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Lethal Addiction

Video-game designers control the players‘ behaviour by providing simple stimulus and reward them at strategic points. Children, especially those with poor impulse control or struggling with studies and not knowing the consequences, are most vulnerable to fall prey to their evil charm

Govind Bhattacharjee | New Delhi |

Recently, after I wrote an article in another national daily elaborating the adverse effects of video games on children and suggesting regulation of the industry, my mailbox was inundated with responses from parents who were struggling with their children’s compulsive addiction to video games and the agony they were going through because of it. A schoolteacher from Australia sought my permission to use and share the contents for addressing similar addiction of her students. In that article, I narrated the story of how a boy, who excelled equally in studies and outdoor sports, had suddenly lost focus in both and had to contend with falling grades and failing health for a long time before he could be persuaded to give up his addiction, and also of another child who was so obsessed with the games that he forgot even how to speak and had to undergo protracted counselling to re-learn speaking.
Many of the most popular video games have been of Chinese origin, no less lethal than the raging virus that seamlessly morphs to continue infecting people everywhere, which also originated in that country. Last year, along with 117 Chinese apps, Government of India had also banned a popular video game called “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG) which was linked to the Chinese multinational tech-titan Tencent. The game has been banned in 15 countries including in China for being too violent and addictive, but soon it made a re-entry into the Indian market through the Google Playstore by morphing into another form with some cosmetic changes: “Battlegrounds Mobile India”.
Earlier, the Government had banned another lethal video game called the Blue Whale Challenge which enticed depressed teenagers to inflict injury upon themselves and finally to commit suicide, but it soon morphed into other forms like ‘A Silent House’, ‘A Sea of Whales’ and ‘Wake Me Up at 4:20 AM’. In video games, the government’s regulation or oversight is completely missing and their carriers like Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Microsoft, Yahoo etc. operate with impunity while minting money at the cost of children.
The Chinese video gaming industry is worth $44 billion, but China has imposed regulations to curb their rising monopolistic power, which has seen Tencent and other giants like Alibaba collectively losing over $1 trillion of their market value. Recently, China restricted viewing of video games for its under-18 population to only three hours a week-1 hour each, from 8 to 9 PM, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (it was 90 minutes per day before). Efficacy of enforcement remains to be seen; about 110 million, or two thirds of all Chinese children, play video games, and they often play offline to bypass any regulation. Parents, especially when both are working, can hardly exercise any control.
The rules require the players to use their real names with ID numbers allotted, but once addicted, children can be devilish in their shrewdness. To defeat oversight, they often log-in using adult credentials, or play in internet cafes that often turn a blind eye. Shares of Tencent and NetEase, a rival firm, hardly lost any value after the new rules were announced, reflecting the popular expectation that their fortunes were unlikely to suffer because of regulations.
There is also a thriving grey market for video games everywhere, under the very noses of governments. Many countries even shy away from regulation, like the US whose Supreme Court had refused to regulate the sale of violent video games in 2011, citing, curiously, the First Amendment regarding the unrestricted freedom of speech. As I had mentioned in the article, UK has a system of rating of games, like films, for different age groups, making it illegal to sell games rated 12, 16 or 18 to any child below that age; but these ratings are inapplicable to games bought online. India has no such system and no law to regulate video games, unlike films for which we at least have the Central Board of Film Certification.
Video gaming is a multi-billion dollar global industry worth $178 billion, with smartphone and console games sharing the revenues more or less equally. China and India are the biggest markets, accounting for the major chunk of some 3.24 billion users worldwide, 1.5 billion of them in Asia alone, followed by Europe with 715 million and USA with 200 million. Growth of the industry has been phenomenal following the pandemic which has been a ‘tipping point’ for online gaming, as a KPMG study noted.
Confined to their homes for more than a year, both children and adults have sought their escape from boredom and turned to online gaming with a vengeance. India has 433 million users in 2021, second largest after China, estimated to grow to 657 million by 2025, with revenues projected to rise to Rs 29,000 crore from Rs 13,600 crore in 2021. During the first nine months of 2020, India rose to number one spot in terms of games downloads, clocking 7.3 billion installs with 17 per cent market share, the highest in the world. Over 60 per cent of our users are under 25, with many spending more than four hours daily.
Over 90 per cent of the video games portray some form of violence. A slew of studies has found that “violent games promote feelings of hostility and aggression, desensitize the players to violence, and skew the player’s perception of what constitutes violence.” A longitudinal study tracked more than 3,000 kids for three years and found that playing violent games increased their impulsiveness in a vicious cycle. Another study found that playing “risk-glorifying games is associated with subsequent increases in sensation-seeking, rebelliousness” and delinquent behaviour, with the effects being stronger for kids who played violent games with an antisocial protagonist (like “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Manhunt”).
Even if some games may have educational content, the ones most addictive are built around negative themes that promote killings in war-like scenarios, disrespect for the law, sexual violence, and racial and gender stereotypes. Numerous studies conducted all over the world have repeatedly drawn attention to the severity of their adverse effects on the physical and mental development of children.
But the video game industry has many multinational players ~ like Sony, Tencent, Nintendo, Microsoft, Activision, etc., each of which earn gaming revenues worth billions of dollars. They enjoy tremendous lobbying power and can buy scientists, writers and columnists at will. A google search is likely to throw as many papers glorifying the games for supposedly increasing memory, concentration and cognitive abilities and addressing mental depression and loneliness, as against their harmful effects on children and adults. Only the parents who have suffered the unbearable agony
of their children losing focus
and going astray will know the truth.
The gaming companies employ highly skilled scientists trained in neuroscience, child psychology and human behaviour from the best universities in the world and pay them fabulously to design the games so as to make them addictive. Playing them releases the pleasure-giving neurochemical dopamine in the brain telling it to “do it again.” Studies show that gaming even changes the structure of areas of the brain involved with higher cognition. Studies using brain scans showed decreased activity in areas of the brain dedicated to self-control and an increase in emotional arousal while playing games that use violence.
The designers control the players’ behaviour by providing simple stimulus and reward them at strategic points. Children, especially those with poor impulse control or struggling with studies and not knowing the consequences, are most vulnerable to fall prey to their evil charm. What follows is not only falling grades, but also sleep deprivation, fatigue, irritability when stopped from playing, increased anxiety, obesity, aggressive behaviour, and lack of interest in social interactions and other physical and mental activities essential for healthy growth. Video games provide them an easy escape from seeking the more purposeful real life relationships with friends which are hard to build and sustain.
India’s gaming ecosystem has over 400 companies, including Infosys, TCS, Zensar, etc. Global companies are expanding their footprint here and gaming start-ups are mushrooming, backed by investors who infused an estimated $544 million into the sector between August 2020 and January 2021. The sector will get another boost when 5G is rolled out, with “cloud gaming” providing better gaming experience. Businesses will resolutely fight any ban or regulation upon such a lucrative market, as to them profit supersedes every other concern. The potential
for earning revenue from the
sector blinds the Government whose vision rarely goes beyond five years, and it will be happy
to merrily pass on the responsibility to parents who are powerless.
The situation reminds me of China before the Opium War in the 19th century, when the severe social and economic disruptions caused by pervasive addiction to opium supplied by the British forced the Chinese to destroy 1400 tons of the drug at Canton (Guangzhou) in 1839, triggering the Opium Wars which China lost. Can we afford to lose our own opium war and let the gaming companies decimate and destroy the creative potential of our children who are our future leaders? Whose interests should get primacy, children’s or gaming companies?