Mad, bad and dangerous to play: Are video games really more dangerous than Class A drugs?

Some commentators say they are. But, argues Ian Burrell, this scaremongering approach to a business bigger than Hollywood is outdated and inaccurate

Is playing computer games as addictive as cocaine, crack, or heroin? That largely depends on which newspaper you buy. To The Sun, the addiction is like crack, to the Daily Mail it's more like smack.

But it's not only the tabloids that are convinced that gamers are in peril. The BBC's flagship investigative show Panorama broadcast a doom-laden documentary last month, telling viewers that some gamers had "played themselves to death". One poor fellow said of his pastime of choice: "I would never inflict this game on anyone. This game is a disease. It's just horrible."

Over the past year, the supposed compulsive qualities of computer gaming have made it the latest life-threatening fad. The media have been inventing demons from Elvis Presley to Eminem, and from cancerous mobile phones to the millennium bug. Video games used to make headlines for their supposed propensity for turning children into gun-toting gangsters or psychotic arsonists – "13-year-old schoolboy used petrol to set light to three vehicles after playing on the violent GTA 4: Liberty City game," as the Daily Mail has it.

Mark Reed of Heaven Media, a gaming site with two million visitors who play for an average of 28 hours a week, believes a modern leisure pursuit is under threat from the hysterical nature of some of the coverage. "Gaming is a passion and passion can lead to indulgence to the point of social indifference, but the suggestion that it is linked with crime or health issues is not founded – in fact, it's just stupid," he says. "Drugs, smoking and drink are passions that can lead to destruction. Games at worst lead to RSI [repetitive strain injury]. In fact, gaming can be one of the most socially helpful activities."

In an age where young people are often characterised as malign figures, Reed argues that adults should see the value of an activity that takes place in the home and encourages communication. "If your local council could find a way to get 100 children in a local park to interact, have fun, leave no litter and cause no trouble, it would find money to encourage it as a priority," he says.

Comparisons between crack cocaine and gaming surfaced early last year after a Swedish teenager suffered convulsions from a round-the-clock stint on the game World of Warcraft. In comments picked up by The Sun, Sven Rollenhagen of Sweden's Youth Care Foundation said: "World of Warcraft is the crack cocaine of the computer gaming world. Some people can't drag themselves away and will play it till they drop."

The Daily Mail opted for another narcotic for its September headline "Can online games be as addictive as heroin?" The piece featured the case of a 33-year-old woman from Kent who left her children to fend for themselves and her dogs to starve to death while she devoted herself to a computer game, sleeping for only two hours a night. The Mail is rather addicted to health scare stories, such as "How computer games can make us eat too much" or "Easy does it – or that Wii could put you in hospital".

But the gaming sector became more concerned after the BBC's Panorama broadcast "Addicted to Games?" last month. The programme featured people obsessed with games such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, playing for 12-hour sessions and abandoning their studies. It also highlighted alarming cases from South Korea, where gaming culture is more advanced.

The documentary was controversial. One contributor, Trent Pyro, wrote a long blog on thisismyjoystick.com, complaining at how he and his friend Joe Staley were portrayed in a programme that he alleged was a mix of "scaremongering, misinformation and tactical use of facts". He wrote: "It was obvious to me that much of what I had said was tactically cut as it did not support the theme of the piece."

On the Cadred website, the gaming journalist Richard Lewis described the Panorama programme as "a pointless, aggressive, inaccurate and imbalanced attack on a media format that they clearly didn't understand", adding that "the recurring flaw in the documentary was its willingness to apportion blame to the games themselves rather than look long and hard at the people who played them and the circumstances surrounding their lives".

Emeka Onono, producer of the Panorama programme, flatly contradicted the suggestion that the documentary had set out to demonise a popular leisure pursuit. "I don't understand how it could be considered to be an attack on gaming. We make it clear that, for the vast majority of gamers, computer games play a positive part in their lives. The film even ends by making this point."

He rejected Pyro's suggestion that he had been unfairly portrayed, saying the contributor had "spent most of his time on camera explaining in detail why he thought his friend was addicted", and he challenged Lewis's assertion that the programme was unjustified. "It's not true to say that scientific opinion has concluded that gaming addiction does not exist – a growing body of research is showing that a small but significant minority of computer gamers are playing them to excess and displaying signs of addiction. The film hears from experts and the industry's governing body, the UKIE [UK Interactive Entertainment Association], which is calling for more research on the issue. Gaming is an enormous global industry and mainstream form of entertainment. It is not something that is in the shadows, and a documentary that explores the controversial issue of addiction is clearly in the public interest."

For all its concerns in its "addictive as heroin" article, the Mail admits a paucity of medical evidence. "While some experts reckon that 5-10 per cent of Britain's 46.6 million web users may be addicted to their computers," it asserts vaguely, "within the psychiatric world it is not yet officially recognised as an addiction."

Trent Pyro concedes in his blog that some gamers are such obsessive users that they have a serious problem. "I would... like to say that I do acknowledge that some people play games way too much and it negatively impacts on their lives. This is a problem, maybe, but only for them and their immediate family. It's a problem they should sort out for themselves and not something that needs national attention or government assistance or interference."

Michael O'Dell has been gaming all his adult life. Now 39, he makes his living as a professional gaming manager in charge of a squad of 90 gamers who play in teams for cash prizes. The Team Dignitas that he founded eight years ago boasts Intel among its sponsors.

"When I was a teenager, they blamed everything on video nasties, which made me and my mates go out to buy them," he says. "I have turned out all right." He says parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children do not overindulge in their hobbies. But he also acknowledges that some gamers get into difficulties. "There's potential for people to play them too much, there's no doubt about that. Someone has to say, 'Stop, go and get some air, breathe!'" he says.

Tim Ingham, editor of computerandvideogames.com, believes that some media portrayal of computer gaming has exploited the ignorance of the audience, but that such an agenda is bound to fail as the pastime becomes a mainstream family-based activity. "The people who deliberately go out to deride gaming with misinformation in the mainstream media will be proven to be woefully out of touch. When these people talk about gamers, they talk about vulnerable teenagers in their bedrooms, but the reality is that video games are becoming an enjoyable and hugely beneficial part of both solo and family life." Maybe it's time to turn on the next "dangerous" fad?

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