Was Panorama’s Game Addiction Report Fair?

Was Panorama's Game Addiction Report Fair?

It avoided tabloid reporting, but was undermined by an anxious tone and a superficial attitude to the bigger questions.
It avoided tabloid reporting, but was undermined by an anxious tone and a superficial attitude to the bigger questions.

The human stories at the heart of Addicted To Games?, Panorama’s investigation into the potentially addictive qualities of videogames, shouldn’t be ignored. Chris, Sang, Leo (which isn't actually his real name) and Joe, the four young men who chose to share their experiences with reporter Raphael Rowe (interviewed himself here), all spoke apparently openly and honestly about their compulsive gaming. Likewise, the serious costs of their behaviour – damaged relationships with friends and family, lost places at university, debt – can’t be denied. Leo in particular, who at the outset of the report stated that he wouldn’t ‘inflict [World Of Warcraft] on anybody’, called the game a ‘disease’ and is attempting to quit, but at the report’s conclusion stated he still wants WOW to be a part of his life, seems particularly unhappy and confused.

But it’s interesting to note the way these stories of young men struggling to adjust lifestyles with which they’re unhappy were juxtaposed with the tragic story of the South Korean couple who, in March of this year were arrested for causing the death by malnutrition of their child. Rowe’s narration made clear that both parents struggled with depression, and when interviewed, Suk-Hi Chai, a member of the Eulji University Centre For Addiction, stressed that the mother was ‘not that mentally stable to begin with’.

Joe, who played Modern Warfare for what he claims were three-day stretches without sleep

While this suggests that serious mental health issues were more to blame for the couple’s neglectful behavior than the extreme gaming habits they developed – and indeed, Rowe stated that Korean research has established that problem gamers often have underlying emotional issues – Rowe didn't apply this insight to the other subjects of the report. He never asked his young interviewees how happy with life they were before they turned to games, and his final advice to Leo – that men his age should have a girlfriend, seems well-intentioned but unhelpful. He didn't stop to ask if Leo has confidence or self-esteem issues which would make that seem an unattainable goal.

We can’t claim profound psychological insights into the inner workings of these people’s minds, but the report seemed to imply that all was well before they discovered gaming. The one glimpse we do get of an interviewee’s private life suggests otherwise. Sang’s mother, describing what she’s learnt at a boot camp for problem gamers and their families, explains that she now makes more effort to communicate with her son: ‘I used to hit him a lot’, she admits.

How useful Rowe’s investigation would be for other parents concerned with their children’s habits is unclear. The report’s investigation into gaming mechanics identified the psychological hook at the heart of many games – the unpredictable nature of rewards in return for inputs – but never attempted to explore the ways games package and obscure (for better or worse) this mechanic in a way which distinguishes them, from, say, slot machines. At times, the report bordered on misleading – when recovered ‘addict’ Chris explained the rage he flew into when his parents cut off his World Of Warcraft access, the scene is intercut with CGI footage of a stomping, rampaging Orc from WOW’s intro movie. Clearly, Panorama’s editors couldn’t resist – but that non-interactive animation has very little to do with the statistic-based gameplay he was craving.

And while online games were identified as particularly addictive, the effects of the social networks they admit players into were ignored. At one point, Leo tells Rowe he struggled to quit World Of Warcraft because he missed his friends – ‘your online friends?’ Rowe asks slightly skeptically, before putting the matter aside.

Chris played World Of Warcraft all night, leading to him skipping school

These unasked questions and under-explored ideas are all more frustrating because last night’s show was not an unqualified piece of tabloid hysteria. At no point did the report outright obscure what should to a rational mind be more than reassuring facts – 50 per cent of households in Britain own a games console, games are more popular than ever before, and Rowe himself states that only a tiny minority of players have a problem – and nor did it present gamers in unflattering light. Indeed, interviews with gamers at events within the UK – such as the launch of StarCraft II – presented viewers with plenty of seemingly well-adjusted young people, mindful of the importance of moderation in their hobby.

Indeed, some of evidence Rowe unearthed was encouraging. An interview with Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University contained the professor’s assertion that ‘for the vast majority of people videogames [are] something positive in their life’, and that those who become addicted were a ‘small minority’. The professor’s belief, meanwhile, that more research should be carried out into the possibly addictive qualities of gaming for certain people is more than reasonable – if only to ensure that those people who do have a problem, be it due to natural propensity or other underlying issues, receive well-researched and tailored help. Finally, Griffith’s advice to parents – hosted on the Panorama website and referred to at the end of the show – is the epitome of common sense.

Videogames are a powerful form of entertainment. Last night’s Panorama report acknowledged this, and – despite an anxiously concerned tone throughout – also acknowledged that the vast majority of gamers have nothing to fear from their hobby. But beyond a superficial look at basic game mechanics, the report made little attempt to find out why, for the unlucky and unfortunate young men it interviewed, gaming had become such an all-encompassing force in their lives.