Gaming’s unreported damage

We hear theories about violent games making children aggressive. We read about video game ‘addiction’ when a man collapses after a 48 hour gaming marathon. We were warned about the potential harm of social networking sites in the Mail in February.

However, the biggest danger of video gaming remains unreported.

This problem, widespread yet well-hidden, is that too many hours gaming stunts intellectual and social development in children and adults, resulting in failure to fulfil potential at school, at work, and life in general.

The worry is not video game addicts. There are few of those. The worry is the many people who play a lot – perhaps three of four hours a day. They might go to bed later, avoid friends, scrimp on homework, or even not look for a job as hard as they might. This may seem minor, but, over years, a gamer’s quality of life is reduced. When it involves millions of us, the culture and economy of the entire nation is affected.

Given that the average British gamer plays 11 hours a week (according to www.theaveragegamer.com), and 97 percent of 11-15 year-olds are gamers, as are 51 percent of 36 to 51 year-olds (according to BBC statistics), we have a big problem.

“Consider your average 10 year-old, who’s up for 14 hours a day.” Says Keith Bakker, Director of Smith and Jones addiction clinic in Holland. “Eight hours is school, two is eating and other essential activities. If the remaining hours are video gaming, they miss out on skills needed in adulthood that are learnt by socialising, playing sport, even watching TV. These are formative years, so these gamers don’t develop. They become malfunctioning human beings incapable of making choices or setting goals.”

36 year-old children’s nurse Leanne Fletcher from Rotherham has three sons. Her middle son, 12 year-old Callum, used to be the most helpful, the “most sociable kid in the world” and top of his class at school. That changed when he discovered video games.

“I wish they’d never been invented!” Laments Leanne. “He’d play for hours, then throw his homework together in five minutes the next morning.”

He dropped from first in his year of 116 pupils to 62nd. He stopped helping around the house and playing with friends.

Leanne was desperate. “We’ve limited him to three hours a day, but he gets angry when we make him stop. There’s no doubt that we will win, but it’s a constant struggle.”

Adults can be as bad, and it’s not just ‘geeks’. 37 year-old Ian Church has represented Britain twice in the Olympics. He is now a successful businessman, engaged to a TV producer.

“We got a PS3 at Christmas”, explains Church. “It was brutally addictive. I couldn’t stop. I had to finish that level. I’d stay up to 2am, then be too hyped to sleep. It chews into your life. I’d play in the morning, miss my train, be late for work, and tired all day.

“Worst of all, when my fiancée told me she’d have to do more night work, I was overjoyed; it meant more gaming time. When I add up the hours I played and think what else I could have achieved… I thank God I’m not unemployed. If I was, and had access to games, that would be it: Life Over.”

After two months, Church realised he had to stop, and had the willpower to do so.

Callum and Ian are extreme examples among millions of British gamers. Neither is ruining his life, but each, like countless others, has chipped away at his potential. Keith Bakker gives a good analogy: “Serious gamers are like alcoholics. 95 percent of alcoholics are functioning among us. It’s the same with gaming. You can carry on with your life, but still be damaging yourself.”

The problem stems from the fact that it’s easy to play for hours without becoming bored. Dr. John Charlton, Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Bolton, explains:

“There are two effects at work here: Mental State of Flow, and Time Warping.”

Mental State of Flow, says Dr Charlton, is when people become oblivious to time and surroundings, perhaps while reading or watching television. It’s the addition of Time Warping – “the elapsing of large amounts of time without a person realising it”, that makes people play games for so long. We mark the passing of time with reference points: no matter how engrossed you are in a book, you’ll come to the end of a chapter. Many computer games lack these reference points, so hours pass unnoticed.

So games are compulsive. What’s the problem? Over to Developmental psychologist Professor Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University:

“Many gamers report problems such as doing more poorly on tests or missing deadlines at work. Research shows that children who spend more time playing games receive poorer grades.”

