Category Archives: I.T.
The buying of loot boxes takes place within online videogames and are (in essence) virtual games of chance. Players use real money to buy virtual in-game items and can redeem such items by buying keys to open the boxes where they receive a chance selection of further virtual items. Other types of equivalent in-game virtual assets that can be bought include crates, cases, chests, bundles, and card packs. The virtual items that can be ‘won’ can comprise basic customization (i.e., cosmetic) options for a player’s in-game character (avatar) to in-game assets that can help players progress more effectively in the game (e.g., gameplay improvement items such as weapons, armor). All players hope that they can win ‘rare’ items and are often encouraged to spend more money to do so because the chances of winning such items are minimal. Many popular videogames now feature loot boxes (or equivalents) including Overwatch, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, FIFA Ultimate Team, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fortress 2, Injustice 2, Lawbreakers, Forza Motorsport 7, and For Honor. In short, all of these require the paying of real money in exchange for a completely random in-game item. In an interview with Eurogamer, psychologist Jamie Madigan said:
“Whenever you open [a loot box], you may get something awesome (or you may get trash). This randomness taps into some of the very fundamental ways our brains work when trying to predict whether or not a good thing will happen. We are particularly excited by unexpected pleasures like a patch of wild berries or an epic skin for our character. This is because our brains are trying to pay attention to and trying to figure out such awesome rewards. But unlike in the real world, these rewards can be completely random (or close enough not to matter) and we can’t predict randomness. But the reward system in your brain doesn’t know that. Buying [loot boxes] puts them into the same category of packs of Pokémon cards or baseball cards. Unlike gambling in a casino, you’re going to get something out of that pack. Maybe just not the thing you wanted”.
Although there are many definitions in many disciplines defining gambling, there are a number of common elements that occur in the majority of gambling instances that distinguish ‘true’ gambling from mere risk-taking. These include: (i) the exchange is determined by a future event, which at the time of staking money (or something of financial value) the outcome is unknown, (ii) the result is determined (at least partly or wholly) by chance, (iii) the re-allocation of wealth (i.e., the exchange of money [or something of financial value] usually without the introduction of productive work on either side, and (iv) losses incurred can be avoided by simply not taking part in the activity in the first place. Added to this it could be argued that the money or prize to be won should be of greater financial value than the money staked in the first place. Based on these elements, the buying of loot boxes (or equivalents) would be classed as a form of gambling, as would other activities such as the Treasure Hunter and Squeal of Fortune games within the Runescape videogame and online penny auctions (which I have argued in previous papers – see ‘Further reading’).
In the UK Gambling Commission’s most recent (March 2017) position paper on virtual currencies and social casino gambling noted:
“One commonly used method for players to acquire in-game items is through the purchase of keys from the games publisher to unlock ‘crates’, ‘cases’ or ‘bundles’ which contain an unknown quantity and value of in-game items as a prize. The payment of a stake (key) for the opportunity to win a prize (in-game items) determined (or presented as determined) at random bears a close resemblance, for instance, to the playing of a gaming machine. Where there are readily accessible opportunities to cash in or exchange those awarded in-game items for money or money’s worth those elements of the game are likely to be considered licensable gambling activities [Section 3.17]…Additional consumer protection in the form of gambling regulation, is required in circumstances where players are being incentivised to participate in gambling style activities through the provision of prizes of money or money’s worth. Where prizes are successfully restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling, notwithstanding the elements of expenditure and chance [Section 3.18]”.
Consequently, the UK Gambling Commission does not consider loot boxes as a form of gambling because (they claim) the in-game items have no real-life value outside of the game. However, this is not the case because there are many websites that allow players to trade in-game items and/or virtual currency for real money. The Gambling Commission appear to acknowledge this point and claim that the buying of in-game loot boxes (and their equivalents) are not gambling but if third party sites become involved (by allowing the buying and selling of in-game items), the activity does become a form of gambling. As Vic Hood (in a 2017 article in Eurogamer) rightly notes, this appears to be a case of the law struggling to keep pace with technology. There are also issues surrounding age limits and whether games that offer loot boxes (or equivalents) should be restricted to those over the age of 18 years.
Predictably, those in the videogame industry do not view the buying of loot boxes as gambling either. For instance, Dirk Bosmans (from PEGI [Pan European Game Information], the European-based videogame rating organization) stated in a recent interview with Eurogamer that:
“Loot crates are currently not considered gambling: you always get something when you purchase them, even if it’s not what you hoped for. For that reason, a loot crate system does not trigger the gambling content descriptor. If something is considered gambling, it needs to follow a very specific set of legislation, which has all kinds of practical consequences for the company that runs it. Therefore, the games that get a PEGI gambling content descriptor either contain content that simulates what is considered gambling or they contain actual gambling with cash payouts. If PEGI would label something as gambling while it is not considered as such from a legal point of view, it would mostly create confusion. We are always monitoring such developments and mapping consumer complaints. We see a growing need for information about specific features in games and apps (social interaction, data sharing, digital purchases), but the challenge is that such features are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the market, yet they still come in very different shapes and sizes.”
