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Critical Consensus: Panorama on games addiction

What industry onlookers thought of the BBC's report on gaming

Controversial BBC documentary 'Addicted To Games?' aired last night, to an immediate and mixed reception from industry onlookers.

Social networking site Twitter was filled by broadly scathing claims, but some voices maintained that, while the use of dramatic music and imagery coloured the tone of the show, it was even-handed in its underlying arguments.

In a piece entitled "Panorama investigates games addiction, offers balanced, fair reporting," GamesBrief's Nicholas Lovell argued that the programme failed to identify proof of gaming addiction, and thus did not demonise the industry.

"[It] 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."

Lovell also agreed with Adrian Hon's argument in the show that some games do employ psychological devices to help ensure more play. "So perhaps we have to face up to the possibility that the great freedom we have to make great games comes with a responsibility."

Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker was deeply troubled by the approach taken by Panorama, feeling that gaming addiction was "stated as fact, unambiguous. Seven minutes in it's admitted that there's no evidence that gaming can cause addiction, but long after they've made their position completely clear."

"Never mind the facts, the data, the proof; we have an agenda here, and we're going to demonstrate it through unresearched, unevidenced, anecdotal stories.

"The level to which gaming addiction as a reality is assumed is so absolute that at one point the reporter, bringing the episode's theme of anecdotes home, explains that while his son plays games, he "isn't addicted". He can tell."

In a piece endorsed by Bad Science author Ben Goldacre, Walker also objected to the melodramatic editing, claiming that filming two children in front of the games they were claimed to formerly have been 'addicted' to was "the direct equivalent of producing a documentary about alcoholism in which the participants are asked to get drunk for the audience at home."

He observes that the first qualified expert is only brought in 11 minutes into the 30 minute show, and that the reporter repeatedly seems to make his own conclusions about links between gaming and behavioural or antisocial disorders, apparently overlooking other factors that may cause some individuals to play games to excess.

"This episode of Panorama was upsetting," Walker concludes. "Seeing young people who are clearly suffering, struggling socially and within their own families, it scares me to see their serious situations trivialised in this way.

"It's insulting to those who for whatever specific reasons struggle to control their gaming, and dangerous for misinforming the public."

MCV felt that "The BBC's documentary tries to appear balanced, but its between-the-lines insinuations are irresponsible." Ben Parfitt writes that "isolated cases of people whose addiction happens to be gaming (it could just as easily be alcohol, or gambling, or drugs, or sex, or Weetabix) only serves to cheapen the show."

"Some very choice editing betrays its erroneous motivations, too. In one sequence host Rafael Rowe interviews WoW 'addict' Liam while he's playing the game. Liam is, understandably, distracted. Of course, it's possible Rowe asked to interview him in the park in the lovely afternoon sunshine... but I'd bet my Xbox 360 on him having insisted the interview takes place right in front of Liam's PC as he plays the game."

The Guardian's GamesBlog takes more of a middle ground, with Keith Stuart suggesting that gaming addiction is likely real but its prevalence is dramatically overstated by Panorama.

"Wide-scale scaremongering is unnecessary, given the rarity of the problem. And let's face it, if some parents haven't cottoned on to to the fact that games can trigger compulsive behaviour in children, will a half-hour current affairs programme do the trick?"

Stuart too observed on the documentary's apparent tendency to overlook other social factors that may have contributed to troubling behaviour in the young gamers featured. "Somehow, [the mother had] missed the fact that [her son] was playing WoW for 16 hours a day. At home. In his bedroom." This had resulted in the son apparently kicking a hole in a door when his parents forcibly turned off his internet connection.

"I don't want to judge someone else's parenting – at ages three and five my sons are too young and daft to be left unmonitored longer than about half an hour. But 16 hours a day? I'd hope my alarm bells would have started ringing slightly before any sort of foot-furniture interaction."

However, "I'm not rubbishing the whole concept of the programme. As Dr Mark Griffiths says at one point, "people seem to display the signs and symptoms you get with more traditional addictions".

"I'm prepared to believe that games can be a problem to vulnerable people, just as drugs, alcohol and gambling can be. Just as television can be." Stuart concludes, however that the "inconsequential and at times manipulative investigation" is "nothing new. It's nothing profound."

GamesIndustry.biz, Eurogamer and Radio One correspondent Johnny Minkley saw the show twice before broadcast, and felt that, despite the regular use of sinister music and lighting, 'Addicted to games?' was broadly objective. "Beneath drama the basic points Panorama made are at least sound: evidence unclear, more research needed, parents need to be better parents."

Blizzard, however, was apparently unhappy by the presentation of World of Warcraft as leading a 19-year-old to violence, and sent the following statement to the BBC: "Our games are designed to be fun... but like all forms of entertainment... day-to-day life should always take precedence. World of Warcraft contains practical tools that assist players and parents in monitoring playing time."

The Sun went with "Gamers could be addicted to action" in its brief report.

Panorama's producer claimed to GamesIndustry.biz yesterday that the show was balanced, and accused the games industry of being overly defensive.

The documentary is available to UK viewers here.

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Alec Meer

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A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.

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