Trig­ger Happy

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.steven­

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