Richard Lewis responds to the Panorama documentary about gaming addiction that aired on BBC1, Monday, 6th Dec 2010.
This column is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.
If ever you wanted to make a serious case for the declining standards of the British Broadcasting Corporation Raphael Rowe’s documentary about “gaming addiction”, that aired as part of the Panorama series, would be exhibit A for the prosecution. Rarely has such imbalanced and poorly researched work been allowed to air on the BBC. Over the course of its thirty minute airing time the show made no significant findings, used heavily biased sources and featured not one credible talking head that could validate the documentarian’s assertion that gaming addiction was real.
Indeed, while the message was all too clear from the opening scenes, it alarmingly felt the need to adopt the trappings of a second rate Michael Moore film and tack on a “mission” come the end, namely a throwaway remark about UKIE not making reference to potential gaming addiction on its website. It was a desperate move, a piece of scaremongering designed to add weight to the finale in the absence of facts.
No-one who works within the gaming industry was surprised by this sort of attack. While every gaming journalist worth their salt may well have set their alarms, or their Sky Plus recorders if they are amongst the better paid of our number, watching it was only a matter of gathering the specifics. We all knew exactly what the content would be at the predictability was the only thing that didn’t disappoint. A compulsive World of Warcraft player, a small segment about the proliferation of gaming in South Korea, talking heads from people with dubious credentials talking about gaming addiction and a collection of children with issues that run deeper than gaming delivering throwaway quotes that were gleefully assembled out of context… Yes, it was the hysterical anti-games brigade greatest hits and for all the people it featured speaking for the real dangers of gaming addiction, perhaps most telling was those it didn’t feature – an experienced, credible, medical expert.
The lack of punch to the points was clear from the outset. By the eight minute mark during an interview with Ian Livingstone from Eidos the documentary was already showing how lacking in substance it actually was.
“In the early 1900s we were worried about the waltz. In the 1950s we were worried about the demonising of society by rock and roll. Now it’s games”
Livingstone argued. “You could say people get addicted to football, people get addicted to the internet. They used to say people were addicted to television.”
When he was asked about people who said they were addicted to games his response was equally succinct.
“They might have addictive personalities. They might be addicted – in inverted commas – to some other entertainment experiences but there’s no formal, published medical evidence saying that games are addictive anywhere in the world.”
Ian Livingstone speaking at Brunel University (Picture: Brunel University)
Having had their central premise so soundly rebuffed, most documentary makes may have been tempted to leave this piece of footage on the cutting room floor. However, Rowe simply attempts to argue around the final fact as if it was somehow irrelevant to the points he wanted to make. Remember, this is someone with no medical or psychological qualifications choosing to dismiss an absence of scientific evidence as an obstacle to overcome in a bid to make the points he wants to. Rowe’s dismissive voiceover said, without any awareness of the own inherent comedy it contains (Chris Morris would be proud):
“He’s right, to a point, but there were growing calls from the international scientific community to have gaming addiction formerly recognised.”
Alas it seems that none of these people from that shadowy collective “the international scientific community” managed to make an appearance to voice these claims for themselves. Of course, the idea that one person could speak for an entire field of science is as equally ridiculous as saying Livingstone’s completely correct assertions about a lack of medical evidence are “right, to a point.” As things stand they are right, full stop. The documentary would have been much better served using this as a leap-off point to explore why that was the case, rather than choosing to ignore it entirely.
Of course, that’s what a journalist would do and we need to be clear on this – Raphael Rowe’s background as a journalist isn’t exactly outstanding. He had the misfortune in 1988, at the age of 19, to be sentenced to life imprisonment for a robbery and murder he did not commit. It took twelve years before a court of appeal recognised the miscarriage of justice and he was released. Since then Rowe has become a self styled reporter, having studied journalism through a correspondence course while serving his sentence. As sad as this situation might be, and as much as I can empathise with any journalist being snubbed in a highly competitive field, it has to be said that a life altering experience such as that is no substitute for an apprenticeship within which to hone the craft of reporting. Even if the BBC website proudly states “As the subject of numerous stories by broadcast and print journalists during his long campaign for justice, Raphael has a unique insight into both sides of the reporting coin” the lack of understanding of journalistic responsibility was clear for even the layman to see.
Documentary maker Raphael Rowe
With this came the introduction of United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment body, UKIE, who would end up playing the unwitting and unnecessary villains of the piece. A brief talking head from Michael Rawlingson talking about the benefits of interactive media was juxtaposed against the story of Chris Dando, a young man who was bunking off school in order to play World of Warcraft for “up to twenty hours a day”. While this behaviour is obviously an extreme, there was no introduction of the common sense contrast that almost everybody has taken a day off from school or work because they’d rather be doing something else. Neither was there any mention of Chris’s home or school life. When his parents decided to cut off the internet in the house entirely in a bid to stop him playing Chris, we’re told, reacted violently and vandalised parts of his house. Not reasonable and rational behaviour by any means but hardly anything to warrant the sinister music that was played over the interviews, as if the Dando household would be the subject of a sequel to “Nil By Mouth” sometime soon.
Now, although the story of the Dando family is presented happily without context and no explanation for why someone would want to retreat into a virtual world for twenty hours a day forthcoming, the documentary felt comfortable introducing someone it told us was one of “Britain’s leading child psychiatrists”, Dr. Richard Graham. He had apparently been treating “a growing number” of cases similar to Chris – no numbers or statistics forthcoming of, even if a “growing number” would be the increase of one patient to two – and he wasted no time in throwing his opinion into the ring:
“I do think this is something that needs national recognition”
he said while counting some money. “In many ways this could be an invisible problem because a young person is not creating any immediate alarm. They’ll be quietly tapping away at a keyboard in their room and there is no immediate risk to them that would be apparent.”
