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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/

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.

The born identity: Can online gaming help people with gender dysphoria?

About a year ago, my colleagues and I published what we believe is the very first study of the helping role that video gaming can play in the lives of transgender individuals. Before I get to that, it’s probably worth noting that there have been studies of how gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and the video game Minecraft on YouTube as well as papers discussing whether the gaming industry should cater for marginalized groups and develop games for groups where there is little representation within games (e.g., gay and transgendered characters). For instance, there is now a short autobiographical game by Auntie Pixellante called Dys4ia. This is a WarioWare-style game, played only with the arrow keys, chronicling the experiences of a trans woman rectifying her own gender dysphoria. Such videogames raise interesting questions about how those individuals with gender dysphoria utilize gaming as part of their identity.

In a previous blog I briefly looked at gender swapping in online video games including some of my own research. For instance, in 2003 I published a paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior using secondary poll data from online gaming forums. The paper reported that of 10,350 players at the Everlore fan site, 15% had swapped the gender of their main in-game playing character. We also reported a similar finding among 8,694 players at the Allakhazam fan site with 15.5% reporting that they had gender swapped their main in-game character (and more specifically, 14.5% males and 1% were females who had changed the gender of their lead character). In a 2004 follow-up survey among 540 Everquest gamers (again in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior) my colleagues and I reported that 60% had swapped their online in-game characters. The prevalence of gender swapping was probably much higher in this study because the question related to the gender swapping of any online game character not just their main playing character.

In a small exploratory study I published in 2008 with Dr. Zaheer Hussain in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, we examined why people engaged in gender swapping in a self-selecting sample of 119 online gamers (mean age of 28.5 years). We reported that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping (any character not just their main character), and that males adopting an online female persona believed there were a number of positive social attributes to becoming female characters in male-oriented gaming environments. The study also reported that significantly more females than males had gender swapped their character – mainly to prevent unsolicited male approaches on their female characters. Some females appeared to gender swap purely out of interest to see what would happen in the game (as a personal experiment), while others claimed that they were treated more favourably by male gamers when they played as a male character. Others reported that gender swapping enabled them to play around with aspects of their identity that would not be possible to explore in real life. Other reasons for gender swapping were that (i) female characters had better in-game statistics, (ii) some specific tools were only available with female characters, (iii) the class of character was sometimes only available in one gender, (iv) they played for fun, and/or (v) they did it to so something that they would not normally do in the game (i.e., they did it for a change in their usual playing behaviour).

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Outside of online gaming, a 2002 paper by Hegland and Nelson in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies noted that the Internet more generally can be used as a tool for expressing gender identity because it allows identities to cross cultural boundaries instantly and without regard for real physical space. They examined 30 cross-dressing websites and argued that for most cross-dressers that visited such websites, the online forum was their primary medium of expression. The users of the website used the Internet to nurture the ability to create a feminine identity, and helped them to pass as a woman in the offline public world. More generally, cross-dressers used the Internet to participate in the larger cultural dialogue of gender.

For an adult to meet current criteria for a diagnosis of transsexualism, the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) reports they must express the desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by the wish to make his or her body as congruent as possible with the desired sex through surgery and cross-sex hormones. This transsexual identity must have been present persistently for a minimum of two years and not be a symptom of another mental disorder or a chromosomal abnormality. The latest (fifth) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association uses the term gender dysphoria to describe people who are uncomfortable and/or distressed regarding their assigned gender, their physical sex characteristics and/or their associated social roles. Depending upon the intensity of this distress, some individuals may wish to transition from one point on a notional gender scale to another. The most common direction is from a man to a woman (individuals known as trans women), or from a woman to a man (individuals known as trans men). The distress intrinsic to gender dysphoria may be focused around anatomy, physiology, and/or being perceived and treated as someone of a gender with which the person does not identify. However, these diagnostic labels do not apply to all trans individuals for a multitude of reasons because some people will not identify themselves as a man or as a woman

The World Health Organisation working group has recommended that the latest ICD replace the term Transsexualism with Gender Incongruence) and remove it from the mental and behavioural disorders chapter. Gender incongruence denotes the incongruence between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex and/or congenital primary and secondary sex characteristics. The terminology in this field has changed over the years and the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ have been used in the literature as umbrella terms to cover a wide variety of atypical gender experiences and expressions which may lead to permanent change of social gender role but does not necessarily involve treatment with cross-sex hormones or surgical intervention. A recent study has reported an prevalence for transsexualism of 4.6 in 100,000 individuals; 6.8 for trans women and 2.6 for trans men, which is primarily based on studies looking at individuals attending clinical services. (However, it should be noted that recent population studies have reported a significantly higher prevalence rate of atypical gender experiences and expressions).

