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Editorial: Panorama - Addicted To Games?

Timed to coincide with tonight's release of World Of Warcraft's Cataclysm, BBC 1's Panorama tonight covered the topic of videogame addiction. I have always approached the subject of gaming addiction with great seriousness, because it's my belief that if gaming is inherently harmful, I want to know about it, and I want to warn others who game. And I want to approach the subject with appropriate scrutiny, and with evidence-based understanding. It's something I expect of others when they approach the subject. It was not present tonight. It was astonishing. An openly ignorant series of anecdotes and half-truths, forming a dangerous, lazy treatment of a serious subject.

I want to repeat this already. I do not possess the evidence that gaming does not cause addiction. What I do know, from an enormous amount of time spent researching the subject, and interviewing those researching the subject at an academic level on both sides of the argument, is that there is no evidence that games do cause addiction. Should other evidence come to light, should (substantial, scientifically organised) studies demonstrate new data, then I think it should be taken very seriously. I am not arguing that games are great, and any who say otherwise are wrong. No such thing. But when I see others who are acting that way, on either side of the fence, I believe it should be loudly highlighted. I believe that there is a real risk for those who use gaming to compensate for other negative factors in their lives, and for those whose gaming becomes problematic for any reason. I believe that these matters deserve to be taken seriously. It is to be treated with severity. This sort of scaremongering endangers such people by mis-labelling.

For the first seven minutes of the programme, reporter Raphael Rowe brings us many references to people being "addicts", people who suffer from "addiction". It's stated as fact, unambiguous. Seven minutes in it's admitted that there's no evidence that gaming can cause addiction, but long after they've made their position completely clear. In fact, it clearly reminded me of that classic Brass Eye moment where DJ Neil Fox explains to camera that there's no evidence that paedophiles share most of their DNA with crabs, but it's still scientific fact. Never mind the facts, the data, the proof; we have an agenda here, and we're going to demonstrate it through unresearched, unevidenced, anecdotal stories.

The level to which gaming addiction as a reality is assumed is so absolute that at one point the reporter, bringing the episode's theme of anecdotes home, explains that while his son plays games, he "isn't addicted". He can tell. He, unlike any addictionologists or reputable addiction treatment centres, can tell when someone is addicted to gaming, and fortunately amongst their numbers are not his own children.

One individual, Joe, is labelled as an addict, the proof being that he played games for two or three days without sleep, and, he explained, "that, to me, sounds like an addiction." He was thrown out of university, left thousands in debt, "partly from buying games."

"Partly from buying games."

Beyond being gibberish on a comprehension level, one can either understand that he's in thousands of pounds of debt partly because he spent his money on games, or that the cause of his having lost his investment in university was partly caused by games. The lack of clarity betrays how carelessly this programme is written. The "partly" betrays that the programme is deliberately deceiving the viewer, concealing information that fully explains his story. Joe then wearily sighs.

Another person, "Leo", believes he was addicted to World Of Warcraft. He's extremely angry about it. It has a "derogatory effect", he explains. "I would never inflict this game on anyone. This game is a disease. It's horrible." But Leo has decided to go cold turkey.

Both have stopped playing the games to which they were so seriously addicted. Both were filmed playing the games that had so harmed them. Joe played Call Of Duty on his 360 for the cameras, while Leo ran around the worlds of Warcraft. Which, if the dangers this programme warns about are real, is the direct equivalent of producing a documentary about alcoholism in which the participants are asked to get drunk for the audience at home. Once more, it's a clear lack of seriousness, and complete disdain for its subjects.

Further proof of addiction in games comes from a scientist who has been studying the subject for many yea... oh wait, no, sorry. An artist who takes pictures of kids playing games, and finds that their faces are different when they watch television. No one ventures the notion that there may be physical differences in how one responds to the passive activity of watching TV and the active participation in gaming. But one kid didn't blink, so there's danger.

Each time a new subject is introduced, dark, menacing music swells in. We then see this addict sat before their addiction, accompanied by personal explanations of why it's a danger for them to be playing it. Then relatives or friends tut.

Dr Richard Graham is our first person with any qualifications in the episode, after 11 minutes. He's treating an increasing number of kids with behavioural disorders, kids who also game. Then, seemingly as an aside, the episode explains that 66% of children and teenagers have a console. That most kids are gaming, and yet most kids aren't suffering from behavioural disorders, is not mentioned in this context. No, instead it's: "Could this be a hidden problem building up in homes across the country?"

Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University says that he sees much in common with what he believes is gaming addiction and that of other addictions. But then adds that there isn't enough research. No evidence is given. He says that gaming addiction is "so new" that people don't think it's an important enough area into which they should invest money. Which is the most utterly extraordinary claim, since there is abundant research in the subject going on all around the world, including massive-scale ongoing projects such as the appropriately named Project Massive. As a "world authority" on the subject, it terrifies me that he's unaware of this.

We then head to South Korea, where super-fast broadband is already the norm. Here, even on the underground, our presenter explains that they can "play online games", accompanied by a shot of someone playing a match-3 game on their mobile phone. Their economic growth "has come at a price." Not "may have", but "has". The price is gaming addiction. We are told that since 2005, 12 people have died with "links" to excessive gaming. Then the bemusing sentence, "There were extreme cases of an estimated three million Koreans thought to be addicted to games."

"There were extreme cases of an estimated three million Koreans thought to be addicted to games."

We move on to the tragic story of the Korean couple who let their baby die through neglect, as they spent their time gaming. We get told that they both had "low IQs" and that both suffered from "depression", but both those factors are ignored because as a result of their circumstances they spent too much time playing Prius Online. "She was mentally not that stable to begin with," explains a doctor at the clinic that treated the mother. But this isn't an episode about mental illness leading to the deaths of babies. It's about gaming causing it. Gaming caused it.

Early in the segment in Korea we see some children at a special camp for dealing with gaming addiction. One child in particular is described as having spent a worrying amount of his time gaming, his mother expressing her fear for him. Later, after plenty of other subjects to make sure there's no context, we come back to the camp, and the mother explains that she used to hit her son "a lot". She says she didn't know she needed to show him love and affection. The camp is teaching her this. And yet the enemy here is the game.

The internet's to blame too, of course. The spread of broadband is shown on a map of Britain like a rapidly spreading virus, endangering us all.

One "award winning games designer" wants the subject to be taken more seriously. That is Adrian Hon of SixToStart. A company whose only game of note is a Channel 4 education project designed to highlight the dangers of being online. There's not time to mention this in the episode. Panorama tells us that the incentives in games to keep us playing include games "randomly giving us extra lives". We then get a lovely bit of Eisensteinian montage editing of people playing games and rats pressing levers.

Rowe then quite astonishingly says, "I took our findings to UKIE." "Findings"? But they've given no findings at any point in the episode. They've collected some anecdotes from uninformed parents, and a few soundbites from a single university professor who keeps stressing most people have no problems, and that there's not enough evidence to say that others do. They didn't have any findings!

I believe there are reasons why children and teenagers may spend an inappropriate amount of their time playing games. They are complex, multifarious and multifactorial. Young people grow up in difficult circumstances, a significant proportion suffering some form of abuse. Gaming, it seems, can provide an escape from depression, misery, loneliness, or fear. It becomes somewhere to hide, and then it may become problematic. The issues are not dealt with, but ignored, and as such relationships with others are harmed, jobs can be lost, and school work can suffer. The circumstances continue, but the withdrawal lessens the chances of there being resolution or improvement. These are tragic stories that deserve to be responded to with individual care, and not looking for a scapegoat.

It is my opinion, and only my opinion, that problematic use of gaming is a reality. People can spent too much time playing games, and this can lead to their and their loved ones suffering. It is also my opinion that people can spend too much time riding bikes, playing bingo, and building model railways. I'm not being facetious. And each of these can lead to their personal lives suffering, and those of their loved ones. Until there is some evidence that gaming can create an addiction in someone otherwise undisposed to addictive behaviour, then it must be understood as a consequence of addiction, not a cause. To do otherwise is ignorant, dangerous, and harmful to the individuals. Blame it on gaming, and you'll take away the games, leaving the person to continue suffering.

This episode of Panorama was upsetting. Seeing young people who are clearly suffering, struggling socially and within their own families, it scares me to see their serious situations trivialised in this way. This episode genuinely contains someone advising people who game too much to go out and get drunk ("smashed") instead. It's insulting to those who for whatever specific reasons struggle to control their gaming, and dangerous for misinforming the public.

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