Cross words: A geek tragedy?

Head to head Can computer games seriously damage your life? Games aficionado Mike Goldsmith battles it out with addiction specialist Dr David Greenfield
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"Playing computer games is not about the teenage geek in the back room any more: it's an increasingly social activity. A lot of the developers are placing increasing importance on the social activity aspects of the games - playing together as a family or as a group of people coming back from a club or the pub. People don't label watching TV and videos or sitting in and playing board games as insular activities, and computer games are just the modern equivalent of these. In the same way that everyone's got a dusty old Cluedo or something like that in the back room, everyone will have a PlayStation under the TV. It isn't some kind of conspiracy. It's because people like playing them. There's nearly four million of them in people's homes these days.

Nobody's saying you have to sit there and play the game for 24 hours non-stop. You can go at it really hardcore, play all the time and get every last penny's worth out of it, or you can just enjoy it for a few hours. The old horror stories of these games being violent and sexist really doesn't apply now. The games magazine I work at sponsors a student network and they are reporting a 50:50 split of boys and girls at their gaming nights.

Games like Tomb Raider have characters that inspire both genders and involve incredibly complex puzzle-solving. They don't involve running around shooting everything in sight. There are linear plots that would rival any Hollywood film, fully rounded characters and original storylines. You have to use your brain. Games aren't passive any more: they require you to think.

They can be addictive only in the same way that any medium can be addictive - football, music, you name it. It's the person's responsibility to regulate how much they play. The idea that people are sucked in and become intoxicated by these games to the extent that they are controlled by them is a complete fallacy."

Mike Goldsmith is editor of the `Official Playstation Magazine'

"Any time you're staring at a screen it's not social. The Internet, computers, and computer games are isolative and are not an adequate substitute for normal social interaction. You may be able to play some games in groups, but that doesn't mean it's equivalent to the kind of social interaction you get playing a game of soccer or having a conversation. It is a very sedentary activity - you do not exercise one muscle in your body, other than your fingers and maybe your eyeballs. It's eye-candy, probably not much better than TV. It may be more interactive than television but that's not necessarily a good thing - the more interactive it is, the more addictive it is, in my opinion.

It's hogwash to say that people don't become addicted to these games. I think there's something inherently addictive in the activity of staring at a screen. The scanning rays of a screen can be trance-inducing, leading to a state of disassociation whereby time flies by and you're not even aware of it. As I say to people who are suffering from computer addiction - when you're online, on the computer, playing games for five or six hours a day, that means you're not doing something else. You have to ask yourself, what is the effect on your life from not doing these other things?

The thing about computer games (in common with the Internet) is that they are never over. When you pick up a magazine or a newspaper, you read it from cover to cover and then you put it down: it's done. It's not like that with computer games, because there's always a higher level to play, another game to try, a different way to do things, a different strategy:it's never done. It's a lot like a slot machine. You never win enough so you keep putting money in."

Dr David Greenfield is the author of `Virtual Addiction', published this autumn by New Harbinger Publications

Interviews by Fiona McClymont