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Eyes on the prize: Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling?

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”.

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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

Further reading

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/

To see or not to see: A brief look at hallucinations in virtual reality applications

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.

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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

Further reading

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). 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. (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/

Screenage rampage: What should parents know about videogame playing for children?

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.

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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

Further reading

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.

Ga(y)ming studies: The importance of sexuality in video gaming

Back in May 2014, hundreds of news outlets reported on Nintendo’s decision not to allow gamers to play as gay characters and form same-sex relationships in the life-simulation game Tomodachi Life. Understandably, there was disquiet and outrage from a number of quarters despite Nintendo’s statement that “Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game [and] not trying to provide social commentary”. Their statement at the time appeared to fan the flames rather than silence the critics.

I have been researching video game play for almost three decades and I’ve always found issues surrounding character formation, sexuality, and gender in gaming of great psychological interest. In one of our studies we found that a majority of gamers (57%) had gender-swapped their game character with female gamers (68%) being more likely to gender swap than male gamers (54%). We argued that gender swapping enabled gamers to play around and experiment with various aspects of their in-game character that are not so easy to do in real life. For others it was just fun to see if they felt any different playing a different gendered character. What makes our findings interesting is that in most instances, the gamers had the opportunity to choose the gender of their character and to develop other aspects of their character before they began to play. Choosing to gender swap may have had an effect on the gamers’ styles of play and interaction with other gamers. Whatever the reasons, it was clear from our research that the development of gamers’ online characters and avatars was important to them.

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One of the reasons for the importance of online gaming identities may be because it subverts traditional parasocial interaction (PI). PI is a concept used by psychologists that has traditionally described one-sided, parasocial interpersonal relationships in situations where one individual knows a great deal about someone else, but where the other person knows little about the other (the most common being the relationship between celebrities and their fans).

A study led by Nicholas Bowman (and published in a 2012 issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking [CPBSN]) argued that the playing of video games challenges this concept “as the distance between game players and characters is greatly reduced, if not completely removed, in virtual environments.” The study claimed that online gaming encourages the “psychological merging of a player’s and a character’s mind” and is critical in the development of character attachment. In this context, the sexuality of a character for a player may be of fundamental psychological importance.

This appears to be confirmed in a paper by Melissa Lewis and colleagues (also published in CPBSN) who developed a scale to assess ‘character attachment’ (the connection felt by a video game player toward a video game character”). They found that character attachment had a significant relationship with self-esteem, addiction, game enjoyment, and time spent playing games.

American researcher Dr. Adrienne Shaw has carried out a number of studies into lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representation in video games from a cultural production perspective. She was one of the first academics in the gaming studies field to note that there was a relative lack of LGBT representation in video games. Other areas of the entertainment media (e.g., music, film, and television) appear to have much greater LGBT representation than in video games so it does beg the question of why the gaming industry appears to be behind in this respect. I recall writing a paper back in 1993 (in The Psychologist) where I argued that most video games at the time were designed by males for other males. This arguably alienated female gamers but eventually led to developers introducing strong female characters into video games (the most notable being Lara Croft in Tomb Raider). Maybe the appearance of LGBT characters and role models within games will increase over time but I’m not holding my breath.

In a more recent paper in a 2012 paper in the journal New Media and Society, Dr. Shaw claimed that the demand for minority representation in video games “often focuses on proving that members of marginalized groups are gamers” and that the gaming industry should focus on appealing to such players via targeted content. However, she argues that an individual’s identity as a gamer will intersect with “other identities like gender, race, and sexuality.” She then goes on to say that the negative connotations about being an online gamer may lead to such marginalized groups not wanting to engage in gaming. She concluded that “those invested in diversity in video games must focus their attention on the construction of the medium, and not the construction of the audience…[This] is necessary to develop arguments for representation in games that do not rely on marking groups as specific kinds of gaming markets via identifiers like gender, race, and sexuality.”

Nintendo’s decision not to allow gay relationships to form within Tomodachi Life was ill-judged, ill-informed, and outdated. Games in which identity content can be generated by its users needs to reflect the world in which the gamers’ live. In short, there should be no compromise when it comes to allowing gamers to choose their sexuality within the game.

(N.B. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation)

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). “I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!”: how character attachment influences pro-and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Are computer games bad for children? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 401-407.

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.

Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(1), 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, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.

Lewis, M. L., Weber, R., & Bowman, N. D. (2008). “They may be pixels, but they’re MY pixels:” Developing a metric of character attachment in role-playing video games. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(4), 515-518.

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.

Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture, 4(3), 228-253.

Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44.

Shaw, A. (2015). Gaming at the edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Game over-view: A brief overview of our recent papers on gaming addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness and Internet addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on gaming addiction.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Measuring DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: Development and validation of a short psychometric scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 137-143.

