is an automatic respect given by other players. Gaining status in these games requires hours and hours of hard work, but it’s codified and easy to understand. While personal progress in the real world is uncertain, virtual progress is measured in numbers. The player knows that the repetition of certain actions will be rewarded by a visually pleasing confirmation of advancement. The drive to go out and achieve something in the real world is thus circumvented. The unpleasant feelings that propel us into action are self-medicated through participation in far safer virtual realities. The game doesn’t necessarily have to be a social one – as long as the player is rewarded with a coherent simulation of status and authority it is vulnerable to be overused. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mindless shooter or a story driven role-playing game, the seductive opportunity to medicate one’s cognitive growing pains can be hard to resist.

What makes this process so damaging is the isolation it inflicts upon the individual. Thousands of hours that should be spent learning the rules of basic social interaction are thrown to the wind. Conversing with girls becomes an insurmountable challenge and the teenager is further burdened with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Once the increasingly despondent individual has become accustomed to avoiding these feelings it becomes difficult to break out of the cycle.

When an adolescent has answered every life issue with obsessional gaming since the age of thirteen, he is woefully ill-equipped to step up to the mark. This disempowerment is something that can hamper development for a long time – despite the fact that I’ve managed to fashion something equating to a happy existence, I am still living with the legacy of my ill-spent youth. I didn’t climb trees or ride my bike through the countryside – I sat in my room and hid from the intimidating world of expectations and pretty girls.

If a mother spots that their son is dealing with their problems through consumption of drugs or alcohol, it is unlikely that they will look the other way. The danger with abusive gaming is that it is accepted by society. A mum is far more likely to tut and complain about the PS3 than call an intervention. That’s not to go over the top – I acknowledge that the vast majority of people can enjoy video games for what they are, an absorbingly and brilliant way to relax and have fun. I merely wish that I could travel back four years, give my fifteen-year-old self a hearty slap round the face, throw the PS3 out the window and get him a girlfriend.

 There’s an awful lot of fear-mongering about video games, but most of it is total cobblers. There needs to be a deeper, more empathic narrative regarding the relationship many young males have with gaming. Panic-stricken headlines help nobody, but a proactive understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens may prevent a lot of demotivated young men from chronic underachievement.

To witness Will Hazell try and figure out how hashtags work, visit @WiltHazell

By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world. Photograph: Getty Images
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”