The games industry needs to tell its story better to head off public concern | Opinion
GamesAid co-chair George Osborn suggests how the business can respond to media reports like the latest 'gaming addiction' scare
Why are so many people scared of video games? It’s a question that the industry has wrangled with for pretty much as long as it has existed.
Whether it’s fear that violent games are polluting the minds of young players all the way through to left-field stories about the possibility of games giving players deep vein thrombosis, there has often been a jarring disconnect between the medium and industry we see and what the world perceives of us.
This distinction reared its head again last week when a story landed in the media from the UK’s NHS-funded gaming disorder clinic that perfectly pressed the video game moral panic buttons.
The industry needs to step out from behind the palisades and explain much more about how games work to address concerns head on
The story opened with a fevered panic about cases soaring year-on-year. It featured some grisly and upsetting case studies of young people seemingly driven to despair by overplaying. And in light of this, it proposed strong punchy proposals – from banning under 18s from all in-game spending to putting NHS labels on game boxes – to resolve the concerns raised.
The problem with the piece was that the evidence included within it supported a different conclusion; namely, that concerns around gaming disorder should probably be reduced, rather than increased based upon the clinic’s reporting.
This is especially true of the treatment figures cited within the piece. On the face of it, the clinic’s claim that it has treated 745 people over four years for gaming disorder sounds like a shocking total.
But if we zoom out, we see something else. Taking that 745 figure at face value (which is tough to do because it includes patients and family members in the count) and setting it against the roughly 85% to 90% of the UK’s 7.5 million people aged 16 to 24 play games – the clinic’s initial treatment cohort – gaming disorder affects 0.01% of people.
According to the BMJ, this represents a medically low risk of harm. And considering the clinic is now suggesting its remit extends to over 13s, the risk of harm may be even lower than that – demonstrating the tone of coverage is utterly out of kilter with the risk suggested.
The question facing the industry is: why does this keep happening?
There are some structural reasons within the mainstream press why stories like this are picked up credulously, including a lack of specific games expertise in many outlets that holds back effective critical coverage.
But having picked up a copy of a book by Dan Gardner called Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, I think the answer is that video games are unfortunately placed to trigger people’s risk alarm bells – leading to concerned coverage like we saw last week.
The central argument of the book is that people are, ultimately, bad at judging risks. A combination of psychological biases that leads us to jump to quick conclusions (e.g. the availability bias), the fact that humans are generally poor at comprehending numbers at a population scale, and a preference towards interpersonal narratives over data analysis consistently leads us to misread our perceptions of risk. In short, our guts overrule our heads and that leads us to the wrong conclusion about where risk exists.
This is particularly true if the subject of concern contains certain characteristics. In the opening stages of his book, Gardner includes a model developed by Professor Paul Slovice that contains an 18-point checklist of qualities of a subject that leads people to increase their belief that it is risky.
While games avoided a handful of the worst features, such as ‘catastrophic potential’ that could lead to fatalities, the medium attracts at least six – potentially up to eight – qualities that significantly amplify perceptions of risk around them.
Understanding of video games and familiarity with the way they function both create uncertainty; games' close ties to children both generate immediate fears of harm to them now and of problems to figure generations; and historic negative media attention encourages further such coverage, ultimately damaging trust further.
When we look back at the piece last week, it’s clear all those factors are in play again. The coverage majored in on the impact of gaming disorder on children above all else; unfamiliarity with games meant reporters missed simple factual points (e.g. spending and playtime controls already exist on most devices) that could have downplayed fears; negative coverage of the medium before made it much easier to cover it negatively again.
The instinct following pieces like the story last week is to put up the defenses and feel hurt by the arguments made. It’s understandable, but wrong
Instead, we saw the depressing norm: a blistering broadside against video games that treated interactive entertainment as if it were as risky as smoking cigarettes rather than a comparatively low risk problem that requires targeted, sensitive interventions.
So, what’s to be done here to resolve it? The answer, which is much more easily said than done, is to proactively and positively increase the profile and understanding of games to defuse the factors that increase the perception of risk about them.
Partly, this means playing a constructive role in supporting academic research exploring the impact of video games to build an objective and robust evidence base to address concerns.
It may feel risky to do things like allow academics under the hood of a game to look at player data. But research that has explored actual player data rather than self-reported insights into games, such as the Oxford Internet Institute’s research showing games had a neutral impact on player well-being, suggests that there is more to be gained than lost from doing so. This UK games industry’s commitment to build a Video Game Research Framework with the Government is a welcome step in that direction.
More broadly though, the industry needs to step out from behind the palisades to explain much more about how games work - including making it clearer to a public audience how they’re played and the controls we put around play - to address concerns head on.
The instinct following pieces like the story last week is to put up the defenses and feel hurt by the arguments made. It’s understandable, but wrong.
Instead, we have to look at Slovic's model and say that addressing a lack of familiarity and awareness of games is key to reducing the perception of risk. And for my money, there are three major ways to do this.
It may feel risky to do things like allow academics under the hood of a game to look at player data... but there is more to be gained than lost from doing so
The first is to continue to show the wider world the extent and reach of video games today. While this is partly about facts and figures about who plays, it’s more broadly about repositioning people’s understanding of games to realise that they either do play (e.g. Wordle) or feel welcome to play to give them a route into games.
Next, we need to continue to noisily educate people about play and the frameworks around it. Campaigns like Get Smart About PLAY, which both explains the guard-rails around play that parents can set while encouraging them to get their hands on games, cut into the mainstream conversation to positively shape it in contrast to negative pieces.
Finally, the industry itself needs to be more open about the way we make games. Too often people believe that the "magic" of game development is arcane. Getting better at telling the stories of the wonderful people who make games, the warm-hearted motivation of the majority of our sector to try to bring some fun to the world and explaining as simply as we can the challenges of development to a wider world will help disarm perceptions of risk over time.
And while it may seem like a tough thing to do, it’s never been a better time to push. We’re closer now than ever to a world where everyone grew up with games. We know that people in positions of influence and power in society - including Rishi Sunak - increasingly "get games" from the perspective we come from. The sector also clearly has both the skill and resource to effectively tell this story widely to the public in a way it hasn’t before.
So yes, it can feel a little dispiriting to see the risk of harm around games blown out of proportion once again. But if the industry puts its focus on telling its story to the world beyond the industry’s borders in an accessible way, there’s a chance we may be able to finally begin to put these scare stories to bed.
George Osborn is director of policy communications at Taso Advisory and co-chair of GamesAid. He was previously UKIE's head of campaigns and communications