  • Despite the large growth on gaming behaviour research, little has been done to overcome the problem stemming from the heterogeneity of gaming addiction nomenclature and the use of non-standardised measurement tools. Following the recent inclusion of Internet Gaming Disorder [IGD] as a condition worthy of future studies in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5], researchers have now an opportunity to reach consensus and unification in the field. The aim of this study was to develop a new nine-item short-form scale to assess Internet Gaming Disorder (IGDS-SF9) and to further explore its psychometric properties. A sample of 1060 gamers (85.1% males, mean age 27 years) recruited via online gaming forums participated. Exploratory factor analysis [EFA], confirmatory factor analysis [CFA], analyses of the criterion-related and concurrent validity, reliability, standard error of measurement [SEM], population cross-validity, and floor and ceiling effects were performed to assess the instrument’s psychometric properties. The results from the EFA revealed a single-factor structure for IGD that was also confirmed by the CFA. The nine items of the IGDS-SF9 are valid, reliable, and proved to be highly suitable for measuring IGD. It is envisaged that the IGDS-SF9 will help facilitate unified research in the field.

Benrazavi, S.R., Teimouri, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Utility of parental mediation model on youth’s problematic online gaming. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13, 712-727.

  • The Parental Mediation Model (PMM) was initially designed to regulate children’s attitudes towards the traditional media. In the present era, because of prevalent online media there is a need for similar regulative measures. Spending long hours on social media and playing online games increase the risks of exposure to the negative outcomes of online gaming. This paper initially applied the PMM developed by European Kids Online to (i) test the reliability and validity of this model and (ii) identify the effectiveness of this model in controlling problematic online gaming (POG). The data were collected from 592 participants comprising 296 parents and 296 students of four foreign universities, aged 16 to 22 years in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The study found that the modified model of the five-factor PMM (Technical mediation, Monitoring mediation, Restrictive mediation, Active Mediation of Internet Safety, and Active mediation of Internet Use) functions as a predictor for mitigating POG. The findings suggest the existence of a positive relation between ‘monitoring’ and ‘restrictive’ mediation strategies and exposure to POG while Active Mediation of Internet Safety and Active mediation of Internet use were insignificant predictors. Results showed a higher utility of ‘technical’ strategies by the parents led to less POG. The findings of this study do not support the literature suggesting active mediation is more effective for reducing youth’s risky behaviour. Instead, parents need to apply more technical mediations with their children and adolescents’ Internet use to minimize the negative effects of online gaming.

Hussain, Z., Williams, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). An exploratory study of the association between online gaming addiction and enjoyment motivations for playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 221–230.

  • Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a popular form of entertainment used by millions of gamers worldwide. Potential problems relating to MMORPG play have emerged, particularly in relation to being addicted to playing in such virtual environments. In the present study, factors relating to online gaming addiction and motivations for playing in MMORPGs were examined to establish whether they were associated with addiction. A sample comprised 1167 gamers who were surveyed about their gaming motivations. Latent Class Analysis revealed seven classes of motivations for playing MMORPGs, which comprised: (1) novelty; (2) highly social and discovery-orientated; (3) aggressive, anti-social and non-curious; (4) highly social, competitive; (5) low intensity enjoyment; (6) discovery-orientated; and (7) social classes. Five classes of gaming addiction-related experiences were extracted including: (1) high risk of addiction, (2) time-affected, (3) intermediate risk of addiction, (4) emotional control, and (5) low risk of addiction classes. Gender was a significant predictor of intermediate risk of addiction and emotional control class membership. Membership of the high risk of addiction class was significantly predicted by belonging to a highly social and competitive class, a novelty class, or an aggressive, anti-social, and non-curious class. Implications of these findings for assessment and treatment of MMORPG addiction are discussed.

Király, O., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). Internet gaming disorder and the DSM-5: Conceptualization, debates, and controversiesCurrent Addiction Reports, 2, 254–262.

  • Scientific interest in behavioral addictions (such as Internet gaming disorder [IGD]) has risen considerably over the last two decades. Moreover, the inclusion of IGD in Section 3 of DSM-5 will most likely stimulate such research even more. Although the inclusion of IGD appears to have been well received by most of the researchers and clinicians in the field, there are several controversies and concerns surrounding its inclusion. The present paper aims to discuss the most important of these issues: (i) the possible effects of accepting IGD as an addiction; (ii) the most important critiques regarding certain IGD criteria (i.e., preoccupation, tolerance, withdrawal, deception, and escape); and (iii) the controversies surrounding the name and content of IGD. In addition to these controversies, the paper also provides a brief overview of the recent findings in the assessment and prevalence of IGD, the etiology of the disorder, and the most important treatment methods.

Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Ágoston, C., Nagygyörgy, K., Kökönyei, G. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Psychiatric symptoms and problematic online gaming: The mediating effect of gaming motivation. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(4) :e88.

