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, 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 "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

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Latest comments (17)

Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd11 years ago
Looking at this interview, I'll admit this may need to seen in a new context after watching the show, the point here isn't about games addiction. It's about addiction, and addictive personalities.

People who suffer with depression and certain psychological conditions can find things that provide them with a boost, a reward, something to feel good about themselves. There is a buzz and the person can become dependent on it. In this sense ANYTHING can be addictive, and we have a large case of "Flagship Investigative Current Affairs show states the bleeding obvious and tries to call it news". If they're talking about a small but significant minority it's worth remembering that around 1 in 4 of us suffer with some for of depression and therefore need to be careful about obsessive behaviours.

It's starting to sound like any number of games related news stories where the protagonists parents bemoan how he used to obsessively sit in the dark, mumbling to himself, field stripping the M16 we bought him for his birthday, looking at violent images for days on end without sleep before going on a killing spree, and then blaming games while glossing over the symtoms of a psychosis because he was such a quiet lad.

'"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.'

Well yes, any responsible parent should take an active interest in their kids life no matter what they're doing. As a parent if you're not taking an interest in what your kids eat, drink, watch on TV, etc. this tends to be a sign that you're doing something wrong.

If this interview is anything to go by, then the show is just a rehash of the conversations around comics, videos, violent movies, pornography, racey books, heavy metal, rock'n'roll, the internet etc. etc. that have gone on for decades. But admittedly there are plenty of shows on day-time TV about coping with depression and it's not as sexy as the "mysterious world of video games."

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Ian Jarvis artist 11 years ago
Totally agree Alex. Why attempt to inform people about mental health issues when you can find a convenient scapegoat for people to tut at.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 11 years ago
I hope to watch the show and will be interested to see how Panorama presents their argument, although I expect some of it will be sensationalised in order to make games out to be the bad guys. I believe aspects of gaming are addictive and are most probably designed that way, but as some of us commented in the other article, is this aspect really any different to a host of other entertainment mediums?! It also looks like they're gathering extreme examples to show in the programme; I would like to see this countered with more infrequent or balanced players who partake in games purely for enjoyment and are of a calm disposition.

<em>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..."</em>

I wonder whether it will be positioned as an informative programme, or just painting games as a scapegoat.
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Show all comments (17)
Gordon Ross Game Designer, Frima Studio11 years ago
You see I can sit and do a jig saw for hours and hours long after I stopped enjoying myself. I need to just finish this immensely large patch of blue sky.

Addictive personalities are the real issue as mentioned by a previous post.

I know I have this problem, so I'm cautious about when I give into temptation.. it's not rocket science.

I wake up and want to play the game I played for 12 hours yesterday, as I dreamed up a new strategy, but I have to say.. no.. I have other things to do..

Is Tiger Woods addicted to golf?... I know my father is..
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Yeah Alex.

People in the 50s used to say that rock and roll music would lead to the end of civilisation. It didn't.. I think.

Most of the people I know still play games - and they are officially old - but they still managed to hold down a job, a relationship, look after their kids, eat, drink and sleep without spending any time at The Priory.

I'm when i was a kid, I was told that I've been watching TV for too long and should go to bed. Similar to when I was playing out on my bike and was told it was too dark to cycle and should go to bed. So maybe more time should be spent instructing on when to stop.

There are games that hold your attention really, really well.

are games a problem? If a game needs your complete attention for 12 hours a day then maybe. What social or personal satisfaction attribute made 12 hours a day necessary? Surely the person playing must have recognised it as a problem? What about the people around him? What kind of environment allowed for 12 hours of gaming a day to continue? Was that not the problem?

I'm not sure how a few edge cases can really create a water-tight argument for anything.

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Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd11 years ago
Watching the show atm and basicaly as expected.
Almost like watching Brass Eye but not as funny.

Pretty much ALL the cases they show are people with underlying psychological issues. In one of the Korean examples they showed of a child having to learn to be sociable again, the mother admits that she used to regularly beat her kid and "maybe" that was a bad idea and that you should really try listening and engaging with your children.../facepalm

Was one case which mentioned a boy crying while he played games because he forgot to blink, because games are so immersive. This comment made in blithe ignorance of the fact that any VDU effects your blink reflexes and eyesight, hence why you feel so tired when you move away from them and why most employers will offer free eye tests to people who work for long periods with VDUs as part of health and safety legislation.

