‘An opium of the spirit’?: Video games, youth, and the question of ‘addiction’

Media panics focused on young people, therefore, continued into the early twenty-first century. Older demons - comics, film, TV - slipped into the background, but were replaced by new areas of concern. Video games remained a site of anxiety but, rather than their possible links to aggression, a fresh wave of fears focused on their ‘addictive’ potential. Such concerns were especially pronounced in South Korea and China.

In South Korea the start of the century saw the number of video gamers explode. The growth was partly indebted to the quick spread of high-speed broadband which, since the late 1990s, greatly boosted the popularity of online games - especially Massive Multiplayer Online Games (known as MMOGs or, more commonly MMOs) — that were often played in a burgeoning number of Internet cafes known as ‘PC Bangs’. Increasingly, however, the popularity of video gaming attracted concern, critics arguing that young players were becoming addicted to the games and this was leading to social and psychological problems. The issue was given prominence by a series of high-profile cases, including that of an unemployed 24-year-old who reputedly died in a PC Bang after an 86-hour binge of gaming (Kim, 2019). In response, hundreds of private clinics opened specialised units where patients could detox from their gaming addiction and receive counselling for their disorder, and in 2006 the Korean government opened a dedicated telephone hotline for gaming addicts (Cain, 2010). Disquiet, however, continued to mount and in 2011 the government passed what was known as the ‘Shutdown Law’ — legislation that introduced a curfew blocking access to online games for those aged under 16 between midnight and 6.00 a.m.17

In China, too, alarm surrounded a perceived epidemic of gaming addiction. As in Korea, online video gaming had mushroomed in China from the late 1990s, its growth facilitated by the increased availability of high-speed broadband (and a relatively relaxed attitude to software piracy). China’s flourishing games industry was a jewel in the crown of the country’s rapid economic development, but the popularity of video gaming among the young was alsoseen as a font of social problems. Particular anxiety surrounded the proliferation of illegal Internet cafés or 'hei tvangba (‘Black Net Bars’), which became popular gaming centres for young people throughout China. Concerns peaked in 2002 when a fire — started by two disgruntled teenagers - broke out in a Beijing wangba, killing 24 youngsters enjoying an all-night gaming session. The incident has been dubbed the ‘Chinese Columbine’ by US media theorist Henry Jenkins (2006), who observes how the tragedy was followed by a storm of media criticism of video games comparable to that which followed the 1999 Columbine school shooting in America (see above). The Chinese press featured a catalogue of reports where crime, violence and suicide appeared to be linked to video gaming, and stories increasingly portrayed ‘Internet addiction’ as a serious problem among the young. Online games were commonly referred to as ‘opium for the spirit’ - a metaphor that, as Marcella Szablewicz notes, holds enormous rhetorical power in China through its allusion to a period of colonialism and national humiliation (2010: 460).

As a consequence, China saw a flood of new clinics and hospitals geared to remedy the problem, and treatment for addiction to gaming and the Internet became a billion-dollar industry (Zhang, 2013: 2404). The authorities also responded. Many wangba were shut down, and ‘Internet addiction’ fwanglou chengyin') was officially designated a clinical disorder by the government in 2008. New measures were also introduced to combat the problem. In 2007 an Online Game Addiction Prevention System (or ‘fatigue system’) sought to deter extensive gaming sessions by limiting game rewards after a certain amount of time. The scheme, however, was deemed ineffective and was succeeded by stricter controls. In 2010 ‘real-name registration’ was enforced in games, linking players’ games accounts to their ID cards, and in 2019 new regulations for Internet service providers effectively banned gamers aged under 18 from playing online between 22.00 and 08.00, while they were also restricted to 90 minutes of gaming on weekdays and 3 hours on weekends and holidays (Cuthbertson, 2019).

