Last night, as we’ve mentioned on the site already, the UK’s BBC1 aired a documentary in its Panorama series. Exploring gaming addiction, the episode was predictably, hatefully agenda-fueled, and I want to scribble down some quick thoughts about it. It’s available to watch on BBC iPlayer if you’re a UK TV License payer. If you’re not, here’s what the show was about.
At the very beginning of the programme, series host Jeremy Vine says: “24 million people in Britain play videogames. But how many become addicted?” At no point does Panorama even attempt to answer this, or bring any interesting new data to the table.
In fact, the show’s ludicrous lack of insight was highlighted perfectly in a single moment. One kid in Korea used to play games so much that his mother became certain he was addicted, and enrolled him in a sort of rehab regime for compulsive gamers. We’re shown the kid receiving his treatment, the footage displayed over sinister and foreboding music. We then get an interview with the mother, and I really wish I were making it up when I explain that she said this:
Well, I used to hit him a lot. But you need to talk and communicate a lot to understand a child. I regret not having done that in the past.
And that’s the show, right there: a show which starts with a presupposition that videogames are addictive, then sets about finding as much “evidence” as possible that this is indeed the case – even if that evidence is as tenuous and openly bizarre as “kid whose mother hits him retreats into his room to play games.”
Did I just watch an episode of Brass Eye? Given that it contains the line “people have gamed themselves to death,” delivered with an extraordinary seriousness that sounds like hammy over-acting, I’m inclined to think so.
This is a programme that “worries” and “wonders” about the effects, frequently asking “could it be that…?” various issues have been caused by gaming addiction, but never actually gets around to answering the questions it set up. It’s a programme where someone suggesting a person’s behaviour “sounds like an addiction” is considered evidence enough for Panorama to describe it as a “finding”. A programme in which pictures of children’s faces while concentrating on games, displaying various facial expressions which suggest they’re concentrating, is considered to be relevant when examining the facts about an apparent addiction. One kiddie was concentrating so much he lost his ability to blink! Yes, it’s definitely Brass Eye. If Bernard Manning were alive, he’d surely be calling that game “a fucking disgrace.”
(It’s also a programme which repeatedly gets the names of games wrong, which I feel demonstrates the amount of research that went into its making. Eidos are responsible for “the Laura Croft Tomb Raider series.” People were queuing around the block over the summer to get hold of a copy of “Starcraft.” Not StarCraft II, but Starcraft. This one felt more like an intentional withholding of information to suit the programme’s agenda. At no point is it mentioned that StarCraft II is a sequel which had been several years in the making, the follow-up to one of the most popular strategy games ever made. Because StarCraft II isn’t mentioned at all; just, erroneously, Starcraft. It’s implied that the release of some arbitrary game sends players into a midnight frenzy.)
It takes several minutes for the programme’s reporter, Raphael Rowe, to admit that gaming addiction isn’t officially medically recognised in the UK, due to a complete lack of decent evidence that compulsive gaming should classify as an addiction (Rowe goes on to decide himself qualified enough to call this lack of evidence “right to a point“). But by this stage, the word “addiction” is already lodged in our mind, and Panorama is going to be treating it as such. No attempt is made to define terms, no effort made to examine the evidence that suggests problematic gaming – while obviously a serious issue – is in fact an addiction: that the games themselves have caused this compulsive state in their players, a state which stretches beyond simply enjoying gaming more than other activities, and where there is a physical or psychological barrier that is stopping people from leaving their computers. Instead, the causal effect is assumed, and addiction used as the term without second thought.
The experts interviewed all, tellingly, shy away from the term. Leading child psychologist Dr Richard Graham thinks compulsive gaming needs more recognition, and says it could be a hidden problem, but never asserts that games are inherently addictive. Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University says that while most people can game normally, a small minority display “problematic” behaviour. He says his research shows people displaying similar symptoms to those suffering from traditional addictions, but that there needs to be more evidence before we can make big claims. And a psychologist in Korea says that a couple whose child starved to death because they spent so much time playing games had low IQs and had been diagnosed with depression before their gaming habit began.
But that’s quickly glossed over, the questionable evidence and backwards causality brushed aside, in order to explain that the Korean government “believes” that 2 per cent of children and young people are addicted to games (once again, no evidence is cited to support this claim). Here, Rowe continues to be amazed by the proliferation of these terrible games across society. “There’s one of these [internet cafes] on nearly every corner,” he says with barely disguised disbelief, pointing out that people even flock to them on Friday nights, instead of going to a nightclub. Apparently Rowe would like cultural activity to be standardised around the world, and everyone on the planet would go out and get trashed every weekend and start a fight or something. Later in the programme, one gaming addict has a similar suggestion: get drunk instead of playing games if you think it’s becoming a problem.
We’ve kind of known this is what the programme would be like since the BBC published the show’s synopsis, which claimed it would reveal the hidden tricks used by the games industry to keep people hooked. As if game development were embarked upon by maniacal scientists, all laughing to themselves as they reeled in yet another helpless victim. The show attempted to discuss this issue by approaching an award-winning game designer… whose company turns out to have made only one game: an educational one, designed to teach kids how to safely use the internet. But that’s not mentioned. What is mentioned is the wealth of psychological tricks used to keep people hooked. Like – um – rewarding players for their efforts with extra lives or new in-game equipment. In other words, sensible game design – not just within videogames, but within gaming from the dawn of time. If there were no reward for playing, we would not play.
That’s the crux of it, and it’s summarised perfectly by one gaming “addict” interviewed. “Blizzard Entertainment aren’t the people to blame,” he says. “They make a bloody brilliant game. They make a really good game and they know how to keep people interested.”
That, ladies and gents, is Panorama’s take on gaming addiction. And not one kiddie ended up quadrospazzed on a lifeglug.