  • Background: The rapid expansion of online video gaming as a leisure time activity has led to the appearance of problematic online gaming (POG). According to the literature, POG is associated with different psychiatric symptoms (eg, depression, anxiety) and with specific gaming motives (ie, escape, achievement). Based on studies of alcohol use that suggest a mediator role of drinking motives between distal influences (e.g., trauma symptoms) and drinking problems, this study examined the assumption that there is an indirect link between psychiatric distress and POG via the mediation of gaming motives. Furthermore, it was also assumed that there was a moderator effect of gender and game type preference based on the important role gender plays in POG and the structural differences between different game types. Objective: This study had two aims. The first aim was to test the mediating role of online gaming motives between psychiatric symptoms and problematic use of online games. The second aim was to test the moderator effect of gender and game type preference in this mediation model. Methods: An online survey was conducted on a sample of online gamers (N=3186; age: mean 21.1, SD 5.9 years; male: 2859/3186, 89.74%). The Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), the Motives for Online Gaming Questionnaire (MOGQ), and the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire (POGQ) were administered to assess general psychiatric distress, online gaming motives, and problematic online game use, respectively. Structural regression analyses within structural equation modeling were used to test the proposed mediation models and multigroup analyses were used to test gender and game type differences to determine possible moderating effects. Results: The mediation models fitted the data adequately. The Global Severity Index (GSI) of the BSI indicated that the level of psychiatric distress had a significant positive direct effect (standardized effect=.35, P<.001) and a significant indirect (mediating) effect on POG (standardized effect=.194, P<.001) via 2 gaming motives: escape (standardized effect=.139, P<.001) and competition (standardized effect=.046, P<.001). The comparison of the 2 main gamer types showed no significant differences in the model. However, when comparing male and female players it was found that women had (1) slightly higher escape scores (on a 5-point Likert scale: mean 2.28, SD 1.14) than men (mean 1.87, SD 0.97) and (2) a stronger association between the escape motive and problematic online gaming (standardized effect size=.64, P<.001) than men (standardized effect size=.20, P=.001). Conclusions: The results suggest that psychiatric distress is both directly and indirectly (via escape and competition motives) negatively associated with POG. Therefore, the exploration of psychiatric symptoms and gaming motives of POG can be helpful in the preparation of prevention and treatment programs.

Fuster, H., Carbonell, X., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Spanish validation of the Internet Gaming Disorder-20 (IGD-20) Test. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 215-224.

  • In recent years, problematic and addictive gaming has been a phenomenon of growing concern worldwide. In light of the increasing awareness about this issue, the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) included Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) as an area in need of more empirical research. The Internet Gaming Disorder Test (IGD-20 Test) was developed as a valid and reliable tool to assess IGD. The aim of the present study was to validate the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test, and analyze the different profiles found among a sample of 1074 Spanish-speaking gamers. A confirmatory factor analysis showed the validity of the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test and its six factor structure (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse). The latent profile analysis (LPA) showed five different gamer classes. The ‘disordered gamers’ class comprised 2.6% of the participants. Based on this class, sensitivity and specificity analyses showed an adequate empirical cut-off point of 75 (out of 100). It is concluded that the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test is valid and reliable and can be used in research into IGD among Spanish speaking populations.

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.

  • This commentary paper critically discusses the recent debate paper by Petry et al. (2014) that argued there was now an international consensus for assessing Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Our collective opinions vary considerably regarding many different aspects of online gaming. However, we contend that the paper by Petry and colleagues does not provide a true and representative international community of researchers in this area. This paper critically discusses and provides commentary on (i) the representativeness of the international group that wrote the ‘consensus’ paper, and (ii) each of the IGD criteria. The paper also includes a brief discussion on initiatives that could be taken to move the field towards consensus. It is hoped that this paper will foster debate in the IGD field and lead to improved theory, better methodologically designed studies, and more robust empirical evidence as regards problematic gaming and its psychosocial consequences and impact.

Kim, N.R., Hwang, S.S-H., Choi, J-S., Kim, D-J., Demetrovics, Z., Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D., Hyun, S.Y., Youn, H.C. & Sam-Wook Choi, S-W. (2016). Characteristics and psychiatric symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder among adults using self-reported DSM-5 criteria. Psychiatry Investigation, 13(1), 58-66.

  • Objective: The Section III of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) proposed nine diagnostic criteria and five cut-point criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). We aimed to examine the efficacy of such criteria. Methods: Adults (n=3041, men: 1824, women: 1217) who engaged in internet gaming within last 6 months completed a self-report online survey using the suggested wordings of the criteria in DSM-5. Major characteristics, gaming behavior, and psychiatric symptoms of IGD were analyzed using ANOVA, chi-square, and correlation analyses. Results: The sociodemographic variables were not statistically significant between the healthy controls and the risk group. Among the participants, 419 (13.8%) were identified and labeled as the IGD risk group. The IGD risk group scored significantly higher on all motivation subscales (p<0.001). The IGD risk group showed significantly higher scores than healthy controls in all nine psychiatric symptom dimensions, i.e., somatization, obsession-compulsion, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism (p<0.001). Conclusion: The IGD risk group showed differential psychopathological manifestations according to DSM-5 IGD diagnostic criteria. Further studies are needed to evaluate the reliability and validity of the specific criteria, especially for developing screening instruments.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, 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, 11, 149-161.

