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Replik: Computer game addiction - What is the problem?

Young people's passionate use of computer games creates worries about addiction, but the thought of computer games as a possible mental disorder stigmatizes people, and must be understood in other ways.
Anne Brus
Photo: Uffe Weng

Something happens to Victor when he is in front of the computer screen in his room. When the game gets ‘in his blood’, his eyes are gleaming. He concentrates his attention on the small moving shapes on the screen. His fingers move surely and swiftly on the keyboard, even though his gaze is fixed rigidly on the screen. His right hand makes small jerks and gets the mouse to work for him. While Victor is playing, he speaks to me in short sentences, explaining to me what is happening in the game. Suddenly Victor’s character in the game is attacked. For a moment, he is silent, while he tries to take up the fight without losing his concentration. The intensity rises, he hammers hard on the keyboard. Victor makes an angry outburst, swears, looks annoyed and irritated at me and says apologetically, “Yes, well normally, I would have pulled through, but I guess I was a bit off guard”.

Victor goes to school - in the ninth grade - and is one of the passionate gamers I have interviewed in connection with my PhD thesis ‘The Battle for computer time – about young people’s high-frequency and problematized use of computer games’ (’Kampen om computertiden - om unges højfrekvente og problematiserede brug af computerspil’). For the most part, Victor plays the computer game ’Runescape’, which is an online computer game, with globally over 200,000 active users. Victor has friends in Denmark, England and the United States, with whom he plays and enjoys himself, e.g. through the chat room and the small ’business’ in the game, where he buys and sells equipment and names to other users. The computer game is not only a battle to be the best in the game.

Computer games have become part of ‘young people’s culture’ in the same way as sport, books and music have been for many years. A culture holds many elements other than just the playing.

Not recognized as a leisure activity

Despite the status as part of ‘young people’s culture’, desperate parents are increasingly turning to institutions and organizations with their worries about computer game addiction. Young people spend so much time playing video games that their extensive need to play  computer games has now become pathologized- by parents, experts, and also by society as a whole. Young people's extensive use of computer games is apparently reaching a point that we as a society find it difficult to accept. There is no place for the young passionate gamers in our society. I do acknowledge that some young people can play video games too much. Young people can really become geeks with their computer games - and at times so much that the ‘geeking’ will affect their homework, their education, and their night's sleep. However not all young people passionate about playing games on computers are addicted.

In principle, I can relate to parental worries. It is difficult as parents to sense what is going on behind the closed bedroom door. Did he remember to do his homework? Why is she sitting in front of the computer screen all the time? It is important to be worried, and it is often an expression of solicitude from the parents. On the other hand, we must assume that the parents would have a more appreciative approach to their children's passionate interest, if the time behind the closed door was being used to practice playing a musical instrument.

Worries about addiction to computer gaming also concern parents’ expectations as to what is important and the right thing for their children to do in their spare time. Computer games are not accepted as a leisure activity, as, for example, music is.

We may have cause for worry if the young people's changes of behaviour are sustained. Nevertheless, in context it should be considered whether young people's extensive computer gaming concerns ordinary everyday problems, such as with their parents, in school or with their friends.

The diagnosis stigmatizes

I need to emphasize that it is not the extensive computer gaming itself that is problematic. The problem is in my opinion that the term computer game addiction is used to describe something that to a greater extent may be ascribed to a generation gap which could end in conflict. Young people's extensive use of computer games often creates conflicts with parents, and the conflicts may accelerate to a point where it becomes difficult for the young people and their parents to communicate.

It is as if the addiction excuse is used too often. The point is that the diagnosis also stigmatizes. The addiction stigma sticks, and it makes the young people feel ashamed. They feel guilty, and addiction becomes a part of their identity. To be called a computer addict may exacerbate a situation that is already difficult for a young person, and may mark the beginning of a life as a dissenter.

We need to stop thinking that computer games are addictive. Even researchers in this field find it difficult to agree on whether it is possible to become ill from playing video games too much. We must accept that video games are a space for young people. They create a space for action, either alone or together with others. Computer games forge identities and create social communities where a person is treated with respect, challenged, provoked or just left alone. I am convinced that young people will continue to play computer games in spite of worries about computer game addiction.

The boy mentioned in the text is called ‘Victor’ and is anonymized. The photo is of a model and the model is not ‘Victor’ and is not included in Anne Brus’ thesis.