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Call of Duty (of Care): Social Responsibility and the Videogame Industry
by Mark Griffiths on 02/25/14 05:37:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In recent years, the problematic use of online videogames has received increased attention not only from the media, but also from psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health organizations and gamers themselves. A number of studies from different cultures are providing evidence that somewhere around 7 to 11% of gamers seem to be having real problems to the point that they are considered pathological gamers. In extreme cases, some gamers are reported to have been playing for 40, 60, and even 90 hours in a single gaming session.

While it may be difficult to distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy usage of online videogames, there is sufficient evidence to describe some excessive gaming as problematic and/or addictive when it pervades and disrupts other aspects of life making it an issue worthy of extensive investigation. In some cases this leads to symptoms commonly experienced by substance addicts, namely salience, mood modification, craving and tolerance. Research suggests that some gamers are struggling to keep their playing habits under control and consequently compromise their academic achievement, real-life relationships, family relationships, physical health, and psychological wellbeing.

Despite a decade of research, there is significant disagreement on whether pathological gaming can be conceptualized as an impulse control disorder and/or a behavioural addiction such as pathological gambling. While acknowledging the potential for some gamers to engage in pathological use, most researchers argue in favour of creating an official diagnosis for pathological gaming. However, others disagree and advise caution about the potential for exaggeration of a real but uncommon problem. As well as the divergence of opinions in the scholarly community, there is insufficient evidence to reach any definitive conclusions or an operational definition of pathological gaming, its diagnosis criteria and prevalence. While the academic debate is likely to continue for a while, it is clear that for a small minority of gamers, pathological gaming leads to negative life consequences.

Against this backdrop, comparable with the cautionary health messages on tobacco and alcohol packaging, warning messages about risk of overuse have recently started to appear on the loading screens of popular online games. For example:

  • World of Warcraft – ‘Take everything in moderation (even World of Warcraft)’ and ‘Bring your friends to Azeroth, but don’t forget to go outside of Azeroth with them as well’;
  • Final Fantasy XI – ‘Exploring Vana’diel is a thrilling experience. During your time here, you will be able to talk, join, and adventure with many other individuals in an experience that is unique to online games. That being said, we have no desire to see your real life suffer as a consequence. Don’t forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work.’

These and similar warning messages raise the question of why the online videogame industry warns its players not to overuse their product. Does the videogame industry really believe that their products have addictive features that can lead to negative consequences and the functional impairment of gamers’ lives? This leads to the important issue of whether the giving of such messages by online videogame companies means they have done enough to fulfil their social responsibility or do they have they a wider role to play? Furthermore, these warning messages suggest that the online videogame industry knows how high the percentage of over-users is, how much time gamers’ spend playing, and what specific features makes a particular game more engrossing and addictive than others. While they do not directly admit this, by showing these warning messages, they do take some responsibility into their own hands.

Companies in the online video games sector have started to face criticism around the addictive and problematic nature of the use involved with certain online games and their violent content, suggesting that it is a controversial industry. Gaining broader societal acceptance has become a critical factor for companies in controversial industries where failure to meet stakeholders’ societal expectations result in their legitimacy being challenged. Unlike the gambling industry, which has a long history of forced governmental regulation and in which CSR has become a crucial issue, the online videogame industry has, by and large to date, escaped governmental action. However, there are some isolated examples of governmental interventions. For example, China introduced controls to deter people from playing online videogames for longer than three hours, while Thailand’s government banned Grand Theft Auto 4 when a student murdered a taxi driver while trying to recreate a scene from the game ‘to see if it was as easy as in the game’. In addition, the Australian classification board refused the original version of Fallout 3 due to the high level of realistic drug use thus forcing its developer Bethesda Softworks to release a censored version.

In the USA, the sales of ‘Mature’ (M) or ‘Adults Only’ (AO) rated games to minors has been an issue of much concern to public officials, and the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act introduced to the US House of Representatives requires an ID check for M- and AO-rated game purchases (US Congress, 2006). The majority of game publishers have decided to get controversial games rated by voluntary rating systems. For example, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates games in the USA and Canada, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK, and the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in Europe. While the ESRB and PEGI ratings are not legally binding, the BBFC ratings are backed up by the British law, thus making it illegal to sell the game to anyone under the indicated age. Few publishers in the online videogame industry have attempted to develop and sell a game with the strictest ESRB rating of AO. While rating systems are helpful, a study commissioned by the UK games industry found that parents let their children play games with adult or 18+ ratings, because they perceived age ratings as a guide but not as a definite prohibition.

Online videogame developers and publishers need to look into the structural features of the game design, for example, character development, rapid absorption rate, and multi-player features, that make them addictive and/or problematic for some gamers. This undertaking falls mainly on the game developers as they hold the codes for making the games less addictive. For example, long quests can be shortened to minimize the time spent in the game to obtain a certain prized item. Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, introduced some down-tuning of hardcore game-play mechanisms that encouraged excessive gaming. Initially, a symbolic and unique in-game title was rewarded to players who progress their character to the maximum level of 80 fastest. However, after several pages of forum debate in which players expressed their concern, an official Blizzard representative announced the removal of the title from the game.

