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:
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
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