LOOT BOXES: THE NEXT BIG BATTLEFRONT
BBC Focus - Science & Technology|May 2021
Periodically, there have been moral panics about video games, with headlines claiming that “violent” and “addictive” titles are affecting impressionable players. At present, it is loot boxes’ turn to be put under the microscope. But should we be worried about video games, and are loot boxes a cause for concern?
DR PETE ETCHELLS

For nearly as long as video games have been around, society has had worries about their potentially addictive nature. It’s understandable, in a sense – to the untrained eye, watching people play video games can often be an unnerving experience. Players look like they’re glued to their screens, fully absorbed and seemingly unaware of what’s going on around them. If you don’t have lived experience of the rich and varied social environments that video games can afford, it’s easy to see them as an unwholesome activity that can’t be good for us.

In the early 1980s, this distrust went so far as to be a subject of debate in the UK House of Commons. ‘Control of Space Invaders and other electronic games’ was a bill put forward by then-MP George Foulkes, and he held no punches in his beliefs about the effects the game had. “I have seen reports from all over the country of young people becoming so addicted to these machines that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction… They become crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them, as they play the machines,” he said.

GAMING ADDICTION

Foulkes’s bill never passed, but the fears around video games remained. In 1982, a year after the Commons debate, a letter appeared in the Journal Of The American Medical Association titled ‘Space Invaders obsession’. In it, researchers based at Duke University Medical Center flagged an apparent psychiatric complication of playing the game – three men, aged between 25 and 35, were reported to have become, well, obsessed with the game, vastly upping the amount of time they were playing it in the weeks leading up to each of their marriages. In the letter, the researchers suggested, bizarrely, that the fixation came about because the men were struggling to deal with their ‘anger’ over their impending nuptials. “The disintegration of invading aliens who were trying to overrun the ‘home base’ took on symbolic significance” they breathlessly argued, in what appears to be a damning indictment of wedlock.

Space Invaders took the centre stage in these concerns because it was the big hit of the era. Since then, each time we’ve gone through a cycle of worries about the potential negative effects of video games, they’ve largely been pinned to the most popular titles of the moment. In the 1990s, it was games like Doom and Mortal Kombat that fuelled fears of violent video games causing aggression. Then it was first person shooters like Call Of Duty. In 2018, when the World Health Organization announced that it was including ‘gaming disorder’ as a formal addictive behaviour in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), it was worldwide success Fortnite that took the brunt of the news stories about gaming addiction – headlines such as “Fortnite addiction now a recognised mental health disorder”, and “Children hooked on Fortnite will be treated on the NHS for addiction” came to the fore as journalists scrabbled to put the WHO’s decision in context.

As is always the case, what the headlines claim and what the actual research suggests are two different stories. Now, more than two years later, scientists are still in disagreement about what gaming addiction actually looks like, how best to diagnose it, and how many people it might affect. And there’s certainly no evidence to suggest that specific games, like Fortnite now, or Space Invaders then, are more or less addictive. In fact, that goes to heart of one of the fundamental problems of research in the area: by and large, research takes a macro-level view of video games effects, treating them as a singular entity – or at best, segregating them based on genre categorisations that often don’t fully capture the breadth and variety of experiences that games can afford us.

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