This appears somewhat hardline given that PEGI’s descriptor of gambling content is used whenever any videogame “teaches or encourages” gambling. Such a descriptor would arguably cover gambling-like games or activities and the buying of loot boxes is ‘gambling-like’ at the very least. The same stance has been taken by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which rates videogames in Canada and the USA. A spokesman for the ESRB told Eurogamer that:
“ESRB does not consider [the buying of loot boxes] to be gambling because the player uses real money to pay for and obtain in-game content. The player is always guaranteed to receive something – even if the player doesn’t want what is received. Think of it like opening a pack of collectible cards: sometimes you’ll get a brand new, rare card, but other times you’ll get a pack full of cards you already have. That said, ESRB does disclose gambling content should it be present in a game via one of two content descriptors: Simulated Gambling (player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency) and Real Gambling (player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency). Neither of these apply to loot boxes and similar mechanics.”
At present, there are a number of countries (mainly in South East Asia such as China and Japan) who do view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling and have incorporated such activities into their gambling regulation. However, most countries have either not considered regulating the buying of loot boxes at all, or (like the UK) have ruled out that buying loot boxes does not currently meet their regulatory definition of gambling. Although there has been little published in academic journals on loot boxes, a number of articles in the trade press have claimed that the buying of loot boxes can be problematic and/or addictive because they are designed using highly similar reward schedules to those used in the design of slot machines. This is something that have also pointed out in relation to similar activities to the buying of loot boxes where individuals play for points rather than money. Personally, I view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling particularly because the ‘prizes’ won are (in financial terms) often a lot less than that of the price paid. Obviously I am out of step in relation to the regulators in my own country, but if third party websites continue to host services where in-game virtual items can be bought and sold, the activity definitely constitutes a form of gambling by almost any definition of gambling currently used in the field of social sciences.
(N.B. This article uses material from a paper I recently published in Gaming Law Review)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alexandra, H. (2017). Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Kotaku, October 13. https://kotaku.com/loot-boxes-are-designed-to-exploit-us-1819457592
Avard, A (2017). Video games have a loot box fetish, and it’s starting to harm the way we play. Games Radar, October 10. Located at: http://www.gamesradar.com/loot-boxes-shadow-of-war/
Gambling Commission (2017). Virtual currencies, esports and social casino gaming – position paper. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.
Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.
Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review, 22(1), 52-54.
Griffiths, M.D. & Carran, M. (2015). Are online penny auctions a form of gambling? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 190-196.
Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.
Hood, V. (2017). Are loot boxes gambling? Eurogamer, October 12. Located at: Located at: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-10-11-are-loot-boxes-gambling
Lawrence, N, (2017). The troubling psychology of pay-to-loot systems. IGN, April 23. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/04/24/the-troubling-psychology-of-pay-to-loot-systems
Perks, M. (2016). Limited edition loot boxes: Problematic gambling and monetization. Cube, October 11. Located at: https://medium.com/the-cube/limited-edition-loot-boxes-problematic-gambling-and-monetization-756819f2c54f
Wikipedia (2017). Loot box (2017). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loot_box
Wiltshire, W. (2017). Behind the addictive psychology and seductive art of loot boxes. PC Gamer, September 29. Located at: http://www.pcgamer.com/behind-the-addictive-psychology-and-seductive-art-of-loot-boxes/
As a teenager I was fascinated with LSD purely as a consequence of my love of The Beatles and its alleged association with songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘ (I say ‘alleged’ because all Beatle fanatics know that this song got its’ title from a drawing by John Lennon’s son Julian and that lyrically the song was inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland [AIW], a book which gave its’ name to AIW Syndrome that I examined in a couple of previous blogs).
When I first started teaching my ‘Addictive Behaviours’ module back in 1990, almost all my lectures concentrated on drug addictions (as opposed to behavioural addictions which now take centre stage in my teaching), and it was my session on hallucinogenic drugs (also known as psychedelic drugs) that was always the most fun to teach and the topic that students appeared to be most engaged in. Like many of my students, I have always been interested in altered states of consciousness both in my own research into addiction and the topic more generally.
The reason why I mention all these things as that I did a media interview on the hallucinogenic effects of virtual reality products. The interview was based on comments by Microsoft researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco, who said that virtual reality will soon replace the need for hallucinogenic drugs. More specifically, she was quoted as saying:
“By 2027 we will have ubiquitous virtual reality systems that will provide such rich multi-sensorial experiences that will be capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceived reality. Using this technology, humans will retrain, recalibrate and improve their perceptual systems…In contrast to current virtual reality systems that only stimulate visual and auditory senses, in the future the experience will expand to other sensory modalities including tactile with haptic devices“.
Claims that VR products have the potential to induce hallucinogenic experiences have already started appearing in the media. A recent story in the Daily Mail reported that there was already a VR app (SelfSound) that claimed it can reproduce the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and “plays on the neurological phenomena known as synaesthesia” and that a “program is used to promote mediation through creating abstract reality [and] plays face-melting music with synesthetic DMT-style visualizations uniquely generated in response to [a person’s] voice”. (DMT is an abbreviation for dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogenic drug).
