Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A moral panic about video-game addiction

The real issue is the sociocultural effects of technological changeand it requires a nuanced approach

Back in 2000, Hillary Clinton campaigned against video games. She argued that games would “steal the innocence of our children … making the difficult job of being a parent even harder". It was an impressive argument. It is no mean feat, after all, to sum up all the cliches of a “won’t someone think of the children" moral panic so pithily. She wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last. A bout of anxiety about the alleged ill effects of video games seems to crop up every few years. Is the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) recent addition of “internet gaming disorder" (IGD) to its manual of psychiatric diagnoses another such instance?

WHO defines the disorder as “characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences".

This is vague enough to affect an estimated 9% of gamers worldwide. That’s potentially tens of millions of people, most of them in the younger age cohorts, affected by IGD. It’s also so vague that it makes it nearly impossible to draw a line between a bad habit and an addiction. Besides, there is no research consensus yet on the existence of IGD, leave alone how many people it’s likely to have affected.

In a way, the whole thing is misdirection. WHO’s recognition of IGD does have a nugget of truth in it. But it has less to do with video games and more with broader trends of technological and social change.

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who focuses on the intersection of culture and technology development, has come up with a working theory on why some forms of technological change provoke moral panic. To qualify, they must change people’s relationship to time, to space, and, most importantly, to other people. The invention of the telephone ticked all three boxes, for instance. Ditto, the radio and the telephone. Each, in its time, caused social angst—about the death of letter writing and the impact on meaningful human relationships, about the weakening of community bonds and family ties.

The digital revolution that kicked into high gear some three decades ago ticks those boxes in more profound fashion than any wave of technological change since the Industrial Revolution. A sense of sociocultural dislocation is inevitable. The periodic panic about video games is just one aspect of it, and a minor one at that. Take the so-called social media addiction that is occasioning a great deal of public debate. Harvard researchers, after hooking up people to MRI machines, have claimed that self-disclosure communication—which is social media’s raison d’être—stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres in the same manner that food and sex do. The flip side of the coin is the anxiety and depression supposedly caused by consuming the picture-perfect curated images of others’ lives. And then there’s phantom vibration syndrome—the false sensation that one’s cellphone is vibrating in one’s pocket, caused by attachment anxiety to the phone. There is little scientific consensus to back up any of this. Much like IGD and pornography, it’s a case of “I know it when I see it".

Economic logic and design have made the rapid spread of these technologies—and the dislocation that comes with them—inevitable. Back to video games: They are structured, and not by accident, to tap into players’ lizard brains—the primitive reward and pleasure loops that fuel, say, gambling addiction as well. Thus, reward structures in many games are kept unpredictable, creating a compulsion to keep playing for the next pay-off, much like a slot machine would. Economist Matthew Rabin’s work explaining how individuals value instant gratification over long-term gratification even when it is clearly in their own interest not to is echoed in the microtransaction model built into many mobile games—one that further loads the deck in favour of instant gratification by going in for bite-sized transactions that allow users to suppress knowledge of the long-term negative consequences.

Social media, meanwhile, is built on a foundation of dopamine reward loops. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter related to the reward we receive for an action. Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook who resigned in 2005, has admitted that whenever a user likes or comments on the social network, “we… give you a little dopamine hit". And so users keep coming back for more, generating clicks and ad revenue.

Technological change is inevitable. So is the sociocultural upheaval it causes. Perhaps video games, social media and smartphones are indeed linked to anxiety and depression. Or perhaps they offer an escape from them. There are signs that Silicon Valley is trying to come to grips with such questions; companies like Apple and Google are working to integrate “digital wellness" into their operating systems and apps. But moral panic, alas, is not much for nuance. It generates much heat but little light.