3Qs: Assessing addictive nature of video games

A recent study pub­lished in the journal Pedi­atrics indi­cates that heavy video gaming can become habit-​​forming for chil­dren, pre-​​teens and teens and lead to depres­sion, social pho­bias, and even poor aca­d­emic per­for­mance. Cyn­thia Baron, Asso­ciate Director Dig­ital Media, Asso­ciate Aca­d­emic Spe­cialist, and Mul­ti­media Studies Advisor at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, addresses how the study find­ings will impact video game rat­ings, sales and popularity.

Cynthia Baron, academic director of the Digital Media Program at Northeastern University. PHOTO: Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

What makes a video game addictive? Are they intentionally designed to be that way?

I think that we have a problem with terms migrating into situations that may not be directly applicable. I have said many times that, in the context of creating games, "addiction" is good. But this is a terribly negative term, which was first applied as a response to people's fear of early arcade games. Today, game creators use the term, but have stripped it mentally of its pejorative connotations.

Perhaps we should be looking for a different word, like "replay-ability". It would better describe the many intentionally developed elements that go into game design, the weight of each depending on the type of game we're discussing. These main goals optimize engagement: a challenge, a self-affirming reward (sense of accomplishment), and a temporary but complete immersion.

Do you think news of these findings will lead to more stringent ratings and regulations for video games? Do you foresee this news causing video game usage and sales to decrease?

There has seldom been a situation where more stringent ratings have ever had a long-term effect on a popular entertainment, as you can see with the movie rating structure. Like movies, you can rate games for their violence or sexual content, and we do. But, there is no way to rate a game as being more or less addictive without saying that it is more or less engaging.

Short of making games illegal, I don't expect any of these actions to have a negative effect on game sales. The push to get the population to eat more vegetables, which has been a consistent theme for close to twenty years, has had almost no effect: the CDC recently issued a study that indicates that the population's overall vegetable consumption has not changed since 2000. I see no reason to assume that the trend toward more game usage will falter because of this paper. I suspect that the authors of the paper would agree with me.

With all of this talk of the negative affects of gaming, what are some potential benefits? Are there skills one can learn while playing, that are applicable to, and useful in "real life?"

It is a mistake to think of video games as some strange new monster with no connection to other things people do for fun. We have heard this theme with every new social craze. Remember Internet addiction? As I said above, "replay-ability" offers the same benefits that should accompany a good learning experience, whether it be completing a crossword puzzle, learning to skate backwards, or reaching the point in a new language where you can talk with a native. That's why the area of serious games -- games that can be used to help people at all ages acquire new information, learn new skills and stretch their minds -- is growing so quickly.

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