Over the last seven years, I have published a series of studies with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gotari (some of them listed in the ‘Further reading’ section below) showing that hallucinations are common among video gamers in our working examining Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP). Therefore, it’s no surprise that VR games can do the same thing. We have reported that visual and auditory hallucinations are commonly experiences by regular videogame players.
For instance, one of our studies published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction found that some video gamers experience altered visual perceptions after playing (e.g., distorted versions of real world surroundings). Others saw video game images and misinterpreted real life objects after they had stopped playing. Gamers reported seeing video game menus popping up in front their eyes when they were in a conversation, or saw coloured images and ‘heads up’ displays when driving on the motorway. Our study analysed 656 experiences from 483 gamers collected in 54 online video game forums. Visual illusions can easily trick the brain, and staring at visual stimuli can cause ‘after-images’ or ‘ghost images’ among videogame players. We found that GTP were triggered by associations between video game experiences, and objects and activities in real life contexts. Our findings also raised questions about the effects of the exposure to specific visual effects used in video games.
We also reported that in some playing experiences, video game images appeared without awareness and control of the gamers, and in some cases, the images were uncomfortable, especially when gamers could not sleep or concentrate on something else. These experiences also resulted in irrational thoughts such as gamers questioning their own mental health, getting embarrassed or performing impulsive behaviours in social contexts. However, other gamers clearly thought that these experiences were fun and some even tried to induce them.
Visual experiences identified in GTP show us the interplay of physiological, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms and the potential of learning with video games even without awareness. It also invites us to reflect about the effects of prolonged exposure to synthetic stimuli and the challenges that the human mind affront due to the technological advances that are still to come. However, because we collected our data for most of our published studies from online video game forums, the psychological profile of the gamers in our studies are unknown. However, different gamers reported similar experiences in the same games. This highlights the relevance of the video games’ structural characteristics but gamers’ habits also appear to be crucial. Some gamers may be more susceptible than others to experience GTP. The effects of these experiences appear to be short-lived, but some gamers experience them recurrently. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that more research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Most of these GTP experiences are viewed positively but a small minority of players find them detrimental.
Whether such hallucinations – either in typical videogames or VR videogames – can be induced on demand is debatable. Very few players in our own research said they were able to induce hallucinations. At present, we simply don’t know what the long-term effects of VR gaming will be and that goes for VR-induced gaming hallucinations too. It may be the case that VR induced hallucinogenic states will be ‘safer’ than ones induced by psychedelic drugs as there is no ingestion of a psychoactive substance, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cawley, C. (2016). Virtual Reality could make you hallucinate; Don’t freak out. Tech Co, December 15. Located at: http://tech.co/virtual-reality-hallucinate-dont-freak-2016-12
Hamill, J. (2016). Windows of perception: Microsoft says virtual reality will soon have same mind-bending effects as LSD. The Sun, December 7. Located at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2347705/microsoft-says-virtual-reality-will-soon-have-same-mind-bending-effects-as-lsd/
Liberatore, S. (2016). That’s trippy! Watch the VR app that claims to be able to reproduce the effects of a hallucinogenic drug. Daily Mail, May 4, Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3572184/That-s-trippy-Watch-VR-app-claims-able-reproduce-effects-hallucinogenic-drug.html
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. In: Gamification: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp.1329-1345). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 588-594.
Rothman, P. (2014). Virtual Reality and Drugs – Yes, you should get high before using VR. H Plus Magazine, July 31. Located at: http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/07/31/virtual-reality-and-drugs-yes-you-should-get-high-before-using-vr/
Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that it was planning to include ‘Gaming Disorder’ (GD) in the latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases. This followed the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to include ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. According to the WHO, an individual with GD is a person who lets playing video games “take precedence over other life interests and daily activities,” resulting in “negative consequences” such as “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
I have been researching videogame addiction for nearly 30 years, and during that time I have received many letters, emails, and telephone calls from parents wanting advice concerning videogames. Typical examples include ‘Is my child playing too much?’, ‘Will playing videogames spoil my pupils’ education?’, ‘Are videogames bad for children’s health? and ‘How do I know if a child is spending too long playing videogames?’ To answer these and other questions in a simple and helpful way, I have written this article as a way of disseminating this information quickly and easily.
To begin with parents should begin by finding out what videogames their children are actually playing! Parents might find that some of them contain material that they would prefer them not to be having exposure to. If they have objections to the content of the games they should facilitate discussion with children about this, and if appropriate, have a few rules. A few aims with children should be:
- To help them choose suitable games which are still fun
- To talk with them about the content of the games so that they understand the difference between make-believe and reality
- To discourage solitary game playing
- To guard against obsessive playing
- To follow recommendations on the possible risks outlined by videogame manufacturers
- To ensure that they have plenty of other activities to pursue in their free time besides the playing of videogames
Parents need to remember that in the right context videogames can be educational (helping children to think and learn more quickly), can help raise a child’s self-esteem, and can increase the speed of their reaction times. Parents can also use videogames as a starting point for other activities like painting, drawing, acting or storytelling. All of these things will help a child at school. It needs to be remembered that videogame playing is just one of many activities that a child can do alongside sporting activities, school clubs, reading and watching the television. These can all contribute to a balanced recreational diet.