Elsewhere, similar concerns took hold. In the US a growing number of hospitals began to treat young patients for their apparent addiction to video gaming, while in Britain 2019 saw the National Health Service (NHS) open its first specialist unit to treat children and young adults who seemed addicted to video games. The moves reflected the growing scientific attention directed to the issue of gaming addiction. In 2013 a condition dubbed ‘Internet gaming disorder’ was discussed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — a guide used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders - but the Association concluded there was, as yet, insufficient evidence to determine whether the problem represented a unique mental disorder (Parekh, 2018). Nonetheless, in 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would soon officially identify ‘gaming disorder’ as a new medical condition. Consequently, in 2018, the eleventh edition of the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) - a list of diseases and medical conditions used by health professionals to make diagnoses and treatment

Media effects and youth 101 plans - included a classification for ‘gaming disorder’. According to the WHO, the condition was characterised by ‘a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (“digital gaming” or “video-gaming”), which may be online (i.e., over the Internet) or offline’; and it was manifested by ‘impaired control over gaming’, ‘increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests’ and ‘continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences’ (World Health Organization, 2018). This was only the second time the WHO had recognised the existence of a behavioural addiction, the first being gambling which had been included in the 1990 revision of the ICD.

The WHO’s inclusion of‘gaming disorder’ in ICD-11, however, obscured the degree of controversy that surrounds the issue. Generally, the idea that people can be clinically addicted to behaviours — rather than substances like alcohol or heroin — remains contentious. And the notion of ‘gaming addiction’ has been the focus for a scholarly debate every bit as heated as that which earlier surrounded the purported relationship between violent video games and aggression (see above). On one hand, there are many researchers who see clear evidence for the existence of gaming addiction as a distinct medical disorder. For example, following the American Psychiatric Association’s discussion of the problem in DSM-5, psychologist Nancy Petry headed a group of 12 researchers from 9 different countries who argued there now existed ‘an international consensus for assessing Internet gaming disorder’ (Petry et al., 2014). On the other hand, however, many researchers hotly contested such claims. For instance, responding to Petry et al., another international group of 28 researchers headed by British psychologist Mark Griffiths argued there was no consensus on the issue, and the existence of ‘Internet gaming disorder’ remained a matter of debate (Griffiths et al., 2016).18 Moreover, in a large study of gamers aged 18 to 24 in the US, Britain, Canada, and Germany, Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues found that, while a relatively small number might meet the criteria for ‘Internet gaming disorder’ proposed in DSM-5, there was no evidence these had particularly poor emotional, physical or mental health (Przybylski, Weinstein and Murayama, 2017).

Many researchers were also critical of the WHO’s decision to declare ‘gaming disorder’ a new medical condition. Responding to the WHO’s initial proposal, an international group of 26 renowned social scientists wrote to the WHO expressing concern at the organisation’s stance on gaming addiction. ‘Some gamers’, the group acknowledged, ‘do experience serious problems as a consequence of the time spent playing video games’. At the same time, however, they argued that ‘it is far from clear that these problems can or should be attributed to a new disorder’ (Aarseth et al., 2017: 268). According to these critics, the decision to recognise ‘gaming disorder’ as a new medical condition was flawed in a number of respects. The quality of available evidence about the problem was, they argued, poor — the field was fraught with contradictions and the existing research was tentative or speculative. Moreover, the critics observed, there was no consensus around the symptoms of the condition, withsome studies suggesting that ‘problematic gaming’ might be a ‘coping mechanism’ that develops as a consequence of a different underlying problem (269). Furthermore, the group suggested, the notion of ‘gaming disorder’ leaned too heavily on models based on substance use and gambling, consequently it ‘over-pathologized ... thoughts, feelings and behavior that may be normal and unproblematic in people who regularly play video games’ (268).H

For the critics, the formalisation of ‘gaming disorder’ as a distinct condition would have a range of negative medical, scientific, and social consequences. It would, they warned, stigmatise the millions of children and young people who played video games as ‘part of a normal, healthy life’, and provide justification for authoritarian intervention in young people’s leisure (269). It would also, they suggested, lock future research into a ‘confirmatory approach’ - that is to say, researchers might see the WHO’s decision as formal validation of a new disorder, and so would stop undertaking studies that could challenge the established orthodoxy (269). Additionally, the group cautioned, the WHO risked contributing to a moral panic about the ‘harm’ of video gaming by pathologising the normal behaviour of millions of young gamers on the basis of ambiguous research evidence (269).20

