Addicted to Hype? An insiders angle on the Panorama incident…

December 15, 2010, Author: Trent Pyro

As many of you will know, either from watching it or hearing about it in the ginormous internet backlash, last Monday’s episode of Panorama was of great interest to the gaming community. Posing the question ‘Addicted To Games?’, it involved equal parts scaremongering, misinformation and tactical use of facts. Practically everyone in the gaming community and many more people outside of it have slammed the show for being one-sided and providing very little hard evidence or support for its proposed theory. Whether any of that is true or right is not for me to say and is additionally not the point of this article.

No, the true point of this here piece of writing is to explain my involvement in the whole thing, give you guys a unique perspective on it and address a few of the issues that I feel the programme inflames, misses the point of, or misunderstands. So I’ll start by explaining how I’m tied to all this and go on from there.

Party to the thing
Here it is. Joe Staley is one of my closest friends and featured in a documentary made by some of his former uni classmates about gaming addiction. This piece was then seen by the creator of Addicted to Games? (let’s call it ATG for ease of writing) and is, ironically, in my opinion a much more balanced view on the subject. See for yourself here. Anyway, I get a call from Joe asking if Panorama can use my house to film at. Joe’s dad is not a fan of gaming and especially not Joe gaming so refused, rightly so, to have it shot at his house. Myself, being Joe’s friend and also relishing the opportunity as a fledgling media professional to get to see how a documentary is made, I felt that having them film at my house would be an interesting experience. So they came, they filmed, they asked lots of questions, made Joe play some Modern Warfare 2, made us both play Rock Band for a bit and then left. They were amicable guys, if a little pushy, but that was to be expected from media types with a tight time-scale. Little did I know how the whole thing would turn out.

During the filming they concentrated mainly on Joe as he was the main focus of the piece, but since I was his friend and had gaming sessions with him frequently during his ‘worst period’, they also asked me questions about him. One of these questions was included in the final edit, and I believe it was, in fact, the only thing that I said that was kept in. I believe this was because most of what I said did not support or even entertain their exaggerated view of games addiction and its causes.

I used much of my apparent camera time to explain the reasons behind developers making games that people don’t want to stop playing, resisting the idea that devs should have to take steps to prevent people becoming addicted and down-playing how bad Joe really was. Despite the fact that, for a time, I was concerned about his life I really never saw it as that much of a problem. I expressed concern to him that he should, you know, get off his arse and look for a job, like everyone else. I suggested he get on with media related stuff rather than sit playing Modern Warfare all day. As his friend, however, I didn’t see it as my responsibility or purpose to intervene and stop him gaming. He’s an adult, his own person and he can do what the hell he likes.

So, while it may seem to some that I was all for the cause that the BBC were creating, I was actually trying to inject some sanity into proceedings, all of which was cut. While I do not think I was misrepresented, my comments were used well within context, it was obvious to me that much of what I had said was tactically cut as it did not support the theme of the piece. It makes me wonder what else was cut in this was to maintain the mood and overall goal of ATG.

Before I begin to pick apart the themes of ATG that really got me going, I’d like to take this opportunity to clear a few things up. Firstly, Joe was thrown out of university because he was failing and he couldn’t afford to keep going. He did not drop out, as ATG explicitly tried to imply, because of playing games. He became disinterested and disenfranchised with his course and therefore had no drive to go. In his boredom, he began to play his Xbox more. So, his disinterest in university was a reason for his increase in gaming, not the other way around.

Also worthy of note is that, while much of the money he spent to get him into the ‘crippling debt’ ATG was so happy to impress was in fact spent on games, the actual debt was more a result of Joe not being very good with money. Sure, he bought a few more games than he should have considering his budget, but I know of numerous occasions where he was confident he could afford the expenditure but in fact couldn’t. So the debt was more a result of Joe’s bad budgeting skills than an addiction to gaming.