The most asked question a parent wants answering is ‘How much videogame playing is too much? To help answer this question I devised the following checklist. It is designed to check if a child’s videogame playing is getting out of hand. Ask these simple questions. Does your child:
- Play videogames every day?
- Often play videogames for long periods (e.g., 3 to 6 hours at a time)?
- Play videogames for excitement or ‘buzz’ or as a way of forgetting about other things in their life?
- Get restless, irritable, and moody if they can’t play videogames?
- Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play videogames?
- Play videogames instead of doing their homework?
- Try to cut down the amount of videogame playing but can’t?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to more than four of these questions, then your child may be playing too much. But what can you do if your child is playing videogames too much?
- First of all, check the content of the games. Try and give children games that are educational rather than the violent ones. Parents usually have control over what their child watches on television – videogames should not be any different.
- Secondly, try to encourage video game playing in groups rather than as a solitary activity. This will lead to children talking and working together.
- Thirdly, set time limits on children’s playing time. Tell them that they can play for a couple of hours after they have done their homework or their chores – not before.
- Fourthly, parents should always get their children to follow the recommendations by the videogame manufacturers (e.g., sit at least two feet from the screen, play in a well-lit room, never have the screen at maximum brightness, and never play videogames when feeling tired).
I have spent many years examining both the possible dangers and the potential benefits of videogame playing. Evidence suggests that in the right context videogames can have positive health and educational benefits to a large range of different sub-groups. What is also clear from the case studies displaying the more negative consequences of playing is that they all involved children who were excessive users of videogames. From prevalence studies in this area, there is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play. In fact, in some of my studies, I found that moderate videogame players were more likely to have friends, do homework, and engage in sporting activities, than those who played no videogames at all.
For excessive videogame players, adverse effects are likely to be relatively minor, and temporary, resolving spontaneously with decreased frequency of play, or to affect only a small subgroup of players. Excessive players are the most at-risk from developing health problems although more research is needed. If care is taken in the design, and if they are put into the right context, videogames have the potential to be used as training aids in classrooms and therapeutic settings, and to provide skills in psychomotor coordination, and in simulations of real life events (e.g., training recruits for the armed forces).
Every week I receive emails from parents claiming that their sons are addicted to playing online games or that their daughters are addicted to social media. When I ask them why they think this is the case, they almost all reply “because they spend most of their leisure time in front of a screen.” This is simply a case of parents pathologising their children’s behaviour because they think what they are doing is “a waste of time.” I always ask parents the same three things in relation to their child’s screen use. Does it affect their schoolwork? Does it affect their physical education? Does it affect their peer development and interaction? Usually parents say that none of these things are affected so if that is the case, there is little to worry about when it comes to screen time. Parents also have to bear in mind that this is how today’s children live their lives. Parents need to realise that excessive screen time doesn’t always have negative consequences and that the content and context of their child’s screen use is more important than the amount of screen time.
(N.B. This article is an extended version of an article that was originally published by Parent Zone)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Videogames: Advice for teachers and parents. Education and Health, 21, 48-49.
Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Online computer gaming: Advice for parents and teachers. Education and Health, 27, 3-6.
Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.
Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Pontes, H. (2016). A brief overview of Internet Gaming Disorder and its treatment. Australian Clinical Psychologist, 2(1), 20108.
Griffiths, M.D. & Meredith, A. (2009). Videogame addiction and treatment. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39(4), 47-53.
King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Clinical interventions for technology-based problems: Excessive Internet and video game use. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26, 43-56.
King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2012). Cognitive-behavioural approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68, 1185-1195.
Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic online gaming. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.61-95). New York: Elsevier.
Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.
Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.
The advent of the Internet has enabled people’s engagement in a wide variety of online sexual behaviors. The Internet can provide a “safe” space for sexual exploration that presents less physical and social danger than offline activities, and may also provide access to a social community and a support system for non-normative gender and sexual expression (e.g., sexual fetishes and paraphilias). Additionally, a small minority of people may use the Internet excessively to engage in cybersex. Rather than being complementary, their use of cybersex may become a substitute for their offline sexual lives. For a small minority, their behaviors may take on addictive qualities that can be indicative of an online sexual addiction.
I noted in a number of papers that I published in the early 2000s (e.g., Journal of Sex Research  and CyberPsychology and Behavior ; see ‘Further reading’ below) that the Internet can be – and has been – used for a number of diverse activities surrounding sexually motivated online behavior. These include the use of the Internet for (i) seeking out sexually related material for educational use, (ii) buying or selling sexually related goods for further use offline, (iii) visiting and/or purchasing goods in online virtual sex shops, (iv) seeking out material for entertainment/masturbatory purposes for use online, (v) seeking out sex therapists, and (vi) seeking out sexual partners for an enduring relationship.
