The secret life of gamers: How a niche underworld became mainstream in COVID-19 times
- There’s a richly textured social world of online gaming that draws young and old, boys and girls
- There’s so much more to gaming than addiction, anti-depressants, clinical or mental illness
- Virtual friendships are formed on a massive scale via online video games
- But when does gaming become a disorder?
Dubai: Gaming has been alternately extolled as the future of the virtual world, with 3-D environments hosting much of “life”, and dismissed as a dangerous past time that toasts the brain of millions of youngsters in mindless shooting, destruction and competition.
Over the last year or so, while most of us were hunkered down at home, millions have taken to gaming to cope with isolation. Did gaming time increase during the pandemic? “Yes, without a doubt”, said Greg, a 27-year-old self-confessed gaming addict who has since reformed.
Some experts, however, argue that just like anything in this world, when taken in moderation, a healthy amount of gaming can work for all.
Greg, a Briton, is a poster boy for gaming gone over the top. There were days, he admits, when the number of hours didn’t count for much for him. “It wasn’t healthy,” recalls the social media executive, “when I would game from the second I woke up to either early hours of the following morning or even straight through without sleep. This would happen most when something new and exciting was released. Similar to how you find an engaging book and can’t wait to find out the ending, the same thing would happen with games.”
What is Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD)?
It’s this kind of heavy usage that has earned gaming the notoriety of being a “disorder” — and a mental health condition. But there’s a vague, continuous line between too much and just enough. Experts explain that simply playing a lot of video games isn’t enough to count as a disorder.
Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), however, is increasingly being considered a distinct clinical entity among all the documented addictive disorders. But the American Psychiatric Association (APA), classifies it as a “tentative disorder”. It cites the need for greater study in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Mortal Kombat is an extremely popular fighting game developed by NetherRealm Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
Pac-Man is a popular maze chase video game. The player controls the eponymous character through an enclosed maze.
Manhunt 2 is an urban horror style game, where players survive levels by executing enemy gang members. Players earn stars based on the brutality of the executions carried out during the scene.
The Magnavox Odyssey was the first-ever home video game console released in 1972. It was used to play an at-home simple 2D graphics version of the arcade machine game Pong.
It was the advent of home consoles such as the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo NES around the same time that took video games from arcades into living rooms. Games popularised in this period resonate even today.
Image Credit: AFP
Some experts argue that just like anything in this world, when taken in moderation, a healthy amount of gaming can work for all.
Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata /Gulf Nwews
With online games, it’s a whole new world pulling in tens of millions of people.
Image Credit: Twitter.com/OfficialEStars
Now, nearly 50 years after the first-ever home video game console, ‘Magnavox Odyssey’, was released to the public (1972), the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised gaming as an official diagnostic entity in the latest (eleventh) revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
A whole new world
To backtrack a bit, there are two kinds of games. Single-player games, which allow players to hit milestones, with each level increasing in difficulty. These are stand-alone games that allow for creative pursuits. This, in itself, has drawn millions of ardent fans, from young pre-schoolers to adults.
With online games, it’s a whole new world pulling in tens of millions. Example: One popular game, Fortnite, has drawn an estimated 350 million players. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of the United States.
Shared joys and sorrows — they kill monsters together
Like social media denizens, gamers belong to a virtual community. They form bonds of friendship. They chat, laugh and cry together — cement a shared experience that is as real as anyone’s world. That niche exists quite apart from — or as “layer” — over the real-world. It’s almost like a secret life, that gathers strength by the day.
I have never felt the need to cut down. Unless I was spending six hours a day every day… That would be too much. At that point, it becomes an addiction, rather than an activity. If someone is not taking a shower or changing their clothes or something, that would be an addiction.
– Jack, age 12, British
Industrial-grade computer servers power these games while high-definition graphics and ultra-fast chips are at the users’ side with signals criss-crossing globe-spanning fibre-glass cable networks. In this pandemic, such virtual worlds have tremendously expanded their reach. With it, new relationships are formed.
For Greg, gaming provides an fun way to spend time with friends, “especially in times when meeting up with them in person is limited.”
Some people blame video games for the rise in violence. There are conflicting studies: Some back while others trash the games-lead-to-violent-behaviour hypothesis. But games have been around for nearly 50 years. Along with movie streaming, which has disrupted the world of cinemas, games have proven a useful tool to keep our sanity intact at a time when thousands of stadiums, schools, gyms, parks and kids’ camps are shut. Competitive online events offered a semblance of action — at a time of forced inaction.