Billieux, J., Deleuze, J., Griffiths, M.D., & Kuss, D.J. (2015). Internet addiction: The case of massively multiplayer online role playing games. In N. El-Guebaly, M. Galanter, & G. Carra (Eds.), The Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (pp.1516-1525). New York: Springer.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 1-4.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Trajectories of problem video gaming among adult regular gamers: An 18-month longitudinal study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 16, 72-76.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H., Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Király, O., Griffiths, M.D., Urbán, R., Farkas, J., Kökönyei, G. Elekes, Z., Domokos Tamás, D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic internet use and problematic online gaming are not the same: Findings from a large nationally representative adolescent sample. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 749-754.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, M.L., Baguley, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Pathological video game playing in Spanish and British adolescents: Towards the Internet Gaming Disorder symptomatology. Computers in Human Behavior, 41, 304–312.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The assessment of internet gaming disorder in clinical research. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 31(2-4), 35-48.

Pontes, H., Király, O. Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The conceptualisation and measurement of DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: The development of the IGD-20 Test. PLoS ONE, 9(10): e110137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110137.

Spekman, M.L.C., Konijn, E.A, Roelofsma, P.H.M.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Gaming addiction, definition, and measurement: A large-scale empirical study, Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 2150-2155.

A night on the tiles: A brief look at addiction to ‘Scrabble’

In previous blogs I have covered some arguably frivolous (and alleged) addictions including addictions to cryptic crosswords and Sudoku. Today’s blog looks at an equally frivolous topic in the same vein – Scrabble addiction. I have to be honest and say that I love playing Scrabble and have been playing a lot against the computer over the last few weeks (and is one of the reasons I decided to write an article on the topic). According to a 2004 article ‘Scrabble addicts’ in The Independent by John Walsh, there are numerous celebrity Scrabble lovers including Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, Christina Aguilera, Sting, Avril Lavigne and Alison Steadman. He also  asserted that the secret of Scrabble’s success is threefold.

“First, it’s a game of skill (like chess) that depends on the luck of the tiles you get (like cards). Second, it deploys a commodity common to every human being, namely words. Third, anyone can play it”.

Back in 2000, I published a paper on the psychology of games in Psychology Review and what makes a good game. These are all applicable to Scrabble. I noted in that article 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.

But is there any evidence to suggest Scrabble can be addictive? Jan Kern published a book in 2009 called Eyes on Line: Eyes on Life – A Journey Out of Online Addictions. She noted the case of Tom who started out his story by saying: “Hi, my name is Tom, and I’m an addict. I don’t have a problem with the bottle or with any kind of pharmaceutical product, legal or illegal. No, my problem is with games. I’m addicted to them…And now the Internet has made this potential to get hooked all too easy. My particular poison these days is online Scrabble”. I then came across these examples:

  • Extract 1: “[I] have struggled with Scrabble addiction. When I play Scrabble on the Internet, I lose all track of time. I promise myself I’ll just play one game, and the next thing I know, the sun is coming up and my eyes are a shade of crimson. I’m just glad to know that I’m not the only one” (Raphael Pope-Sussman, New York Times, 2007).
  • Extract 2: “I read ‘Addicted to L-U-V’ while I was in the midst of a Scrabble game…Whenever I encounter a new word, I calculate the number of letters, roots, prefixes and suffixes. I’ve got it bad. My Scrabble buddies both live out of state…When we are together, we have cut-throat marathon games…When we’re apart, we practice our addiction online” (Cheryl Beatty, New York Times, 2007).
  • Extract 3: “Phew! I am not the only one! Scrabble with my friends and daughter was my addiction for years. These days I play it on my computer when I take a break from work…O.K., that’s enough writing; time to get back to another game of Scrabble” (Beth Rosen, New York Times, 2007).

These extracts were all published in response to American journalist and film director Nora Ephron’s 2007 article ‘Addicted to L-U-V’ in the New York Times about her addiction to the word game Scrabble. In her article, Ephron admitted that:

“I stumbled onto something called Scrabble Blitz. It was a four-minute version of Scrabble solitaire, on a Web site called Games.com, and I began playing it without a clue that within 24 hours – I am not exaggerating – it would fry my brain…I began having Scrabble dreams in which people turned into letter tiles that danced madly about. I tuned out on conversations and instead thought about how many letters there were in the name of the person I wasn’t listening to. I fell asleep memorizing the two- and three-letter words that distinguish those of us who are hooked on Scrabble from those of you who aren’t…My brain turned to cheese. I could feel it happening. It was clear that I was becoming more and more scattered, more distracted, more unfocused…I instantly became an expert on how the Internet could alter your brain in a permanent way”.