Other sexually motivated uses of the Internet include (i) seeking out sexual partners for a transitory relationship (i.e., escorts, prostitutes, swingers) via online personal advertisements/“lonely hearts” columns, escort agencies, and/or chat rooms, (ii) seeking out individuals who then become victims of sexually related Internet crime (online sexual harassment, cyberstalking, pedophilic “grooming” of children), (iii) engaging in and maintaining online relationships via email and/or chat rooms, (iv) exploring gender and identity roles by swapping gender or creating other personas and forming online relationships, and (v) digitally manipulating images on the Internet for entertainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g., celebrity fake photographs where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else’s naked body)
More recently, in a 2012 issue of the journal Addiction Research and Theory, I noted that online sexual behaviors can be classified as either cybersexual consumption (i.e., downloading and watching sexual content online such as pornography or reading sexual content in forums/chat sites without actively participating), or cybersexual interaction with others (e.g., text-based chat and/or video-linked conversations). Either of these types of online behavior may be accompanied by concurrent masturbation. Furthermore, online activities with a sexual component can be problematic for some because (1) they manifest sexual desires that the person (or their offline sexual partner) disapprove of or feel guilty about; (2) they divert (or distort) sexual energy from offline sexual behavior; and (3) the search for the ideal online sexual material may take up a great deal of time. Therefore, it appears necessary to distinguish not only between consumptive and interactive cybersex, but also between “normal” and “deviant” online sexual behaviors.
The late 1990s and early 2000s experienced a proliferation of studies investigating how human sexual behavior is enacted on the Internet. Some scholars (such as James Quinn and Craig Forsyth in a 2005 issue of the journal Deviant Behavior) claimed that technology transformed vicarious sex into an increasingly viable and attractive substitute for interpersonal forms of sexual fulfilment. Such an assertion suggests that a minority of cybersex users may use the Internet as a substitute for offline behaviours. It also suggests that what happens online may be very fulfilling for some people.
Sex on the Internet is particularly viable because of the inherent qualities of the Internet that the late Dr. Al Cooper referred to as the ‘Triple A Engine’ (access, affordability and anonymity). The online world, including explicit sexual material as well as potential online and offline sexual partners, can be accessed anytime and anywhere. Most of the time, sexual activities can be pursued at virtually no cost online, a point that demarcates online sex from offline sex, considering the expenditures involved in buying sex tapes or paying for sex workers. In comparison, the costs for bandwidth access are relatively low.
As an adaptation to Dr. Cooper’s Triple A Engine, Dr. Kimberley Young and colleagues proposed the ACE model, incorporating anonymity, convenience, and escape as factors salient to the Internet. These factors facilitate the engagement in sex by decreasing the inhibition thresholds present in offline sexual relations. Not only is a person anonymous online, but the Internet is ubiquitous and it can be accessed conveniently from a safe base, such as the person’s home.
Compared to offline sex, the Internet appears to offer the possibility to engage in cybersex anytime and anywhere for little financial cost. Therefore, research studies have found individuals are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors on the Internet rather than offline. The lower threshold associated with perceived lower risks of engaging in online sex may therefore increase the chance of persons who are at risk for developing sex addiction offline to actually develop sex addiction on the Internet. Empirical studies have increased our understanding of specific online sexual activities (e.g., Internet sex addiction). Here, the distinction between people who use Internet sex to improve their offline sex life and those who use it as a substitution may play an important role. Furthermore, cross-cultural differences point to the fact that the sociocultural context plays an important role in influencing people’s attitudes toward sexual behaviors.
In line with this, two potential scenarios materialize. First, one might assume that as views of sex are relatively liberal in some cultures relative to other more conservative cultures, members of the former may be more likely to engage in sex on the Internet because they have more open attitudes toward sexuality in general. Alternatively, particularly because some cultures are relatively conservative when it comes to sex, their members could potentially be more likely to engage in cybersex in order to compensate for the lack of freedoms in expressing their sexuality offline.
Note: This article used material previously published in the following book chapter: Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Internet sex. In Naples, N.A. (Ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Chichester: Wiley. DOI: 10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss408
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1, 187–193.
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Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.
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About a year ago, my colleagues and I published what we believe is the very first study of the helping role that video gaming can play in the lives of transgender individuals. Before I get to that, it’s probably worth noting that there have been studies of how gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and the video game Minecraft on YouTube as well as papers discussing whether the gaming industry should cater for marginalized groups and develop games for groups where there is little representation within games (e.g., gay and transgendered characters). For instance, there is now a short autobiographical game by Auntie Pixellante called Dys4ia. This is a WarioWare-style game, played only with the arrow keys, chronicling the experiences of a trans woman rectifying her own gender dysphoria. Such videogames raise interesting questions about how those individuals with gender dysphoria utilize gaming as part of their identity.
In a previous blog I briefly looked at gender swapping in online video games including some of my own research. For instance, in 2003 I published a paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior using secondary poll data from online gaming forums. The paper reported that of 10,350 players at the Everlore fan site, 15% had swapped the gender of their main in-game playing character. We also reported a similar finding among 8,694 players at the Allakhazam fan site with 15.5% reporting that they had gender swapped their main in-game character (and more specifically, 14.5% males and 1% were females who had changed the gender of their lead character). In a 2004 follow-up survey among 540 Everquest gamers (again in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior) my colleagues and I reported that 60% had swapped their online in-game characters. The prevalence of gender swapping was probably much higher in this study because the question related to the gender swapping of any online game character not just their main playing character.