The Washington Post recently explored this subject: Given the months of isolation, online video games have become a conduit for tackling harder topics, like depression. “Whether it’s shooting aliens together in near silence or opening up about feelings of loss, playing games is serving a valuable purpose,” the Post reported. And with it, new relationships are formed.
“Our social connections provide a lot of things for us,” Natalie Pennington, a professor of communications at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told the Post. “The most tangible example is social support, just having somebody who can listen to us, or offer advice to us, or just be there when we want to cry.”
“For me,” says Greg, “it’s been an important platform when keeping in touch with friends. Rather than calling them, it’s so much more fun to share an experience with them at the same time.”
Forming new connections
Most social connections are kept alive through group chats, Reddit, Facebook and Zoom “happy hours”. Then there’s the great multitudes of gamers, who talk to each other through built-in communication channels within the game.
Video games form a multi-billion-dollar business. With online gaming, ultra-fast and cheap graphics processing units (GPUs, the same tech used in “mining” cryptos like Bitcoin), plus the spirit of competition all conspire to put together a pretty incredible world.
is the estimated revenue from the worldwide PC gaming market in 2020, while the mobile gaming market generated an estimated income of more than $77 billion.
Gaming is woven into the modern-day social fabric: And its commercial value cannot be ignored. Recently, a Saudi wealth fund made a $3.3 billion bet on Activision, makers of the Call of Duty series.
Taking human interactions to a higher pitch
■ From the battle game Fortnite to the immersive world of Roblox, “games have given people a way to share fun, escapist experiences with each other when their shared reality is darker, wrote the Post. It works for someone who is hours away from family, living alone without in-person classes, and who infrequently sees a friend in the flesh — or those who pursued an active social life — but can’t do it now.
Is gaming misunderstood by non-gamers?
Today, multi-player games not only allow for virtual “wars” to take place but also strike up friendships. “With many of these games, you learn something new. Some games involve strategy like the Batman Arkham Trilogy. This helps improve your mind and makes you think like a detective,” said Sinan Ahmed, 15, a UAE-based Taekwondo star in real life and gamer at home.
But too much time spent gaming, specially the violent ones by PUBG, could ruin your social life, warn experts.
Amira Salah, 31, says it doesn’t apply to her. “No. I only do it when I have free time.” Does she feel like gaming interferes with her daily life? “No. I game for fun. It’s not an addiction,” added the interior designer/architect.
Asked if her gaming increased during the pandemic, Salah admitted: “Yes.” But she gave a useful insight into how gaming has turned into a rich-experience social platform, quite apart from FB, Insta, Tiktok or other social media platforms.
Gaming in the online world: A very social activity
“What many people don’t realise about gaming is that it’s actually a very social activity. We play against each other — and it’s our way to chat and talk and be in touch while also battling,” added Salah. What does her family say about it? “They don’t care, because I don’t overdo it.”
Mariam Osama, 29, is another UAE-based gamer who typically spends between 1 to 2 hours gaming every day. Asked whether she feels the need to cut down on gaming time, she said: “No. It’s not hurting me or anyone.” She says it does not interfere with her daily life. “I only do it when I have time between my responsibilities,” says the Palestinian data entry staff.
The same goes for Ahmed, 15, who says parental guidance holds the key. “I don’t consider it an issue. I know there should be a limit. I am conscious about my screen time. My limit is 2 hours. Either I feel I’ve done enough, or my mother tells me to stop.”
When does enthusiasm turn into an obsession?
With gaming, two factors come into play — distraction (especially in these COVID-19 times) as well as competition. But it can be hard to stop playing. The disorder occurs when gaming interferes with people’s daily lives.
So if you ever spend time with any teenage boy, you probably will be surprised to hear that 97% of them play video games somewhat regularly. And as with any competitive sport, gaming is only getting more popular. In 2019, the WHO stirred up controversy after it officially recognised “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition.
The WHO defines gaming disorder as a “pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour” in which people lose control of their gaming behaviour, give priority to gaming over other interests and activities, and continue gaming despite negative consequences, such as impairments in their family relationships, social lives, work duties or other areas. The world body added the disorder to the International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-11, the organisation’s official diagnostic manual.
the number of people estimated to play Fortnite. That’s much more than the population of the United States
How prevalent is internet gaming addiction?
