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Panoramadrama: BBC vs Games Addiction

Featured post An addicted child, yesterday

Across the internet, a wave of worried grumbling. It’s one thing when terribly shlocky UK TV stations like ITV gun for games, but when the generally more sober BBC announces an upcoming episode of its documentary series Paranorama will investigate “hidden psychological devices in games that are designed to keep us coming back for more,” things get a little more troubling.

Of course, no-one knows what the show will actually decide about games.
Nonetheless, it’s been an understandable call to arms for the UK games industry this week, with various sites and blogs posting their concerns about the show’s perceived angle. The title “Addicted To Games?” does hint as to its conclusion, but it could just be a case of trying to pull in the largest audience.

Doesn’t help, however, that it comes on the back of a controversial Panorama installment which accused FIFA officials of corruption, which buffoons the land over are blaming for England losing out on being World Cup 2018 hosts today. (Russia won, though if you care you already know that). While I’ve not seen that episode and cannot attest to its tone or veracity, it seemed to get a lot of football types’ backs up – so poor timing means fears of sensationalism from the games investigation are just that little bit more acute than they otherwise might have been, essentially.

Here’s the show’s brief, which is all we really know so far:

As pester power kicks in and the computer games’ industry launches its latest products on to the Christmas market, Panorama hears from youngsters who’ve dropped out of school and university to play games for anything up to 21 hours a day. They describe their obsessive gaming as an addiction.

Reporter Raphael Rowe, meets leading experts calling for more independent research into this controversial subject, and reveals the hidden psychological devices in games that are designed to keep us coming back for more.

Which does rather troublingly sound as though it’s already made its mind up. But I haven’t abandoned all hope that it isn’t balanced; from that, it’s only the ‘youngsters’ who’ve described their obsessive gaming as an addiction. This is the great, terrible thorn in the side of anyone arguing for rational debate on the matter of whether games do or don’t involve a risk of having unhealthy effect on some people – ‘addiction’ is an erroneous word that suggests a chemical dependance (edit – alright, I’m not entirely correct there. Sorry. I’m as bad as ITV, me). ‘Compulsion’, ‘obsession’ – they’re incredibly prescriptive, yes, but at least they’re not wildly roping in an entirely different issue. Hopefully the grown-ups – the educated people who should know better than to randomly wield that easy-but-powerful word – won’t unequivocally plump for ‘addiction.’

As for “hidden psychological devices in games that are designed to keep us coming back for more”… is that wrong, really? MMOs are designed to be compulsive, while FarmVille outfit Zynga talks about having a ‘secret sauce’ that makes people keep playing. The hinted-at tone of the Paranoiarama (oops, bit of a typo there) episode does seem a little troubling, but I’m genuinely fascinated by the science of keeping people playing.

I’ve asked a few devs about it in my time, and to a one they’ve been cryptic – mentions of case studies, focus grouping and even studying gamling theory, but unwilling to share exactly how they devise the mystic balance between don’t care/carecarecare/turned off by a game’s obvious cynicism. If this show does go into that stuff, talking to devs about how they make their games so wonderfully moreish instead of flatly accusing them of exploiting children, it could be fascinating.

Or it could talk to the same old goons who claim that gaming is worse than 10,000 mecha-Hitlers. I hope not.

Interestingly, UK games association UKIE (the artist formerly known as ELSPA) has already fired a precautionary riposte at the show.

“There is currently no proven link between videogames and addiction, with there being mixed opinion among academics about whether a game can be clinically addictive,” said UKIE boss Michael Rawlinson, sensibly.

Extra-sensibly, he added that “UKIE is aware of some individuals that play games excessively but often the causes of many of the sad cases that we hear about are down to other underlying medical, social or environmental issues concerning the individuals concerned.”

He’s one of the participants in the show, but has not seen a final edit, apparently.

It airs next Monday. Fingers crossed, eh? This is the BBC. They do at least know how to do the right thing, and hopefully that’s the case in this instance. Hopefully. Oh, hopefully.

Edit: here’s the trailer. Hmm. Oh dear.

And here’s GamesRadar’s take on how the show’ll play out. No less sensible, I’d say.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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