Clearly, the global audience for online games is vast. And few would dispute that a small part of this audience experience problems as a consequence of extensive playing. Whether this represents a serious issue, however, remains a matter of debate. Social scientific opinion, furthermore, is divided over whether ‘gaming addiction’ constitutes a separate medical condition in its own right, or is behaviour that develops as a consequence of other underlying social or mental problems. In South Korea, for example, media theorists such as Yoon Tae-jin, argue that many studies identifying ‘gaming addiction’ in the country are overly broad, failing to distinguish between particular games or genres, and tend to assume from the outset that ‘gaming addiction’ is a distinct condition (Kim, 2019). Even the South Korean government has feuded over the matter, 2019 seeing Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon set up an arbitration committee to deal with the issue after the culture ministry refused to join a consultative body led by the health ministry. And, for some commentators, South Korea’s ‘video gaming problem’ is not a result of spiralling levels of clinical addiction, but the outcome of family pressures, overbearing parenting and the notorious pressures of the country’s education system (Kim, 2019). In other contexts, too, it is possible that video games have become both a scapegoat for broader social problems, and the object of an alarmist ‘media panic’ that serves as a vehicle for more general cultural and political fears.

In the case of China, particularly, several authors point to the way contemporary concerns about ‘Internet addiction’ articulate more general anxieties about modernisation and cultural change. The Chinese government, Alex Golub and Kate Lingley observe, has always viewed the country’s growing access to the Internet with ambivalence. On one hand, the government has enthusiastically embraced the Internet as ‘both a symbol and a means of modernization key to China’s development’ (Golub and Lingley, 2008: 61—2). But,

Media effects and youth 103 on the other hand, the Internet has also been viewed as a cultural and political challenge. ‘The Internet’, Golub and Lingley explain, ‘provides access to material the Chinese government deems unsuitable and creates a new “public sphere” in which activists can communicate and organize’ (62). As a consequence, the Chinese government has sought various means to control and censor the Internet — most obviously the launch of the ‘Great Firewall of China’ in 1995. During the early twenty-first century, however, these tensions were further exacerbated by the massive scale and pace of socio-economic transformation, especially the rise of consumerism and its attendant lifestyles. As a consequence, general fears about the impact of technology and the Internet on Chinese society intensified - and were articulated especially strongly in the flurry of media stories that reviled ‘Internet addiction’ and the negative influence of video games. As Golub and Lingley explain:

Chinese reportage expresses a profound sense that Internet addiction is emblematic of socioeconmic change in China and underlying moral tensions. As such, this articulates awareness and concern with fear of a threatened moral order in the face of social change, medicalization of social relationships, the rise of new forms of self-fashioning enabled by new media that are not socially sanctioned, the growth of consumerism as a lifestyle, and the dilemmas of child rearing and family structure in a changing country.

(Golub and Lingley, 2008: 60)

In these terms, then, Chinese fears of‘Internet addiction’ represented, to a large part, a media panic fuelled by a general set of anxieties about the course of social change and the cultural realignment of modem China. Moreover, this panic was given significant impetus by the Chinese government’s longstanding fear of the Internet as a potential source of political challenge. As Szablewicz keenly observes, ‘it should not come as a surprise that many suspect the government of using Internet addiction to divert attention from their ulterior motive of censoring and controlling the Internet for political reasons’ (Szablewicz, 2010: 457).

Generally, therefore, claims about the ‘effects’ of the media (whether it be comics, films, music, TV or video games) remain contentious. Moreover, concerns about the ‘influence’ of the media on the young are best understood in their wider social, economic, and political context - where they often articulate more general concerns about shifts in social relationships and the transformation of cultural life. It would, of course, be erroneous to claim the media have no cultural impact whatsoever. To be sure, the media play a key role in organising people’s understandings of the world, afford resources through which cultures are shaped and identities forged and, as media theorist Douglas Kellner puts it, ‘provide symbolic environments in which people live’ (1995: 151). At the same time, however, Kellner emphasises the way the media are always a ‘contested terrain in which different groups inflect its meanings indifferent ways’ (ibid). From this perspective, the media are not simple vehicles for a pre-determined ‘message’ that is delivered straightforwardly to the audience. Instead, media texts are riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies, and their ‘effects’ on audiences are invariably complex, contradictory, or — in some cases — negligible.

