Sunday, 27 January 2013

Video Game Addiction?

Are Some Games (COUGH EA COUGH) Promoting an Addictive Culture Among Kids?

That’s right, I’m going from my last post which was very staunch in its defence of video games in the wake of the Sandy Hook School shooting, to what might come as a surprise but a blog warning of the addictive nature of some games.

Addictions come in many forms. The more recognisable addictions like smoking, alcohol and drugs are common place in the world, and other addictions like gambling, junk-food and shopping are also fairly common in the world, even if they are not thought of in quite the same class as the former examples.

I’m going to generalise somewhat, considering that for example I’m not a drug addict or alcoholic.

It seems that people latch onto things like booze, junk-food, cigarettes or drugs to escape – even for 5 minutes – from the stresses of everyday life. Mild addictions such as someone saying they need their morning coffee to function for the day, aren’t usually thought of as an addiction, but quite clearly is – even if it is quite mild. Some people need that glass of wine at the end of the day, and some people need to walk away from things just for that 5 minute nicotine fix.

That's no's a SPACE STATION...of meth.
Some of these addictions are quite harmless and just thought of as a part and parcel of day-to-day modern life. I’m guilty of falling into this category as well – just ask my wife.

I’ll give you my own personal example – video games. After being at work all day, I walk the couple of miles home, stopping off at the shop to top up on milk and bread, and then when I get home I either help Mrs Toolbox make the dinner, or enjoy the meal that’s waiting for me. Eventually the kids get sent up to bed, and after settling them in and making my way downstairs (for once the kids are up to bed, our sitting room becomes our bedroom) the wife gets into entering her competitions, and I pull out my gaming chair, flick on the Xbox or PS3 sit back and escape. You may know from previous blogs my penchant for Mass Effect, but games like that, GTA, Red Dead Redemption, Gears of War, Unchartered etc all fall into the same kind of category for me. To escape the crappy country the British Government is determined to make for us all (apart from the rich) I indulge myself in my games, becoming Nico Bellic or Commander Shepard or Nathan Drake for a couple of hours before getting into bed, watching something funny and going to sleep to start another day again.

If for whatever reason, I can’t get my fix of game playing, I do become more ratty, more irritable and less like the cheery person I usually am from day to day.

My wife knows this all too well. J

But it wasn’t me that I was thinking of when I thought of writing this blog. It was our eldest son.

For his birthday, he got FIFA 13 – not unusual, he plays football for the local youth team, he watches Sky Sports News religiously, scans the internet for football news regularly and is a keen Football Manager and FIFA fan. He plays them both…almost addictively. But not quite. You see, yes he’s a typical gaming teenager, but he does well at school, he’s got a good network of friends, is active and has gone through girls in his year like people go through underwear. Not what most people probably think of when they think of teenagers who play copious amounts of video games. But there is a twist in this particular tale…

As I mentioned, we got him FIFA 13 for his birthday as we do every year for either his birthday or Christmas, and things were normal – at first. He has been playing online more with his mate who, admittedly comes from a more affluent family ours. And this time around, the main thing with FIFA hasn’t been playing the occasional online game while focussing on playing careers offline. Oh no. It’s been playing FIFA Ultimate Team.

O FIFA...y u want moar muni?
And the hatred for EA Games will begin. You see, EA Sports have always had this particular motto which is probably familiar to most people – “It’s in the game.” which is just a shortened version of its original motto “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” basically showing off their expertise at being able to replicate its aim of making sports games as true to life as possible. And with the birth of the Ultimate Team in FIFA 09 it’s become a monster with FIFA 13 and the introduction of FIFA Points, designed to make purchasing packs (spit spit spit) easier.

Previously, our resident teenager was happy playing FIFA without the UT, however this year things have changed. Suffice to say, that shortly after his birthday, for Christmas we bought him some MS Points so he could play the UT with his friend. Harmless enough we thought, and we thought that would be that. I mean come on, A premium gold pack, costs about 100 FIFA Points, which costs 80 MS Points, which costs about 62p. Not much harm to be done there no? Uhhh, ya think?

You see as an adult, I understand the concept of patience, if I were to indulge in the FIFA UT, I would play the game to raise in-game credits, to then buy the packs for free. As a teenager with all the patience of a fruit fly, this would take far too long, and require a bit of commitment.

