Sudbury

Video games a stand-in for human connection, says Laurentian prof

What happens when you or your child takes their interest in video game-playing to the next level?

Little incentive for video game developers to make games less addictive, says Laurentian prof

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, set for release on October 27, shows an alternate reality in which the Nazis won the Second World War and have taken over America. (Machine Games/Bethesda Softworks)

What happens when you or your child takes their interest in video game-playing to the next level?

For some parents, limiting their kids' screen time is a challenge.

But is it accurate to call this an addiction?

Aaron Langille, a professor of computer science and game design at Laurentian university, says whether video game addiction is diagnosably real or something people experience as real, the condition is largely accepted as a tangible thing.

"Anything that impacts your social life negatively, or your physical health, your work life, anything that distracts you enough that you're not completing the regular functions of an everyday life, starts to go into that disorder territory," Langille said.

First-person shooters like Rainbow 6 Siege, give players a chance to connect with other gamers around the world. A feature which makes the game more social, but at the expense of connections at home, says a Laurentian University professor. (www.ubisoft.com)

Langille said games are specifically designed to get players hooked, in the same way that gamblers feel the need to walk away with a win.

"I don't think video games are run on anything but money," he said.

One of the ways developers hooks players into their game is a system as old as card games themselves.

"A lot of gambling systems are a win/loss systems," Langille said. "We're trying to beat the house, or trying to leave with more than you came with."

"With video games it's beat the boss, beat the game, or beat the person sitting next to us."

Aaron Langille is a professor of computer science and game design at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (Aaron Langille/Supplied)

Connections, not restrictions

But Langille cautions against calling gambling and gaming "perfect twins." Video games, for the most part, come with an end state to the contest.

"A lot of video games will have a 20 to 100-hour campaign-style mode. You'll have a point where the game comes to an end," he said. "People can stand up and say okay, I'm done, and move on."

But what about players that can't move on?

Adele Lafrance, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Laurentian University, said we first have to rid ourselves of the notion that any one thing can be more addictive than another.

"[Video games] aren't addictive per se, but they are addictive for some people who present with certain vulnerabilities."

"They are designed in a way that they touch upon areas of the brain that are more receptive to those feel-good feelings, those sensation-seeking feelings that we all seek," Lafrance said.

Adele Lafrance is an associate professor at Laurentian University. She says that parents need to substitute real emotional connections if they're thinking of limiting kids' screen time. (Adele Lafrance)

Lafrance said that gaming is an easy escape, and a rewarding one, for those who may be feeling at odds with their surroundings.

"Gaming can be a distraction from difficult emotions or difficulties in life," she said. "It can serve as a very effective distraction from emotional pain."

"The other element is that video games are exciting, and they can make you feel good about yourself. Each time you reach a level there's a rush of good feelings."

It's that surge of good feelings that has the potential of becoming addictive, Lafrance said.

Although he's careful himself about using the term, Langille said he understands the approach some developers take by labelling their games as "addictive" when users browse through app stores.

And he noted that in his own university courses, he encourages students to discuss a developer's responsibility in creating a game that could have addictive elements. One method developers can take, he said, is to post notifications to the player of the time spent on their device, or messages to players stay physically active while in game mode.

"Personally I think those messages are a good idea," he said. "But I don't think [developers'] principal point is to address addiction. I think those messages are there because of industry pressure and health professionals that are worried about eye strain, wrist strain, or gamers thumbs."

Lafrance adds that it's important that parents learn how to address problematic gaming if it's causing turmoil in the house.

"What I've seen...is that sometimes parents will restrict gaming, or electronics use, but without building in what the child needs, and what that gaming is doing for them," she said.

"As a society, we have to increase the availability for connection," she said. "Because that's one thing we know about addictions. Addiction urges go down in the context of positive human connection."

"Let's say there's a teen who's using gaming as a self soothing strategy and the parents decide no, you're not allowed to do gaming anymore. There's nothing wrong with that. But they do have to step in with opportunities for positive parent-child connection or other methods of healthy self-soothing."

"Addictions, including gaming, stem from a disconnection with self, a lack of connection with others. We live in stressful times, and the home environment is not as connected because of the very real pressures of life. It makes sense kids are looking for external ways of making connections."

Listen to the interview with Aaron Langille here.

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