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Monique Keiran: Video games can bring about addiction

Several of Victoria’s video-game studios have recently launched new games. The games, which include TinyMob’s Tiny Realms and GameHouse’s new version of Slingo, highlight the industry’s growth in the region.

Several of Victoria’s video-game studios have recently launched new games. The games, which include TinyMob’s Tiny Realms and GameHouse’s new version of Slingo, highlight the industry’s growth in the region.

In Victoria, about 20 studios employ 240 people and spend about $25 million annually. Eight years ago, about 40 people worked in local game studios.

Globally, gaming revenues are predicted to grow to $78 billion in the next two years.

The industry’s growth mirrors that in other digital-technology industries. As the Internet advanced in sophistication and conquered both the wider, geographic world and our personal time, so have video games.

We’ve come a long way, baby, from Pokemon, Doom and the Legend of Zelda.

Game designers have also become more sophisticated in attracting and retaining players.

In many games, designers intentionally manipulate players to keep them online and to keep them returning to play more, again and at higher levels. They design consequences into games to prevent players from stopping play and build in rewards for players who stay in the game, move up to higher levels and subscribe to advance the game.

This is not merely a case of manipulating users, as Facebook did two years ago in a much-condemned, large-scale social experiment showing that emotional contagion occurs in social networks. Video-game design often involves intentionally making products addictive.

In recent years, researchers have scanned the brains of people diagnosed with Internet-addiction disorder. This condition is marked by compulsive use of the Internet, including social media and video games, to the detriment of other aspects of a person’s life.

Estimates of the prevalence of the disorder range from three to 24 per cent of Internet users. Children are especially vulnerable.

One study revealed disruptions in nerve fibres in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation, self-control and decision-making. Two studies of people addicted to online games showed their brains reacted to Internet video-game cues in the same way that the brains of people suffering from substance dependence or pathological gambling did to cues to those addictions.

And another study found that Internet game overuse and other types of impulse-control disorders and substance addictions affect brain pathways similarly.

In other words, Internet addiction causes the same structural changes in brains as do addictions to cocaine, tobacco, gambling and so on.

Now, this is not to accuse TinyMob, (owned and operated by Victoria-based Digital Cavalier) or other local game companies of being the gaming versions of Philip Morris or Rothmans Benson & Hedges.

The owners and employees of the game companies want people to enjoy and play their games.

They also, understandably, want their products to make money. The more players a game has (and keeps), the more revenues the game studios earn through online subscriptions, onscreen advertisements and sale of virtual goods.

However, increasing sales and revenues by deliberately designing a product to be addictive strays into ethically — even legally — questionable territory.

Take Big Tobacco.

After years of denial, the major tobacco companies admitted in the 1990s that they intentionally made cigarettes more addictive by adding certain chemicals. These additives made it harder for smokers to quit, increased company profits and increased the health burden on smokers, smokers’ families and the public.

The loss of the first anti-tobacco class-action lawsuit in the late-1990s started a legal landslide. In addition to many other lawsuits launched since — most of which are still in the courts — each Canadian province is suing the companies for, among other things, the health-care costs of smoking.

Billions of dollars — perhaps the entire industry — are at stake.

In their defence, video games don’t regularly expose players to noxious chemicals.

However, they do encourage unhealthy behaviours. Sitting for long periods, for example, increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and even depression.

But it’s the addiction-by-design that’s creepy.

Victoria’s video-game companies deserve to do well. However, they also need to consider the social implications and long-term effects of their industry’s business and design practices on clients and customers.