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EGX Rezzed 2019: the psychology of gaming addiction

Although in more recent years the quality of subjects had declined, one of my most favourite parts of EGX Rezzed had previously been the talks. I loved hearing from the developers themselves about how their projects came to life or what their thoughts were on the industry, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing adventure game legends including as Tim Schafer and Charles Cecil talk about their work.

This year I was very pleasantly surprised: although unable to attend them all, there were so many sessions with interesting subjects we wanted to see (luckily I’ll be able to view any I missed on the EGX YouTube channel). The first we attended was titled The psychology of game addiction by Dr Pete Etchells, author of Lost in a Good Game: Why we play video games and what they can do for us and whose field of research is the behavioural effects of video games on the human brain. Is our pastime ultimately bad for us?

Dr Etchells feels that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) formal classification of gaming disorder was too pre-emptive. In a journal article entitled A weak scientific basis for gaming disorder: Let us err on the side of caution, he and his colleagues summarised: “We agree that there are some people whose play of video games is related to life problems. We believe that understanding this population and the nature and severity of the problems they experience should be a focus area for future research.”

They also added that moving from research to disorder requires a much stronger evidence base than is currently available. Current research is based on gambling addiction surveys which have been modified for gaming; but this opens the potential for criteria in one type of addiction to be incorrectly replicated in another. In addition, if one of the measures is that it’s done to the exclusion of other hobbies: but what does this mean when gaming is a hobby itself? Does that count as ‘excessive’?

We were incredibly shocked to hear that various papers have indicated that as much as 46% of the population could be addicted to video games. This means there’s a danger we’re over-generalising and therefore a genuine risk of abuse of diagnoses. If so many people are diagnosed with gaming disorder because the clinical utility of existing tests isn’t high enough, there’s a real chance we could be missing those individuals who really do have a problem and need support to combat it.

Playing games excessively could be a symptom rather than a cause and interesting example was given in the talk. If your guardians have limited influence in your life as a child due to a more ‘relaxed’ parenting style, you may be given access to titles which aren’t entirely suitable and contain more violence than you should be witnessing. But if you become aggressive in your later life, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s those games which are the cause; it could have something to do with the way you were brought up.

Dr Etchells commented: “I think video games do have an effect on us. Everything has an effect on us… but by focusing on video games, are we missing more important factors?”. News reports and political statements claiming our hobby to be the cause of mass violence are now published regularly despite limited evidence. If such terrible acts truly are the outcome for certain individuals, then we need to find out who they are, what games they’re playing and why this is the consequence.

But unfortunately, the rate of science is far slower than the increasing rate of technology and scientists are always playing catch-up. They don’t have any information on trends around what the nation as a whole is playing – but companies such as Microsoft and Sony do, and their data would be invaluable to researchers. However, convincing them to share it is difficult; the concern is that the resulting investigations could indicate that video games are indeed bad for us, and this finding would completely undermine their business model.

But there has to be a way for scientists and publishers to work together to figure out if there are any negative effects of playing video games and if so, how to mitigate them. And as Dr Etchells said himself: surely that’s got to be a win-win situation for everybody?

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

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