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Page last updated at 07:45 GMT, Monday, 6 December 2010
Can video gaming cross from innocent fun to addiction?

By Raphael Rowe
BBC Panorama

World of Warcraft screen shot
World of Warcraft is set to release its latest edition

Are people across the UK worried about the amount of time being spent playing video games?

Should they be? I know I was. If I asked my six-year-old son to stop playing PlayStation football or a Wii adventure game the result was a mini-fit, complete with genuine tears and tantrums.

I did not get that kind of extreme reaction when I called time on cartoons on TV, playing in the garden or his favourite action toys.

In buying video games for my son I am contributing to a £3bn gaming industry in the UK. My little boy is just one of the 83% of children in the UK between five and 16 who have access to a video games console.

In our house, we have Wii, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS. One out of every two homes has at least one games console.

Over the past five years video gaming in its various formats has gone mainstream, shedding both its nerdy image and the idea that gamers are just children and adolescents.

Psychological devices

The average age of a female gamer is now 35, thanks mainly to popular social network platforms such as Facebook and mobile-phone friendly applications like the 'addictive' Angry Birds that counts Prime Minister David Cameron among its fans.

That was the point when we started to really understand from a parental point of view. Gosh, this is dangerous... this is a dangerous tool in our house
Alison Dando, parent

The word addictive is a term the industry often uses casually when describing the success of the games it develops. But it begs the question - are games addictive?

A games designer showed me some of the invisible psychological devices in video games which keep players wanting more.

Adrian Hon, chief creative officer of SixToStart, said it is based on research carried out in the 1950s, when scientists discovered that rats which had been trained to feed themselves by pressing a lever, would press it obsessively if the food was delivered randomly.

"People have discovered that this works on humans as well. If you give people a lever or a button to press and give them random rewards, they will press it all the time," he said.

In computer games, instead of food, players are randomly rewarded with extra lives or extra in-game features. The idea is to create a compulsion loop that keeps them wanting to play on.

I met Joe Staley, 21, who described to me how he had been playing games since he was a child and how he became obsessively addicted to the UK's biggest-selling game, Call of Duty.

"I wouldn't move from my bed. My controller would be at my side table, I would turn it on, play and then I would realise it was about three o clock in the afternoon. It could be up to a full 12 hours... or more … or overnight," he said of his gaming time.

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Panorama: Addicted to Games? is on BBC One on Monday 6 December at 2030GMT
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Joe said time spent gaming meant that he messed up his education, got into debt and spent days at a time locked in his room, hooked on a virtual world.

Chris Dando, 19, another self-confessed addict, skipped school for weeks at a time to play the online game World of Warcraft.

His mother, Alison Dando, described how he would fly into an uncontrollable rage when she cut off his internet access after she realised the extent of his problem.

Here is how Chris described his reaction: "I put on a boot and I kicked a hole in my sister's door. I just smashed anything I could see."

His mother said this was a turning point for the family.

"That was the point when we started to really understand from a parental point of view. Gosh, this is dangerous... this is a dangerous tool in our house."

She also said the family found it difficult to find help for his addiction. Unlike substance addictions such as alcohol or heroin, or compulsive addictions such as gambling where professional help is widely available, gaming addiction is not a recognised medical condition.

Blizzard Entertainment, makers of the popular World of Warcraft, said in a statement: "Our games are designed to be fun… but like all forms of entertainment… day-to-day life should always take precedence. World of Warcraft contains practical tools that assist players and parents in monitoring playing time."

Lack of help

Professor Mark Griffiths, who runs the international gaming research unit at Nottingham Trent University, has failed in his attempts to get funding - from government and industry - to conduct research he believes is needed to evaluate the prevalence of UK video game addiction.

Medal of Honor game grab
Medal of Honor caused controversy with its release in October

"We have to take on board that there is a growing literature that suggests that for a small but significant minority things like gaming can be potentially problematic," he said.

"My research has consistently shown people seem to display the signs and symptoms that people show that you get with the more traditional addictions."

What little research that has been done around the world is beginning to describe excessive gaming as addiction when it pervades and disrupts other aspects of your life - similar to the experiences of Joe Staley and Chris Dando.

The American Psychiatric Association has called for more research before deciding on whether or not to include gaming addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, otherwise known as the international classification of diseases.

But while the UK and the US continue to weigh the evidence, South Korea's government has acted after deciding that self-regulation by that country's gaming industry was not working.

Boot camps

In a nation where high-speed broadband access is widely available, South Korea provides a glimpse of what could be the UK's gaming future.

In the past five years gaming addiction in South Korea has been linked to the deaths of at least 12 people, some of whom developed fatal blood clots from sitting in front of their consoles for too long.

Boot camps to treat young addicts are now government-funded and restrictions on the hours youngsters can play online games are being implemented. Children are now taught the dangers of excessive gaming in schools.

The South Korean government official responsible for protecting children, Kim Seong-byuk, warned that the UK could face the same problems as our own super-fast broadband revolution - set to reach all corners of the UK by 2017 - makes online gaming more accessible.

My son will be 13 by the time that happens. He will probably still be playing games and having a tantrum when I call time - but outbursts of bad temper do not mean addiction.

So long as he is not letting life in the real world pass him by in favour of fantasy life in virtual worlds, then I will try not to panic. That said, I will be keeping a close eye on his gaming habits going forward.

Panorama: Addicted to Games? BBC One, Monday, 6 December at 2030GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

Video gaming: Advice for parents and teachers
Saturday, 4 December 2010, 18:26 GMT |  Panorama


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