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Deja Vu: Gaming Like Cocaine Claims Return

Featured post It's so tempting to title this post: Pope Says Gaming Like Cocaine.

Lancashire therapist Steve Pope is once again making his claim that two hours of gaming is the same as a line of cocaine. A statement he first made in May last year, winning him media attention from the unquestioning writers in his local press, and then the wider press. A statement we investigated, and for which we found he was unable or unwilling to show us any evidence. As MCV reports, on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday afternoon, Pope was once again comparing gaming’s apples to addiction’s oranges, making unevidenced statements about how videogaming produces a cocaine-like “high” in the brain, and without an example – astonishingly – calling gaming “the silent killer of our generation.” So to celebrate his reappearance, after some more on his latest, I’m republishing our previous investigation below.

He’s back because of yesterday’s story about gaming causing sleeplessness in children, that is so utterly banal in its obvious idiocy that even I couldn’t be bothered to write 2000 words complaining about why. But it caused the press to flick through their contacts books and see who delivers decent outrage, and the ever-increasingly Daily Mail-esque Radio 5 went to Pope for the goods.

Pope, obligingly, delivered, performing all the classics: Games cause violence, games are addictive, games prevent learning. Then because he’s one of the best, threw in that it’s the “fastest growing addiction in our country”, and that parents should go into their children’s bedrooms and “try to take the gaming station controller out of their hands” to see the frightening reaction. (His obsession with saying “gaming station” is far more peculiar when you learn, as he told me, his own children have games consoles, and he knows what they’re really called.) Then there was a surprise new line, surely to soon be a classic, “It’s the silent killer of our generation.” And to please the crowds, how could he not perform his biggest hit, “two hours on a gaming station is equivalent to taking a line of cocaine”.

And he has offered no evidence for any of it. When I asked him last year to provide any proof for any of his elaborate claims, he said that it was anecdotal, what he sees in his practise every day. When I pointed out that this was no basis for making claims about national statistics, such as “fastest growing addiction in our country”, and chemical equivalence to other drugs, he told me he had evidence to prove this. But every time I attempted to speak to him on the phone at pre-arranged times, he would delay me until later, then not answer, not call when he said he would, or he would ask me to call back later still. After two days of this, repeatedly asking him by phone or text to send me some evidence, he failed to do so. He accused me of failing to contact him at arranged times, which was bemusing beyond words, called me “unprofessional”, my journalism “cheap”, and erroneously accused me of misquoting him. This reached the point where I really didn’t want to speak to him again, and requested that he not contact me unless it was to provide evidence. I never received anything.

Still – refusing to, failing to, or not being able to evidence your claims is no reason for the press at large to not let you make your statements as unchallenged fact. Which is why we go to the effort to ask those questions. And strangely often don’t receive any answers.

So here is my original investigation of Pope’s claims from last year, as they first appeared. Be warned – last year Mr Pope advised me that articles like the one below could lead to deaths:

Two Hours Of Gaming The Same As Cocaine?

Image by Willtron, published under Creative Commons.

An absolutely remarkable claim has been made by a UK therapist, Steve Pope, that playing videogames for two hours is the equivalent of doing a line of coke. I attempted to speak to him over the last 24 hours with little success, the results below. Edit: Mr. Pope has since texted me a statement, which I will add below.

It’s from an article in the Lancaster Evening Post that really hits every clanging bell. Games are like drugs, games are addictive, games lead to bad behaviour, and of course, games lead to violence. Claims that are made, as is so often the case, without links to any form of evidence. But is this an example of a gaming website getting angry when someone says something bad about games? Nope, the reaction does not come from that place. It comes from one of having done a lot of research into the subject, and a desire for evidence-based science and reporting to be conducted in the realm of gaming. Because, as we’ve said a number of times, if games are bad for us then we would want to know. So let’s look at how this is written, and ask why.

This arises from an article in the Lancaster Evening Post (picked up by Game Politics). It’s written without a byline, but quotes therapist Steve Pope, psychology lecturer Gayle Brewer, and mental health practictioner Peter Wilson. Nowhere in the article (apparently an abbreviated version of a “full special report” in the print version of the local paper) is there a link to any research, a reference to a study, nor any evidence for any claims made. It’s purely anecdotal, stated as epidemic fact.

Perhaps this is why: Of the very many studies looking into gaming, attempting to find causal links to either addiction or violence, none has proven a link. This was the case when the previous UK government commissioned a massive study into the subject, the Byron Review conducted by Tanya Byron, which again found no causal links between gaming and addiction or violence. The UK Interactive Entertainment Association (formerly ELSPA) – the body responsible for alerting parents and adult gamers to the dangers of gaming – states there is no such thing as gaming addiction. Project Massive could find no link, and found the term “addiction” inappropriate. It seems, from current research, there is no such link.

Some cocaine, yesterday.

However, and let’s be absolutely clear about this, people can abuse gaming. There are those who play games at the expense of their own health. There are those who play games so much they lose their jobs, relationships, and families. For a minority of people, gaming can be problematic. Which is why the vast study of hundreds of thousands of gamers and their relationship with gaming, Project Massive, has opted to use the term “problematic use” when describing the negative results of gaming. They found “addiction” to be wholly inappropriate, not only because conflating the effects of gaming and the effects of alcohol/drugs/gambling was completely inappropriate, but because there is no evidence that games can cause addiction. Those who already suffer from addiction, from either genetics or as a result of trauma, can excessively play games. Much as they can excessively ski, garden or go bungee jumping.

