In 2001 I spent six months in Sri Lanka. When you’re living and working in the jungle there’s not much to do of a night, and as a result I found myself getting engrossed in, amongst other things, the Harry Potter books. There were many blurry-eyed mornings caused by a late one the night before when I simply couldn’t resist the urge to read one more chapter.
Did that opening paragraph strike you as sinister? Did it make you wonder if J. K. Rowling had employed some sort of underhand psychological technique with which to manipulate her readers into consuming with ever increasing hunger more and more of her hypnotic words until you’ve bought all of her books, a Harry Potter pencil case, the DVD box set and a branded lunch box?
Of course not. The media we consume is by its nature designed to enthral, to engross. It’s supposed to leave us wanting more. What is the worth of a book not designed to make you read the next chapter? Or a film in which you simply don’t care what happens to the hero?
Or a game where you feel no compulsion to play beyond the first level.
That’s the most disturbing thing about ‘Addicted to Games’, Panorama’s investigation into gaming addiction that airs on BBC One tonight. That games are designed to keep you interested is dressed up as a dark, dangerous psychological ploy that threatens the well being of our nation’s children.
The analogy that is used in the show is one about rats. If rats are taught that a certain action can garner random rewards they will repeat the action “obsessively”. This is the principal, it is argued, on which many of the world’s most dangerous games are secretly constructed.
Of course, it’s true to a certain extent. How many WoW players have you heard talk about hours spent grinding in Azeroth? You could argue that just last night I spent a good two hours ‘grinding’ Gran Turismo 5 to try and unlock the second rally Special Event that opens up at Level 16.
And Call of Duty, the most successful online console brand there is, only reached the heady heights which it today commands thanks to a grind-heavy levelling system in the multiplayer.
But there’s nothing sinister about this. The reward of further play or extra items/abilities/weapons is the very essence of their success. The promise of another gun, a new killstreak, an extra attachment or high-level perk is absolutely why we play on. The same principle can be seen in FarmVille, in Final Fantasy XIV, Borderlands or in an endless number of titles – both good and bad.
And it’s no different to the narrative that propels you to the next chapter in a book or the cliff-hanger that makes you stay up late to watch just one more episode of Lost or 24.
[Adrian Hon, the designer quoted in the show, makes an extended argument about the differences between gaming and other media here.]
And that’s the problem with this Panorama show. Is the impact of widespread online gaming in South Korea of interest? Of course. And are there things to learn from it? Definitely.
But isolated cases of people whose addiction happens to be gaming (it could just as easily be alcohol, or gambling, or drugs, or sex, or Weetabix) only serves to cheapen the show.
Some very choice editing betrays its erroneous motivations, too. In one sequence host Rafael Rowe interviews WoW ‘addict’ Liam while he’s playing the game. Liam is, understandably, distracted. He’s trying to play a game. Of course, it’s possible Rowe asked to interview him across the road in the park in the lovely afternoon sunshine with the cry of happy children filling in the air.
But I’d bet my Xbox 360 on him having insisted the interview takes place right in front of Liam’s PC as he plays the game.
Then there’s the really quite revolting snaring of UKIE director general Mike Rawlinson, who is fingered for not having any advice about gaming addiction on the UKIE website.
Hands up, Mike, you’re guilty. By the way, you’d better add those sections about gaming’s possible links to cancer, alien abduction, teenage pregnancy, itchy toes and Middle Eastern extremism too. There’s no evidence for them, of course, but y’know – just in case.
Then there’s the interesting presentation of Blizzard’s response to the accusations – on-screen text with no voice over. Faceless. Corporate. Cold. Sinister. It’s the only part of the show presented in this way.
The truth is that tonight’s Panorama is far from the worst show you’ll ever see about gaming. But Hon’s vague psycho-babble and some shocking footage of, let’s be frank, a handful of troubled social rejects severely undermines the show’s attempt to portray video gaming addiction as the nations’ next teenage scare story.
And it doesn’t do the otherwise wonderful BBC any credit.