The reported prevalence of Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) varies widely, ranging from 1% in selected samples to as high as 57.5% in general populations due to the differences in diagnostic approaches. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible because of age-related underdevelopment of cognitive control, say experts.
The disorder is frequently associated with other psychiatric conditions, especially attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in which the altered executive control networks may predispose to the development of IGD.
Causes, Effects of Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD)
■ The study cited neuroimaging scans showing that participants with IGD showed decreased frontal brain responses during the processing of losing outcomes. This, experts say, suggest their decreased sensitivity to losses during decision-making.
■ “The finding may explain their poor impulse control similar to that in those suffering from substance use disorders,” the article stated.
■ Many young people do not see the increase in online time and the disruption it causes to their routine as a sign of addiction. Young people believe they will be able to drop the habit once life returns to ‘normal’.
It’s not about quitting, anti-depressants
There’s another perspective to the so-called gaming “addiction”, this time from a gamer himself. Dr. Alok Kanojia (aka “Dr K”), is an avid gamer. He is also US-certified psychiatrist based in Boston. He streams interviews on Twitch, a popular video live streaming service among gamers, where participants discuss mental health topics. He shares his experiences on Reddit and even on live games. Dr Kanojia answers questions about violence, video games, and mental health.
“I used to be addicted to video games, almost failing out of college and finally graduating with a 2.5 GPA. I spent the next decade delving into overcoming my own addiction, rebuilding my life, and understanding how video games affect psychology and neuroscience.” In his day job, Dr K is an addiction psychiatrist with McLean Hospital and Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
I’m frustrated by how much people talk about gamers without talking to gamers. I want to promote a discussion based on understanding, science, and psychology of how video games affect people. The good, the bad, and the complicated.
– Dr. Alok Kanojia, psychiatrist
On Reddit, he posted: “I’m frustrated by how much people talk about gamers without talking to gamers. I want to promote a discussion based on understanding, science, and psychology of how video games affect people. The good, the bad, and the complicated.”
Dr K, who worked with thousands of gamers in person and on livestreams, stated: “Gamers today need more support than traditional institutions are equipped for. We are smart. We are capable. And, sometimes we get stuck.”
His Healthy Gamer platform provides psychiatric help. “It’s not about anti-depressants. It’s not about quitting gaming. It’s not about clinical mental illness. It’s about taking control of your life through understanding yourself: what makes you tick, what motivates you, and how to move forward.”
A mother’s (psychotherapist) take
British mum of three and psychotherapist at Mindsolutions.ae, Louisa Kiernander, says:
It’s a tough line because when you see that your kids only want to game and do nothing else, the instinctive reaction is that gaming is bad and it is sucking up all their time and attention and taking over their lives. But we don’t know what it is like to be a child in this era of technology.
And we would struggle just as much without our own technology addictions, such as our mobile phones, laptops, Netflix, online everything. Barely a single conversation goes by at our house without someone needing to reach for a phone for some bit of information or to clarify something or show someone something or check on a schedule. So we are just as sucked in as our kids — just because I didn’t finish work and turn on Minecraft, it doesn’t mean I am any less dependent, or “addicted’”
As a parent, I don’t want them to miss out. But I also want them to have some balance. And I see that as my job to help them with that. I can’t expect them to be able to regulate themselves better than I can regulate my own self. And I have to empathise with them and know that my perspective of gaming may be outdated. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, in moderation.
– Louisa Kiernander, psychotherapist at Mindsolutions.ae and mother of three
We just had a big talk with our kids over the weekend about screentime and gaming. And, whereas in the past, these conversations have felt a bit like we were imposing laws and restrictions on the kids, this time we flipped the rhetoric so that, instead of the onus being on them and their constant wanting to play (or watch YouTube, or use TikTok etc), we focused the conversation on how technology and gaming sucks you in and keeps you there for hours without you noticing.
We showed the kids our battery usage over the past 24 hours and 10 days and highlighted our own issues — mine, Instagram; my partner’s F1 game on his phone. We put our hands up in the air and admitted how we also had very little control or willpower against the mighty power of technology. So the ‘blame’ was not on them. It was more us against technology. And they were a lot more receptive. They got their phones out and looked at where they had been spending their time online and added that to their gaming and PS4 time and worked out what percentage of their waking time was spent gaming and on screens.
