UPDATE: The Sun 'investigation' claims gaming is 'as addictive as heroin'

Ben Parfitt
UPDATE: The Sun 'investigation' claims gaming is 'as addictive as heroin'

As if video games aren’t already bad enough, it has now been revealed that they are as addictive as another really bad thing.

So says The Sun, anyhow, which has a spread in today’s paper (via @scully1888) with the headline: ‘Gaming as addictive as heroin’ carrying a ‘The Sun Investigation’ logo.

The online version is locked behind Murdoch’s paywall and we’re not paying for a physical copy to read, but a quick look at the tweeted picture reveals an assortment of chilling ‘facts’:

  • ‘Brits reach next level of mental health risk’
  • ‘5,000 calls to one clinic for help’
  • ‘Call of Duty link to three suicides’
  • ‘Dopamine levels increase in the brain’
  • ‘It gives you a kick and a chemical buzz’

There’s also a picture of some brains that we should imagine demonstrate the addling effects of playing Dear Esther and Katamari Damacy.

Of course, learned readers of Britain’s other daily fact bible The Daily Mail have known about video gaming’s heroin-like powers since September 2010.

Mind you, last month the media went mental when it was claimed that the sun (no, not the paper – the actual celestial body at the heart of our solar system and facilitator of all life on Earth) is also addictive like heroin.

As are pain killers. And sugar. And exercise. And, we’d argue, Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup ice cream.

UPDATE 1: Following what can best be described as a spirited debate with The Sun’s deputy head of publishing Dan Silver on Twitter (in which we are accused of lacking journalistic integrity for having not read the piece in full – that’s the piece with the headline ‘Gaming As Addictive As Heroin’ in massive yellow Hollywood blockbuster font) MCV went out and get itself a copy of the paper.

We also promised we’d “change the entire thing if we think we've been unfair”.

We’re not changing the story. And here’s why.

It opens with the assertion that “Britain is in the grip of a gaming addiction which poses as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse, a Sun investigation has revealed”.

In the grip of a gaming addiction? Well, yes, there are a lot of gamers. As big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse? The Office for National Statistics reported in February that there were 8,367 alcohol related deaths in the UK in 2012. Which we would argue stacks up fairly poorly against the zero proven gaming related deaths in the UK in the same year.

Estimates on deaths from illegal drug use seem less specific, although the figure of 1,750 is offered by The International Centre for Drug Policy at St George’s, University of London for 2011.

So that’s 10,867 drug and drink deaths versus no video games deaths. “As big a health risk”?

It continues: “Just last week, The Sun told how a 45-year-old woman had been jailed after stealing £1,000 from her disabled mother to fund her Candy Crush Saga habit”. Which presumably carried the headline “Women jailed for stealing”?

Dr Aric Sigman then says: “When you do something like shoot heroin or drink alcohol, your brain produces dopamine to make you feel good, which you learn to associate with the activity.

“Video games can do this too. When young people play them, their brain produces a notable increase in this addiction chemical. That’s something that gives you a kick and a chemical buzz. The faster, more violent games are a more intensive experience, so will produce more dopamine.”

OK. Firstly, supposedly this dopamine is produced by all brains, as all people of all ages can become addicted to drink or drugs? Yet “young people” are mentioned specifically. Why is that?

Then there’s the claim that “faster, more violent games are a more intensive experience, so will produce more dopamine”. There are plenty of non-violent games that offer a “more intense experience” – Burnout, Amplitude, Rez, Need for Speed, Guitar Hero, even Tetris! They will presumably offer the same risk?

We had an unbelievably tense game of Hearthstone online last week and yes, we hold our hands up – we fancied another game immediately after! Even we struggle to contest that fun can be worryingly moreish.

The paper goes on to cite therapist Steven Noel-Hill of London’s The Alcemy Clinic.

We tried to check the website for that – it’s down, although we did discover that Noel-Hill is a former football agent and recovered gambling addict who used to work for The Priory.

The Alcemy clinic specialises in American bootcamp-style treatment, with Noel-Hill claiming that addiction sufferers should be extracted from their community for treatment.

“The reality for young people at risk of going off the rails is that they are surrounded by temptation every day, when they are with friends and at school. Even the home environment can be too risky for many,” he said in a 2012 press release for his addiction treatment business.

