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Assassin’s greed: An unorthodox way to treat gaming addiction

A couple of days ago, I was interviewed by BBC Online News for a story about a Chinese father (Mr. Feng) who hired ‘virtual assassins’ to hunt down his son in online video games and kill off his avatar as a way of trying to get his video game addicted son to stop playing online games. The story emanated from the Kotaku gaming website that reported:

“Feng’s 23 year-old son, ‘Xiao Feng’ started playing video games in high school. Through his years of playing various online games, he supposedly thought himself a master of Chinese online role playing games. According to his father, Xiao Feng had good grades in school, so they allowed him to play games; but when he couldn’t land a job they started looking into things. He, however, says he simply couldn’t find any work that he liked…Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng…Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job…One thing’s for sure; Feng’s way of deterring his son from playing games might be one of the best ideas to come out of China recently, particularly as reactions to ‘gaming and internet addiction’ have been very extreme”.

My quotes from the story were reproduced in over 100 newspapers and website stories within a 48-hour period including the Daily Mail (UK), New York Daily News (US), Epoch Times (China), Times of India (India), Deccan Herald (India), Pakistan Today (Pakistan),  National Post (Canada), Kenya Daily Eye (Africa) and Expressen (Sweden). I was quoted as saying:

“It’s not going to do much for family relations. I‘ve never heard of that kind of intervention before, but I don’t think these top-down approaches work. Most excessive game playing is usually a symptom of an underlying problem. I’ve spent 25 years studying excessive video game playing. I’ve come across very excessive players – playing for 10 to 14 hours a day – but for a lot of these people it causes no detrimental problems if they are not employed, aren’t in relationships and don’t have children. It’s not the time you spend doing something, it’s the impact it has on your life.”

My quotes (somewhat paraphrased from a 15-minute interview) were based on my research examining the role of context in determining whether someone is addicted to online gaming (and which I discussed at length last year in a previous blog). To me, the core of the issue concerning video game addiction is the extent to which excessive gaming impacts detrimentally on someone’s life. If there are no negative consequences as a result of excessive gaming, I wouldn’t class it as an addiction. However, for me, the most interesting part of the story was the intervention by the man’s father in trying to wean his son off playing video games. I’m not convinced that the father’s approach would work in general (and I’m not convinced it worked in this individual case).

The issue of online gaming addiction is a hot issue in South East Asia, and the prevalence of problematic online gaming appears to be higher in countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, than in Europe and North America. In South East Asia, there is a growing concern in relation to the need to develop treatment programs for online computer game addiction. According to one report by the Korean government, 2.4% of its population was said to be addicted to video games. The report also indicated that mental health counselling bears a heavy stigma in Korea. In one case discussed in the report, the father of a child addicted to gaming refused to acknowledge his son had a problem for three months, even though he had borrowed substantial amounts of money from family members to support his addiction. Similar accounts have also appeared in China. Reports such as these indicate cultural concerns and differences.

China introduced an anti-online gaming system and a few clinics as a response to the growing problem of excessive playing of online games there. The system allows for three hours a day of gaming without penalties, but after three hours the values of items won in the game starts to decrease. After five hours of gaming per day no experience or benefits can be accrued. This system was clearly designed by those who know ‘how to hit players where it hurts’ so to speak. However, without further details of how the program operates, it is hard to evaluate whether this would work effectively given that people might be able to create multiple accounts (with characters in each account) to get round the blocking. Such a system will also require monitoring and evaluation, and would be much less effective in countries where the government allows a greater level of personal freedom.

Press reports indicate that China’s system to curtail excessive game playing only applies to adult gamers. However the Chinese solution was predictably unpopular with gamers and led to a mass exodus from one server to another server when first implemented. The Chinese system also includes: (i) the banning teenagers from cyber-cafes, (ii) limiting online gaming sessions, (iii) boot camps, (iv) psychological counselling, and (v) electrocution. There is little detailed information about the treatment technique utilized in these therapy centres. The ‘electrocution’ technique is apparently more akin to acupuncture, but it is still hard to see how that might help. It could be that it is a type of aversive therapy where they shock players whilst they are playing computer games – but this is entirely speculative on my part.

Finally, I am a great believer that the gaming addiction treatment should be fitted to the individual although some of my recent papers with my Australian colleagues Dr. Daniel King and Dr. Paul Delfabbro (at the University of Adelaide) have recommended cognitive-behavioural therapy (which I will look at in a future blog). The cognitive-behavioural model is both better researched (though with reference to different disorders), has tried and tested therapeutic techniques, and is underpinned by a verified psychological theory. However, further research is required to establish the therapeutic efficacy of all treatment programs directed at excessive gaming.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beranuy, M., Carbonell, X., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A qualitative analysis of online gaming addicts in treatment. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-012-9405-2

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and clinical practice: Issues, uses and treatments. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36, 639-641.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Diagnosis and management of video game addiction. New Directions in Addiction Treatment and Prevention, 12, 27-41.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

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. & Meredith, A. (2009). Videogame addiction and treatment. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39(4), 47-53.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2011). Assessing clinical trials of Internet addiction treatment: A systematic review and CONSORT evaluation. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1110-1116.

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: In Session, 68, 1185-1195.

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). Online gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet and gaming addiction: A systematic literature review of neuroimaging studies. Brain Sciences, 2, 347-374.