Ephron went on to report comments from other people in the online Scrabble games (“I’m an addict, lol”, “I can’t stop playing this, ha ha”). Ephron concluded she was no different from the other players. She then went onto say:

“The game of Scrabble Blitz eventually became too much for the Web site. Lag was a huge problem. From time to time, the Scrabble Blitz area would shut down for days, and when it returned, so did all the addicts, full of comments about how they had barely withstood life without the game. I began to get carpal tunnel syndrome from playing. I’m not kidding. I realized I was going to have to kick the habit…I was saved by what’s known in the insurance business as an act of God: Games.com shut down Scrabble Blitz. And that was that. It was gone”.

Obviously I’m sceptical about whether there are genuine cases of addiction to Scrabble (particularly as there is nothing in the psychological literature whatsoever). There have also been other lengthy first-person journalistic accounts of Scrabble addiction such as the 2011 article by James Brown in the Sabotage Times (who also did some interesting background research for his article). According to Brown, the recent upsurge in Scrabble began in 2007 when Indian brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla developed a Scrabble application for Facebook (‘Scrabulous’). It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook (but was then removed due to a legal dispute with the original developers of Scrabble – Hasbro and Mattel. The game later returned as Lexulous). Brown then confessed:

Hello, my name’s James and I am a Scrabble addict. I have been playing it all day everyday from last Christmas until my summer holiday when two weeks without a computer allowed me to crack the habit. I am not alone, there are over a hundred thousand Scrabble players on Facebook. We play each other at any time of day or night because we are situated all over the world and timezones are helpful like that. We decide how long we will allow for each move to take, how many people can play, and what standard we play at…On an hourly basis day after day I played people in Australia, Britain, South Africa, India, the West Indies and pretty much anywhere else where the Scrabble application could work. Eventually I spent more time talking and playing with these new Scrabble partners than I did the people I lived with. It was madness. A genuine obsession, I would go as far as to say addiction. I was late to pick my son up from school, late to sports matches I was playing in, I ignored writing work I had to do, I took the computer to bed with me and played last thing at night until my eyes hurt and then started again as soon as I woke up… For me it eventually became too much. One day I looked at the 18 consecutive games I had going on at once, many of them with just two minutes at a time to play my word, and realised what that would look like if I actually had 18 people with 18 boards in the room with me. This moment of clarity gave me some perspective on how it had consumed my life”.

I have to admit that this case account is quite compelling and does at least suggest Scrabble could be potentially addictive. Finally, as a Professor of Gambling Studies I was also interested in Brown’s analogy between Scrabble and gambling as he noted:

“Not knowing what letters would appear next had that random appeal that watching a horse race has.  The excitement at using all seven letters and scoring a bingo, or taking a game to the very last tile to reach a conclusion was immense, there was always just one more game, one more opponent, maybe the same one you’d already played five times that day and you wanted to take another victory from or avenge an earlier defeat. The international 24 hour pull of the game is relentless, for some it over-comes loneliness for others it fuels addictive personalities”.

Playing with what you get given is almost an outlook on life itself. However, unlike life, I seriously doubt whether excessive and/or addictive playing of Scrabble will ever become the topic of scientific study.

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

Further reading

Brown, J. (2011). Scrabble addict. Sabotage Times, May 16. Located at: http://sabotagetimes.com/life/scrabble-addict/

Ephron, N. (2007). Addicted to L-U-V. New York Times, May 13. Located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/opinion/13ephron.html

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The psychology of games. Psychology Review, 7(2), 24-26.

Hayward, A. (2014). Can New Words With Friends reignite your competitive pseudo-Scrabble addiction? MacWorld, October 14. Located at: http://www.macworld.com/article/2825932/can-new-words-with-friends-reignite-your-competitive-pseudo-scrabble-addiction.html

Kern, J. (2009). Eyes on Line: Eyes on Life – A Journey Out of Online Addictions. Accessible Publishing Systems PTY, Ltd.

Walsh, J. (2004). Scrabble addicts. The Independent, October 9. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/scrabble-addicts-535160.html

Stock tales: Is financial trading a form of gambling?

One of the questions I am most asked by my students and the media alike is whether trading on the stock market is a genuine form of gambling. That might sound a simple question, but it all comes down to what definition of gambling you are using. My own view on gambling is that it boils down to the staking of money (or something of financial value) on a future event. When I first started my research into gambling back in the mid-1980s, there were four fundamental types of gambling:

  • Gaming – Staking of money during a game (e.g. slot machines, roulette, blackjack, etc.)
  • Betting – Staking money on a future event, typically sports events (e.g. horse race betting, greyhound betting, football betting, etc.)
  • Lotteries – The distribution of money by lot (e.g. National Lottery)
  • Speculation – Staking money on stock markets (e.g., investment in shares, day trading, etc.)

