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Academics call for industry co-operation on gaming disorder

"We are scrabbling around in the dark here, lighting little matches and seeing tiny bits of the pictures around us," says Dr David Zendle.

Academics giving evidence on problem gaming to a parliamentary inquiry this week said they were "scrambling around in the dark."

The comment came during an evidence hearing for the Immersive and Addictive Technologies Inquiry, which was announced in December last year.

Led by members of parliament from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport committee, the inquiry will investigate areas such as esports, the connection between gaming and gambling, and social media addiction.

The first session was specifically about gaming disorder, and covered areas such as defining addiction in the context of games, treatment, loot boxes, research, and industry responsibility.

Dr David Zendle from York St John University, who has been lead author on four of the seven papers written about the connection between loot boxes and gambling, argued that game companies have the desperately needed objective data required to better understand the issue of gambling and addiction, but aren't sharing it.

"Objective data is what we need over the long term and with the kinds of numbers that give us an indication about where the problems lie"

Dr Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University

Addressing the committee, Dr Zendle said: "If there could be any way to get that difference down, it would be so helpful.

"We are scrabbling around in the dark here, lighting little matches and seeing tiny bits of the pictures around us. They have flashlights. Let us use your flashlights."

Also giving evidence were Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of National Problem Gambling Clinic, and Dr Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University.

There was a consensus among the researchers that the data they have been working with up until now is imperfect. Although Dr Zendle led a study which saw over 7,000 contributions, it was entirely open and self-reported, which presents certain flaws in the data.

As Dr Kuss noted: "Objective data is what we need over the long term and with the kinds of numbers that give us an indication about where the problems lie, and what we can do in order to solve them."

It is better for consumers and even company profits for researchers and regulators to be actively included, Dr Zendle argued, and asked for the games industry to "come talk to us."

Witnesses raised concerns around the lacklustre research into gaming's impact on society in the past, and the industry's defensive stance from "20 to 30 years of people prodding them about violence".

This research has led to an "adversarial" relationship between the industry and academics, according to Dr Zendle.

"There is a lot of work to be done on addictive features and I think the industry has a responsibility there, but gaming disorder is treated very cheaply"

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, National Problem Gambling Clinic

"We often feel a general unwillingness from industry to talk to us," he said. "I can empathise with the reason why... I noticed none of the terms of reference for this [inquiry] were to do with violence, which I think is a sign of the times. They have just come off the end of that and I think they are very concerned that something similar will happen again."

Given the state of current research and funding, there was agreement that we are a long way from a robust investigation gaming-related harms.

"We are only getting to a very good point in the gambling world with a good gambling-related harm paper that has been recently published," said Dr Bowden-Jones. "It is applicable to look at the individual, the environment and the product. These are the three spheres we need to focus on."

In agreement, Dr Kuss added: "In order to increase the evidence base, we need all of us to work together with the gaming industry, with the government, with clinicians and with patients to produce that research and establish the evidence base on which we can continue in terms of developing prevention efforts and how to raise awareness of possible problems."

Given the profound lack of public funding available for research into these areas, the question was floated on what role the games industry should play in financing further investigation.

However, witnesses noted, any research funded even partly by the sector would be compromised and needs to be "absolutely free of the gaming industry."

"I think the gaming industry needs to play its part," Dr Bowden-Jones clarified. "It needs to take on the responsibility of making sure it is not polluting the world out there with stuff that is harmful.

"There is a lot of work to be done on addictive features and I think the industry has a responsibility there, but gaming disorder is treated very cheaply... I do not believe involving the industry would necessarily be a great thing."

Dr Zendle added: "We need funding but we need it now. We do not need it in a year, we do not need it in two years; we need it ASAP. The thing with games is that they change very quickly."

Earlier today, the inquiry also took evidence from people affected by problem gaming.

During what was the inquiry's last scheduled hearing, James Good from addict support group Game Quitters, told MPs of his gaming obsession which saw him drop out of university and suffer from depression.

"The most I played was 32 hours straight," said the former physics student.

Matúš Mikuš, also from Game Quitters, added that the cycle was self-perpetuating, and said: "You go online, you're doing well, you feel good, and then you go outside, it's stressful."

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