In a small exploratory study I published in 2008 with Dr. Zaheer Hussain in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, we examined why people engaged in gender swapping in a self-selecting sample of 119 online gamers (mean age of 28.5 years). We reported that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping (any character not just their main character), and that males adopting an online female persona believed there were a number of positive social attributes to becoming female characters in male-oriented gaming environments. The study also reported that significantly more females than males had gender swapped their character – mainly to prevent unsolicited male approaches on their female characters. Some females appeared to gender swap purely out of interest to see what would happen in the game (as a personal experiment), while others claimed that they were treated more favourably by male gamers when they played as a male character. Others reported that gender swapping enabled them to play around with aspects of their identity that would not be possible to explore in real life. Other reasons for gender swapping were that (i) female characters had better in-game statistics, (ii) some specific tools were only available with female characters, (iii) the class of character was sometimes only available in one gender, (iv) they played for fun, and/or (v) they did it to so something that they would not normally do in the game (i.e., they did it for a change in their usual playing behaviour).
Outside of online gaming, a 2002 paper by Hegland and Nelson in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies noted that the Internet more generally can be used as a tool for expressing gender identity because it allows identities to cross cultural boundaries instantly and without regard for real physical space. They examined 30 cross-dressing websites and argued that for most cross-dressers that visited such websites, the online forum was their primary medium of expression. The users of the website used the Internet to nurture the ability to create a feminine identity, and helped them to pass as a woman in the offline public world. More generally, cross-dressers used the Internet to participate in the larger cultural dialogue of gender.
For an adult to meet current criteria for a diagnosis of transsexualism, the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) reports they must express the desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by the wish to make his or her body as congruent as possible with the desired sex through surgery and cross-sex hormones. This transsexual identity must have been present persistently for a minimum of two years and not be a symptom of another mental disorder or a chromosomal abnormality. The latest (fifth) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association uses the term gender dysphoria to describe people who are uncomfortable and/or distressed regarding their assigned gender, their physical sex characteristics and/or their associated social roles. Depending upon the intensity of this distress, some individuals may wish to transition from one point on a notional gender scale to another. The most common direction is from a man to a woman (individuals known as trans women), or from a woman to a man (individuals known as trans men). The distress intrinsic to gender dysphoria may be focused around anatomy, physiology, and/or being perceived and treated as someone of a gender with which the person does not identify. However, these diagnostic labels do not apply to all trans individuals for a multitude of reasons because some people will not identify themselves as a man or as a woman
The World Health Organisation working group has recommended that the latest ICD replace the term Transsexualism with Gender Incongruence) and remove it from the mental and behavioural disorders chapter. Gender incongruence denotes the incongruence between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex and/or congenital primary and secondary sex characteristics. The terminology in this field has changed over the years and the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ have been used in the literature as umbrella terms to cover a wide variety of atypical gender experiences and expressions which may lead to permanent change of social gender role but does not necessarily involve treatment with cross-sex hormones or surgical intervention. A recent study has reported an prevalence for transsexualism of 4.6 in 100,000 individuals; 6.8 for trans women and 2.6 for trans men, which is primarily based on studies looking at individuals attending clinical services. (However, it should be noted that recent population studies have reported a significantly higher prevalence rate of atypical gender experiences and expressions).
The study we published in the journal Aloma originated from initial observations made by Dr. Jon Arcelus that a number of gender dysphoric clients presenting at the national (UK) gender dysphoria clinic admitted that they gender-swapped while playing online games. After I met with Dr. Arcelus I suggested he revisit his case files and and to write them up as case studies (as no study in the gaming field has ever examined online gaming among those with gender dysphoria). The main objectives of our study were to use exemplar case studies to highlight that gaming – in some circumstances – appears to be a functional way of dealing with gender identity issues, and that gender swapping in gaming may help such individuals to come to terms with their gender dysphoria.
Our paper featured four case studies who attended an assessment at the National Centre for Gender Dysphoria in Nottingham. All four individuals described in our paper were given pseudonyms and the content of their histories were anonymised (and included ‘Mary’ a 26-year old natal male who fully transitioned to the female social role six months prior to our study; ‘Mark’ a 20-year old natal female who first attended for an assessment in the female role; ‘Paul’ a 31-year old natal male who would like to be female, but still living full-time as a male; and ‘Harry’ a 23-year old natal male who presented for an assessment as a male). If you want to read about each case in detail, the paper can be downloaded for free from here).
The four case studies outlined in our paper are only a selected sample of the number of cases attending a national clinic for people with gender dysphoria. However, they were in no way unusual to the other clients that have sought help at the Centre. However, these individual accounts were specifically selected to demonstrate the different ways that video gaming may help people with gender dysphoria come to terms with their gender identity. For example, gaming can be used among trans people as a psychological tool to increase one’s awareness of gender identity and/or as part of the self. Gaming may therefore be a useful way to express one’s experienced gender identity in a safe, non-threatening, non-alienating, non-stigmatizing, and non-critical environment. This appears to mirror other the findings of other studies outside of the online gaming environment.
