The Deeper Questions About Video Games

video games (source: shutterstock)

In December 2018, China lifted a nine-month freeze on the approval of new video game titles, reviving the world’s largest gaming market. However, regulators introduced a new set of policies detailing the types of games that would be approved. These policies created by the newly formed Online Games Ethics Committee banned any type of gambling or Mahjong games, games relating to China’s imperial history, or games with blood and gore. These new regulations have reignited a larger conversation about the social value of video games, especially given their outsized impact on young people. Children and young people have adopted video game technology as a popular hobby activity that provides a more interactive and stimulating experience than simply viewing TV or movies like the past generation.

Given video games’ significant potential for innovation, the next generation of youth will be introduced to technologies including virtual reality, cloud gaming and much more. As game developers race forward to gain competitive advantages with new technologies, the World Health Organization (WHO), just last year, classified “gaming disorder” as an addictive behavior on par with gambling and drug addiction. While a small population of gamers can become obsessive in their behavior, most gamers are normal people with an array of hobbies and interests.

Let’s take a deeper look at how different countries are approaching some of the main ethical questions facing the future of gaming.

At what point does escapism become a problem? Is gaming disorder really a mental illness?

WHO declared gaming disorder a mental illness in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, categorizing the disorder as when someone prioritizes gaming over other activities to the point where it is harmful to their social and personal development.

While not officially classified as a mental illness in the United States, there are programs designed for young people to reduce their dependence on video games. One example is that of Dr. Michael Bishop, who runs Summerland in California, which he calls “a summer camp for screen overuse” for teens. These types of treatments to technology dependence, specifically video game addiction, often involved extended periods of exposure to nature and the wilderness, including hikes and camping trips, all without the incorporation of technology. While some parents say they have seen positive results, ultimately young people will return to the harsh reality where a laptop and smartphone are ubiquitous in the everyday life of a student or young professional.

Meanwhile treatment programs in China have come under serious controversy for inflicting physical abuse on patients, including electric shock therapy. However, there are other less harmful treatments for internet addiction in China, including a program run by Chinese army veteran Xu, at the Xu Xiangyang center in Jiangsu province, which focuses on cultural enrichment and offline activities such as stand up comedy and music, along with a rigorous marching routine.

Regardless or the varying approaches to the issue, both the United States and China clearly have recognized, perhaps to differing degrees, the existence of abnormal behaviors developed from excessive gaming.

Should games with micro-transactions and loot box style purchases be regulated like gambling?

In recent years, a new monetization method for video game companies, commonly known as micro-transactions, has become more popular. Epic Games’ Fortnite is the best example, as the game was free to download and play, but had a wide variety of in-game cosmetic items available for purchase. A key component of this monetization strategy is that the in-game purchases, in the case of Fortnite, do not give players an advantage in the gameplay. However, Fortnite still managed to earn $2.4 billion in 2018, the most annual revenue in history according to SuperData.

As China has outlawed games that include blatant gambling in their content, such as poker or Mahjong, why have the regulators been slow to legislate against in-game micro-transactions, especially luck-based purchases like loot boxes? It would seem that if Chinese game regulators are keen to crack down on the nefarious nature of virtual gambling, in-game purchases and luck based purchases would also be heavily scrutinized.

Another blatant example is EA Sports Ultimate Team game mode, where players buy “packs” which contain players. The idea of buying in-game packs with real life currency in the hope of scoring a “rare item” constitutes a version of gambling embedded within the innocence of a sports video game. This has led to a small portion of gamers spending exorbitant sums in the hopes of attaining a virtual advantage in the game.

Although China has not banned the existence of loot boxes and other similar in-game purchasables, in 2016 they became the first nation to require that game developers disclose the odds of getting the various rewards in these items. Although this does increase transparency, it begs the question that if the Chinese regulators recognize theses products for what they are, how are they any different than poker or Mahjong?

While China has at least disclosed the odds on these psuedo-gambling products, it will only benefit players of games available in China and other markets like Overwatch, while games like Call of Duty: Infinite War still withhold the chance of getting various rewards from gamers. The United States has implemented no such transparency legislation, allowing users to fritter away their incomes without the relevant information on the in-game products.

What kind of gender stereotypes do video games perpetuate?

