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“Games aren’t the problem” - psychologists call for context on gaming addiction

Experts suggest that addictive gaming behaviour is not caused solely by games themselves

When it comes to pathological videogaming habits, we may have been too quick to blame games and their design, rather than considering the wider context of compulsive gamers’ lives. That’s according to new contributions from mental health professionals.

Speaking with PC Gamer magazine in this month’s issue (#337), Kourosh Dini, a psychiatrist who has written a parenting book on videogame addiction, says: “Every single time I’ve interviewed a kid, a teenager, or even someone in their 20s, who is stuck playing games and can’t seem to find a way to sustain themselves and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, the trouble almost every single time is something besides games.”

“It’s not games that are the problem,” research psychologist Dr Rachel Kowert agrees. “Games have been identified as providing emotional self-medication. They’re a vehicle that different underlying problems are being funnelled through.” Kowert says only 0.2% of players use games in a way that’s “maladaptive,” though PC Gamer points out that other studies have produced a wider range of numbers, with one result finding “pathological patterns of play” in as many as 8% of gamers.

Kowert is research director of Take This, a charity that promotes mental health for gamers. Her and Dini’s comments follow research by the Oxford Internet Institute earlier this week, which called for more attention to be brought on the “wider context of what is going on” in gamers’ lives. The lead researcher on that study, Andrew Przybylski, concluded that “we do not believe sufficient evidence exists to warrant thinking about gaming as a clinical disorder in its own right.”

That, of course, is a direct criticism of the World Health Organisation’s unanimous vote to recognise ‘gaming disorder’ as an official disease earlier this year, one characterised by impaired control over your gaming habits even if negative life consequences result.

For Kowert, this fixation on gaming’s harmful effects misses its benefits, such as the social nature of sensations such as Fortnite, among other positives. “I really love Fortnite, and I cannot imagine my ability to multitask the way these children do when they play Fortnite,” she says.

But fundamentally, the long-term effects of intensive gaming are still poorly understood. “I have not seen any research looking at the effects of playing those kinds of games,” Kowert says, though she has seen research on loot box design that has generally found they have the same psychological effects as gambling. “And there’s research about instant gratification, and games really play on, ‘Oh, you could have that if you just buy this one thing’. But I haven’t seen any research on whether it has some kind of psychological effect on players themselves.”

Opinion: it’s right that those of us in the games industry – developers, media, and gamers alike – should acknowledge and help to solve any harmful effects that could genuinely be shown to arise from intensive gaming. But the long-supposed link between playing violent games and behaving violently in real life has simply not been proven – no matter how convenient a scapegoat it might be for unscrupulous figures in politics or the wider media – and it now seems that the question of whether games themselves can cause pathological play, regardless of the player’s wider context, is also very much an open one.