Category Archives: Online gaming
Last week I was contacted by a journalist at the Red Bulletin Magazine who was “looking for an expert in gaming psychology to talk to for a piece on the mental benefits of endless running games, i.e. ‘the gameplay building strong reward learning in players’. It should be a fun and practical guide…Just let me know if you’d be interested.” I was interested. I had been teaching in the morning so I didn’t get the email until a couple of hours after it had been sent. I scribbled down a few notes, got back in touch, but by the time I did, the journalist had already interviewed someone else for the feature. Since I’d already made a few bullet points, I thought I would use them for the basis of a blog. (I really don’t like things going to waste).
Although much of my research examines problematic gaming, I am not anti-gaming (and never have been), and I have published many papers on the benefits of gaming including therapeutic benefits, educational benefits, and psychological (cognitive) benefits (see ‘Further reading’ below). Some of you reading this may not know what endless running games are, so here is the Wikipedia definition from its entry on platform games:
“‘Endless running’ or ‘infinite running’ games are platform games in which the player character is continuously moving forward through a usually procedurally generated, theoretically endless game world. Game controls are limited to making the character jump, attack, or perform special actions. The object of these games is to get as far as possible before the character dies. Endless running games have found particular success on mobile platforms. They are well-suited to the small set of controls these games require, often limited to a single screen tap for jumping. Games with similar mechanics with automatic forward movement, but where levels have been pre-designed, or procedurally generated to have a set finish line, are often called “auto-runners” to distinguish them from endless runners”.
Endless running games are incredibly popular and played by millions of individuals around the world (including myself on occasions). One of the best things about endless running games is that because they can be played on smartphones and other small hand-held devices they can be played anywhere at any time. Like any good game, the rules are easy to understand, the gameplay is deceptively simple, but in the end, it takes skill to succeed. The simplicity of endless running games is one of the key reasons for their global success in terms player numbers. For successful games, the mechanics should be challenging but not impossible. Such games can lead to what has been described as a state of ‘flow’ (coined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in his seminal books Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience  and Flow: The Psychology of Happiness ).
With the flow experience, a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player’s skills, and the player’s sense of time is distorted so that time passes without it being noticed. For some video game players, this may then mean repeatedly seeking out similar experiences on a regular basis to the extent that they can escape from their concerns in the ‘real world’ by being continually engrossed in a flow-inducing world. However, something like flow – viewed largely as a positive psychological phenomenon – may be less positive in the long-term for some video game players if they are craving the same kind of emotional ‘high’ that they obtained the last time that they experienced flow when playing a video game.
Flow has been proposed (by Jackson and Eklund, 2006) as comprising nine elements that include: (i) striking a balance between the challenges of an activity and one’s abilities; (ii) a merging of performance of actions with one’s self-awareness; (iii) possessing clear goals; (iv) gaining unambiguous feedback on performance; (v) having full concentration on the task in hand; (vi) experiencing a sense of being in control; (vii) losing any form of self-consciousness; (viii) having a sense of time distorted so that time seems to speed up or slow down; and (ix) the undergoing of an auto-telic experience (e.g., the goals are generated by the person and not for some anticipated future benefit). Endless running games are one of many types of videogame that can result in ‘flow’ experiences (which for the vast majority of gamers is going to result in something more positive (psychologically) than negative.
There are many studies showing that playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. For example, research has shown that spatial visualisation ability, such as mentally rotating and manipulating two- and three-dimensional objects, improves with videogame playing. Again, endless running videogames rely very heavily on hand-eye co-ordination and fast reaction to on-screen events. In this specific area, I see endless running games as having nothing but positive benefits in terms of improving hand-eye co-ordination skills, reflexes, and attention spans.
Although I’m not a neuroscientist or a neuropsychologist, I know that on a neurobiological level, when we engage in pleasurable activity, our bodies produce its own opiate-like neurochemicals in the form of endorphins and dopamine. The novelty aspects of endless running games will for many players result in the production of neurochemical pleasure which is rewarding and reinforcing for the gamer.
I also believe that endless running games have an appeal that crosses many demographic boundaries, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or educational attainment. They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working towards them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioural change in the form of personal scores. Beating one’s own personal high scores or having higher scores than our friends and fellow gamers can also be psychologically rewarding.
