Panorama's Emeka Onono
BBC producer on investigation and discussion of games addiction
How addictive are videogames? When it was announced last week that flagship BBC investigative series Panorama would be turning its lens on this controversial and sensitive issue – to coincide with the launch of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm - the games industry winced and, let's be honest, prepared for the worst.
While the programme is due to air on BBC 1 at 8.30 this evening, GamesIndustry.biz was able watch the full, finished documentary in advance and speak at length to its director and producer, Emeka Onono, about why Panorama chose to highlight this issue and why he thinks the industry should be less "defensive" about it.
In "Addicted to games?", reporter Raphael Rowe meets a series of people who it is claimed developed an addiction to videogames that is wreaking havoc on their emotional and social lives.
Joe Staley, from Nottingham, "couldn't physically pull [himself] away from" Modern Warfare 2 and was thrown out of university in thousands of pounds of debt.
22 year-old Leo played World of Warcraft for "12 hours per day for two years", and calls it "a disease, it's horrible. I would never inflict this game on anyone".
Alison Dando, mother of Chris, recounts her son's "outpouring of violence – he just went berserk" after the internet connection was switched off and he could no longer play Warcraft. "My dad almost had to pin me down on the ground," Chris adds.
Onono insists, however, that the documentary is not anti-gaming. Rather, it tackles a subject about which there is still a great deal of ignorance.
"What we've said is there's a potential for things in games to be addictive," he explains to GamesIndustry.biz. "There is a potential there. And that's something that the industry's always doggedly denied. The fact is it's there and however small or large that possibility is it needs to be researched and acknowledged."
He accuses elements of the games industry of being "very defensive" over the issue, automatically seeing any mention of gaming and addiction as "another bashing of the industry", and counters:
"There have been some scientific studies which are suggesting there could be a problem. A small problem, but given the ubiquity of games a small problem could be a big problem in that there could be a serious underlying issue that needs to be looked at. That's what started off the investigation."
The argument in defense of gaming here is that, of course, the vast majority never experience any issues - however long they play for. So surely, as seems to be the case with the subjects in the documentary, obsessive gaming is the symptom of much deeper problems than the cause.
Take Joe, for example. After quitting gaming, we later see him suggesting that people should instead "go out and get smashed". Lee tries to give up Warcraft, but gives up and returns because: "I was bored. I didn't have anything to do."
Korean parents, meanwhile, whose child died through neglect – blamed on their addiction to an online game, Prius Online – are described by a psychologist as "depressed", "mentally not that stable" and having "low IQs".
"We do say several times it's a small minority," insists Onono. "But it's an issue that does need to be raised and does need to be discussed.
"In many cases there is an underlying issue. A child might be bullied or they may have self-esteem problems or they may be depressed. By turning to games they find they can forget about it for a while. What the research suggests is that what then develops is a kind of symbiotic thing with the games where they become a problem in themselves. "
Professor Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University's Gaming Research Unit, a leading expert in the field of technology and addiction, makes this point in the programme.
"The good news is, for the vast majority of people videogames is something positive in their life," he says. "But we have to take on board that there is a growing body of literature that says for a small but significant minority things like gaming can be potentially problematic".
Eidos life president Ian Livingstone OBE, interviewed by Panorama, argues that: "There's no formal published medical evidence saying that games are addictive anywhere in the world. You could say people get addicted to football, or get addicted to TV – they used to say people were addicted to television."
Games industry trade body UKIE, meanwhile, states, in a release drafted to coincide with tonight's broadcast: "There is currently no proven link between videogames and addiction, with there being mixed opinion among academics about whether a game can be clinically addictive. There is no official medical diagnosis of videogame addiction."
But for Onono, it's an issue the industry cannot ignore: "One of the things the games industry says is that it's personal situations that lead to these addictions – but that's a fact of all addictions. The truth is nobody really knows and that's kind of what we're pushing.
"The main thing that struck me is the way [the games industry] compares computer games to TV and reading a book," he adds. "I think computer games are engrossing in a way that other forms of entertainment can only aspire to!
"There are positive things that can come from playing games – the issue is the lack of knowledge as to the potential dangers."
"It's so new people don't see it as an important research area to look into," argues Griffiths, in the film. "My research has consistently shown that people display the signs and symptoms associated with more traditional addictions."
The BBC could not be accused of underplaying the link it is seeking to draw between gaming and addiction. The programme synopsis promised, somewhat dramatically, to reveal "the hidden psychological devices in games that are designed to keep us coming back for more".
"Some games are designed in a manner that you just don't want to leave," says Adrian Hon, of social games developer Six To Start. Well, yes. That's the point.
But as Griffiths goes on to explain: "If you've got that vulnerability to an addiction, that will keep you in the game far in excess of what the normal person would do."
Hon adds: "I think people don't necessary understand how powerful some game mechanics can be". And this seems to be the crux of Panorama's argument: non-gamers, especially parents, do not understand the medium and therefore lack the means to spot a problem as one is developing.
Mrs Dando angrily pleads with the games industry to "think about the fact that people do become addicted". This is after she allowed her son, living under the same roof, to play World of Warcraft, by his admission, for up to 20 hours per day.
The matter of parental responsibility must, therefore, surely come into play. Onono agrees:
"Absolutely. It's a half-hour film so you can't touch on everything, but there is an issue here. Games have moved on so quickly and many parents just don't understand."
He reveals that the crew spoke to Mrs Dando about her son's gaming habit, and she claimed she "had no idea that a computer could be used in that way".
"It's common sense," he says. "But common sense for people like you or me who know a bit about this is quite difficult for somebody for whom this world has appeared from absolutely nowhere and they don't understand it."
The reporter, Rowe, criticises UKIE towards the end of the film for not providing more information to consumers on the potential risks via its website, and remains unconvinced by the industry's response.
He states in a voiceover: "It remains to be seen how serious the industry is about funding the research that needs to be done. Until that happens, parents won't know about potential dangers in their homes."
UKIE's response is that – reasonably – any new research should "ideally be independent of the games industry". Would people have taken the Byron Review seriously, for instance, if games companies had funded it?
However, Rowe – reporting from Eurogamer Expo – ends with a broadly positive, sensible statement on gaming: "It's easy to forget the benefits and sheer joy [games] bring," he says, over shots of people playing on Kinect.
"I don't want to stop my son from gaming, but I'm going to keep an extra close eye on him to ensure he games safely." Sound advice for all parents.
UKIE director general Michael Rawlinson takes up this point earlier in the piece, explaining that, the issue of addiction aside, games can: "boost intelligence, reduce stress, and be valuable learning tools - something passive media like television would do well to emulate".
Opinion will be divided over the way Panorama has chosen to highlight the issue, but Onono does not believe the documentary creates a false impression of the industry.
"I think we do make it clear that games are safe and good for you," he says. "We make it clear at the end that games should be played safely, especially with kids.
"A film about addiction is by its very nature a negative subject and that's what we were investigating. It's quite difficult to get away from that and we tried to make it very clear.
"I'm sure people will say we could have made it clearer in other ways, but we did go out of our way to say that games are good."
Tonight's edition of Panorama will be available to UK viewers on iPlayer after broadcast. This article is also available on our sister site Eurogamer.net.