In a previous blog I briefly examined whether stock market speculation was a legitimate form of gambling. However, back in the 1980s, psychologists were only interested in studying the first three of these activities (i.e., gaming, betting and lotteries). Although a few academics accepted ‘speculation’ as a true form of gambling, the majority of researchers in the gambling studies field did not (including me). The prevailing view at the time was that ‘speculation’ was viewed as involving a fair amount of skill and/or relied on ‘insider information’ and therefore was not a legitimate form of gambling compared to other forms of gambling. Although there were clearly accepted forms of gambling that had skilful elements (e.g., poker, blackjack), academic psychologists still rejected speculation as a form of gambling worth investigating.

However, this all changed after the introduction of spread betting. I argued in a number of articles at the end of the 1990s that spread betting had taken the mechanics of stock market trading and applied it to sporting events. For me, this was a game changer in terms of studying the psychology of gambling. No longer could we say that speculation shouldn’t be studied because spread betting was clearly a form of speculation and it was something that appealed to a new type of gambler because it involved sporting events that many people think they know a lot about.

There was also one other key factor in changing psychologist’s perceptions of speculation as gambling – the ‘Nick Leeson effect’. In 1995, Leeson single-handedly brought down the UK’s oldest investment bank (Barings). Leeson was a derivatives broker whose fraudulent gambling caused the spectacular collapse of one of the UK’s most established financial institutions. From the early 1990s, Leeson made countless speculative (and unauthorised) gambles on the stock market that at first made large profits for his employers. However, as with most gamblers, his ‘beginner’s luck’ soon ran out and he started to lose huge amounts of money. Leeson’s losses eventually reached £827 million. Leeson’s psychology and behaviour was identical to that of a problem gambler (except he was gambling with much larger amounts of money and with someone else’s money).

There was perhaps another reason why speculation was seen as psychologically different from gaming, betting and lotteries. Unlike these other forms of gambling, speculation is a type of gambling where the gambler does not know how much they are going to win or lose on the gamble. If I put £1000 on a horse to win the Grand National or on black to come up on a roulette wheel, I know that losing will cost me £1000. On most stock market trades or spread bets, no-one knows beforehand what the losses could be. However, there are financial trades that could perhaps be argued to be more like betting than speculation. For instance, binary options look as though they are going to grow in popularity over the next year or two as the gambling payoff is more traditional than usual financial trading.

In binary option betting, a cash-or-nothing binary option will pay a fixed amount of money if the option traded on expires in-the-money (i.e., it is a simple ‘win-or-lose’ bet as the potential return it offers is certain and known before the purchase is made). One of the attractions of binary options is that they can be bought on virtually any financial product and can be bought in both up and down directions of trade. The simplicity is likely to attract more people especially if they feel they know something about the product being traded upon. This is the same reason why spread betting took off in such a big way because people feel they know about the market (e.g., football) that they are betting on, even if there is a huge element of chance (which there invariably is). My guess is that most people who work in the financial markets don’t see binary options as an investment opportunity – they see it for what it really is – a pure gamble.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). ‘Gambling and Speculation: A Theory, History, and a Future of some Human Decisions’ by R. Brenner and G.A. Brenner. Journal of Economic Psychology, 12, 197-201.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Gambling into the Millenium: Issues of concern and potential concern. GamCare News, 3, 4.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). An overview of pathological gambling. In T. Plante (Ed.), Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Vol. I: Behavioral Issues. pp. 73-98. New York: Greenwood.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association (ISBN 1-905545-11-8).

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013). The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.

Trivial pursuits: Can playing pub quiz machines be addictive?

This morning I appeared on BBC radio talking about excessive playing of trivia (quiz) machines because there is a story in today’s Daily Mail about a man (Christian Drummond) who claims he makes £60,000 a year from playing pub quiz machines. In the UK, trivia machines are a type of ‘Skill With Prize’ (SWP) machine where cash payouts (the prize) depends (at least in part) on the player’s skill. I certainly spent far too much of my student grant playing the snooker general knowledge SWP game Give Us A Break in the university bar. Quiz machines are the most common form of SWP machine and are known to be very profitable for operators. A Wikipedia entry on SWP machines notes that the SWP game Barber Cut was advertised as “more addicting than any other prize redemption game, and those repeat-plays will land right in your cash box!”.

Here’s a little background for those who are still not sure what I am talking about. SWP trivia machines usually have a pre-programmed set of ‘general knowledge’ questions. The machine game is activated after the insertion of money (now typically 50p or £1, although it used to be 10p-20p when I was a regular player). On answering a pre-determined number of multiple-choice questions correctly, successful players can win money (the most I ever remember winning was £5). In some cases, successful players may also be rewarded with free plays on the machine and/or with the added bonus on some games of being able to record names and high scores electronically on the game’s ‘hall of fame’ (something that I never achieved in all the times I ever played). I still occasionally play (my most recent session losing about £10 playing a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? trivia game).