Because video games can be so engaging, they can also be used therapeutically. For instance, research has consistently shown that videogames are excellent cognitive distractors and can help reduce pain. Because I have a number of chronic and degenerative health conditions, I play a number of cognitively-engrossing casual games because when my mind is 100% engaged in an activity I don’t feel any pain whatsoever. Again, endless running games tick this particular box for me (and others). Also, on a personal level, I am time-poor because I work so hard in my job. Endless running games are ideal for individuals like myself who simply don’t have the time to engage in playing massively multiplayer online games that can take up hours every day but will quite happily keep myself amused and pain-free on my commute into work on the bus.
As I have pointed out in so many of my research papers and populist writings over the years, is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve a minority of individuals that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play, endless running games included.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1992). Flow: The psychology of happiness. London: Random House.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.
Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Can videogames be good for your health? Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 339-344.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.
Griffiths, M.D. (2019). The therapeutic and health benefits of playing videogames. In: Attrill-Smith, A., Fullwood, C. Keep, M. & Kuss, D.J. (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Cyberpsychology. (pp. 485-505). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2017). Videogames as therapy: An updated selective review of the medical and psychological literature. International Journal of Privacy and Health Information Management, 5(2), 71-96.
Jackson, S.A. & Eklund, R.C. (2006). The flow scale manual. Morgan Town, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Nuyens, F., Kuss, D.J., Lopez-Fernandez, O., & Griffiths, M.D. (2019). The experimental analysis of non-problematic video gaming and cognitive skills: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17, 389-414.
As a Professor of Behavioural Addiction, one of duties is to profess. Consequently, today’s blog contains content from an interview that I did on problematic gaming as a behavioural addiction for a Spanish magazine. Because the published version was in Spanish I thought my blog readers might be interested in what I had to profess about behavioural addiction in its simplest terms (plus I never like to see things to be left unused or go to waste!).
The focus of your work is mainly behavioural addiction, could you start by giving a brief overview of what behavoural addiction is?
Behavioural addictions are those addictions that do not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance such as alcohol, nicotine or heroin. Some people believe that a person cannot become addicted to something in the absence of a psychoactive agent, but it is my passionate belief that people can become addicted to non-chemical behaviours. I have written a number of papers over the past 30 years that have tried to show that some behaviours when taken to excess (e.g., gambling, video gaming) are no different from (say) alcoholism or heroin addiction in terms of the core components of addiction (e.g. salience, tolerance, withdrawal, mood modification, conflict, relapse etc.). If it can be shown that a behaviour like pathological gambling can be a bona fide addiction (and I believe that it can), then there is a precedent that any behaviour that provides continuous rewards (in the absence of a psychoactive substance) can be potentially addictive. Such a precedent ‘opens the floodgates’ for other excessive behaviours to be considered theoretically as potential addictions (e.g. exercise, sex, eating, computer games, the internet) which is what I’ve been examining in some of my research.
Whilst a lot of work is around gambling addictions, you also do work on videogame addiction. What drew you to this area of research?
I suppose the ‘classic’ behavioural addiction is gambling, and it was this type of behavioural addiction that fuelled my interest in other forms of non-chemical addiction such as videogame addiction. Many people might think it’s obvious why a psychologist would be interested in studying behavioural addictions such as videogame addiction. It’s a ‘sexy’ subject, it’s media-friendly, the general public find it interesting, and almost everybody from all walks of life has some kind of view on it, whether it’s rooted in personal experience or in a finely argued theoretical perspective.
Do you feel that online gaming poses more of an issue than offline?
Yes, but in most cases only to those that have a vulnerability or susceptibility in the first place. The key difference is that in offline gaming a player can typically pause and/or save the game and come back to it a point of their choosing. Online games continue even when the player has logged off and that can lead to some people playing excessively because they ‘don’t want to miss anything’ in a 24/7 playing environment (the so-called ‘FOMO’ phenomenon – ‘fear of missing out’). I’ve argued in a lot of my work that the internet can enhance and/or facilitate the acquisition, development and maintenance of online addictions – but the crucial factor is that somebody would have to have some kind of addiction predisposition in the first place.
Are there any potential problems, in your field or otherwise, that could arise from the rapidly expanding user base of video games?
Obviously this depends on the types of game played and their content. Any activity that has the potential to enhance or facilitate excessive play can lead to potential problems. Depending on the types of game played, this could be in the form of medical effects (repetitive strain injuries, headaches, eye-strains, etc.), chronic health conditions (e.g., obesity), psychobiological effects (e.g., addiction), or alleged behavioural effects (e.g., increased aggression). The good news is that most of these potential effects occur in a very small minority of players and that reducing the time spent playing will almost always alleviate or eliminate such problems.
Can a person could spend a great deal of times playing games without being an addict?