There has long been a prevailing criticism of the video game industry as a whole for propagating and supporting a patriarchal world view due to the dominance of men in many aspects of the industry. In fact, a study in France in 2017 suggests that increased exposure to video games is associated with higher levels of stereotyping and sexism among teenagers.

Last year, Chinese mobile game “Evol LoveR” was hugely successful, generating nearly $32 million in monthly revenue. The game also came under criticism for reinforcing stereotypes and gender roles about women due to female players’ predestined pursuit of conventionally attractive men. For all the recent regulation around video game content, no policies in China have been directed about the biased portrayal of women in video games. Instead, the majority of the Chinese gaming industry often creates a starkly male, heteronormative perspective, rife with cliched female characters and plot lines that reinforce gender stereotypes.

What role, if any, do violent video games play in the development of young people and the manifestation of aggression?

In the United States, there has long been discussions about whether violent video games lead to increased aggressive behaviors. While some claim that violence in games desensitizes younger minds to real life violence, research has shown there to be no link.

Much of the debate over violent video games is related to the aftermath of the frequent mass shooting incidents in the United States, especially after the famous Columbine shooting in 1999, where the perpetrators had professed an affinity for violent videos games. However, many point to the loopholes and relaxed gun laws in the United States as a more likely driver of repeated mass shooting incidents. As video games are a fairly new phenomenon, older generations could be quick to disparage them due to ignorance or lack of understanding.

Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, performed one of the most extensive meta-analyses of video games and violence in 2015 which yielded no conclusive evidence that violent video games begot mental health issues, increased anxiety or depression, or any other behavioral tendencies that could lead to violent actions.

Despite the paltry research evidence linking violent video games to real life manifestations of violence, the Chinese Online Gaming Ethics Committee has outlawed games that include blood or gore, to create a more peaceful tone for the games available in the world’s largest gaming market. This sentiment is not unique to games within China, as censors will regularly block extremely vulgar content such as sex and violence. For example in shows like Game of Thrones, or Netflix’s Love, Death and Robots, many scenes depicting graphic violence or sexual content were scrubbed. Here, China does not discriminate against the medium in which the violence occurs, at least presenting a more consistent and less hypocritical stance than those in the United States who condemn violent video games but do not begrudge violent action movies or TV shows.

Are video games beneficial for our cognitive capabilities? If so, how?

While video games are often derided as useless in real life, or unproductive, research shows that video games do in fact improve people’s cognitive abilities. Studies have shown that video games can increase competency in a number of areas including basic visual processes, spatial attention, multi-tasking and problem solving. In fact, video games can combat the mental decline associated with aging, bolstering cognitive functions like memory, attention and abstract reasoning.

Meanwhile, tech giant Tencent, China’s largest gaming company, is said to be implementing restrictions on play time for children. One example is “Honor of Kings” where Tencent limits players under 18 years old to just two hours of play per day, and players under 12 years old to one hour per day. Implementing this restriction is only possible because Tencent requires that gamers verify their identity using the Real Name Identity System (RNIS). While supporters of this policy would point to excessive gaming detracting from young people’s time spent studying, maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle that includes gaming could be advantageous to a child’s cognitive development.

How will VR impact the future of gaming?

The introduction of virtual reality (VR) will massively impact the future of the gaming industry. Increased realism and potential for intricate game design, enhanced by advances in complementary haptic technology will augment gamer engagement to previously unseen levels. While some postulate that this would exacerbate existing issues regarding gaming disorder and addictive behaviors, others believe that VR can unlock a variety of new gaming formats, diversifying genres in the video gaming industry.

One of the game formats that VR will enhance would be large scale social multiplayer games, as person-to-person VR interactions will continuously become more and more lifelike. As VR brings about a gaming era of significantly increased engagement, consumer brands will compete for the undivided attention of gamers, leveraging the immersive VR experience to create a stimulating new medium of advertising.

An influx of branding into VR game designs will augment the effectiveness of advertising activities, threatening the escapism inherent to gaming. Perhaps this will create a backlash against the intrusion by corporations into a what is often a deeply personal experience, or advertisers may be able to create and implement innovative strategies within VR gaming to enhance gameplay quality while simultaneously delivering targeted messaging. While internet algorithms have used internet browsing data to precisely target consumers, VR gaming will offer new dimensions of quantifiable data that could accurately target consumers based on behaviors in a virtual world.