This may well be a valid point, although someone who works in the field of treating this “invisible problem”, and no doubt being paid handsomely for it in the process, is probably not someone we can entirely trust on the matter. Naturally, the same can be said of the people who have computer games to sell, yet at least the weight of scientific opinion and evidence backs their stance that not only does gaming addiction not exist but that interactive media can have many positive effects on those that participate in it.
World of Warcraft came under constant attack
Sensing this, the next talking head was introduced as a “world authority on the psychological impact of video games”, Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University. However, again the tone set by the narrator and documentary maker, compared to the words uttered by the person clearly employed in a bid to validate what is little more than his own gut feelings about the issue, don’t fall in line.
“The good news is for the vast majority of video games is something that’s very positive in their life. But we have to take on board that there is a growing literature that suggests for a small but significant minority things like gaming can be potentially problematic. My research has consistently shown people seem to display the signs and symptoms that you get with other more traditional addictions.”
Notice anything about the precise language? “Suggests”, “like”, “potentially” “seem”… It’s a far from definitive statement and one that clearly underlines the next point that the documentary reluctantly conceded, that there is not enough research done on the subject matter for even those who have dedicated time to it to arrive at a conclusion that the problem even exists. Griffiths calls for more money for research, stating that there is a disproportionate amount of funding for addictions to tobacco, alcohol, drugs and gambling, a point that takes us on nicely to the centrepiece of this hysterical tirade of gibberish.
Let’s jump to South Korea where the rise of online gaming is well documented, even if this edition of Panorama chose to completely forego explaining the collection of cultural circumstance that went into making this the case. As was typical of the programme descriptions of entirely exciting developments, such as a professional gaming league and Starcraft players becoming national icons, were immediately tempered with another false statement – “But people have played themselves to death.” This assertion alone is more than enough to justify any complaints thrown at the documentary because it clearly isn’t true. No matter how much Rowe might want it to be true, the people who have got deep vein thrombosis or bloodclots from not moving for prolonged periods can in no way blame the games. It’s a moot point anyway, but contained within all games on general release, right next to the epilepsy warning, comes the recommendation to take breaks away from the computer or console and engage in another activity before returning to playing. This is on the UKIE website too, something again overlooked as the programme wildly lashed out at gaming without any clear target as to who was to blame for a problem that may or not be completely fictitious to begin with.
A South Korean internet cafe
It didn’t end there, dredging up the tragic case of a South Korean couple who let their premature starve to death while playing prolonged stints of an MMORPG in an internet cafe across the road. It was a truly harrowing story but it glossed over so much and was clearly here for shock value. First, even if it was true this couple were addicted to games (they weren’t), compare the number of cases of child abuse that relate to alcohol and drug use compared to those that we could link to gaming. I think we’ll all agree there’s a disproportionate number and if Rowe wanted to make a noble documentary, albeit one that treads all too upsettingly familiar ground, then this would have made a much finer target. Of course, while trying to say that the couple were addicted to games and raising a “virtual child” online, he ignored what the BBC themselves reported:
The pair fed their own premature baby just once a day in between 12-hour stretches at an internet cafe, the official Yonhap news agency reported.
Police officer Chung Jin-won told Yonhap they "lost their will to live a normal life" after losing their jobs.
He said they "indulged themselves online" to escape from reality.
The recurring flaw in the documentary was its willingness to apportion blame to the games themselves rather than look long and hard at the people who played them and the circumstances surrounding their lives. Were those neglectful parents in the grips of an addiction or were they instead desperately trying to escape the fact that they were going to have to raise a new born child in abject poverty? We’ll never know because Rowe was not willing to scratch the surface or delve a little deeper beyond his preconceptions.
Tellingly, in another part of the South Korean segment, one of the children that was also a purported addict was sent, along with his family, to a gaming addiction treatment centre. There the family underwent exercises to “reconnect” and bond once more. The mother revealed a little too much about her son’s home life when she said:
“Well, I used to hit him a lot but you need to talk and communicate a lot to understand a child. I regret not having done that in the past.”
Come the end Jeremy Vine looked almost embarrassed to be reading a warning to parents off his auto-cue. Everyone associated with the programme should feel the same, if not thoroughly ashamed, for playing their part in what was a pointless, aggressive, inaccurate and imbalanced attack on a media format that they clearly didn’t understand. Its reliance on these few extreme cases to try and build an argument had more in keeping with FOX News than that supposed bastion of the free press that is the BBC. Even if there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Blizzard may want to take a long hard look at this, as its fixation with their product World of Warcraft and the insinuation that not only was it addictive, but they had somehow devised to design it that way, is a fairly unprecedented attack. Someone should tell Rowe that according to Blizzard’s own figures 90% of people who play World of Warcraft never get past level 10… Hardly the new opiate of the masses, is it?
What this represents is another wasted opportunity. An opportunity to explain the cultural significance of gaming to generations that don’t understand it. An opportunity to bring something that exists in the shadows out into the open and in that setting have the various merits and demerits debated sensibly. Hell, perhaps most importantly it represents an opportunity missed when it comes to actually exploring what it set out to do, yet I feel the task of finding out if gaming addiction is real or not is a task a lot bigger than one man and a camera can achieve.
I’m not saying gaming addiction doesn’t exist, even though I don’t think it does. Better minds than mine need to look into that and then come to their own conclusions. I’m not qualified to comment beyond my own beliefs and I’ve done no real research into the subject… So how about it BBC? Sounds like I’m more than qualified for my own documentary.
UK residents can view the documentary through BBC iPlayer.