For some people, definitely. Any behaviour that is done to excess – even if it is not an addiction – can potentially take away time from other important things such as job, relationships, and other hobbies. This will depend on the duties, constraints and context of the person in question. A 21-year old man with no partner, no children and no job may have time to play 8-10 hours a day without any negative detriment on their life. However, a married man with three children and a full-time job would find it very hard to play 8-10 hours a day without it seriously compromising some other aspect of their life.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Gentile, D.A., Bailey, K., Bavelier, D., Funk Brockmeyer, J., … Griffiths, M.D., … & Young, K. (2017). The state of the science about Internet Gaming Disorder as defined by DSM-5: Implications and perspectives, Pediatrics, 140, S81-S85. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758H
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). An overview of online gaming addiction. In Quandt, T. & Kröger, S. (Eds.), Multi.player – Social Aspects of Digital Gaming (pp.197-203). London: Routledge.
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.
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.M. (2016). A brief overview of Internet Gaming Disorder and its treatment. Australian Clinical Psychologist, 2(1), 20108.
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.
Pontes, H.M., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Psychometric assessment of Internet Gaming Disorder in neuroimaging studies: A systematic review. In Montag, C. & Reuter, M. (Eds.), Internet Addiction Neuroscientific Approaches and Therapeutical Implications (pp.181-208). New York: Springer.
Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). New concepts, old known issues: The DSM-5 and Internet Gaming Disorder and its assessment. In Gaming and Technology Addiction (pp. 893-898). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Torres-Rodriguez, A., Griffiths, M.D., Carbonell, X. Farriols-Hernando, N. & Torres-Jimenez, E. (2019). Internet gaming disorder treatment: A case study evaluation of four adolescent problematic gamers. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17, 1-12.
Torres-Rodriguez, A., Griffiths, M.D., Carbonell, X. & Oberst, U. (2018). Psychological characteristics of an adolescent clinical sample with Internet Gaming Disorder. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 707-718.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation announced that ‘Gaming Disorder’ (GD) was to be officially been included in the latest (eleventh) edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The announcement received worldwide media coverage alongside many debates as to whether its inclusion was justified based on the scientific evidence. The extensive media coverage raised many questions but also appeared to give rise to a number of myths. In this blog, I address these myths in the British context but some of these myths also have resonance outside the UK.
Myth 1 – Gaming Disorder equates to gaming addiction. Almost all of the worldwide press coverage for GD in June 2018 was equated with gaming addiction. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not describe GD as an addiction and the WHO criteria for GD do not include criteria that I believe are core to being genuine addictions (such as tolerance and withdrawal symptoms). Confusingly, the criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) in the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does include all my core criteria of addiction. However, to be diagnosed with IGD, an individual does not necessarily have to endorse all the core addiction criteria. In short, all genuine gaming addicts are likely to be diagnosed as having GD and/or IGD but not all those with GD and/or IGD are necessarily gaming addicts.
Myth 2 – Gaming has many benefits so should not be classed as a disorder as it will create a ‘moral panic’: Predictably, the videogame industry has not welcomed the WHO’s decision to include GD in the ICD-11 and issued a statement to say gaming has many personal benefits and that GD will create moral panic and ‘abuse of diagnosis’. None of us in the field dispute the fact that gaming has many benefits but many other activities such as work, sex, and exercise can be disordered and addictive for a small minority, and is not a good basis for denying the existence of GD. The videogame industry also claims the empirical basis for GD is highly contested but then ironically uses non-empirical claims (i.e., that the introduction of GD will cause a moral panic and lead to diagnostic abuse by practitioners) as a core argument for why GD should not exist.
Myth 3 – Gaming Disorder is associated with other comorbidities so is not a separate disorder. In coverage concerning GD, those denying the existence of GD sometimes resort to the argument that problematic gaming is typically comorbid with other mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, etc.) and therefore should not be classed as a separate disorder. However, such an argument is not applied (for instance) to those with alcohol use disorder or gambling disorder which are known to be associated with other comorbidities. In fact, we recently published some case studies in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction highlighting those attending treatment for GD included individuals both with and without underlying comorbidities. Consequently, diagnosis of disorders should be based on the external symptomatic behavior and consequences, not on the underlying causes and etiology.
Myth 4 – Gaming Disorder can now be treated for free by the National Health Service: Unlike many other countries, the UK has a National Health Service (NHS) whose treatment services can be accessed free of charge. A number of British newspapers reported that inclusion of GD in the ICD-11 meant that those with GD can now get free treatment. However, this claim is untenable and is unlikely to happen. All health trusts in the UK have a finite budget and allocate resources to those conditions considered a priority. Treating individuals with GD will rarely (if ever) be given priority over treatment for cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, depression, etc. In countries where private health insurance is the norm, GD is likely to be a condition excluded for treatment on such policies even though it is now in the ICD-11.