The thrust of the show if you listen to what people are saying is that if you have an addictive personality or some underlying psychological issue you're at risk. However, the show infers it is the industry that should be funding research into games addiction and should have health warnings on games to warn the, and I quote, "tiny minority" of people who might be effected.

Every now and again there's a mention of the "dangerous and silent threat in our homes" accompanied by dramatic music. And pretty much NO mention that the reason why online games are engaging is because in the majority of cases they are social experiences where people play with or against friends, instead there is the steady and repeated re-asserting of the classic image of people who play games as, lonely 15-35 year old males, who live and play in darkened rooms while living with their parents.

Pretty much all the comments made about games can, and have been, levelled at TV and movie makers about why kids are fat and anti-social. Although with the standard of the Saturday night TV line-up you could argue that the BBC are deliberately being less entertaining to help prevent this sort of dangerous activity.

In conclusion, if you missed it, you didn't miss much.
The basic arguments were fairly solid and well...obvious.
The presentation of the program was unnecessarily sensationalist and unworthy of a Panorama which is frankly going to the dogs as a current affairs show.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Loffstadt on 7th December 2010 12:17am

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John Donnelly Quality Assurance 11 years ago
I could not have summed it up better Alex.

The program should have been an hour long and been more objective.
With all the talk of WoW you would have though they might have stated that Blizzard does offer parental controls as do all the major consoles.
There is zero reason parents cant pay more attention to their children and their gaming habits and nip most of these issues in the bud before they bloom in to a full blown problem.

It wont solve all of the cases but it will cut it down to a point where real research in to addictive and obsessive behavior can be done.
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 11 years ago
I say developers make the most addicting games they can. Most addicting games are social anyways. The real question is: How can we leverage that addiction to better society and eventually rid the addictions?

We need a rehab MMO, lol. Imagine an addicting game that really forced you to better yourself and eventually rid (or at least better) your addictive personality.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Cody on 6th December 2010 11:46pm

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Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd11 years ago
@Richard as someone who works in the industry, and spends a lot of times around designs what you're imply sounds more than a little sinister. Most designers want to make something that is engaging, immersive, entertaining, rewarding and fun. They're meant to make you feel good.

As for games that are intended to encourage you to better yourself, erm Wii Fit, EA Active, EA Active 2, any number of educational games, brain training, flight training simulators, driving simulators etc etc. Of course there are papers that have come from the American Psychological Society looking into the use of games as aids in therapy.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Loffstadt on 7th December 2010 12:20am

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Callum Forrest Studying BTEC Extended Diploma Creative Media Production (Games), Middlesbrough College11 years ago
oh come on, if youre child has an addiction put a parental timer on the consol or computer and pre ocupy them with something else, dont forget that family life partly connects with all addictions, if someone isnt getting attention and time spent on them then they will turn to something else

also why fund research on games addiction when you can fund something more important like drugs addiction because there is a lot more people addicted to drugs than games and drugs are a lot more likely to cause problems!
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 11 years ago
I didn't watch it in the end up, but thanks for the write-up Alex - it sounds very much as expected. I may try to catch it on iPlayer.
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Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd11 years ago
Rock Paper Shotgun on the show.

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John Donnelly Quality Assurance 11 years ago
Thanks Alex that was a good read.
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Antony Cain Lecturer, Teesside University11 years ago
I'm not touching the story with a 60 foot pole but I was enjoying reading what everyone else said. Now it seems that the main article has reached a post cap and hasn't displayed any of the recent posts, even though the number in the blue bubble has increased.

Just me?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Antony Cain on 8th December 2010 8:22am

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it looks to have a page post cap of 50
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Alex Loffstadt Community Manager, Outso Ltd11 years ago
Could always go on to the Panorama Blog and make your thoughts known there
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 11 years ago
I took the ironic route and played on Katamari whilst this was on, hah!
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