Socialist Worker

Out of control - how the games industry fuels addiction

The NHS is set to start providing treatment to video games addicts. Sarah Bates asks how big the problem is and what is to blame

Issue No. 2611

Fortnite is popular among children

Fortnite is popular among children (Pic: Whelsko/Flickr

Compulsive video gaming has been recognised as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the first time.

The definition means it should be easier for addicts to access treatment.

WHO says video gaming addicts have so little control over how much time they spend playing games that it “takes precedence over other life interests”.

Diagnostic criteria is useful for those who feel they struggle with compulsive gaming to help them access treatment. It will also be a fight to ensure that services are available—it is a welcome step that the NHS has just opened its first Centre for Internet Disorders.

The impacts of video gaming addiction can be as dangerous as elements of other addictions—relationship breakdowns, job loss and financial ruin.

Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor of the Eurogamer website, describes his addiction as “good old-fashioned, almost ruined my life kind of thing”.

“I fell into my overdraft, then began using my credit card to pay for bills,” he said. “Money didn’t seem to matter, as long as I could afford the subscription fee.”

Most people who play video games don’t share this experience, but the way games are created and marketed has a role in how users access them.

Users can be attracted to games because of how they can be connected to other users globally and play alongside each other.

This means friendships can develop. It can also create a dynamic where players feel pressured to log in at certain times. Compulsive gaming can also be a symptom of existing social anxieties. It’s possible to see how video games can be a source of entertainment, but also relief in a difficult world.

WHO’s announcement caused mass outrage from games and entertainment companies—who no doubt wish to protect an industry that was worth £83 billion in 2017.


And it’s not an accident that games are designed to keep players hooked.

Many of the most popular games are based on a “freemium” model, so although the download is free, users are encouraged to make in-game purchases.

The go-to example at the moment is Fortnite—Battle Royale, an online game of cartoon-like violence popular among children.

This model means developers continue to make money from users who pay for extra features to boost their performance. It also means there’s an incentive to making a game as addictive as possible.

And developments in technology mean smartphones are clever enough to process some video games.

In part, this has led many healthcare experts to become concerned about the overall time people are spending looking at screens.

Newspaper columnists like to exaggerate the scale of the problem, stirring up minor panic about the latest game that’s consuming your child.

Coverage of Fortnite is the most recent example of that. Companies commodify this concern and are using it to sell products.

Apple—a company worth over £8 trillion—announced an innovative feature for its new iPhone.

It’s called “digital health” and is being marketed as helping users manage how much time they spend on their iPhones and iPads.

But just telling people they are spending too much time on a games console or a smartphone is not enough to stop them doing it.

Most of the world’s estimated 2.2 billion active gamers will not fall into debt as a result of their hobby, or spend all night trying to beat their highest score.

It is also true that some do struggle with video game addiction, and would benefit from treatment.

Ultimately the addiction is a result of an industry that makes products that aim to get people hooked. But it’s also linked to a society that compels people to escape from reality.

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Article information

Tue 3 Jul 2018, 12:41 BST
Issue No. 2611
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