Shoot first, ask questions later
As long as you and I have been playing videogames, there have been scare stories about their noxious effects on our minds. You’d think that after decades of the artform’s maturation, and the constant, patient rebuttal of accusations, more care would be taken over the subject. And then you read a newspaper story headlined ‘Fears grow for children addicted to online games’. Oh, do they? Whose fears? How many children? Are they really “addicted”?
Soon enough, the article in question cites some anecdata offered by a certain “Dr Aric Sigman, a freelance lecturer in child health”. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see someone described as a freelance lecturer in child health I do not immediately assume that he represents the sober consensus of the medical community. It turns out that this energetic doctor has also warned us of the dangers of television, “the social web”, and alcohol – or, in other words, pretty much everything that gives people pleasure. Of kids ruining their lives through online gaming, Sigman shouts: “Whether you call it an addiction or not, this is an enormous and growing problem.”
Well, is it? The article itself offers no solid evidence at all that it is. Which is unfortunate, because real research exists. There is, for example, a very interesting new paper entitled ‘ Internet Gaming Disorder: Investigating the Clinical Relevance of a New Phenomenon’, by Andrew Przybylski, Netta Weinstein and Kou Murayama. The next edition of the diagnostic manual for American psychiatrists, DSM, may include ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ (IGD) as a new issue in mental health. So, the authors explain, it’s incumbent on everyone to understand it – assuming it’s real, which not everyone agrees it is in the first place.
After polling many thousands of people in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, the authors analyse a solid data-set and offer some careful conclusions. For one thing, it seems that “dysregulated gaming” (obsessive playing accompanied by distress such that it might qualify as IGD) is significantly less common than problematic online gambling – which currently is the only behavioural addiction recognised as a psychiatric disorder. (Did the newspaper scare story about online videogames mention the comparatively greater prevalence of gambling addiction? It did not.) For another thing, the stereotype of the Warcraft- addicted gamer as antisocial misfit who never leaves the basement is also, perhaps surprisingly, unsupported by the evidence: the authors tested a hypothesis that people who would qualify as having IGD would also report enjoying less social contact during the rest of their waking hours. In fact they did not.
From their data the authors figure that somewhere between 0.3% and 1% of players would qualify for “a potential acute diagnosis” of IGD, which is lower than the mean of previous estimates. And IGD might in fact just be a symptom of what they call, in a rather beautiful technical phrase, “selfregulatory challenges epiphenomenal to electronic game play”. (In other words, if you have difficulty disciplining your own behaviour in general, you’re likely to have that difficulty with online games, but it’s not the games themselves that are causing it.) So before IGD really is erected as a new mental disorder, they conclude, “more evidence for clinical and behavioral effects is needed”.
This may seem a damp-squib conclusion, but it is actually news – that the evidence for links between a potential online-gaming disorder and negative physical, social or mental-health outcomes is “decidedly mixed”. It’s much more important news, indeed, than a scaremongering article. As the study authors conclude: “Internet-based games are currently one of the most popular forms of leisure, and researchers studying their potential ‘darker sides’ must be cautious.”
But note that the real reason why such media stories are so pernicious is not that they invent something that definitely doesn’t exist; it’s that they could lull us into a habit of dismissing any such concerns about videogames at all as just more of the same old demonisation. Maybe IGD deserves the imprimatur of psychiatry, maybe it doesn’t. It’s too early to say. But we do know for sure that designers of online games work very hard to make them as addictive as possible. For most of us, the effort they expend won’t ruin our lives. For others, it might. And to dismiss the possibility completely is just as irresponsible as to exaggerate it.
The next edition of the diagnostic manual for US psychiatrists may include ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net