So he used all of his MS Points to buy FIFA Points, to buy gold pack, after gold pack, after gold pack. Then all would be good, he’d come downstairs with grand proclamations of his now amazing team, one that is predominantly Spanish, and one that is pretty awesome. Cool.

Then it happened. The addiction to opening these packs began. He would get itchy. He would get bored. He would get the urge to get more packs. So he’d sell his entire team, to get in game credits, to spend on more packs, then when he found that he had no players left he’d look at his wad of cash. He got quite a bit of cash for his birthday from various family members you see. And what at first was going to be so he could go into town with his mates, or treat himself to some treats, become something far more insidious.

“Mum, can you buy me some more MS Points for the Xbox, I need them for my Ultimate Team?” he’d enquire.
“But you already had a load of points, and what happened to your Spanish-y team?” she would enquire back. “You were only talking about how glad you were yesterday!”
“Yeah, I sold them to get more packs, I wanted a change.” He’d reply, quite bluntly.
“Are you sure this is how you want to spend your birthday money?” she probed, trying to make sure that it was definitely what was wanted.
“Yeah, it’s only a bit though, I mean I still got loads to go to town with!” he’d answer, immediately, he’d obviously thought it all through.
“Ok then, how much do you want to spend?” she’d ask…

It would continue. We thought, sod it, it’s close to Christmas, and his prezzie pile is looking quite small, let’s get him some points for Christmas as well! Oh how we regret that decision, and regret the initial decision to help him get his first pack.

You see, just after Christmas he basically did exactly what he did before Christmas – but with a Spanish team. And then he found out that there was an Ultimate Team “Happy Hour” where packs were cheaper or some shit. And the tell-tale signs of addiction game to the fore. He’d gone through his points like a hot knife through butter, and then had sold off all his players in a bid to get more packs. And when we told him that, no we wouldn’t let him spend his money on such a load of old bollocks the withdrawal symptoms began.

The sad face. The sulky posture. The zombie-like shuffling. The groans. The slumping. And the flopping. To anyone who didn’t know, they’d have thought his puppy had just been hit by a car. To us, we knew it was for one thing and one thing only.

We succumbed. L

OK FINE! If you want to waste your money on these bloody packs, then do it. And he did, and he did. Until enough was enough.

A few days later and after having spent the equivalent of about £100 in game on fucking packs we stopped it all. Cut him off cold turkey from the fucking packs. And it started all over again. The sad face. The sulky posture. The zombie-like shuffling. The groans. The slumping. And the flopping. Only this time we persevered. 
Then we had the ultimate stereotypical addict catch-phrase. “I know that if I get one more lot of points, it’ll be different this time.” How that sentence alone inspired me to write this you’ll never know. It rings of “I just need one more fix/drink/cigarette/snort/etc and then I’ll sort myself out.”

But we persevered. And the reaction from the boy was most telling. Not even a month after being given the game for his birthday, he told us he wants to sell it. In previous years, many a happy hour had been spent plying his trade, becoming a formidable FIFA player, enjoying playing the game, navigating the transfer windows, overcoming challenges of playing higher division clubs, playing the game for what it always was. And now, he feels that he needs to get rid of the game to avoid the temptation of the packs. The normal game offers no replay value for him anymore, and he’s now trying to get into other games…but things just don’t quite seem right with him still.

(As a side point, check out almost any EA Game now, almost all of them have little micro-transactions in them, from FIFA to The Sims 3 to Mass Effect to Star Wars: The Old Republic.)

So let me sum up. Basically, the example above of the boy who zombiefied himself due to not being able to get his “fix” of FIFA Points, is quite extreme. Look at myself as an example instead. I’m in my mid-twenties, I love to game and I get a bit shitty if I don’t sometimes. BUT I’m a father of 4, I’m in full-time work as a Civil Servant in the MoD and I’m part of a happy family. I’m not a recluse, I’m not massively overweight (OK I’m a bit chunky but not that bad!), I don’t have awkward social skills and I do have friends that don’t just exist on the screen in-front of me. Basically, let your kids play, let them have their fun, because God knows that if I knew that by my mid-twenties I’d be in the position I’m in now, I’d have made the most of every minute of gaming that wasn’t interrupted by a crying toddler or a moody-hungry teenager.

I just hope that in 16 years time (when my youngest will be old enough to go to University or work or whatever) I’ll still be a happy gamer with more actual time to game. Either that, or I’ll be in my 40’s enjoying things like Midsomer Murders and waiting to die.


Toolbox 24