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Soft Addictions - Hard Consequences: Video Games

Updated: Feb 17, 2019

If you don’t spend hours each day with a controller, phone or tablet in hand, staring at the latest FPS, Battle Royale or MMORPG, even if you’ve no clue what those are, you probably know someone who does. There are estimated to be 2.5 billion video gamers worldwide. These range from the commuter tapping away at a Candy Crush-type casual thing to the caricatured US teen, rarely leaving the family basement due to 12+ hour binges on Fortnite or Call Of Duty. At $140bn per year, the global video games market is far larger than markets for music and movies combined. Over half of this revenue is from mobile phone games, more of which later.

Video games are a centerpiece of the creative economy and popular culture, but their alleged pernicious effects are a perennial hot-topic for journalists. The scaremongering is easy to understand when looking at some of the worst examples, such as a 2010 case that reads more like a Black Mirror plot, when a South Korean baby died of neglect because her parents were so busy raising a virtual child online.

Journalism can tend to fixate on“moral panics” though. Think of the fuss over Video Nasties and allegedly Satanic influenced Heavy Metal in former decades,  when dear old VHS and vinyl were set to cause the downfall of civilisation. And there are plenty of ways in which video games can have a benign influence: as a fun use of down-time that’s less passive than TV, and with potential for developing mental and teamwork skills. But video game addiction is a thing - recognised as a disorder on the same lines as gambling by the World Health Organisation, and as diagnosable by the American Psychiatric Association,  whose manuals are something of a bible for mental health professionals worldwide. As with many things, there can be a blur between leisure, habit, compulsion and addiction. Are there aspects of game dynamics and design that could feed and exploit addictive tendencies? Well, yes there are. It would actually be surprising if a great deal of expertise didn’t go into making games compelling and therefore addictive. Games tend to be designed around gameplay loops, which operate as a kind of grammar. In the most successful cases these are easily intuited by the player. Flappy Bird had one of the simplest possible loops, basically: Rise - fall - avoid things. It was understandable within a few seconds and without instruction, yet it was popular to the point where the creator removed it from the internet in dismay. More sophisticated games might revolve around loops like Do quest - upgrade character - do harder quest”. With technological advancement, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 allow a number of different loops to operate at one time as players explore giant open worlds. No matter how sophisticated the gameplay and structure, each type of game described above can hook the player in for different reasons. Games played online have an extra level of addictive potential to those that are played solo. A major example is World Of Warcraft. In its heyday it was widely known as “Warcrack”, birthing large internet forums  where “Warcraft Widows” bemoaned the havok the game had caused to their relationships. There tend to be big cultural and gameplay differences between mobile games (on tablets and phones) as opposed to console and PC gaming, not just because of the casual nature of mobile games but because the lack of a controller can be quite limiting for gameplay. Mobile games have gravitated towards a free-to-play model, that tends to build gameplay around income generation rather than quality gaming. For example, there can be long waiting times (that can be skipped for money) and virtual currencies with an opaque relation to the real life currency used to buy them. With incessant dopamine rewards via graphical and musical blips, mobile games usually lure players in by being easy at first. But once someone is hooked (and has invested quite a bit of time) it becomes harder to progress without paying (this is called “hitting the paywall”). Free games are often profitable due to a small number of “whales”, a term used for casino big spenders, borrowed from the gambling industry. Whales plough far money into simple games than would be needed to buy a state of the art console game, and often the console as well. The small or small-ish payments that are made during play are called “micro transactions”. Their commercial success in mobile gaming has led them to start infecting console gaming in full price games, with add-on content being charged for. Children are highly vulnerable to this. The growth of “loot boxes” , virtual randomised items, has come to the attention of a growing number of governments for presenting a problem comparable to that of gambling. They have been been banned in Belgium and The Netherlands, with the list likely to grow.   

Gaming habits usually start early in life when there’s generally fewer responsibilities and more free time. But the long hours of play indulged by many young people can become  incompatible with work, study and relationships as they grow older. This is where a crunch can come, and addictive or compulsive behaviour can become very problematic: Real life can soon become unmanageable. For all their sophistication, gaming worlds are much simpler than the real world, and offer their rewards much more quickly. If you or someone in your life has a genuine problem, try to be honest and discern how mood,  time management, work, appointments and sleep are effected? Is there guilt and shame around gaming binges? Does gaming cause arguments? Are game worlds a big influence on dreams. It’s also important to consider other underlying problems that gaming might be masking. People in recovery often come to realise “It wasn’t the substances / gambling that were the real problem - the real problem was me.” It’s good to know that many gamers can make a habit manageable by tracking and limiting their playing time, using it as a reward for getting chores done, finding balance with other activities, or letting go of a “hard-core gamer” image. The full on abstention sometimes required with substance abuse may not be required, growing out of overindulgence seems more possible. But as with many addictive behaviours, people have to acknowledge the problem in the first place, and preaching isn’t always the best way to make this happen. And in some cases, a more drastic approach is required. There are a growing number of rehabilitation programs on the model usually more associated with drug and alcohol problems. Some people find they do have to cut out gaming completely, in line with the abstentionist approach of 12 Step Programs. The main 12 Step for this problem is Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous (CGAA). They have very few “real world” meetings but their YouTube channel has some great testimonies of people’s experience that you might find useful if you think you or a loved one has a problem. If you think a child in your life may have a habit that is out of control, try (at least initially) not to lecture, but instead to find out what they like and why, as well as what they think about payment models. Chances are they are much more culturally and economically aware of what’s going on than you, but this doesn’t make them less susceptible to exploitation. Games are of immense importance for many in terms of school and youth social life. It’s understandable that they might not want to feel excluded. Many parents restrict gaming time or use it as a reward. Games are far more sophisticated than in days of PacMan and Space Invaders, and even they famously had people addicted. Sooner or later, Virtual Reality will make a full impact on the market, bringing new risks with new levels of immersion. Problematic video game playing isn’t going away, it’s as well to level up your awareness of the dynamics, signs and solutions.

Take this quiz - Are you addicted to Gaming?

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