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3Qs: Are video games addictive?

Cynthia Baron, academic director of the Digital Media Program at Northeastern University, discusses how the findings of a new study linking heavy video gaming to depression, social phobias and poor academic performance among young people, will impact video game ratings, sales and popularity.

What makes video games addictive? Are they designed to be that way?

I think that we have a problem with terms migrating into situations that may not be directly applicable. In the context of creating games, “addiction” is good. But this is a terribly negative term, which was first applied as a response to people’s fear of early arcade games. Today, game creators use the term but have stripped it mentally of its pejorative connotations. Perhaps we should be looking for a different word, like “replay-ability.” It would better describe the many intentionally developed elements that go into game design, the weight of each depending on the type of game we’re discussing. These main goals optimize engagement: a challenge, a self-affirming reward (sense of accomplishment), and a temporary but complete immersion.

Do you think news of these findings will lead to more stringent ratings and regulations for video games? Do you foresee this news causing video game usage and sales to decrease?

There has seldom been a situation where more stringent ratings have ever had a long-term effect on a popular entertainment, as you can see with the movie-rating structure. Like movies, you can rate games for their violence or sexual content, and we do. But, there is no way to rate a game as being more or less addictive without saying that it is more or less engaging. Short of making games illegal, I don’t expect any of these actions to have a negative effect on game sales.

With all of this talk of the negative effects of gaming, what are some potential benefits? Are there skills one can learn while playing, that are applicable to, and useful in real life?

It is a mistake to think of video games as some strange new monster with no connection to other things people do for fun. We have heard this theme with every new social craze. Remember Internet addiction? As I said above, “replay-ability” offers the same benefits that should accompany a good learning experience, whether it be completing a crossword puzzle, learning to skate backwards, or reaching the point in a new language where you can talk with a native. That’s why the area of serious games — games that can be used to help people of all ages acquire new information, learn new skills and stretch their minds— is growing so quickly.