As a result of that conversation, we agreed on a new gaming schedule for the week which involves four gaming-free days and some other screentime goals for all of us.
Since the kids first started using technology and gaming, we have always been able to see how too much time gaming in one go can affect them emotionally. They can become quick to get frustrated and quick to get angry or upset.
Also, it is hard for them to regulate. In the same way that if they had free reign over the Nutella jar, it would be hard for them to regulate that too. They are just kids at the end of the day. As a parent, I don’t want them to miss out. But I also want them to have some balance. And I see that as my job to help them with that. I can’t expect them to be able to regulate themselves better than I can regulate my own self. And I have to empathise with them and know that my perspective of gaming may be outdated. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, in moderation.
Laith, 10, Emirati-British
My favourite game is Call of Duty War Zone. I like that there is loads of different aspect and it’s a challenge. I first found it when I was scrolling through new games on PlayStation and realised there was a new Call of Duty so I downloaded it. I started gaming in 2016, when I was about 5 and I had a PS3.
I probably spend four hours a day on the days I am allowed to. If I could play every day, I would. But I might spend less time. My gaming went up on lockdown because we couldn’t go outside so we just had to stay in.
I don’t think I need to cut down on my gaming time. I think it’s alright now. I play Mondays and Wednesdays from when I get home from school until dinner. And on Friday evening I can play from about 4pm till about 11pm.
– Laith, 10, Emirati-British
My family says gaming is good for me to spend time with my friends but that I shouldn’t play all the time. Do I feel like it interferes with my daily life? Sometimes. For example, one day, if its a weekend and we can game, but we could have gone outside and gone for a walk but we didn’t because we were gaming.
I don’t think I need to cut down on my gaming time. I think it’s alright now. I play Mondays and Wednesdays from when I get home from school until dinner. And on Friday evening I can play from about 4pm till about 11pm.
But I can’t have any gaming on the other days. In the past when I have been gaming a lot more, I might get headaches sometimes. I like it because I spend time with my friends and it’s fun.
Amira Salah, 31, Egyptian-German
I like to play Wow (World of Warcraft). It’s a fantasy game. I started playing this game around 3 years ago.
I play to de-stress. Not any of my girlfriends play the game though. I typically spend 1 to 2 hours playing Wow.
During the pandemic, my gaming increased.
What many people don’t realise about gaming is that it’s actually a very social activity. Players play against each other. It’s our way to chat and talk and be in touch while also battling.
What does my family say about it? They don’t mind, because I don’t over do it. And I don’t feel like it interferes with my daily life. I game for fun. It’s not an addiction. And I don’t feel the need to cut down on time spent gaming. I only do it when I have free time.
Mariam Osama, 29, Palestinian
My favourite game is PUBG. It’s a battle game where I can play with a lot of my friends at the same time. My husband introduced me to PUBG. It was only during the pandemic-driven lockdown that I started playing. So it’s been a year ago. I typically spend about 3 to 4 hours. Did my gaming increase during the pandemic? Yes definitely. It was how I could stay in touch with my friends and play at the same time.
What does my family say about my gaming? They don’t really get too involved with my life. I’m an adult.
I don’t feel like it interferes with my daily life? I only do it when I have time between my responsibilities. I don’t feel the need to cut down on time spent gaming. It’s not hurting me or anyone.
At the moment, my favourite game is Minecraft Java. I like the building and fighting aspects and that you can join with your friends. The Java edition is better than Bedrock edition, in my opinion. My friend @amucas introduced me to Minecraft when I was about 4. Then we didn’t play it for a very long time and it just came back a year ago and now everyone is playing it again. In Java, you can have cool mods (modifications) and you can join other people’s servers and worlds. Hypixel, for example, has like 100,000 people joining per day.
Because of our new house rules from our parents, (I typically spend) two to three hours on certain days. Basically, from when I get home until dinner on Mondays and Wednesdays. And on Fridays we can play from about 4pm to about 11pm.
I don’t think that gaming changes me. I think it’s a good downtime activity, if I am being honest.
