Cory Novis responds to the newly characterised ‘gaming disorder’, and questions what this could mean for our health.
Like many people of my generation, video games were a huge part of my childhood. I have many fond memories of huddling around TVs and handheld consoles with my friends playing Pokémon or Super Mario, and using these fictions to fuel my own creative outlets, like drawing. Back then, both for me and the video game industry itself, the idea of a “video game addiction” wasn’t widely considered or discussed, nor did it need to be. Multiplayer games required face to face contact (something addictions rarely coexist with) and single player games didn’t yet have the cinematic gravitas or incentivised reward systems like they do today, keeping the player engaged for long-haul gaming sessions. Like all things however, video games have changed and, according to WHO, so have the minds of many who are playing them.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the existence of a new and highly contentious mental illness with widespread cases from across the developed world. The condition has been minimalistically denoted by the organisation with a brand new clinical designation: gaming disorder.
Anyone who has grappled with or seen the effects of addiction knows the gravity that this new designation carries and, with critics already raising their arms in outcry, we are left to wonder what this may mean for the industry and whether this marks an ethical turning point.
The idea of video game addiction is not new. As far back as 1993 (and in many cases farther still), educators have been worried about the effects of video games on attention spans and behavioural patterns, but the declaration by WHO is an unprecedented move amongst health organisations, despite similar attempts to pathologise video game addictions having been attempted in the past.
So, what’s changed? Many important trends in the industry appear to play a part in this emerging health problem, the first of which may have begun with the advent of online games. In contrast to when we used to have to rally our friends together for an evening of local-multiplayer games like Super Smash Brothers or Street Fighter, many modern games allow players to play games online without the hassle and difficulty of getting everyone in the same room. However, the online alternative is no substitute for real human interaction.
Ex-video game addict Francis Labbé recently informed the CBC about his addiction to the online multiplayer game League of Legends. Despite playing with others, Labbé was not constrained to particular time frames by having to find other friends to play with him, and instead was at liberty to feed his addiction whenever the impulse struck. Further still, many addicts of online games exhibit the antisocial behaviour displayed by other addictions despite, technically, participating in an online community.
The second trend is more worrisome: video games are now designed to be addictive. Belgium has recently banned a common trope in many modern video games; a microtransaction called ‘loot boxes’, claiming that they are a form of online gambling. The loot box system, which is found in various forms in games like Overwatch, Star Wars: Battlefront and many others, allows players to buy a virtual treasure chest. The catch? You don’t know what’s inside until you open the box, with the contents often determined by non-random algorithms. In other words, it’s a rigged game. Other psychological tricks like incentivised rewards and attractive and flashy colour pallets also make the resemblances between certain aspects of modern games and the longstanding sin of gambling strangely uncanny.
Like many people, you likely have a culturally determined picture in your mind about what a video game addict looks like. It’s probably a bit like me: a young man or teenager with pocked skin and glasses who spends too much time on his PC. But it could look like you too. Video games, like technology, are increasingly pervasive. They are on the phones we bring to work, including games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, and on the tablets and iPads we give to our children, who spend hours on Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope.
An addiction to technology doesn’t just affect one demographic: it affects us all. Each of these little innocuous games display their own psychological trickery, and many have their own insidious means of removing money from your pocket through micro-transactions. Some of the latest statistics show that 43% of gamers are above the age of 36 and 28% are children. With this in mind, perhaps it is time for all of us to take an honest look at the amount of time we choose to spend with games, and in turn what this can mean for our health.
Featured image credit: pixabay