That’s what current research points to. Even the largest advocates of gaming addiction are backing down. Keith Bakker, who became internationally famous for his Dutch gaming addiction treatment centre, has now said he was wrong to call it addiction.

This new article begins with the line:

“A schoolboy today told of his torment after becoming dangerously-addicted to computer games.”

Let’s look at the evidence they offer for this opening statement.

“It was like it was a demon that had got inside my brain and I just couldn’t stop. If my parents tried to stop me playing, I would just flip.”

And that, amazingly, is as close as they get to explaining the cause. A demon.

Therapist Steve Pope (a lawyer with an Advanced Certificate in Counselling and a Graduate Diploma in Psychotherapy) explains that young people use gaming as an escape (something that would seem to be anecdotally accurate for some) and then “get hooked on the release of adrenaline it gives.” An extraordinary claim, given without any evidence in the piece.

He then goes on to deliver his headline-winning statement:

“Spending two hours on a game station is equivalent to taking a line of cocaine in the high it produces.”

He also claims that gaming addiction is the “fastest growing addiction in the country”, links gaming to obesity, says it leads to crime, and “can spiral into violence”. Only with spurious anecdotes about unnamed children/teenagers he has seen.

We should look at one of those claims in particular:

“I saw one 14-year-old Preston boy who played on games for 24 hours non stop and had not eaten and was showing signs of dehydration. When his parents tried to take his console away, he became aggressive and threatened to jump out of a window.”

There are two possibilities here. Gaming itself caused this to happen. Or this person suffers from one of very many different conditions that can cause children and teenagers to behave in excessive, self-harming ways, and used games as part of this. Since all 14 year olds who play games don’t do it for 24 hours and then jump out a window, it seems reasonable to postulate that this individual has a distinct pathology that isn’t perhaps caused by playing a game. I’m being equally anecdotal, of course, but one situation is certainly more likely than the other.

Despite repeated attempts to speak to Mr. Pope, his promises to return our calls were not met, until we had held this article back for 24 hours waiting for him. He was keen to provide his side of the argument, and expressed passion for helping people to deal with their addictions. However each time I asked him if he had evidence for his claims he said they were based on his own experiences (“It’s about who walks through my door.”), and explained that he would need to call back. Understandably he was busy with patients. However, he was not able to call back at any of the times he suggested, including after work hours. In the few conversations I had yesterday, when I asked if he had evidence to corroborate his claims, Mr. Pope explained, “I don’t rely on reports”, and that he believes statistics are “lies, lies and more lies.” He told me that he definitely does have evidence to support his claim that gaming addiction is the fastest growing addiction in the UK, but has been unable to provide any of it so far. When I suggested that saying two hours of gaming is the equivalent of a line of cocaine was extraordinary, he expressed confusion that I’d think this. He told me I should read about the connection between cocaine and gambling. I replied that any link between gambling and gaming has been rejected, and was told that you get the same high, “when your level of kills goes up in Call Of Duty.”

We would still like Mr. Pope to send us the evidence to back up his claims. As we have always maintained in all our coverage of the supposed addictive properties of gaming, should harmful effects be demonstrated in controlled studies such information is of primary importance to us. It is not in our interest to ignore nor deny such evidence – we wish to protect ourselves and our readers. However, when we see claims made without evidence, we will continue to challenge them.

Edit: Mr. Pope, after failing to keep this morning’s arranged time to speak, attempted to contact me after the piece was published. He has since sent the following text explaining his position, again not including any links to the evidence he mentions. He is very critical of this post having been published without having spoken to him properly, despite his having been unable to keep any of his scheduled times to speak to us before we had to publish. He believes articles such as this could lead to deaths. This is his statement, minus his criticisms of our failing to speak to him:

“The human being can be, in my professional opinion, addicted to anything it finds pleasurable. There are links between the highs of gambling, and game stations which cause a similar pattern of behaviours in the brain as does class A stimulant drugs. There is a weight of evidence to support this. The test for me with any addictive process is are your actions having negative consequences. I see first hand the consequences of overuse of game stations usually with the sufferer using the game to escape the reality of life. And to the addictive personality this is dangerous. Invite your readers to take the test in the paper. I don’t do labels. I want people to recover and have balance in their life. The physical consequences are also horrific for the child of today which can lead to ill health through obesity etc. Please be balanced in your reporting as your views may kill people.”

No evidence has been offered at any point. There’s probably a rather good reason for this.

It’s important to state that Gayle Brewer’s comments are extremely sensible, calling for parents to regulate their children’s use of gaming, which is something that surely everyone would agree with. Peter Wilson’s comment was seemingly unrelated (“Whatever a person is addicted to, they can’t control how they use it, and they may become dependent on it to get through daily life.”). Then rather strangely the paper claims that the UKIEA declined to comment “on the issue of gaming addiction and whether they believed it was an issue they needed to tackle”, despite their making their opinions on the matter absolutely clear.

The reporting in the article is of the most remarkable irresponsibility, attempting to create a scare, rather than actively seeking available evidence. And the claims within it, so far, are completely without evidence, data or indeed reason. We want young people to be safe from any harmful effects that gaming may cause, and for this to be effective, much as with education about drugs, only accurate and demonstrable evidence is of worth. Indeed, anything else is potentially harmful.

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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