Nor should we overlook the way audiences actively engage with the media. Audiences appropriate, reconfigure, and sometimes challenge a text’s meanings. And they can also resist the forces of opprobrium and control. In the case of the Chinese ‘Internet addiction’ panic, for example, some gamers actively contested the rhetoric and stereotypes of the anti-games campaign. In 2009, for instance, Tao Hongkai — China’s ‘Number One Internet Addiction Specialist’ — appeared on national TV to criticise ‘unhealthy Internet gamers’. And, in response, irate gamers unleashed a ‘renrou sousino’ (‘human flesh search’) by posting Hongkai’s personal details (along with many slanderous comments about him) across the Web (Szablewicz, 2010: 463). In 2010, meanwhile, over 100 fans of the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) worked to produce an hour-long animated film, War on Internet Addiction, a political satire that depicted WoW gamers struggling to save their beloved game from malevolent addiction experts and an authoritarian government. Posted on video-sharing sites, within days the film had attracted millions of viewers and comments (Szablewicz, 2010: 463, Zhang, 2013: 2403). Such episodes highlight the way young people are often sophisticated cultural agents who engage actively and creatively with the media. It is these processes of creative engagement and active meaning-making that are the focus of the next chapter.


  • 1 West (1988) provides an overview of early anxieties prompted by American youngsters’ penchant for dime novels, rock ‘n’ roll and other popular entertainment.
  • 2 A detailed account of the US horror comic controversy of the 1950s is provided in Hajdu (2008). Lent (ed.) (1999) collects histories of the period’s worldwide campaigns against comics, while Barker (1984) chronicles Britain’s anti-comics crusade.
  • 3 Critical accounts of Britain’s ‘video nasties’ controversy of thel980s can be found in Barker (ed.) (1984) and Petley (2013).
  • 4 Background to the case, outlining the problematic childhoods of Bulger’s murderers, is provided in Smith (1994).
  • 5 Wright (2000) offers a perceptive critique of the social anxieties that surrounded Marilyn Manson, his songs and performance.
  • 6 See, for example, the accounts presented by Brown and Merritt (2002) and Larkin (2007).
  • 7 A full account of the Payne Fund studies is contained in Jowett, Jarvie and Fuller (1996).
  • 8 Effective overviews of the ‘media effects’ research tradition can be found in Carter and Weaver (eds) (2006), Oliver et al. (eds) (2020) and Potter (2012).
  • 9 Concise histories of debates about the effects of video games can be found in Ferguson and Colwell (2017) and Kowert and Quandt (eds) (2016).

Four years later a crusading follow-up appeared in the form of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence (Grossman and DeGaetano, 1999).

Somewhat ironically, in 2015 Senator Yee (a vocal critic of violent video games) pled guilty to charges of (real-world) gun-running, along with bribery, extortion and money-laundering (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015). He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.

Debates about the positive impact of playing video games are, however, as contentious as those surrounding the negative effects. An overview of 'positive effects’ research is provided in Ferguson (2010).

Similar criticisms are also raised in Hilgard, Engelhardt and Rouder (2017).

The successive fears surrounding new media forms are also identified by, among others, Ferguson and Colwell (2017), Gauntlett (2005), Livingstone (2002) and Springhall (1998).

It should be remembered, however, that many of the criticisms levelled at the concept of moral panic (see Chapter 4) also apply to the idea of media panic. For a critique of theories of media panic, see Buckingham and Jensen (2012).

Ferguson and Colwell (2017) found similar results in their study of academics’ beliefs about the impact of video games on young people’s aggression. Their survey of 175 criminologists, psychologists and media scholars found that it was primarily older academics, with little direct experience of gaming, who endorsed more negative views of video games and their effects.

Subsequent investigation by Lee, Kim and Hong (2017) suggested the impact of the Shutdown Law was relatively inconsequential.

The argument is developed further in Ferguson and Colwell (2019).

See also the critique provided in Markey and Ferguson (2017).

Rejoinders came in the form of several responses, sometimes with overlapping authorship, published in a dedicated edition of the Journal of Behavioural Addictions. See, for example, Griffiths et al. (2017) and Saunders et al. (2017). There followed a response from the original authors (van Rooij et al., 2018).

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