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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA