The Sun is Doing Addicted Gamers no Favours

The Sun's Headline reading 'Gaming as Addictive as Heroin'.

Last Tuesday the Sun wrote an article entitled “Gaming as Addictive as Heroin”. As the picture shows, it contained the following 3 bulleted sub-titles: “5,000 calls to one clinic for help”, “Call of Duty link to three suicides” and “Dopamine levels increase in brain”. So, without dwelling too much on how off the mark this article is, let’s do a quick truth check on what’s being said here:

Gaming as Addictive as Heroin

Firstly, nearly a quarter of people that use heroin become addicted. For video gaming, while the criteria for addiction are less clear, the more negative studies estimate addiction rates average at around 10% – 15% of gamers. So wrong there.

5,000 Calls to one Clinic for Help

This may well be the case, across a year. The number of clinics that offer specific help with gamers are few and far between, and yet the number of gamers in the UK is over 30 million. What isn’t being distinguished here is whether these issues are about problematic gaming or addicted gaming. The former is quite common and means that gaming is either linked to someone’s problems or is having a mild impact on functioning. Gaming addiction, which is what the article suggests this number refers to, occurs with far, far less frequency. See a good interview debunking this here with the Sun’s very own source, Mark Griffiths.

Call of Duty Linked to Three Suicides

The implication here is that gaming can kill. When the Sun says ‘link’ here, it means it is little more than the way that Anders Brevik’s gaming was linked to his atrocities. That is, tenuously. Deaths on account of video games total little more than 10 globally and in living memory. Considering the number of gamers, this means that any risk of gaming being lethal is insignificantly low. There are risks attached to games, but death is not one of them. Check out number 4 on this list; you’d be better off worrying about that.

Dopamine Levels Increase in the Brain

If you follow me on any social network you’ll know this is a particular bugbear of mine. Dopamine increases all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Using the revelation that levels increase during gaming is simply using neuroscience to scare people into an assumption. The unspoken premise being that ‘if something messes with my brain, it must be bad’. The reality is that your brain is getting messed with all the time – frequently via a dopamine increase.

The Danger of Misrepresenting Video Game Addiction

Bad news has always sold well, and it’s no surprise to see a tabloid taking this angle on the subject. It pays to create controversial, blaming and incendiary titles such as this. Chances are the writers don’t care how wrong the contents of the article are; they just care that you showed up. If you got annoyed and spoke about it, as I am effectively doing, then you’ve done them a favour. I’m doing my bit to counter that by not linking to The Sun’s article. You can Google search it and find out enough without crediting their site with a visit.

In making these damaging claims about gaming, not only is the institution of the hobby being tarnished, but also it puts people who do struggle with problematic or addicted gaming issues in a difficult position. Chiefly, an article such as this serves to alienate gamers from the world outside of gaming. Addicted gamers are already looking for a reason to deny that they have a problem, as is the nature of addiction when it goes unchecked. If they are to see an article such as this, or hear someone blindly repeating its headings, they are going to have considerably more grounds for discounting even the notion of gaming addiction. How could they possibly take the idea seriously when they are being told that it is a potentially lethal hobby; quite clearly, it is not.

Stigma of all kinds puts the victims into an ‘us and them’ situation. If we are to stop certain people from letting games swallow their lives then we need to be as clear as possible about the realities and not let them get lost in the we’re-all-doomed nonsense. No, it is not like cocaine. No, it won’t kill you and no, it is not an epidemic. However it can make your relationships suffer, sap your self-confidence, take away the enjoyment that games once gave you and disconnect you from yourself. People need support and education to include gaming in their life in a positive way, not inflammatory and groundless claims that help them to disregard the problem altogether.

No Matter What You Communicate, You Are Always Being Bossy

It is can be a chilling prospect for people to take on board. The idea is that each time you communicate (and as our last post told us that’s pretty much all the time) you are attempting to change someone’s behaviour. This cracks open the common assumption that we can simply give information to one another for the sake of it, or engage in purely ‘idle chatter’ that has no request for the other person to behave a certain way.

This is the second in a series of 5 blog posts looking at Paul Watzlawick’s 5 axioms of communication – first penned in 1967 – considered in light of the changes that communications are going through in the digital age.

The original second Axiom is this: All communication both conveys information and imposes behaviour. This means, that, in the words of the renown social scientist Gregory Bateson, each communication has both a report and a command. The report is a familiar concept – effectively describing the information that is being relayed in the message. Were I to be stranded on a desert island, my firing a flare gun would convey a report along the lines of, ‘there is someone in distress at this spot!’.

Little Miss Bossy, from the Mr. Men.
Even the meekest among us are being covertly bossy when we communicate.

The command concept is a little more subtle. It is effectively how the sender of the communication would like the receiver to act now that they have the given information. Sometimes this is readily apparent, such as when commands or questions are used. In the example above, the behaviour I would be hoping to impose on the other person would be for them to come and rescue me. This is a crude and obvious example. However, this axiom becomes much more interesting when applied to the subtleties of everyday communications.

Consider a very British scenario of discussing the weather, something we do on an all-to-regular basis. On the report level this is little more than an exchange of painfully obvious facts, ‘nice day, today’, or ‘gosh it’s cold, isn’t it’, on the command level we are engaging in a process of assessing the other person, gauging levels of trust and understanding and often trying to move the relationship to a more intimate level. we are inviting (covertly commanding) them to respond empathetically, saying niceties such as ‘tis, isn’t it’, or ‘oh, I know’. If we get this kind of empathic feedback we feel that we are on the same wavelength as the other person and thereby given some assurance of trust. Conversely if the other is to ignore us, dismiss our suggestion or be pedantic then we are made aware of a rupture in the relationship that we will likely remain cautious of.

The command in the instance of weather communications (and most idle chatter) is often, ‘show me I can trust you by empathizing with me’. It is for this reason that small talk often heralds the reuniting stage of arguments or the opening of a conversation; we use it to invite trust and empathy into the relationship. Watzlawick made the brilliant insight that healthy relationships tend to focus on the reports given by each other, ‘Yes, you’re right dear, the lawn is looking a mess’ rather than focusing on the commands, ‘I don’t know why you’re telling me that, I’m not going out there to mow it!’.

Commands can be found within any manner of communication. Consider someone that repeatedly plays the victim; bemoaning their losses, lamenting how others have treated them and expressing their hopelessness. These communication contains just as many commands as those that are more aggressive and directive, although they are hidden on a more covert level.  Generally the commands are ones such as ‘pity me’, ‘don’t pressure me’, or ‘make special allowances for me’.

Taking into account that we are always in the process of communicating, it becomes apparent that our lives are a constant maelstrom of commands that we are giving each other, most often without knowing it. Consequently, to be in society is to constantly have your behaviour directed and buffeted by others whilst simultaneously trying to alter theirs. This description makes it easy to empathize with the fear that some people have of being in public or the desire that others may have to spend some time alone.

By adding social media and portable devices into our lives, we have opened up the floodgates for many more commands to come our way on a more regular basis. It’s not just salesmen that want something of you, it’s everybody that contacts you. Even the more public communications such as posts, tweets and statuses in social media contain commands broadcast to their audiences. These are often on the lines of ‘admire me’, ‘stay in touch with me’, or ‘validate me’. In many ways, they are giving out the same communications that they would have been saying without social media, the difference is the near-on ubiquity of these communications given the changes in technology.

So, what is my command to you in writing this post? Am I reporting on Watzlawick’s second axiom simply to share some information with you? Of course I’m not. This is the nature of marketing, social networking and blogging today – we are constantly wrapping up our pitch for work in a what we hope is useful information. On a microcosmic level I’m looking for you to share, like, repost and comment on this post. All of which would feed into the larger command which is for you, as an audience, to take me seriously as a psychotherapist, thinker and expert on digital well being. From here I’m expecting you to recommend me to others, buy my book, hire me to provide you with psychotherapy or pay me to deliver a lecture for you.

So, Do you feel bombarded with commands? Well then I shall leave you to the hundreds of other equally bossy posts, and I hope what you’ve read here has been enlightening. Next time we move on to Axiom 3, which is about how we alter meaning by how we group messages together.

You Cannot Not Communicate

For the next five blog posts I want to concentrate on what is one of the most formative theories that I use in my work as a psychotherapist, that of the 5 axioms of communication. This description of how we relate to one another was penned by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Bavelas and Don Jackson in a text entitled The Pragmatics of Human Communication, written in 1967. The theory has gone on to crucially underpin a great deal of thinking around both relationships and psychotherapy.

I was given this book to read by Naomi Stadlen when she was teaching me at NSPC. Having been gobsmacked by how enlightening it was to read at the time I have gone on to marvel at how few people I talk to are aware of it today. Consequently, I am going to use my blog to reinvigorate people’s thinking around the axioms of communication by applying them to the ways in which we communicate today, including the multitude of technical platforms through which our relationships are increasingly conducted.

So, onto axiom one – We cannot not communicate. Watzlawick argues that any form of behaviour that is noticeable to someone else is a form of communication. Importantly this use of the word communication requires us to understand it as meaning more than just the spoken or written word. A far more primal and older form of communication is nonverbal communication, including, for example,  whether I look at you or not, how far away from you I stand and what I do with my hands while we speak. Taking the myriad of nonverbal communications into account, it becomes clear that literally anything we do is a form of communication providing there is someone around to notice it.

Watzalwick and co quote an interesting (and somewhat disturbing) experiment carried out by Joseph Luft whereby two people were instructed to sit in a room together and “not talk or communicate in any way”. The result was that, on top of being relatively stressful for the two individuals involved, the attempts at not communicating were ultimately futile. Each person inevitably ended up receiving avoidant messages from how the other turned away from them, sighed, kept silent and remained at a distance.

We are always in communication with others, even when we are not speaking.

Therefore, for as long as we are in an ‘interactional situation’ we are immediately communicating as I talked about in my earlier blog post on using mobile phones in public. Therefore, if I am studying at a table full of other learners at the local library and none of us are talking, I am still communicating to these others by default. By having my head down – perhaps with my earphones in – staring fixedly at my monitor I am stating on a simplistic level ‘I don’t want to talk to you right now’. At the same time I might use other gestures to communicate other messages. I might clear my throat loudly before picking up an impressively large academic text in order to state: ‘I want you to see me as terribly clever’. I might, after hours of perusing said book, lower my forehead on the desk, imploring someone to ‘rescue me from this unintelligible doorstop’.

Relating the First Axiom to the Digital Age

Written in the 60s, the interactional situations in which you might find yourself were already becoming very broad. With the landline-based telephone in regular use, people were faced with the ability to interact with another given individual even if they were miles away. People had to thereby manage their communications with people that weren’t present. Even by not calling someone you would be giving them the message that you did not want to speak to them. Most of us have felt the pain of receiving this message day after day when we have been hoping for someone we care about to get in touch.

Today these interactional situations have opened up even further. Not only has the telephone crept into our pocket and given us the ever-so-disposable text message, but we now have access to social networks. Whether we like it or not, we are forced into behaviour, and thereby communicating, via these new forms of media. Even those of us who choose to opt out are unable to escape this effect. This was never more clearly shown to me than when I did a research study at a local school with a group of 15/16 year olds. At one point I risked the question, ‘is anyone here not on Facebook?’ As one, they rounded on one bow-headed boy and exposed him as being the only such individual. As soon as the chorus of his name died down, he protested glumly that his parents did not want him on facebook. It was evident how acutely the other classmates felt his absence on the social platform. Simply not using Facebook was not enough to prevent communication happening through it. Even more so for those people who decide for themselves not to use social media – they are forced to communicate their refusal on a regular basis, something that can be read as aloofness, stuckness or even obtusity.

For those of us using social media, we now have a level of accessibility that casts wide these interactional fields and makes them ubiquitous. Even without directing messaging someone I am constantly having to manage my relationships with hundreds of people, many of whom I care about greatly. I can ‘like’ something, not respond, share something, block people, ignore requests, or status while someone is waiting for a reply to me on another thread. Even my choosing to not come online for several days carries out several different, potential messages towards a host of people.

Watzlawick’s first axiom tells us that the incursion of these technologies into our lives means that the number of unavoidable communications that we are having to handle has just become a whole lot bigger. In turn, our responsibility in each of these relationships has expanded. For as long as we are not in a position to interact with someone we do not have to manage relationships; with our social webs as wide as they are today, we are pulled to be far more conscious as to how we are handling each of our connections.

The Perils of Privilege

What do those of privilege have to fear? Imagine yourself at all the ‘safe’ ends of stigma. You are young, rich, white, beautiful, smart, employed/in education, straight and able-bodied. Let’s go further and say that you’ve never been bereaved, your academically and professionally successful and that your parents have been, technically at least, present and caring. What possible reason would you have to wind up in front of a psychotherapist? Having worked with a number of ‘privileged’ clients, I’ve seen this to be a potential cocktail for misery.

A cast shot from the 2008 tv show Privileged.
A cast shot from the 2008 tv show Privileged.

Flow and Maintaining Happiness

Before we go on, I’ll briefly present a model fo understanding how happiness is created. A chap called Csikszentmihalyi came up with the theory of flow to describe the optimum state of engagement and enjoyment during any given activity. As the diagram below shows, we need challenges to be balanced against our levels of skill and ability levels in order to maintain this state of flow.

how flow can explain the misery that people of privilege can suffer.
The flow diagram, describing the optimum balance between challenge and skill.

This model can be adapted and expanded to describe emotional well being. By considering ‘panic’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘boredom’ to all read ‘depression/and or anxiety‘, we have a model which shows how life requires us to maintain a balance between external opposition and our capacity to overcome. Too much of either can tip us into mental illness.

While we crave success and ease in the short term, we have an innate and often unconscious need to seek out opposition and difficulty in the long-term.  If I find myself faced with unemployment then, for as long as I feel like I have a chance at securing an incoming, this experience will galvanize and focus my experience of the world, even though I might lament it at the time. My relationships might bind together tighter, my appreciation for work may well ultimately grow and I will be the stronger for the experience.  While we all consciously know that misfortune and failure can lead to misery, we are also dimly conscious that a life without it would be less than desirable.

Working Within a Range of Privilege

Many of the clients I have worked with have never experienced a notable challenge or tragedy. Typically young men of privilege, the route through to future intimacy, industry and security lies wide open for them. The only challenges these people can realistically aim for are those such as super-wealth and fame which, unsurprisingly, feel hopelessly out of reach. These people cannot identify as having proved themselves against any opposition of note. By comparison, some of the disabled clients I have worked with found an appreciation of life and of themselves that was absent in the comparatively comfortable days before their impairment.

Losing a loved one, being the victim of discrimination or falling ill are distressing life events that often lead to emotional damage. At the same time, there is a considerable peril for those of us that face no such adversity in life. Many people who look on their past and see an absence of trauma or difficulty are almost certain to look on their futures with a sense of terror. They do not find themselves admiring the view from their pedestal but fixating on the length of the drop below them. Expectation is far more powerful than experience – those that have never experienced tangibly distressing events begin to fear that, should such events happen, they will be ill-equipped, vulnerable and ultimately destroyed by them. This dread can become ever-present and, for many of the clients that I have seen, can lead to a depressive retreat from the world.

Final Thoughts…

The absence of problems might be a first world problem worth taking seriously. While privilege does correlate with fewer suicides, the risk of self-destruction far from disappears for any given living-circumstance.  Certainly I would not advocate bereavement, disability or redundancy as a panacea for the comfortably sad, but I would go so far as to say that for many such people, the ultimate discovery that they can survive traumatic events might be crucible through which they learn to love life.

Fortunately for the lucky majority, there’s ample oppression, illness and desperation to make sure that this is never a concern.

Is a Good Video Game an Addictive Video Game?

This blog article is a substantial shift from my normal remit, whereby I am more focused on a philosophical perspective on mental health and human interaction in today’s technology-driven society. Here I will be targeting a select audience, that of video game developers, discussing their responsibility towards potential video games addicts. This piece is an excerpt from my upcoming book, but after writing it I realised the ethical benefits there could be to making this particular, niche section of the book more widely available. I would hope that this article may also prove interesting for anyone interested in addiction, video games or both.

This post centres on a difficult question – is a good video game the same as an addictive video game? If a studio creates the best game they can are they, by definition, making the most addictive game they can? Certainly World of Warcraft would seem to suggest a ‘yes’. This has been the dominant game in subscription-based gaming for years whilst also being the game that is linked to video game addiction more frequently than any other.

 Griffiths on Session Time

Mark Griffiths, a leading researcher in the field of video game addiction, moved us closer to answering this question by citing a number of features of gaming as being correlated with video game addiction: character progression, rapid absorption rate and multi-player features. This came out of a series of interviews with video game addicts in which they prioritised the features that they felt were most important to gameplay. The difficulty here is that these features are integral to certain genres of games – we can’t simply label them as ‘bad’ without writing off whole swathes of the industry – chiefly all roleplaying games and all online games. I would argue that these features, while they might be closely linked to addiction, are a clue towards what makes an addictive feature, rather than features that are, in themselves, addictive.

Understanding that these suggestions are too broad to take action on, Griffiths went on to pick out a single, more specific feature that could be altered to have a positive effect on how people play games – reducing the length of quests. To explain this further – all games are played in, effectively, sessions. The length of these sessions, while typically decided by the user, are to some extent determined by the game itself. Some games can be played in very short sessions, such as most social network-based games, such as Words With Friends, and cannot be played for much longer than this. Conversely, some games, notably MMOs such as World of Warcraft, often require the gamer to partake in group quests whereby leaving inherently involves letting down other players. These quests, by their very structure, impose a time commitment of several hours that requiring the gamer to play to unhealthy levels in order to avoid the recrimination of his team-mates. This practice is both detrimental to its users as well as relatively easy to avoid. While some players and groups may choose to overdo their gaming session, they should be able to complete a game session without playing for excessive lengths of time.

Kelly on Random Rewards

Game designer and blogger Tadhg Kelly addresses the question by taking a more particular issue with the slot machine style of game play, directly relating games’ use of random rewards for empty, skill-less actions as being guilty of creating addiction in users rather than engagement (the term he uses for a more healthy compulsion to keep playing).

Kelly points the finger at Mafia Wars for providing the user with rewards without actually providing them with any form of meaningful play; players are required to do little more than attend and click in order to make progress with no degree of skill or learning required. Kelly feels that games such as this focus the user on simply hoping that they get lucky rather than forcing them to evolve and adapt their own skills.

A reward given out in a video game

Blow on Reward Scheduling

Jonathon Blow, creator of Braid, similarly argues against the use of Skinner-esque techniques in gaming. Specifically, Blow makes the excellent point that it is the scheduling of rewards that is indicative of how unfairly addictive the game is attempting to be. Reward scheduling is a somewhat complex concept and bears explaining here.

Nearly all video games involve rewards of some kind. Doom gives you ammo, new levels and most importantly bigger and bigger guns. Real Racing gives you money to spend, new races to take part in and access to newer, faster cars. A complex and involved game such as League of Legends has an intricate ladder of rewards, including new characters, new levels, runes, league promotions and currency. Importantly, gamers are never given all these rewards all at once, unlike many non-video games, such as chess or football, where everything you will get to use throughout the game is given to you up front; you do not have to score your first goal in a match in order to upgrade your team from 10 to 11 players, for instance. In most modern video games these rewards are drip fed to the player according to strict and carefully balanced ‘schedules’.

As a designer, scheduling the rewards in a game is a massive task that needs to be carefully worked, reviewed and reworked. The aim is to plot out an accurate estimation of how much gameplay or money players will have to invest in order to get the next reward. The desired outcomes of this scheduling are as follows:

  1. To ensure that new players are constantly getting rewarded (creating the rapid absorption rate that Griffiths talked about above) and thereby become quickly engaged and invested.
  2. To ensure that long-term players have to wait increasing lengths of time between rewards (effectively guaranteeing that they invest the most amount of time/money for the content they are rewarded with).

In my own time as a game designer, I would conduct the reward scheduling by laying out large timelines against which we could compare all the various milestones of player progress. These charts would enable me to ensure that we were being duly generous to the new user in order to hook them in before relying upon, in retrospect, the ‘tolerance’ aspect of addiction to allow us to become increasingly stringent with players while retaining their commitment.

Jonathon Blow’s point is simply this: if you take a game and strip it of the reward schedule, is it still fun? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a game that is fun in a healthy way: if the answer is ‘no’ then you are looking at a game that is largely designed to addict players and offers them little else. With this proposal Blow highlights, very effectively, how certain games rely upon constantly tantalising the user with the next reward at the exclusion of giving them quality gameplay. Controversially, he then goes on to cite World of Warcraft as an example of a game that relies upon its reward scheduling over the quality of its gameplay.

Considering Blow and Kelly’s thoughts in light of what we have already considered, it becomes clear that a game that relies more upon providing the user with expectation rather than actual meaningful, learnable and challenging experience is a game that is unfairly tapping into the addictive nature of its users. Games such as this, particularly where there is no quality mechanic at the heart of the game, are constantly telling players that ‘things are about to get good, ‘ without ever getting good. Advances in neuroscience would show us that this kind of shallow experience that points to some ever-vanishing nirvana of gameplay is the perfect breeding ground for harmful levels of gameplay; this is game design prioritising ‘wanting’ over ‘liking’, which is the ultimate trap of all addiction.

In my opinion, a game that typifies this prioritising of expectation over experience would be Rage of Bahamut – a game that is a constant treadmill of chasing rewards and individual battles that play themselves with the most basic of preparation required, thereby offering very little depth of experience. Conversely, Super Hexagon is a game that, while having a basic system of rewards, uses the fantastically gripping experience of the gameplay as its reason to return.

Final Thoughts

These three considerations of gameplay outline a crude system of thought that game designers can use to establish how they can make an ethical game that puts genuine engagement ahead of unhealthy addiction. Griffiths suggests that we ensure that session times be controlled such that players are never forced to over-commit in order to take part. Kelly advises that games that refrain from using slot-machine-like rewards should only do so if it is at least matched by the presence of sklll-based, learnable gameplay. Finally, Blow asks developers to ensure that their game does not rely upon its rewards; that its basic gameplay is fun without having to tempt users with the next carrot.

These ideas suggest that a good game is very different from an addictive game, which is positive news, as it allows us to make a separation between ethical and unethical design models. Potentially this will harm the revenue of the gaming industry; although if that is the case then it goes some way to proving that certain companies and models have been profiting from harming certain individuals’ mental health, albeit unwittingly. Should this be the case, then the sooner that we can close down these practices and move on towards better and less harmful games.