Now that’s out-of-the-way, I want to tackle some of the issues in ATG and try to explain my reasoning behind why many of them are presented entirely in the wrong way in the programme. I would first like to say that I do acknowledge that some people play games way too much and it negatively impacts on their lives. This is a problem, maybe, but only for them and their immediate family. It’s a problem they should sort out for themselves and not something that needs national attention or government assistance or interference. Just thought I’d clear that up in case you all thought that I thought game addiction was a fabricated myth. Now, onto the real issues.

The first point I’m going to raise is the one of this whole ‘addiction’ word, or more specifically the use of it. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, addiction means ‘the condition of being addicted to something’, which then leads me to the word ‘addicted’ which is defined as:

“unable to stop taking harmful drugs, or using or doing something as a habit”

Notice that it includes the word ‘unable’. This insinuates that the person is literally unable to stop doing or taking whatever it is they’re doing or taking. Joe was perfectly able to stop gaming if presented with a more interesting alternative. He did not experience withdrawal symptoms after he returned home without a console, except for maybe a little boredom. He had spent much of his free time doing something he could no longer do, so it was to be expected that the vacuum created by the absence of that activity would take a little time to fill and before it is filled would create boredom.

A heroin addict however, experiences severe and sometimes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms when coming off the drug. The absence of the drug wrecks them, body and mind, for a varying period of time. In this case, an addiction must be something that creates withdrawal if the person addicted sheds that which they are addicted to. If gaming can truly be an addiction, the only withdrawal symptoms that could reasonably be garnered are things that are perceived to be positive; getting more exercise, socialising, working, improving relationships, reading, this list goes on. Therefore I do not believe that, by the Oxford definition, that gaming can be a true addiction to the point at which it can be seriously called an addiction. Although the second definition of the word presents a further spanner to be thrown in the works of this argument:

“Spending all your free time doing something because you are so interested in it”

This definition now allows us to include gaming under the umbrella term of addiction. This would completely null the entire last paragraph, except now we can bring many other activities into the mix. The definition uses the generalising term ‘something’ to describe the activities included. It also uses the phrase ‘free time’, denoting time that the person has where they can decide what to do. Taking this definition to heart, gaming can be classed as an addiction. So can reading… and exercising… and playing sports… and chatting… and shopping… and practically every popular activity in Britain today.

My dad spends almost all of his free time reading and listening to the radio. Does that mean he’s addicted to reading? I’d say so, but that’s not perceived by people as being a bad thing, in fact, reading is encouraged and respected by most. So now we have to bring perception, social perception, into it and that changes everything. Simply because one activity is perceived to be beneficial and another is perceived to be detrimental, whether those activities are addictive or not is affected and decided. Reading apparently can’t be addictive because if offers the benefits of relaxation, development of intelligence and reading skills, further understanding of how our beautiful language works and escapism into wonderful stories, but gaming can be addictive. Why?

This type of image is fast becoming the sole marketing tool of games console companies.

Gaming is by nature an interactive activity, much like playing sport or having a conversation. It stimulates our minds, makes us think, improves reaction times, broadens the mind, promotes learning, adaptation, furthering of the skills of deduction, logical thinking, reasoning, solving moral dilemmas and problem solving in general. It offers entertainment without complete procrastination. It promotes social interaction through online and offline multiplayer and social networking elements. It is a showcase of creativity much like that of films and theatre. Games are created by talented, creative and innovative individuals who continue to be on the frontline of pushing the boundaries of entertainment. Now with the addition of the Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect and Playstation Move the old image of people playing games sitting on the sofa is fading from our minds.

So what is it that makes gaming addictive? Social stigma. If you take all I have said and put it together, what you come out with is a theory that the reason gaming can be addictive and reading cannot is simply because one is seen in a better light than another. They both offer positives to life. Reading may offer no negative effects, but that’s not important. The dictionary definition doesn’t specify whether the activity is good or bad, or provides more positives than negatives because it doesn’t matter. The simple act of spending a large portion of your life doing one thing is defined as addiction and under that definition all the activities mentioned above have the capacity to be as addictive as gaming.

