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Panoroma investigates games addiction, offers balanced, fair reporting

By on December 6, 2010
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Like many British gamers, I watched Panorama this evening.


(For non-Brits, Panorama is an investigative journalism programme on the BBC that revealed last week, for example, that FIFA is riddled with corruption).

Gamers across the Twitterverse girded their loins to be outraged, upset and annoyed that the mainstream media was once again maligning their favourite pastime in an ill-considered, ill-researched attack.

Only Panorama didn’t (although that didn’t stop a kneejerk reaction from gamers).

The biggest reason Panorama failed as television was because it was so balanced. It looked for evidence that we have a games addiction problem, and failed to find it.

Reporter Rafael Rowe talks to some disturbed teenagers and young adults who became addicted to games. He talks to some parents who struggled with their parenting skills. (One Korean woman said about her Warcraft-addicted son with whom she was attending an addiction clinic:

“I used to hit him a lot, now we spend time together”

That seems to be a parenting problem, not a games one. The son was “cured” by time spent in the sunshine and on the beach in company with other young people, alongside with structured activities and group interactions.)

He got balanced views from the industry and academics about whether there is an addiction problem. Sure, Panorama tried to sex it up by saying that 12 people were believed to have died, globally, as a result of games in the whole of history. To put that into context, 24 people have died of alcohol-related illnesses today, in the UK alone.

It tried to paint a picture of people manipulated by evil developers into spending too much time on games (and just wait until they discover social games, which can suck up people’s time AND their money).

But it failed. It failed because there is no evidence. It failed because it is not a problem. It failed because, as Rob Fahey has argued, we have won the media battle and editors and producers realise that gamers now outnumber non-gamers in the UK, making it harder to sensationalise at the ignorant.

I may have been more open-minded than many because I read Adrian Hon’s thoughtful piece on why social games are opening up the door to a whole new raft of potential psychological and social issues which are emerging as the games industry changes.

I started worrying about the same issue a few weeks ago, as I worked on my ARM Yourself framework. On Wednesday, my Retention post will be published, talking about how to use key elements of psychological persuasion to influence users to play your game – and to spend money on it.

There is nothing wrong with this per se. All marketing is about changing people’s minds about your product and making it more desirable. But I found myself thinking that there are some very powerful ways of reinforcing behaviours available to game designers. So perhaps we have to face up to the possibility that the great freedom we have to make great games comes with a responsibility.

The Panorama show ended with a po-faced Jeremy Vine saying something like “If your teenage son gets violent when you unplug his console, don’t panic – just visit our website for advice”. That is very far from being a biased critique of a hugely successful industry that creates enjoyment for millions.

But it is a reminder to us all that we do have a responsibility not to abuse our freedoms.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • What annoyed me was how painfully bad this attempt at journalism was. Their investigations were either non-existent or revealed nothing whatsoever.Given that, how on earth did this show get to air? Panorama has been poor quality for some time but I think it takes a study of your own area to really understand how low it has stooped.What they did show made little sense. They obviously believed in the topic so much that they allowed the very worst of addicts to return to their addiction for the camera.Can you imagine a report on crack cocaine or alcohol showing the very worst ex-addicts being made to take up the habit again for the cameras? I don’t think so.It was no co-incidence that I and many others simultaneously tweeted comments referring to Brass Eye and Chris Morris. Watch those first 5-10 minutes again and you could easily believe Chris Morris directed this Panorama.As Nicholas said, there was nothing to fear from this programme but that does not mean I shouldn’t be annoyed by the state of investigative journalism at the BBC.They should be utterly embarrassed they ever let this go out.

  • John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun offers an interesting counter:

    For the record, I acknowledge that Panorama failed to make the case it was trying to make. It acknowledged that your children may not have problems. It definitely used the word “addict” as it it were a medical conditon, rather than a colloquial use.

    And filming a World of Warcraft “addict” who was undergoing cold turkey by sitting him back down in front of the game is a lot like filming a recovering alchoholic while buying him a pint in a pub.

    Maybe I was wrong: I read Adrian Hon’s Telegraph piece. I watched the evidence that Panorama had assembled. I concluded that sad, lonely, teenagers – and being a teenager is often a sad, lonely place – can play games too much. I concluded that parenting skills were often lacking.

    I also concluded that the industry should be more aware of these issues and not assume that this is an outrageous attack on games.

    It’s a valid topic. For a few people, there is an issue. It’s a shame that Panorama took that as the heart of it’s show.

    But I still don’t think it was as bad as many gamers believe.

    (And to those who are commenting without having seen it, stop right now. You are as bad as Keith Vaz)