Articles published in the mass media have reported that online games such as World of Warcraft provide a creative space that allows gamers that might be questioning aspects of their identity to explore their lives as different individuals. Some have even gone as far as to argue that this could help gamers transform their ‘offline’ identity, as is the case with some trans gamers. This was also demonstrated in the case studies described in our study. Other authors have asserted that the online medium offers an infinite space for development and resistance to traditional gender roles, and that online interaction enables a transgression of the dichotomous categories of male and female, constructing trans (or even genderless) social identities and relationships. However, although such anonymous online communities may provide trans individuals with the power to subvert their physical sex.
Our case studies also demonstrated the different functions of gaming in trans people (e.g., the function of “testing out” their gender feelings). For instance, using gaming to ‘come out’ to other people, by initially coming out in the online community, which is perceived as a safe environment, and then gradually coming out in real life. Gaming, as for many non-trans individuals, can derive psychological benefits and a sense of escapism. This is even more relevant among trans people as it may be the only time that they feel they can be themselves, allowing them to feel happy, relaxed, and achieving a sense of completeness. This could develop into a powerful coping skill substituting unhealthy behaviours, such as self-harming behaviour. This is particularly important in this population as research shows a strong association between being trans and mental health problems, particularly depression and self-harm as a way to manage one’s trans feelings. This is not surprising as the discomfort and distress about assigned gender and body dissatisfaction may lead to a sense of hopelessness, which can bring low mood, self-injury and even suicide.
Although gaming appears (at least initially) to be a positive and beneficial activity for many trans people, there is also the risk that staying in the game becomes too much of a secure and safe environment. This can create a vicious circle where the trans person does not wish to move out of the secure online world, and back into reality. Spending an increasing amount of time in online gaming carries the risk of developing a gaming dependence or addiction. This may not only affect one’s personal relationships, work and/or study, but may also impair real life social gender role transition, as in many cases, the individual is expected to socially transition before they can be considered for treatment.
Obviously our paper only included four participants and may be perceived by some researchers as ‘anecdotal’ because the data were not collected for this specific study but were retrospectively collated. However, our findings showed that for a trans individual, the online gaming environment was perceived as “safe” but further research is needed to establish what the distinctive elements of online gaming are that help to raise gender awareness (or not as the case may be). With the rates of gender dysphoria attending clinical services increasing significantly, future research should investigate (i) the rates and severity of gaming among this population as well as its function, and (ii) the rates of gender dysphoria among game addiction as coming out may help their addiction. The game industry may also want to consider how they can use games as a way of helping trans people being more accepted within society by developing game industry may want to co-observe how their games can prepare and assist individuals to socially transition. Online games also provide a safe environment that provides people access to a platform where individuals can discuss and experiment with gender identity.
Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., Witcomb, G. L., Van den Noortgate, W., Claes, L., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis of prevalence studies in transsexualism. European Psychiatry, 30, 807-815.
Arcelus, J., Jones, B., Richards, C., Jimenez-Murcia, S., Bouman, W.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Video gaming and gaming addiction in transgender people: An exploratory study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 21–29.
Dale, L. K. (2014, January 23). How World of Warcraft helped me come out as transgender. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2014/jan/23/how-world-of-warcraft-game-helped-me-come-out-transgender
Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.
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Unwanted visual intrusions are characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Dr. Emily Holmes and her colleagues in a 2009 paper in the journal PLoS ONE, one innovative intervention for inhibiting unwanted intrusions is playing the Tetris videogame, described as a ‘cognitive vaccine’ in preventing intrusions after traumatic events. Playing Tetris consumes heavy visuospatial working memory resources that potentially compete with cognitive resources required for elaboration of visual imagery. Since Holmes and colleagues’ study, other studies have used Tetris to inhibit intrusive imagery including more studies by Holmes and her colleagues and others by Ella James’ research group, as well as some innovative studies using Tetris to reduce drug cravings by Jessica Storka-Brown and her colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below). However, none of these studies assessed the role of videogame content after playing in relation to Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), an area that we have carried out a lot of research into (see ‘Further reading’ below).
GTP research has investigated non-volitional experiences (e.g., altered sensorial perceptions and automatic mental processes/behaviours) mostly experienced after gaming. Gamers often report sensorial (visual/auditory) intrusions after playing (e.g., visual and auditory imagery, hallucinations). In a survey of 2,362 gamers that we published in a 2016 issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, most (77%) had visualized images from a variety of videogames (including tile-puzzle games) with closed-eyes, and one-third (31%) had visualized images with open-eyes. Other studies have experimentally induced videogame-related visualizations at sleep onset (including studies by Stickgold and colleagues , Wamsley and colleagues , Kusse and colleagues  – see ‘Further reading’).