The only difference is how they are perceived in society. I believe that for an addiction to be considered negative, the activity the addiction concerns must also be negative. For instance, being addicted to killing is bad because it has been established in modern society that killing is bad. Gaming is not inherently bad, and therefore an addiction to it cannot be immediately classified as bad, under that theory. Therefore, while gaming is most certainly addictive, whether this is positive or negative is entirely up to perspective and therefore I do not believe that a consensus can be reached in a half-hour documentary.

I believe that ATG was asking the wrong question and therefore got the wrong answer. While it was asking whether games are addictive or not and what effect that has, I believe a more prudent question would have been “is gaming addiction positive or negative and what that really means”. I believe that if gaming for extended periods is going to be swooped under the umbrella term of ‘addiction’ then so should reading, going to the gym and doing other activities for equally extended periods, which is in my opinion, ridiculous.

Devices to get us hooked
Another issue featured in ATG that bewildered me with its inclusion was the use of ‘reward loops’ in games. Let’s first explain this theory.

A reward loop is a system of offering the player constant, minor rewards for minor tasks. Rather than presenting the player with one huge goal and making them accomplish it before they get rewarded, the reward is broken into lots of tiny pieces and given to the player bit by bit. This keeps them playing; they’re never too far away from that next reward. ATG used an example of lab rats pulling levers to get its point across, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. My point is that almost every game uses this reward loop system and if it didn’t, games wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular as they are today.

Starting with internet games, ATG showed Farmville. The infamous Facebook game has zillions of active users and created quite a storm when it was released. At last count, it has 62 million users, whereas Xbox LIVE has only 23 million and the equally infamous World of Warcraft has merely 12 million. Why so many users? Farmville is a perfect example of the reward loop. In reality, however, all games use this system to keep us playing, among other things. It is the developers job firstly to create a game we want to buy, and secondly a game we want to keep playing. For huge games such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, it’s crucially important to keep the player interested until the very end, or finishing the game is nigh on pointless.

Games that don’t make players want to finish them don’t sell well, which means less money to the publishers and less money they have to give to developers to make new games. The reward loop is an essential tool that games devs use to keep us playing. While ATG inexplicable paints this fact as a bad thing and seems so insinuate that developers are trying to trick us into getting addicted to their games, I think differently. A reward loop is used in almost every form of entertainment and is an essential part of that entertainment.

62 million users. Who would've thought a little game about farming would be so popular?

Within a game, a reward loop can be used in many different ways. Progression can gift the player with new abilities, weapons, locations, characters or simply the next chapter of a good story. This constant change and constant reception of gifts is what keeps us involved. Within a movie, the twists and turns of the plot, new locations, introduction of new characters and action events keeps us interested. The same is true of books and plays. Even in music, the reward loop can be seen.

Let me use an analogy. Imagine if you had to choose between two near identical jobs in your chosen profession. The only difference between the jobs was the pay structure. Job A would see you paid weekly for your work. Job B would see you paid yearly. Which one would you choose. I believe that most people would choose job A. Only the most dedicated and stubborn among us could work for an entire year with no reward until the very end. It’s more than possible that we would lose interest, hope, drive and will. As humans in this society we live for rewards; a hot cup of tea after a hard day at work, a sunday roast, being able to afford that new car. Without rewards we fall apart. We lose sight of the point of all this, our lives.

The same is true of entertainment. If we are not rewarded during our involvement with a piece of entertainment, we get bored and lose interest. We begin to sub-consciously seek another activity that will reward us. If every game waited until the very end to reward the player, no-one but the most hardcore would play them. If every film waited until the end to reveal all, to twist the plot, no-one would watch them. Movies that don’t constantly reward the viewer are badly received. Games that do not give the player incentive to carry on playing are badly received. The filmmakers and developers want to make products that not only sell and keep selling, but that enthrall and garner praise from their target audience.

Asking a developer to remove this reward system would be like telling a filmmaker to make his characters less appealing and to remove a twist or two from his plot. Of course, the inclusion of interaction in gaming must be taking into consideration but the same rules of reward still apply, just across a greater timescale. While a movie packs all of what it is into a few hours at most, games are designed to be much longer. Therefore, the reward system is stretched further, offering rewards possibly every hour or so and not every few minutes like in a movie.

