BBC Panorama: Addicted to Games?

Tonight, BBC Panorama will air an episode about video game addiction. Here’s the trailer:

That trailer is meant to shock, grab your attention and make you watch the piece – so naturally it exaggerates the tone of the documentary, for effect. It’s supposed to be incitatory. As always with this topic, the trailer has kicked off plenty of discussion already. People do love their games.

The documentary itself takes a different tone (I’ve seen a rough cut). I’m a gamer and journalist myself, I think overall the producers have taken a measured approach.

Violence!

It’s true, games are phenomenally powerful. When a few vulnerable people are exposed to them, without appropriate support, it can be dangerous for them, and others around them. People have played until passing out, or worse.

These are a few cases, out of the hundreds of millions of gamers out there. It’s simply the nature of broadcast media that the extreme stories get all the press. Chris Dando of Barlaston is one of the kids Panorama interviewed. When his home internet connection went down, he became so angry he walked around screaming and eventually put his foot through a door in the house. I’ve been in the same situation myself, and I’m sure every avid gamer can identify with this particular brand of frustration. Dropped connections and broadband problems happen to everyone.

But not everyone allows their frustration to spill into violence.

The problem is in the players

And there’s the catch. Games can prompt aggressive behaviour. But thousands of people play World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. The vast majority lead balanced lives with meaningful relationships. In a few people, playing games catalyzes very bad behaviour. But the key ingredient isn’t the game itself: it’s the vulnerable, misguided or simply ill-informed person who has played it. In some cases, it’s the gamer’s parents, who simply don’t understand the medium enough to give their children the support and guidance they need.

Prospect’s Tom Chatfield once put it succinctly when we were talking about video games and violence: since the 1970’s the popularity of video games has increased by many orders of magnitude. But in many countries where video games are played, the rate of violent crime has decreased. It certainly hasn’t increased in step with the number of gamers out there.

Still, I do think there’s an issue here, and that is what Panorama concludes. As Adrian Hon says in the documentary, games are powerful, and it’s time for everyone including the industry to recognize that power and acknowledge it openly.

With great power . . .

I’m 30 years old, and I’m lucky enough to have grown up alongside video games themselves. The medium increased in complexity almost exactly in step with my cognitive ability to assimilate it.¬† My first gaming experiences, when I was 8 or so, were simple 8-bit games on the original NES console. As I’ve grown up, video games have increased in sophistication and power; first 16-bit, then 3d gaming in my teens. By the time the Xbox and other 3rd generation consoles came out, I was 21 – old enough to drink and vote in most countries in the world. And I came to them with 12 years of gradually deepened experience in the medium.

It was sort of the media equivalent of being allowed to try a sip of daddy’s wine at the dinner table, then eventually being poured half a glass, years before being allowed access to the full cash bar.

Contrast this with my 13 year-old nephew, whose first experience of gaming was with a PS3.

I’d say that there’s an important parallel to be made here between exposure to gaming and alcohol. They’re both powerful products of our culture. They’re both fun and can enrich a social experience. Used properly, gaming and alcohol can both make our lives better.

The analogy breaks down there, of course. Alcoholism is a serious physical addiction which causes untold damage around the world, while I suspect the figures on game-related damage would be orders of magnitude lower.

But the point is this: it’s important to be aware that games are very powerful things, though in a different way from alcohol.

They aren’t just children’s playthings. I think it’s becoming clear that it’s irresponsible to simply abandon people – especially children – with video games and assume “It’s just a game, it’ll be all right”. Kids need to be exposed to games thoughtfully, in an atmosphere of family support.

Games in themselves are not bad. They’re powerful. Usually that’s really good, because they give us powerful experiences and that’s a great thing.

This episode of Panorama does make a good point: with power should come responsibility. We do need an awareness that there is such a thing as responsible gaming.

Epilogue

You can tell this doc has got traction because the trailer has already been spoofed . . .

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