James and colleagues’ 2015 study in the journal Psychological Science was the first to make explicit reference to GTP (referred to as the ‘Tetris effect’ [TE]). In 2012, we argued the TE term is misleading as it suggests repetition is the core of transfer effects. However, other factors are involved. Research concerning GTP makes the distinction between sensorial modalities facilitating non-volitional phenomena with videogame content that occur along the continuum from mild to severe. Moreover, the descriptive constructs of GTP are empirically based on our analysis of 3,500+ gamers and have been examined via confirmatory factor analysis demonstrating good reliability and validity.
James and her colleagues tested if playing Tetris offered a protective mechanism against re-experiencing traumatic events. Healthy participants (n=56) were randomly assigned to either playing Tetris for 11 minutes, or doing nothing before exposure to a 12-minute traumatic film. Image-base memories about the film were then registered in a one-week dairy. However, playing Tetris as a proactive interference task before watching the film did not show significant results. James and colleagues offered different explanations including: (i) duration of the task in relation to film length, (ii) temporal contingencies between the tasks, (iii) differences between the task types, (iv) videogame types used, and (v) reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference. In a commentary paper published in a 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, we discussed these findings and some of its shortcomings in relation to GTP literature.
- Duration of task in relation to film length: Playing Tetris for 11 minutes may not have been long enough to compete with the consolidation of memory of the 12-minute film. GTP are significantly more likely to occur when playing 3-6 hours. Our research reported only 4% of gamers reported GTP when playing sessions shorter than one-hour. Laboratory experiments have taken days of playing to induce game-related visualizations at sleep onset.
- Temporal contingencies between gaming and film watching: The tasks were performed minutes apart from each other. GTP mostly occur soon after stopping playing but our research has found that gamers have also reported GTP days after playing. In most cases, duration of experience is very short (seconds/minutes) but in some cases hours or longer.
- Differences between the tasks: Previous studies have demonstrated that similar tasks aid interference. However, watching a film is a passive activity while gaming is interactive requiring additional perceptual/motor skills. Therefore, it may be expected that gaming is more potent as interference task, particularly because inducing the subjective sense of presence in the virtual world may strengthen the interference.
- Type of videogame used as interference task and emotional content of film: The unrealistic (geometric) Tetris content may have been overwritten by the film’s traumatic images. Visualization of stereotypical games induced at sleep onset are characterized by lack of emotion, assuming that the amygdala and the reward system are not involved. In GTP research, emotions in tile-matching puzzle-games are incomparable to emotions in realistic videogames.
- Reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference: The use of cue reminders may have potential in reviving videogame content. In many cases, thoughts and altered perceptions are triggered by game-related cues. Selective attention toward game-related cues has been demonstrated in experiments. GTP have been reported in variety of videogame genres particularly those that have very realistic graphics and settings. Therefore, more realistic games may aid associations between real life stimuli and videogame content, and may be more effective in competing with memories of traumatic events.
In our Frontiers paper, we noted that playing Tetris is not only an effective visuospatial task (overloading working memory resources needed for imagery-formation while playing), but as demonstrated in our GTP studies, videogame content stays active after playing (e.g., mental imagery, sensory perceptions), and may offer additional benefits for managing unwanted intrusions. GTP may potentially strengthen effects of interference tasks but should be used cautiously, because videogame content not only targets unwanted intrusions, but also influences individual cognitions, perceptions, and behaviours in day-to-day contexts (e.g., attention bias, lack of task awareness, control inhibition failures). Moreover, our studies have shown distress and dysfunction have been reported with GTP.
Consequently, further research needs conducting to identify: (i) videogames that are most effective, (ii) playing duration, (iii) factors that reduce intervention efficacy and strategies to control them, and (iv) individuals that may benefit the most from such intervention. While using videogames as intervention tools for preventing unwanted imagery from traumatic experiences has potential, therapeutically it is still at an early stage.
- (Please note: This blog was co-written with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and is based on an article we published in Frontiers in Psychology: Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 260. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00260)
Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Kilford, E. J., & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key steps in developing a cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus Verbal Pub Quiz. PloS ONE, 5(11), e13706.
James, E. L., Bonsall, M. B., Hoppitt, L., Tunbridge, E. M., Geddes, J. R., Milton, A. L., & Holmes, E. A. (2015a). Computer game play reduces intrusive memories of experimental trauma via reconsolidation-update mechanisms. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797615583071
James, E. L., Zhu, A. L., Tickle, H., Horsch, A., & Holmes, E. A. (2015b). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.11.004
Kusse, C., Shaffii-Le Bourdiec, A., Schrouff, J., Matarazzo, L., & Maquet, P. (2012). Experience-dependent induction of hypnagogic images during daytime naps: A combined behavioural and EEG study. Journal of Sleep Research, 21(1), 10-20.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Aronsson, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 1(3), 15-33.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. I. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp. 223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Publisher.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30(2), 95-105.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 4(1), 59-75.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014c). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12(4), 1-21.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015a). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Oldfield, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). An empirical examination of factors associated with Game Transfer Phenomena severity. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 274-284.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Pontes, H. M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the nonvolitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 10, 588-594
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Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., Whalley, B., & May, J. (2015). Playing Tetris decreases drug and other cravings in real world settings. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 165-170.
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