On a purely personal level, I love trivia, and it appears that I am not the only one. I came across an online article outlining the top ten “modern human addictions” and was surprised that ‘trivia’ was at No.7. As the article noted:

“Most of us love to learn and understand things, but how often do we absorb tiny little bits of inconsequential trivia? More often than you may think! TV advertisements and billboards coax us with facts and figures, magazines deliver tantalizing tit-bits of scandal and gossip, and the internet fills our minds with thousands of facts…The world is full of trivia. A trivia addict is often someone who’s main pleasure in life is to memorize random facts and spout them off to onlookers in an attempt to make themselves look good, and who often dreams of winning the pub quiz or a game show for a huge cash prize. Trivia buffs often wallow in small-talk, gossip, and rumor and sometimes aggrandize subjects the rest of us care little about”.

On a more academic footing, I wrote briefly about SWPs in both of my first two books (Adolescent Gambling, 1995; Gambling and Gaming Addiction in Adolescence, 2002) and noted that there was some anecdotal evidence of problematic and potentially addictive play. In my first book I also introduced the concept of ‘technological addictions’. I wrote that:

“My own operational definition is that [technological addictions] are non-chemical (behavioural) addictions which involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g. television) or active (e.g. computer games) and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies. The category of technological addictions is not mutually exclusive and contains addictive activities that could be located under other kinds of addiction…There is little in the way of academic literature on technological addictions but possible activities that could be included under this category are television addiction, computer addiction (e.g. hacking, programming), video and computer game addiction, fruit machine addiction, pinball addiction, trivia machine addiction, telephone sex addiction and in the (near?) future, virtual reality addiction”.

Basically, I said that it was theoretically possible to become addicted to playing SWP machines, but had yet to come across any empirical evidence that such an addiction genuinely existed. And that’s still the case as far as I am concerned. I am still unaware of any empirical research study examining SWP addiction and problematic play (excluding video game addiction and a case study I published on pinball addiction back in a 1993 issue of Psychological Reports). Having said that, it’s not hard to see the psychological attraction of playing and how excessive playing develops. Like playing slot machines and video games, SWP machines utilize operant conditioning techniques, provide ‘near miss’ experiences, are deceptively inexpensive, simple to play, challenging, competitive, and excellent at modifying mood states. The rewards can be social, financial, psychological, and physiological. All in all, they contain many of the psychological ingredients that can be utilized in the addiction process.

I’ve searched online for any self-confessed accounts of SWP addiction but have found little. Here are a few quotes suggesting that for a tiny minority, SWP playing might be potentially problematic:

  • Extract 1: “I think I might be slightly addicted to these quiz machines. At risk of sounding melodramatic, and to paraphrase the film ‘Fight Club’, after playing a quiz machine, the volume of the rest of life is turned down. Once you’ve played a few times, you no longer feel alive unless you’re playing a quiz machine. All you can see in front of you is victory; the massive debts that are mounting up are hidden behind a veil of aspiration and false hope. I seem to pour in pound after pound in the vague hope of one-upping a computer-controlled device with a fixed payout rate that will control the difficulty accordingly. My struggle transcends any monetary gain from playing these stupid quiz games and it becomes about winning
  • Extract 2: “I’m from England, and a massive fad of us legal to drink teenagers is to waste our money on these ‘Pub Quiz’ machines, to a stupid point of having no money at all left. The only problem is that the pub always closes at some point, and I need to feed my addiction for the games on them”
  • Extract 3: It’s official. I have a new addiction. It has descended upon me in the form of a game. A quiz machine game. And it goes by the name ELIMINATOR! It’s not just any game though. It is the most compulsively obsessive thing I have ever seen in my entire life”

Since November 1st 2010, all SWP machines in the UK must conform to strict guidelines by both the Gambling Commission and BACTA (British Amusement and Catering Trade Association). As the Wikipedia entry in SWP machines notes:

“These guidelines say that there must be NO element of chance within the game that can affect the outcome. There are also limits set on the level of skill needed to play, for example there must be a minimum amount of time for a player to react to the game. This is so that manufacturers and operators can’t be accused of setting ridiculous skill levels that aren’t physically possible…While SWP machines are generally not intended to be winnable by skilled players – otherwise such a player could continue to play and win and causes losses to the operator – it is sometimes possible that player skill, or using the machine in a way not anticipated by the manufacturer, can result in the game becoming winnable. This may result in service updates by the manufacturer to close the exploit”.

As I have noted in many of my academic writings, one of the key trends in the gaming world is convergence. The convergence between gambling and SWP machines means that the British Gambling Commission are frequently asked whether particular skill with prize machines are gambling machines. Their response is always to say that: “the answer to that question depends upon whether any of the games offered on the machine amount to ‘gaming’ as defined in…the Gambling Act” (which is a whole new blog in itself).

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

Further reading

Gambling Act (2010). Is a prize machine a gambling machine? Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). Amusement machine playing in childhood and adolescence: A comparative analysis of video games and fruit machines. Journal of Adolescence, 14, 53-73.