Looking at the issue from a purely heartless, business perspective, developers need to make products that sell. Publishers need to sell enough product to make a profit and pay all their staff. They need to make money that they can invest in more developers to make more games and make more money. It’s a business just like any other; everyone wants the public to buy their product. The reward loop keeps people playing, which in turn keeps people coming back for more. No-one wants to buy a boring game or the sequel to a boring game.

So does the reward loop cause us to become addicted? I think not. It causes us to continue playing, to want to reach the games end and to even possibly play through it again or buy a sequel to the game. It keeps us enthralled, a word that I think should be used more than addiction when talking about games; simply because there is less social stigma attached to it.

What causes us to become addicted is our own personalities, how our lives are structured and the way we perceive gaming. Some see it as a bit of fun, others see it as a lifestyle. Many play only a little to relax, others play longer to escape and entertain themselves. In cases where a reward loop is so strong that players find themselves unable to break free, it can become a problem, but a personal problem. It is not our place to interfere with what people choose to do with their spare time, simply because we don’t think it’s right. Even with gaming classed as an addiction, reading and watching TV can also be classed as such but do not require mass intervention.

The right angle
So what have we learned, if anything? My goal here was not to tell you what’s correct or highlight what is incorrect. I’m not a scientist, sociologist, psychologist or doctor of any kind. I don’t have a PhD or a degree in social engineering and I haven’t done any specialist research. I’m simply a writer who sees the future as a place where gaming continues to be misunderstood and punished due to that misunderstanding. We have faced, as gamers, is almost constant criticism from one area or another. Everybody has lined up to take a pop and I’m sure there will be many more to come. I’m sure many arguments levelled at gaming are substantial and fair. Maybe sometimes we’re too stubborn for our own good.

That said, one thing I’m sure of is that if this concept of addiction to gaming is given power in its current form, it will not be good for us, the industry or anyone with connection to gaming. While there are issues associated with people playing games too much, for it to be classified as an addiction without taking into account the ramifications and implications of using that term is, I think, a little careless. Under its current definition, gaming is as addictive as reading, writing, television, running, sports and most all other activities. If we start branding everything as addictive and talking about how addiction to these things is detrimental, we will have to decide once and for all whether all addiction is positive or negative. The saying goes ‘Too much of a good thing’ but is that strictly true? It’s debatable and while issues like this are still open for debate I don’t believe we can classify gaming as a detrimental addiction.

This is NOT the type of thing we want slapped all over our game boxes in the future...

At the moment, whether you see gaming addiction as true or false, right or wrong is a matter of perspective. There is no ‘right angle’ to the argument and no solid consensus. I’m not trying to make anyones mind up or even insinuate that you agree with me, my only goal was to talk theory, expel my thoughts on the subject and try to put forward my view on the matter. It is not a personal attack on ATG or its creators, it just so happens that the advent of this programme, and my involvement in it, has given me an opportune reason to present my theories and views, and are just that; theories and views. Ones that I believe very strongly in, but ones that I, in no way claim, are fact. That’s up to you to decide.

In conclusion
In a way I respect the creators of ATG. They set out to make a documentary on a subject it seems they knew very little about. They began with a question and tried to find the answer, like all good documentary makers. I believe, however, that they had no idea what a hornets nest they were stepping in. Until a person or group of people with innate knowledge and involvement in gaming stand up and say ‘This is a problem’ then documentaries like ATG, well made as they are, will fail to hit their intended mark.

Gamers will see lack of knowledge, rightly in my opinion, as an admittance of ignorance. This means that those involved have no right to address the subject and therefore will lose respect when they present it in documentary form. If this issue really is a problem and really needs to be addressed, we need someone who speaks to us in our own terms. Someone who we can respect from our perspective. Until that happens, documentaries such as ATG will succeed in doing only one thing in my opinion; creating undue fear and concern for an issue that is not yet fully understood by anyone.

This article is the sole opinion of me, the writer, and does not necessarily represent the views of This Is My Joystick or that of any of the people involved with the site.