People have addictive personalities. Said people can conceivably become addicted to games. As games become more popular that risk increases. That’s the central premise of Panorama’s ‘Addicted to Games’, which airs on BBC one tonight at 20:30.
Where the programme slides into murky territory, however, is the insinuation that developers employ some kind of underhand, hidden techniques to psychologically manipulate gamers into a state of addiction.
The show begins with reporter Rafael Rowe attending a launch event for Blizzard’s StarCraft II.
“I can’t believe how many people are here just to buy a game,” he states. “It’s ten past eleven at night! As I parent I often wonder what effect it’s having on my children. Is it too much for some people to handle?”
The show then moves on to Joe Staley, who has apparently enjoyed computer games since he was a child. But when he bought an Xbox, we are told, it all changed.
“I just spend more and more time playing,” Joe confesses. “It started with Grand Theft Auto 4, then moved on to Call of Duty. I wouldn’t move from my bed, with my controller by my side. I couldn’t physically drag myself away from the game. I could go two or three days without sleep. That to me sounds like an addiction.”
A friend adds that Joe would “just eat, sleep and eat games – it became his occupation”. We’re then told that his habit “left him thousands of pounds in debt and saw him chucked out of university”.
We’re then introduced to World of Warcraft fan Liam
“You substitute the real world for this world,” Liam laments. “For two years I’ve played 12 hours a day. It was fun while I was playing but when you think of the derogatory effect it has on your life it’s not good.
“I would never inflect this game on anyone. It’s like a disease.” Liam is currently trying to go cold turkey.
If you’ve seen the trailer for tonight’s show you’ll have already seen the art of Robbie Cooper – video footage he captured for an exhibition was used in the short. And when taken out of context some of his feedback can seem very menacing.
“The game pulls people in much quicker than TV,” Cooper claims. “That kid over there cries when he plays games. He’s so engrossed by the game that he’s playing that he literally loses the blink reflex.”
Next we’re onto Chris, the son of Alison Dando, whose addiction to gaming his blamed for repeated truancy from school.
“Initially we didn’t connect it to computer games playing,” Alison stated. “It’s something that everyone does.”
She recalls the time when in an effort to tackle the issue she severed the house’s internet connection. She describes the response as an “outpouring of violence”.
“It took me into another world,” Chris says of the game. “It allowed me to be what I wanted to be. I had to stay at home. I had to do this. There was one point when the internet went down. I started sweating and I started shaking because I couldn’t play it. I went beserk. I smashed my sister’s door in.”
Things then become more alarmist as The Tavistock & Portman Trust’s Dr Richard Graham issues a stark warning: “I do think this is something that needs national recognition. A young person is not necessarily creating any immediate alarm, there’s no immediate risk that was apparent.”
Known games industry figure Mike Griffith of Nottingham Trent University counters with a fortunately more measured response. “The good news is that for the vast majority of people video games can be a positive thing in their life,” he assures.
“But we have to take on board that there is a small but significant minority for whom things like gaming can be problematic.”
Panorama then turns to the topic that forms the heart of its argument – South Korea. It’s a nation famed for its high-speed and expansive internet connectivity. The flip-side, the show says, is a growing problem of kids becoming addicted to online gaming.
“People can play themselves to death,” Rowe declares. “Since 2005 there have been at least 15 deaths linked to gaming addiction, some developed blood clots from sitting still for too long.
“One couple [in Suweon] were arrested after a baby starved to death as they played a computer game. The couple both had low IQs and both were depressed. They were playing a game called Prius Online for up to 18 hours a day. It involved protecting a virtual child. While they looked after their virtual child their baby daughter was fed just once a day and died of malnutrition.”
Kim Seong-byuk of South Korea’s Youth Protection Division then predicts that the UK is on course for the very same problems: “Without proper counter-measures the UK will face the same problem Korea is facing when online games become more accessible around the country.”
We’re then taken back to Liam, who in a remarkable sequence is interviewed while playing World of Warcraft. “I’m just focusing on this right now,” he says distractingly, as Rowe pushes him for answers.
“Just sitting here talking to me while you play this game you seem uncomfortable, you seem like I’m irritating you while you play your game,” Rowe pushes.
“No offence, but you are,” Liam replies. “I’m dying a lot while I’m sitting here because I’m playing badly.”
“Go outside, find a girlfriend,” is Rowe’s constructive response. “Do the things that other people of your age do.”
We then meet the co-founder and CCO of “award winning” transmedia specialists Six to Start, Adrian Hon. His former employer is Moshi Monsters’ creator Mind Candy.
“I don’t think that people understand how powerful some game mechanics can be,” he claims. “Some games are designed in a manner that you just don’t want to leave. The first technique is using the idea of variable rate of reinforcement, like a slot machine.”
Variable rate enforcement refers to an experiment first conducted on rats. It was found that if a lever was presented which would randomly distribute food when pressed, the rats would obsessively press that lever.
“It’s the same with people. If you give them a lever to pull or button to press and reward them randomly they will do it all the time,” Hon adds. “I think the industry needs to start thinking about this a lot more because games are becoming more widespread, more powerful.”
The show then proceeds to confront UKIE boss Mike Rawlinson on the potential dangers of gaming addiction.
“Looking at the evidence there’s a very mixed picture, and there’s no clear view on whether the game itself is causing the addiction or whether it's a behavioural problem with the individual – more research is needed,” he states.
“The industry will look at opportunities to support the research that needs to be done. Because the evidence is unclear we want to make sure people are not frightened and not alarmed. However, we should and will be advising parents to look out for excessive or problem gaming traits.”
Rowe then asks if UKIE currently has such information on their website, to which Rawlinson confirms they do not. The show adds that “to date” the website still does not mention the “risks”.
“Until that happens parents will not know about the dangers,” Rowe asserts.
To hear what MCV thought about it all, click here.