Mary Veater, a 23 year-old primary school teacher from Luton, agrees: “In school children are expected to interact with others. We often find that those who’ve played video games on their own a lot haven’t had enough experience of doing this. They get frustrated, can’t concentrate – school’s not as much fun as a techni-coloured video world – and can end up behaving badly.”

Keith Bakker adds: “These are the formative years. These kids don’t take part – they have no proper social networks and no team sports – so you end up with malfunctioning human beings who have no idea how to set choices and goals.”

The lure of gaming is not restricted to boys. 42 year-old data analyst Claudia Caputo has two daughters. Her eldest, 8 year-old Sophia, “has been obsessed with video games since she was three, and her 6 year-old sister copied her. We didn’t see anything wrong initially. I work at home, so it was a relief to have them out of my hair.”

“Then I found that after playing they got very moody, got upset over nothing, started crying and generally became aggressive and unhappy. We immediately limited their play to an hour each a week. They’re definitely happier now, and their mood swings have gone.

Leanne and Claudia’s children are lucky. They have parents who understand that tough love is best.

But what of those millions with no functioning parent? Or the offspring of Guardian-reading types who don’t believe in ‘judging’ their children? How about children who are difficult to control?

Karen Mansfield’s 14 years old son Ollie is autistic, and loves computer games. He spends weekdays waiting for 3.30pm, when he’s allowed to play games until 11.30pm. At weekends he plays all day.

According to Karen: “He was late to talk, his school reports were poor, but at six he showed amazing aptitude for video games. I was overjoyed that he’d finally found something he could do well. If only I’d know back then what was going to happen, I would have stopped him playing.”

Ollie gave up all other activities. Friends drifted away, he ignored his family and refused to go on family outings.

“I’ve tried to limit his playing hours, but he becomes unbearable. I had to call the police when he attacked me once. My husband doesn’t help – he’s useless at that sort of thing.”

Karen is seeking help to get Ollie away from video games.

Siobhan Freegard, 41, parenting expert and founder of Netmums, a mothers’ chat website, says that even she is guilty of letting her children play too much: “We don’t send children out to play on the street anymore, so if you want time to yourself, computer games are a great electronic babysitter.”

Meanwhile, the average age of gamers rises – it’s currently 28 according to BBC statistics – so children who love gaming drag their problems into adulthood. A Department of Culture Media and Sport spokesman said: “Adults can make up their own minds about how long they spend playing games.” That’s refreshingly hands-off for this government (What, no ad campaign?), but the problem remains. As Ian Church’s example shows, it’s easy to get hooked on a game, and become less productive when you do. But Church had the resolve to stop playing. What of the thousands or perhaps millions who don’t, who quietly continue to pursue an enjoyable yet life-denying hobby?

Perhaps they’ll be fine. Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Goldsmiths University in London claims that “Gaming has benefits, including stress reduction and sharpening the mind.” He adds that video games are ‘brain training’ for children, who are developing a new kind of intelligence, technology-based rather than knowledge-based. Why know facts when everything can be looked up instantly?

Chamorro-Premuzic makes some good points. There’s no denying that educational games exist, that operating a games console does make one more computer literate. However, at time of writing, none of the top 20 UK games are educational, and It’s unclear how endless hours of shooting cartoon soldiers can sharpen the mind.

So what should a parent do? We can’t ban games, nor should we. They’re great entertainment, and Britain is at the forefront of the industry.

“As a parent,” says Netmums’ Siobhan Freegard “it’s hard to know where to draw the line. I wish someone would give guidelines. We don’t have our own childhoods to fall back on for direction.”

But we do. 30 years ago some parents limited television-watching hours. They had no guidelines. Commonsense told them how much television was enough, and they used their nous to provide alternatives. Today’s parents should do the same with video games.

And as for adult gamers? Well, if gaming is affecting their work and relationships, they need to impose some self-control. Unfortunately that’s not a popular notion in Modern Britain.

 

Some names have been changed.