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Panorama Game Addiction Documentary Examined

I just watched “Addicted to Games?: Panorama,” as I suspect many of you did, and I’m horrified. Utterly horrified. Not at the looming, iceberg-like threat of games addiction destroying our society, but at the show itself.
Considering this is a subject on which there’s a lot to be said, I’m horrified that, instead of a solid, even-handed piece of investigative journalism, we got a piece of scare-mongering tripe with almost nothing to say beyond the patently obvious.
Things started badly, and didn’t get much better. The opening five minutes featured excerpts from Robbie Cooper’s Immersion – still photographs of children’s faces as they play games. The masks of concentration are fascinating to see, and a few of the gurning mugs on display would’ve been hilarious were it not for the unsettling low-key electronic music playing in the background, indicating that this is Something To Be Scared Of.
The takeaway from this segment, presumably, was that people concentrate on games. Sometimes they concentrate a lot. But the music and presentation imply a serious threat.
From there, we’re introduced to a poor fellow who dropped out of university because he was playing Call of Duty too much, and another teenager who was playing World of Warcraft so much he was skipping school. When the latter’s internet connection dropped, he would sweat and shake; when his parents saw this is a warning sign and threatened to cut the internet connection entirely, he went “berserk” and “just smashed anything [he] could see,” in his own words.
It’d be easy to point and laugh, but these are clearly people with genuine problems. I’m just not convinced that the problems are down to games, and Panorama didn’t do anything to convince me. If anything, what the programme showed was that people with an addicting personality or other forms of instability in their lives can get addicted to things, while feebly gesturing at games as the token demon. Most of the experts spoken to backed up this perspective: “For a small minority, things like gaming can be potentially problematic,” said Nottingham Trent University’s Professor Mark Griffiths. But this is not what the tone of the show implied, or the feeling left when it ended.
Another section “exposed” one of the “secrets” behind keeping people playing your games – specifically, variable rate of reinforcement. If you provide random rewards for repetitive actions, people will keep repeating those actions in the hopes of getting the biggest reward on offer. Think slot machines, and then realise that we’ve known about this for decades. Once again, we’re shown the obvious and then we’re told to be scared of it.
There were some fascinating segments, certainly. Reporter Raphael Rowe’s trip to South Korea, a country where gaming has taken off to the extent that some pro-gamers are superstars, showed us a “boot camp” where parents can send their game-addicted children with the aim of replacing “virtual relationships with real ones.” Unfortunately, it also featured a mother who – with regards to her apparently game-addicted son – bluntly stated: “I used to hit him a lot, but you need to talk and communicate to understand the child. I regret not having done that in the past.”
It’d be hilarious if it was satire. It’s not. It’s real life, and the programme made no attempt to delve into whether, perhaps, things like child beating and a lack of connection with his parent may have contributed to her son’s desire to spend longer and longer in a virtual world.
So yes, I’m horrified. Games addiction bears examination, and it has already been the subject of a number of far superior investigations. Manipulative tabloid journalism like this doesn’t serve anyone. It doesn’t educate or enlighten; it does nothing but scare, and the cynical timing of this piece – to coincide with the launch of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm – belies its seemingly investigative front.
There’s a lot more to be said. I’d like to note that the Immersion gallery shown at the start (which you can view online) also shows faces filled with joy. I’d like to draw attention to the reporter’s own prejudices, laid bare in a segment in which one gamer mentions their friends – the reporter corrects them by interrupting “ONLINE friends” – and the section in which, to my ears, he seemed horrified that many Korean young adults would rather play games in a PC Baang than go out drinking (as, after all, alcohol certainly has no notable addictive qualities.) I’d like to tell you a lot more, but sadly, I’m running out of room.
Charitably, we could assume that was also Panorama’s problem: half an hour is a ludicrously short time to try to explain, contextualise, and judge an issue so complex and so under-researched that many are uncertain whether or not it is an issue. But I’m not sure I’m willing to be that charitable with something that seems so focused on pointing out the obvious and adding a dash of moral panic.
You could go and watch this on iPlayer, or – if you have a genuine interest in the issue – you could go and read John Walker’s excellent investigative piece on this very subject. My recommendation should be clear by now.

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