“The problem is not just drugs and alcohol but issues with excessive internet use and gaming too. With the advent of social networking and smart phones these activities are incredibly difficult for adults to police.

“Early intervention in a controlled environment away from temptation is crucial to help these kids reassess their relationships with friends and loved ones, make more positive choices in the lives and to have a chance to make changes for the better."

Another way of reading that is that he has a vested financial interest as he’s trying to sell the services of his clinic.

The paper then mentions a “spate of gaming-related deaths” that have taken place around the globe. It cites six specific cases, as well as a coroner who recently linked Call of Duty to “three of four” inquests into teen deaths.

So even if we give the paper the benefit of the doubt and readily declare that all ten deaths were directly and indisputably linked to video games (which is almost certainly not the case), that’s ten worldwide video games deaths in recent memory versus 10,867 drug and drink deaths in the UK in one year (that’s one year of drug deaths and one year of drink deaths).

“Britain is in the grip of a gaming addiction which poses as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse.”

There are two specific cases detailed, too. 32 year old Saskia Vease runs an online dog clothing boutique, who says that: “If I’m going out with my friends it’s normally a real battle to leave my iPad behind”. Her last boyfriend dumped her because she played so much.

Then there’s 20 year old Jordan Lee Weaver who plays League of Legends for up to 12 hours a day and is worried he might not do very well at university if he doesn’t cut down. We agree, Jordan.

There’s also the previously mentioned brain pictures of both a ‘NORMAL BRAIN’ and a dreaded ‘VIOLENT GAMES BRAIN’. This apparently shows that when divided into a group who played games and a group that did not, the menacing VIOLENT GAMES BRAIN showed “markedly reduced emotional ability”.

Honestly, we’re struggling to take this seriously any more.

Finally there’s a checklist of ten yes/no questions. Answer yes to seven or more and it could mean you’re addicted, we’re told. The thing is, you could substitute the word ‘gaming’ with more or less any noun or verb and conclude the same thing. Yes, if you think about any one thing during virtually every waking moment you are quite possibly addicted to that very non-specific thing.

So there you go. Have we learnt anything extra that we didn’t know before reading the full story? Has our opinion changed now we’re more informed?

Of course not.

We’ve been reading stories for these for years and reading the entire thing has simply reinforced the idea that we were completely correct with nothing but a glance to dismiss it as another glorified attack on games and treat it with the contempt it deserved.

We very much hope our journalistic integrity has been restored. Sadly, we’re now even less optimistic about The Sun’s. 

UPDATE 2: Dan Silver has now denied accusing us of lacking journalistic integrity and said: “I actually accused you of flagrant hypocrisy and abandoning journalistic priniciples”. Just to be clear. Because that’s the main issue here.

UPDATE 3: MCV has been sent a statement from UKIE CEO Jo Twist on the subject of video games addiction: "The games industry takes the health and wellbeing of all consumers very seriously and there is currently no official medical diagnosis of video game addiction, either from the American Medical Association or the World Health Organization.

“Like any other pastime, a common sense approach should be applied and players should take regular breaks of at least five minutes every 45-60 minutes. Stories like these completely ignore all the positive effects of playing games and the fact that millions of people round the world play video games safely and sensibly every day.”

UPDATE 4: Eurogamer asked Dr Mark Griffiths, who contributed to The Sun’s article, if the claim that "Britain is in the grip of a gaming addiction" is correct.

Griffith described it as “incorrect”.

He added: "Every time I do a piece of research, if it's something that's negative, 90 per cent of the press cover it. If it's something positive, 10 per cent of the press cover it. Bad news stories sell.

“The number of genuine video game addicts is few and far between.”

UPDATE 5: MCV has tried to find details concerning the qualifications of Steven Noel-Hill. As his clinic’s website is down we don’t know what information can be found on there, but there’s certainly no details of any professional counselling training on his LinkedIn profile and there’s no record of him being accredited on the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s Register of Counsellors & Psychotherapists.

There are records dating back to 2006 of him promoting his addiction treatment services, however.

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Tags: Media , the sun , video games , addiction , addictive , heroin , Gaming as addictive as heroin

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