– Jack, 12, British
There have been times when I have been able to play more… Like when I went to my friend’s house, we were allowed to play all day. But it didn’t affect us badly because we were playing on a big TV all together and talking and laughing. I don’t think that gaming changes me. I think it’s a good downtime activity, if I am being honest.
[Did your gaming increase during the pandemic?] Yes my gaming went up during lockdown, but it went down immediately because my parents noticed! But all my friends are spending a lot more time on it than me, so sometimes I miss stuff.
Like, the other day, I missed a war that happened on a server and all my friends were battling together but I missed it because it was one of our gaming-free days. It made me feel annoyed and sad to miss a massive thing like that. I don’t think my family likes it when I game. It feels like my parents don’t accept that gaming is a big part of life now. And everyone does it and spends a lot of time on it.
Times have changed. And I keep missing countless wars on countless servers because they don’t accept me playing as much as my friends.
– Jack, 12, British gamer
Times have changed. And I keep missing countless wars on countless servers because they don’t accept me playing as much as my friends. Wars are rare. So I am sad when I miss them. It feels like I don’t get enough time to game and so sometimes I feel like I am drifting apart from my friends when I don’t get to play as much as the others.
[Do you feel like it interferes with your daily life?] I still do all the stuff that I normally do. I still eat, I still socialise, I still exercise, I still sleep. Gaming is just an activity that I find fun and that everyone else my age does, too. I have never felt the need to cut down. Unless I was spending six hours a day every day… That would be too much. At that point it becomes an addiction, rather than an activity.
If someone is not taking a shower or changing their clothes or something, that would be an addiction. If someone was addicted to gaming, they might not be able to socialise with anyone and have a normal life. So I don’t want to play six hours a day every day.
Could also cause health problems, eye problems, bad social skills. But I like gaming because it is a way to connect with friends. Especially friends that are in other schools or other countries. It is a way to stay connected.
Sinan Ahmed, 15, Pakistani student
I play most days of the week, between 30 minutes to 2 hours after my online classes. Gaming helps me meet people virtually. I meet many friends online through the gaming community. In a way, this helps widen my perspective. If I want to play with them, I just invite them. They could also be friends from school, or my cousins, who could be anywhere. I consider that as one of the benefits of gaming.
I started playing games at a very young age on my dad’s or mom’s phone. On the iPad, when I was about seven, my favourite game was Subway Surf. As I got older, I got into console gaming. I progressed from Xbox 360 to PlayStation 4. A few years back, I started playing Call of Duty Black Ops, made by Activision.
– Sinan Ahmed, 15, Pakistani student
Besides gaming, we’d chat about other things while playing — about sports, about what’s happening in the world, not necessarily about the game itself. My Top 5 games are Mortal Kombat 11, Call of Duty Black-Ops, Batman Arkham City, Injustice 2, and Minecraft.
“I think my gaming ability could help later in life, in terms of my career goal; I want to go into computers. I have started learning how to make video games using C++. There was this game development course I attended and will resume shortly.”
Greg, 27, British, social media professional
I started gaming when I was about 7 or 8, but only in a light-hearted way as I enjoyed playing outside with friends more. I was first introduced to gaming by my older brother. I remember I had a game boy pocket with Pokemon Red. I love that thing! Then we spent hours playing on the Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation 1 & 2, Xbox, PC games — you name it, we played it.”
[In terms of the number of hours per day spent playing at the heaviest usage in the past] It’s hard to say for sure, but it wasn’t healthy. I would game from the second I woke up to either early hours of the following morning or even straight through without sleep. This would happen most when something new and exciting was released. Similar to how you find an engaging book and can’t wait to find out the ending, the same thing would happen with games.
[Was there ever a time when you felt like you needed to cut down? If so, why and how did you do it?] In the past, I’ve cut down gaming time for relationships, family, education, work and other interests like football. Reducing gaming time hasn’t really been an issue for me (its a mixed bag), but it does become harder to do it when real life stresses become too much, as gaming for me is a source of enjoyment and escape. I would also add that I don’t see gaming as an addiction, but more as a hobby that offers kids and adults a sense of fun and learning. There’s many pros to gaming and case studies that highlight its benefits. However, like anything a human enjoys too much of, one thing is often not a good thing.
[Editing my Shyam A Krishna, Senior Associate Editor, Gulf News; with additional inputs from The Washington Post]