Many games make use of variable ratio reinforcement schedules, which provides a very intense experience, thus increasing the addictiveness of the virtual world. Although, the potentially addictive design features of MMORPGs might not be intentional there is an obligation on the developers to consider ways of limiting harm. One way of doing this can be for developers to make design changes on time limits as many gamers schedule and plan according to the in-game periods of time. For example, long quests could be shortened, the amount of experience points needed to reach the next level could be lowered, spawns could be timed to appear more frequently to give gamers increased chances of receiving specifically wanted items and by speeding the processes of difficult task, gamers will be able to leave the game much earlier after completing their tasks. Implementing these changes to MMORPGs would show that game developers are taking CSR seriously and that they are concerned with more than revenue.

In terms of effective care policies for the gamers, the most observable act until now by the online videogame publishers is the initiation of warning messages. Through these messages, the industry is seemingly addressing CSR in the area of excessive use of videogames, albeit to a rather limited extent. Furthermore, some games (such as WoW) have a parental mode that allows parents to restrict playing time for their children.

Online videogame publishers should make provision for suitable referral services. Presently, they provide neither referral services nor customer care with regard to videogame addiction. Although the time constraints policies applied in China might not be a viable option in Europe, companies can potentially identify from their databases extreme or problematic gamers who are spending an excessive amount of time in the game and offer them contact information for a referral service in their country. Empirical evidence from the gambling industry suggests that similar initiatives and other social-responsibility tools are appreciated by players. There is also recent empirical evidence from the gambling studies field that the setting of time limits helps the most gaming intense players the most. In the context of online gambling, I have suggested that it is not the gaming industry’s responsibility to treat gamblers but it is their responsibility to provide referrals for problem gamblers to specialist helping agencies. I have argued that it is better for the industry to refer their problem customers to online help that offers a high degree of anonymity (as this is preferred by online gamblers). This is an important finding for the online videogame industry to take on board, as it seems that it is not currently taken into consideration in their CSR practices. Online videogame companies need to take social responsibility for the extreme and problematic usage of their products. The proportion of gamers who develop problems and/or become addicts may stay roughly constant but as online videogames get better and better, and increasing numbers of people discover them, the number of addicts is most probably going to rise.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Auer, M., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, DOI 10.1007/s10899-012-9332-y.

Cai, Y., Jo, H., & Pan, C. (2012). Doing well while doing bad? CSR in controversial industry sectors. Journal of Business Ethics, 108, 467–480.

Ferguson, C. J., Coulson, M., & Barnett, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 1573–1578.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Age ratings on video games: Are the effective? Education and Health, 28, 65-67.

Griffiths, M.D., & Meredith, A. (2009). Videogame addiction and treatment. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39, 47-53.

Griffiths. M.D., Wood, R.T.A. (2008). Responsible gaming and best practice: How can academics help? Casino and Gaming International, 4(1), 107–112.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A. & Parke, J. (2009). Social responsibility tools in online gambling: A survey of attitudes and behaviour among Internet gamblers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 413-421.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2007). Gaming research and best practice: Gaming industry, social responsibility and academia. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 97-103.

Hussain, Z., Griffiths, M.D. & Baguley, T. (2012). Online gaming addiction: classification, prediction and associated risk factors. Addiction Research & Theory 20(5), 359-371.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Video game structural characteristics: A new psychological taxonomy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 90-106.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H., Gradisar, M.S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.

Porter, G., Starcevic, V., Berle, D., & Fenech , P. (2010). Recognizing problem video game use. Australia Newzealad Journal of Psychiatry, 44(2),120 –128.

Van Rooij, A., Meerkerk, G., Schoenmakers, T., Griffiths, M., & van de Mheen, D. (2010). Video game addiction and social responsibility. Addiction Research & Theory, 18(5): 489-493.

Yousafzai, S.Y., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social responsibility in online videogaming: What should the videogame industry do? Addiction Research and Theory, DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2013.812203 

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Bob Fox
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People would not seek escapism in games if society was a healthy place. The fact that certain games like mmo's 'warn' players is laughable when the game industry has no problem with exploiting the most vulnerable players via F2P. When a player is playing too much it's "oh you shouldn't hurt your life" but when a player is paying too much, it's like "yes please, pay too much for this game, you're being gouged". Not to mention anti-consumer stances regarding game ownership and DRM.

Benjamin Gifford
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A very thought provoking article, thank you. While warnings can possibly assist in the purchase decisions of adults that put merit/trust/value into them, I'd like to see something more. As a developer/publisher that has consumers across multiple countries, it would be difficult to ensure without any consolidated organisation/body providing some type of assistance to give the best and most relevant information to the end user.

With so many different industry associations that speak on behalf of both consumers and developers, surely there could be a consolidated entity that could give 24/7 toll-free and online support for those who are seeking help with a game addiction or those impacted by a person with a game addiction via a single national access point that provides local resources to assist. Funded from the associations that represent the industry, as well as other special interest groups, help can be made readily available.

