It's time to retire lazy stereotypes of gamers being teenagers playing games in dark rooms.
The last 18 months have been incredibly difficult for people of all ages across the world. Lockdowns and the isolation created by the pandemic meant that people explored new ways to socialize with their friends and family. In addition, video games provided citizens of the world with a way to escape the rolling 24-hour news channels beaming fear into their homes around the clock.
In a world of Facebook and mobile games, we have all become gamers. Video games have helped us connect, communicate, and engage during COVID-19. One study even suggested that playing video games while chatting with friends during lockdowns can positively impact our mental health.
Ofcom unsurprisingly found that 62% of adults in the UK played some form of video game in 2020. Earlier this year, Accenture revealed that the global gaming industry value now exceeds $300 Billion, which is more than the music and movie industries combined. Elsewhere, a report by IDC suggested that the 75% increase in mobile gaming during the pandemic is expected to remain indefinitely. But can we have too much of a good thing?
China limits under-18s to hours of online gaming a week
Joe Rogan infamously angered the gaming community last year for suggesting that video games are a waste of time. He argued that investing thousands of hours honing your skills with the goal of launching your own business in several years would be a better alternative to just playing games and nothing else. But many gamers questioned this school of thought and the concept that anything that doesn't lead to money or success is a waste of time.
With 110 million minors in China playing video games, the Chinese media referred to online gaming as spiritual opium.
In a bid to curb youth video game addiction, authorities announced new legislation that would only allow under 18's to play online games for a maximum of 3 hours a week. In addition, regulators took drastic action to protect minors' physical and mental health from what it deemed to be a highly addictive habit.
From September 1, minors are only allowed to play online games for one hour on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and school holidays.
Video game companies such as NetEase and Tencent were instructed to enforce the new rules with real-name registration and strict login requirements. But how did online gaming go from being a lifeline during the lockdown to the bad guy?
The battle for our time in a world where the machines always win
Although it's easy to single out video games, there is an inconvenient truth that all entertainment mediums are increasingly using sophisticated algorithms to manipulate, control, and even brainwash audiences. For example, anyone who has ever binge-watched a series on Netflix will testify how hard it is to break the allure of watching one more episode. But we seldom question why we feel the need to consume box sets as quickly as possible.
Social media platforms bombard us with stimuli and dopamine hits to fuel the psychological cravings that keep us endlessly scrolling down our newsfeeds. Likewise, pre-packaged thoughts and our own opinions are often fed back to us to keep us watching and scrolling.
Bookmakers use AI to keep gamblers hooked, and many video companies have also been accused of using similar gambling-like techniques to keep players purchasing "loot boxes" in games.
Whether watching sports, news, TV boxsets, browsing social media, or playing video games, the constant noise, notifications, and distractions are all addictive by design to steal your time.
In a world where everything is a binary choice, nuance was the first casualty. In a digital world where we no longer sit down, allowing our mind to wander without reaching for our smartphone, there is also an argument that we are losing the art of daydreaming as external forces increasingly control our attention. But it's also vital that we recognize the benefits of pastimes such as playing video games in moderation.
Why it's not game over for gamers
During the pandemic, young gamers logged into games such as Roblox to stay in touch with their friends. But, for many kids, it's much more about the social aspect than the game itself, and any parent that has heard the laughter coming from the bedrooms will attest.
There is more to gaming than first-person shooters and hack and slash adventures. Video games introduce young gamers to professionally composed soundtracks and visual art that stimulate their imaginations. Then, as they build and explore virtual worlds, something magical happens.
Lazy and authoritarian bans won't prevent overindulgence in online gaming. On the contrary, they could be taking away the only social interaction that many kids have.
Instead, we need to resurrect nuance to recognize the enormous difference between being an enthusiastic gamer and being addicted to gaming.
Technology always works best when used in moderation, and it brings people together. Many young gamers get this, but ironically, their parents often are too busy scrolling down social media feeds to listen. Maybe we could learn more from children and their creative uses for technology and wake up to the fact that we will all run the risk of being played by consuming too much of any form of entertainment.