Myth 5 – The inclusion of Gaming Disorder as a mental disorder will lead to ‘millions’ of children being stigmatized for their videogame playing: This myth has been propagated by a group of scholars (mainly researchers working in the media studies field) but is completely unsubstantiated. The number of children who would ever be officially be diagnosed as having GD is extremely low and – as noted above – millions of children play videogames for enjoyment without any problems or stigma.
(Please note: This article is based on an editorial that I first published earlier this year: Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Five myths about gaming disorder. Social Health and Behavior Journal, 1, 2-3)
Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aarseth, E., Bean, A. M., Boonen, H., Colder Carras, M., Coulson, M., Das, D., … & Haagsma, M. C. (2017). Scholars’ open debate paper on the World Health Organization ICD-11 Gaming Disorder proposal. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6(3), 267-270.
Gentile, D.A., Bailey, K., Bavelier, D., Funk Brockmeyer, J., … & Young, K. (2017). The state of the science about Internet Gaming Disorder as defined by DSM-5: Implications and perspectives, Pediatrics, 140, S81-S85. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758H
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction, 112, 1718-1720.
Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Conceptual issues concerning internet addiction and internet gaming disorder. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 233-239.
Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., Lopez-Fernandez, O., & Pontes, H.M. (2017). Problematic gaming exists and is an example of disordered gaming. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 296-301.
European Games Developer Foundation. Statement on WHO ICD-11 list and the inclusion of gaming. 2018 June 15. Available from: http://www.egdf.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Industry-Statement-on-18-June-WHO-ICD-11.pdf
Király, O., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). Internet gaming disorder and the DSM-5: Conceptualization, debates, and controversies, Current Addiction Reports, 2, 254–262.
Király, O., Griffiths, M.D., King, D., Lee, H-K., Lee, S-Y., Bányai, F., Zsila, A. Demetrovics, Z. (2018). An overview of policy responses to problematic videogame use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 503-517.
Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2017). Chaos and confusion in DSM-5 diagnosis of Internet Gaming Disorder: Issues, concerns, and recommendations for clarity in the field. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 103-109.
Kuss, D.J., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Neurobiological correlates in Internet Gaming Disorder: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 166. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00166
Griffiths, M.D., Van Rooij, A., Kardefelt-Winther, D., Starcevic, V., Király, O…Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Working towards an international consensus on criteria for assessing Internet Gaming Disorder: A critical commentary on Petry et al (2014). Addiction, 111, 167-175.
Rumpf, H. J., Achab, S., Billieux, J., Bowden-Jones, H., Carragher, N., Demetrovics, Z., … & Saunders, J. B. (2018). Including gaming disorder in the ICD-11: The need to do so from a clinical and public health perspective: Commentary on: A weak scientific basis for gaming disorder: Let us err on the side of caution (van Rooij et al., 2018). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7(3), 556-561.
Torres-Rodriguez, A., Griffiths, M.D., Carbonell, X. Farriols-Hernando, N. & Torres-Jimenez, E. (2018). Internet gaming disorder treatment: A case study evaluation of four adolescent problematic gamers. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9845-9.
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.
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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.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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.
Griffiths, M. D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: The case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 81-91.
Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.
Griffiths, M. D., Kiraly, O., M. Pontes, H. M. & and Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fahs, B., & Gohr, M. (2012). Superpatriarchy meets cyberfeminism: Facebook, online gaming, and the new social genocide. MP: An Online Feminist Journal, 3(6), 1-40.
Hegland, J. E., & Nelson, N. J. (2002). Cross-dressers in cyber-space: Exploring the Internet as a tool for expressing gendered identity. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 7(2-3), 139-161.
Huh, S., & Williams, D. (2010). Dude looks like a lady: Gender swapping in an online game. In Online worlds: Convergence of the real and the virtual (pp. 161-174). London: Springer.
Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.
Lewis, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciencies de l’Educacio i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.
McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.
Osborne, H. (2012). Performing self, performing character: Exploring gender performativity in online role-playing games. Transformative Works and Cultures, 11. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0411.
Potts, A. (2015). ‘LOVE YOU GUYS (NO HOMO)’ How gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and Minecraft on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies, 12(2), 163-186.
Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44
Taylor, T. L. (2003). Multiple pleasures women and online gaming. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(1), 21-46.