Thankfully, there are organisations out there already which are leading the way at least on a national level. There is a good organisation set up in the UK that provides this type of assistance. The way it presents the information and offers assistance through multiple channels I think is quite positive.

Even if it's an opt-in at the publisher level to ensure links are given and the information for help readily available, I feel anything is better than nothing and it's a step in the right direction. Perhaps the IGDA can take this under consideration with a SIG and provide some suggested guidance.

James Wang
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What services do casinos offer gambling addicts? What services do liquor companies offer alcoholics?

I'm not being ironic here - I'm actually curious if other companies take this level of care for its addicts.

If nothing else, the general public is well aware of the negative possibilities of alcoholism or gambling addiction, and this in itself is important. There are groups for support, and people take it seriously. Lives can be ruined, and this should not be looked upon lightly.

Most persistent games (MMORPGs, mobile games as a service, etc.) are built specifically to hook players with psychological tricks to get make them stick around longer and pay more money. This is not necessarily a bad thing for most people. But for a few, it can be quite destructive.

When I got hooked on FFXI back in college, it wrecked my grades, and hurt my friends and family. No one confronted me about it, because it wasn't the kind of thing people look out for. I don't blame anyone in particular for this situation, and I came away with the recognition that I have a particularly addictive personality to these kinds of games.

And I can promise you, that warning to not play too much did nothing to slow my decline into addiction. I first saw it, and laughed. I saw it again and ignored it. And eventually I saw it with resentment and scorn. "How dare you ask me to do this thing, and then tell me I should not be doing it?"

But I do not blame the company for creating their game. It's not really a question of blame.

It's an issue of spreading knowledge and understanding that just because we're not alcoholics or gambling addicts or drug addicts doesn't mean we cannot become destructively addictive to almost anything - video games in particular.

How many of us have had a friend who would turn down social events so they could stay in to raid, finish a match, camp a boss? Repeatedly? Until we stopped asking? How many of us have been that friend?

People in general need to view this kind of addiction as destructive. Forget about blaming the companies or trying to get them to destroy their business models.

We need to make everyone aware of this reality, so we pay attention to the signs, and can step in or stop ourselves before it becomes dangerous.

Michael Joseph
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Thanks for sharing your experiences James. Regulation might slow but wont reverse the course that our culture is on so I tend to agree that regulation isn't the way to go, but spreading awareness is. Then developers can make the choice of whether to make those sorts of games and players can realize that a serious choice has been presented to them as well when they consider playing them.

It's why I resent people who not only want no regulation, they also want for everyone to shut up about exploitative games and leave every player to figure it out for themselves. But all of us are stronger when we work together.

Your post leads to other potentially interesting questions for another time:
- do people who use games to escape from society (from people) become less equipped to cope with the real world over time... makes them more antisocial or leads to being less well socialized)
- does the loner ethos (Mario, Link, Duke Nukem, Gordon Freeman) that so many games glorify (mostly without realizing) serve as harmful, self-referential mythology for those who play games for escape?
- how much of happiness is related to being well socialized? If certain games not only incur the opportunity cost of live social interaction but actively reinforce within players certain ideas and attitudes that ultimately decrease players' desires for seeking live social interaction, then it's a double whammy.

Will Hendrickson
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This is a very touchy subject.

First I would like to say that video game addiction is very real, just like gambling or television addiction. By simply removing gambling mechanics from your game, you can take a step in the right direction.

We need to take these steps before the government passes legislation that could damage the independent game development community, in a similar way that COPPA has.

But, we need more visible steps than that. First, we should follow the example of Guild Wars: Every hour of play, the player is reminded of their play time in chat, and after two hours, the game asks "please take a break"

I know that this reminder helped me in my college years, because I more than once said to myself "11 hours!?? Hmm, time for pizza." I really think this kind of gentle but persistent reminder is great!

Also, in the article, Mark Griffiths makes an excellent point that especially in MMORPGs or other similarly-structured games, a lot of design tweaks could be made to reduce pathological gaming behavior without significantly impacting sales. Let your players know that you've made considerations, and they will love you for it!

While the overall percentage of gamers who engage in self-destructive gaming behavior is relatively low, this fact does not make it any less important to address the issue.

There is always going to be a big problem for small developers any time the government passes legislation against games. On top of that, the hypocracy is clear: violent games are targeted but violent movies and TV shows are not.

Furthermore, television addiction is a problem in the US. One source states that the average american watches 5 hours of television every day!

Biff Johnson
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"Online videogame publishers should make provision for suitable referral services. "

What??!!? No! Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I fall into that group (or nearly) and it darn near wrecked my marriage and almost lost me my job. Who's fault was it???

MINE. not the games.

No different than alcoholism. If you find yourself falling into a pathology, get help, or learn to regulate or separate. Most of the time it's the latter. Not to mention that if you do find yourself in that situation, you're probably dealing with deeper issues whether you're aware of it or not.

There are plenty of services in most communities that will be able help. But there again, if the person doesn't realize the need help or WANT it, then it doesn't matter what anyone does including said gaming industry.