Griffiths, M.D. (1992). Pinball wizard: A case study of a pinball addict. Psychological Reports, 71, 160-162.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Lifeschool (2009). Top 10 modern addictions. Listverse, October 15. Located at: http://listverse.com/2009/10/15/top-10-modern-human-addictions/

Wikipedia (2012). Skill with prize. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skill_With_Prize

Carry on comping: Promotional competitions, engagement, and addiction

I’m not sure about anywhere else in the world, but here in the UK we have a section of the adult community who describe themselves as ‘compers’. Compers are people who make a hobby (and sometimes even a living) from entering competitions – particularly the ones that end with a ‘tie-breaker’ question such as: In no more than 25 words, complete the sentence “I like [insert name of brand] because…”. These competitions are typically free to enter (although a few companies charge a small administration fee or make money from the cost of a premium rate telephone call).

Back in the 1990s, I appeared on a number of television programmes along with people like Britain’s most famous comper at the time called “Rita the competer” who had won prizes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds including multiple houses, cars, holidays, and electrical goods. Most of the compers that I met at that time – all women I have to add – spent most (if not all) of their spare time cutting out and filling in competitions from magazines, newspapers and newsletters.

More recently, compers have gone digital and is inextricably linked to the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter. The comping community has many ‘comping’ magazines, newsletters and websites (for instance sites such as Compers Corner, Crazy Compers, Compers Weekly, and Just Comps). There are also loads of blog sites updating compers of all the latest offline and (now mostly) online competitions. Today’s compers appear to spend hours on the main social media websites entering competitions run directly by commercial operators. There also appears to be more men becoming compers which may be due to it becoming an increasingly online activity (I say “appear” because I know of no empirical research that has ever been carried out on the ‘comping’ community). Now compers can enter dozens (even hundreds if you click on some of the comping sites listed above) of competitions every week without spending any of their own money on stamps and envelopes.

So why are there so many competitons out there? In order to remain competitive, commercial retailers need to make use of the wide variety “tools” at their disposal within the marketing management toolkit (e.g., sales promotions, advertising). However, there is growing awareness that non-price-based promotions (e.g., consumer competitions) add value for the consumer while meeting a range of marketing communications objectives (which is where the world of comping has originated).

A recent paper by Philip DesAutels and colleagues at the Luleå University of Technology (Sweden) noted that marketing goals for contests may be external to the contest (e.g., increasing product, service or brand awareness), or they may be internal to a contest (e.g., directly increasing product adoption or sales). More commonly, their goals are a combination of the two. Their research into sales promotion effectiveness introduces two measures of contest performance: in-contest engagement and post-contest product interest. They call on the research community to do further work into effective ways to measure and assess these two goals as they believe they “will serve as an immeasurable aid to practice and research”. They also note that activities that are intrinsically motivating are undertaken because they are interesting, enjoyable or satisfying. The act of doing them is the reward. Activities that are extrinsically motivating are undertaken to achieve rewards that are separate and distinct from the activity itself.

Earlier today I appeared on BBC Breakfast’s television show talking about the psychology of ‘compers’ and to what extent compers are like gamblers and to whether it is possible for compers to become ‘addicted to their hobby. The nearest comparison to comping in the gambling world – at least in terms of motivation to carry out the activity – is lottery gambling. The main motivating factor in both comping and playing the lottery is the chance to potentially win a large (often life changing or life enhancing) prize for very little financial outlay. It’s as simple as that. However, there are other similarities including the activity being fun, and the social interaction with friends who engage in like-minded activities.

In relation to ‘comping addiction’ I have never come across a case either professionally or personally that fulfill my criteria for addiction. However, my view as with any behaviour that offers the potential for constant rewards and reinforcement, it is theoretically possible. I’ve certainly met people (admittedly in the confines of a television studio) who claimed that ‘comping’ had taken over their life and that it was causing conflict in some aspect of their life (usually relationship conflict where husbands complained that their wives were spending all their leisure time doing competitions).

However, I really don’t think any of the excessive compers I have met were addicted to the behaviour because the activity was life affirming and life enhancing. As I never tire of telling my students or the media, the key difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it. On that criteria alone, the chances of meeting someone addicted to comping is remote.

Finally, it is worth noting that as long ago as 1991, Ward and Hill wrote that “virtually no work has been done in advertising on the psychology of promotional games. Thus, much opportunity exists”. The 2011 paper by Philip DesAutels and colleagues said it “is therefore surprising that in the 20 years since the publication of Ward and Hill’s article, so little research has been undertaken to inform the theory and practice of promotional competitions and contests”.

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

Further reading

DesAutels, P., Berthon, P. & Salehi-Sangari, E. (2011). Rising to the challenge: A model of contest performance. Journal of Financial Services Marketing, 16, 263–274

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Instant-win promotions: Part of the gambling environment? Education and Health, 15, 62-63.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Instant-win products and prize draws: Are these forms of gambling? Journal of Gambling Issues, 9. Located at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue9/opinion/griffiths/.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Ward, J.C. and Hill, R.P. (1991) Designing effective promotional games: Opportunities and problems. Journal of Advertising, 20(3), 69-81.