There have been a number of worrying reports lately about young people spending detrimental amounts of time on their phones and gaming in particular. The pandemic has meant a lot of parents’ rules around gaming have been abandoned whilst they try to keep up with work, leaving them feeling guilty and often with grumpy, gaming focused kids. In this post I wanted to investigate what gaming addiction is and how we can work out what to do if we’re not happy with our kids gaming.
First of all, is addiction to gaming a real thing? Yes and no. On the one hand the WHO officially recognized it as a condition in 2019, on the other there’s quite a lot of controversy around how ‘addiction’ is defined. Addiction is often looked at in studies centred on dopamine and whether something stimulates its production and therefore makes the person want more and more of it. However, reading some of the literature on addiction I’ve found that it’s all a bit tenuous as dopamine is produced by lots of nice things like running or breastfeeding which doesn’t necessarily make a person behave compulsively. For me what’s important is not whether gaming is physiologically addictive or not, but more that for some people compulsive gaming can have a very negative impact on their lives and the word ‘addiction’ helps them describe their feelings and importantly to also get other to take their problems seriously.
So, if it’s not that helpful to think about dopamine production how can we define when gaming has become addictive? Having read through various papers as well as speaking to Joe Tulasiewicz, a PhD student at UCL researching internet addiction, it’s seems like it’s less about the number of hours spent gaming but how it is affecting the rest of the players lives. Is gaming all they really want to do? Do they avoid activities that will take them away from gaming? Is it paradoxically not that much fun for them, ie they’re not particularly happy when gaming? If the answer is yes then perhaps, they have a problem.
There’s a great study on gambling addiction in Las Vegas, titled Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull which has become a keystone in understanding all sorts of digital addictions. It might also be useful here when trying to understand our kids and their relationships with gaming. Most gambling addicts in Las Vegas are addicted to the machines, the digital one arm bandits (it is also where the majority of casinos make their money) and one of the most striking findings is that they’re not interested in winning money. Gamblers tell Dow Schull that the aim of playing is to get ‘into the zone’, where nothing else matters and they can forget about everything for a while. This goes against the idea that gambling is about highs and lows and always hoping to win big. The aim is not to win big but to play in such a way that they get to lose themselves for a while and it’s this feeling that is so compelling. This is why we scroll through social media for so long, not because it’s great, or we want to find a really great post to get stuck into but to just generally while away some time on nothing too taxing or too engaging. It’s because it’s not that stimulating that we keep scrolling. The same goes for gaming, where players often find themselves in a sort of fugue state where the player is not really themselves nor in the space they’re playing in but ‘in the zone’.
Dow Schull attends gamblers anonymous sessions as a researcher and finds that many addicts focus on their own psychological weakness. However, what she reveals is that from the road design, to the lobby architecture, from the lighting, to the music playing and of course the game designs themselves – Las Vegas and its machines are designed to make people addicted to machine gambling. The vast majority of the money spent in Las Vegas casinos is spent by locals who are constantly navigating this landscape, not the tourists who come and go. This is something we can recognize from gaming too.
Fortnite was in the news a few years ago for its addictive properties and there’s a growing awareness that players of many games are manipulated into playing for longer and longer. However, what’s fascinating about Dow Schull’s research is the importance of the physical environment. How the right music at the right volume will make players play for that extra hour, for example.
This is something we can think about with our kids at home. How easy is it for your kids to play video games rather than do something else? When our kids are at home perhaps we need to acknowledge how we have arranged our rooms, what alternatives are on offer and how much easier we have made gaming as opposed to other activities. I for one know that my kids room is often untidy, making the floor less usable for playing and the living room is big and largely absent of anything to do except watch TV or be on a device of some kind. So that’s where the often end up being. Seeing as we’ve built a society in which kids are rarely let outside to roam or wander, then gaming becomes one of a limited number of options for occupying them. Perhaps we can make other activities easier to do and their rooms nicer to be in rather than retreat from?
Beyond our actual physical spaces there’s also what’s going on in our family lives that might contribute to compulsive gaming. PHD researcher, Joe Tulasiewicz told me about his own addiction to gaming as a teenager. He explained that during that particular phase in his life he didn’t have many friends at school and his family life was quite tumultuous too. Gaming was an escape where he didn’t have to challenge himself too much and he could just eat up the hours without having to think. Similarly, the pandemic has shown that it’s not just the addictive properties of the games, nor the way we’ve arranged our homes but the fact that many parents have had to work and may be unusually stressed. Hopefully as some semblance of normality returns some parents will find their kids gaming reduces without too much effort.
The other way to look at it, is to consider whether it’s a problem at all. Alex Golub is a World of Warcraft enthusiast and an anthropologist. He asks whatever happened to passion? What’s wrong with getting a bit obsessed? On what criteria have we decided that gaming is a waste of time or bad for our kids? He plays around 15-20 hours a week and doesn’t see a problem with it. According to Nardi, another anthropologist researching WoW, maybe life in multiplayer online games is just better than real life a lot of the time. She asserts that playing the game is a valuable aesthetic experience as much as a book or a film is and seeing as most younger kids aren’t allowed out on their own to play, it’s way more interesting than mooching about the house. Also, there is an important social dynamic to some of the games and it’s the place many young people get to spend time with their friends or distant family.
We have a long tradition in the West of fearing technology and what it does to us but it’s worth bearing in mind that we’re not always passive receivers but creative users and shapers of technology. It’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking gaming is worthless or less good than other interests our kids might have. At the same time if we do think that gaming has got out of control, there are games which are more addictive than others (link) and a lot of effort is made to hook players in and keep them playing for as long as possible. So, we need to bear in mind the environments in which our kids our playing and seeing if there are things we could potentially change in order to diminish the power some of these games have. And finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that most addictions are beaten and however bad things may seem now they’re very likely to change for the better. However, if you’re worried about your kid I’ve got a few links below where you can get professional advice.
Non-academic articles on the topic
If you don’t want to buy the Dow Schull book then this is a good summary
Academic articles on gaming and addiction
Addiction by Design : Machine Gambling in Las Vegas
Natasha Dow Schüll
Princeton University Press
The Anthropology of Virtual Worlds: World of Warcraft
My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of
World of Warcraft
Frank W Paulus; Susanne Ohmann; Alexander von Gontard; Christian Popow
Internet gaming disorder in children and adolescents: a systematic review