Todd, C. (2012). ‘Troubling’ gender in virtual gaming spaces. New Zealand Geographer, 68(2), 101-110.
In a previous blog I examined my favourite board game (Scrabble) and the extent to which someone could become addicted to it. Today’s blog takes a broader look at the psychology of play more generally. Arguably, many of the topics that I research involve the psychology of playing games with video games and gambling games being my two most obvious areas of interest.
It’s been argued by myself (and others) that the ritualized play of several childhood games provides ‘training’ in the acquisition of gambling behaviour and that some games are pre-cursors to actual gambling (e.g., playing marbles, card flipping, etc.). Some authors (such as Igor Kusyszyn) hold the view that gambling is in itself ‘adult play’. Unsurprisingly, Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the ‘functions’ of play and concluded that play in all its varieties (a) provides a wish-fulfilment, (b) leads to conflict reduction, (c) provides temporary leave of absence from reality, and (d) brings about a change from the passive to the active.
Since Freud, most psychologists have concentrated on the idea of ‘conflict reduction’ and in doing so have ignored his other three postulations. A more modern approach in the 1970s by Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi asserted that during play a person can “concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which he or she can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting his or her own problems and separate identity” (and provides one of the reasons that a small minority of people can develop problems playing games). Seminal research on the sociology of play by Roger Caillois states notes that play is a “free and voluntary activity”, “a source of joy and amusement” and “bounded by precise limits of time and space” whereas Erving Goffman views it as a “world building activity”.
Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle, and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!), tell us whether we have won or lost. As observed by James Smith and Vicki Abt in the 1980s:
“…in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games (including gambling) offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance”.
Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by Roger Caillois who listed four classifications – agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). In the context of games involving gambling, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck. As was previously asserted, most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games which offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed ‘masculine’ if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence, and bravery.
According to Caillois, play is “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money” and is a “free and voluntary activity that occurs in a pure space, isolated and protected from the rest of life”. According to Caillois, play is best described by six core characteristics:
- It is free, or not obligatory.
- It is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space.
- It is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved.
- It is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins.
- It is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players.
- It involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.
Back in 2000, I published an article on the psychology of games in Psychology Review and what makes a good game. I noted that:
- All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. In short, there will always room for improvement.
- For games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die.
- There needs to be competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play (and likeminded people to play with) there will be little development within the field over long periods of time.
- Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind.
I was recently interviewed by Lucy Orr for an article on board games for The Register – particularly about the psychology of winning. For instance, why is winning so important? I responded to Orr by pointing out that winning makes us feel good both psychologically and physiologically. Winning something – especially if it is a result of something skilful rather than by chance – can feel even better (unless the chance winning is something life changing like winning the lottery). Winning something using your own skill can demand respect from other competitors and brings about esteem (that can feed into one’s own self-esteem). Winning can be a validation that what you are doing is worthwhile. Other parts of my interview were not used.
I was asked whether beating other people makes winning more rewarding? Of course it does. Any time we engage in a behaviour that feels good we want to do it again (and again). Winning can be reinforcing on many different levels. There may be financial rewards, social rewards (peer praise, admiration and respect from others), psychological rewards (feeling better about oneself and feeling that the activity is a life-affirming and life-enhancing activity that feeds into self-esteem), and physiological rewards (increases in adrenaline and serotonin that trigger dopamine and makes us feel happy).
For some people, winning can become addictive. You can’t become addicted to something unless you are constantly reinforced and rewarded for engaging in the behaviour, and (as mentioned above) there are many different types of rewards (e.g., financial, social, psychological and physiological). Any (or all of these) could lead to repetitive and habitual behaviour and in a small minority of cases be addictive. However, as I have noted in a number of my papers, doing something to excess is not addiction. The difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that excessive enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it. For most people, winning behaviour – particularly in the context of playing board games – will be highly rewarding without being in any way problematic
Brown, J. (2011). Scrabble addict. Sabotage Times, May 16. Located at: http://sabotagetimes.com/life/scrabble-addict/
Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play and games. Paris: Simon and Schuster.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 16, 41-63.
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.
Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The psychology of games. Psychology Review, 7(2), 24-26.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.
Kusyszyn, I. (1984). The psychology of gambling. Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 133-145.
Orr, L. (2016). Winner! Crush your loved ones at Connect Four this Christmas. The Register, December 16. Located at: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/12/15/beating_your_family_and_winning_this_christmas/
Smith, J. F. & Abt, V. (1984). Gambling as play Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 122-132.
Walsh, J. (2004). Scrabble addicts. The Independent, October 9. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/scrabble-addicts-535160.html