The study we published in the journal Aloma originated from initial observations made by Dr. Jon Arcelus that a number of gender dysphoric clients presenting at the national (UK) gender dysphoria clinic admitted that they gender-swapped while playing online games. After I met with Dr. Arcelus I suggested he revisit his case files and and to write them up as case studies (as no study in the gaming field has ever examined online gaming among those with gender dysphoria). The main objectives of our study were to use exemplar case studies to highlight that gaming – in some circumstances – appears to be a functional way of dealing with gender identity issues, and that gender swapping in gaming may help such individuals to come to terms with their gender dysphoria.

Our paper featured four case studies who attended an assessment at the National Centre for Gender Dysphoria in Nottingham. All four individuals described in our paper were given pseudonyms and the content of their histories were anonymised (and included ‘Mary’ a 26-year old natal male who fully transitioned to the female social role six months prior to our study; ‘Mark’ a 20-year old natal female who first attended for an assessment in the female role; ‘Paul’ a 31-year old natal male who would like to be female, but still living full-time as a male; and ‘Harry’ a 23-year old natal male who presented for an assessment as a male). If you want to read about each case in detail, the paper can be downloaded for free from here).

The four case studies outlined in our paper are only a selected sample of the number of cases attending a national clinic for people with gender dysphoria. However, they were in no way unusual to the other clients that have sought help at the Centre. However, these individual accounts were specifically selected to demonstrate the different ways that video gaming may help people with gender dysphoria come to terms with their gender identity. For example, gaming can be used among trans people as a psychological tool to increase one’s awareness of gender identity and/or as part of the self. Gaming may therefore be a useful way to express one’s experienced gender identity in a safe, non-threatening, non-alienating, non-stigmatizing, and non-critical environment. This appears to mirror other the findings of other studies outside of the online gaming environment.

Articles published in the mass media have reported that online games such as World of Warcraft provide a creative space that allows gamers that might be questioning aspects of their identity to explore their lives as different individuals. Some have even gone as far as to argue that this could help gamers transform their ‘offline’ identity, as is the case with some trans gamers. This was also demonstrated in the case studies described in our study. Other authors have asserted that the online medium offers an infinite space for development and resistance to traditional gender roles, and that online interaction enables a transgression of the dichotomous categories of male and female, constructing trans (or even genderless) social identities and relationships. However, although such anonymous online communities may provide trans individuals with the power to subvert their physical sex.

Our case studies also demonstrated the different functions of gaming in trans people (e.g., the function of “testing out” their gender feelings). For instance, using gaming to ‘come out’ to other people, by initially coming out in the online community, which is perceived as a safe environment, and then gradually coming out in real life. Gaming, as for many non-trans individuals, can derive psychological benefits and a sense of escapism. This is even more relevant among trans people as it may be the only time that they feel they can be themselves, allowing them to feel happy, relaxed, and achieving a sense of completeness. This could develop into a powerful coping skill substituting unhealthy behaviours, such as self-harming behaviour. This is particularly important in this population as research shows a strong association between being trans and mental health problems, particularly depression and self-harm as a way to manage one’s trans feelings. This is not surprising as the discomfort and distress about assigned gender and body dissatisfaction may lead to a sense of hopelessness, which can bring low mood, self-injury and even suicide.

Although gaming appears (at least initially) to be a positive and beneficial activity for many trans people, there is also the risk that staying in the game becomes too much of a secure and safe environment. This can create a vicious circle where the trans person does not wish to move out of the secure online world, and back into reality. Spending an increasing amount of time in online gaming carries the risk of developing a gaming dependence or addiction. This may not only affect one’s personal relationships, work and/or study, but may also impair real life social gender role transition, as in many cases, the individual is expected to socially transition before they can be considered for treatment.

Obviously our paper only included four participants and may be perceived by some researchers as ‘anecdotal’ because the data were not collected for this specific study but were retrospectively collated. However, our findings showed that for a trans individual, the online gaming environment was perceived as “safe” but further research is needed to establish what the distinctive elements of online gaming are that help to raise gender awareness (or not as the case may be). With the rates of gender dysphoria attending clinical services increasing significantly, future research should investigate (i) the rates and severity of gaming among this population as well as its function, and (ii) the rates of gender dysphoria among game addiction as coming out may help their addiction. The game industry may also want to consider how they can use games as a way of helping trans people being more accepted within society by developing game industry may want to co-observe how their games can prepare and assist individuals to socially transition. Online games also provide a safe environment that provides people access to a platform where individuals can discuss and experiment with gender identity.

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

Further reading

Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., Witcomb, G. L., Van den Noortgate, W., Claes, L., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis of prevalence studies in transsexualism. European Psychiatry, 30, 807-815.

Arcelus, J., Jones, B., Richards, C., Jimenez-Murcia, S., Bouman, W.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Video gaming and gaming addiction in transgender people: An exploratory study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 21–29.

Dale, L. K. (2014, January 23). How World of Warcraft helped me come out as transgender. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2014/jan/23/how-world-of-warcraft-game-helped-me-come-out-transgender

Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.

Griffiths, M. D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: The case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 81-91.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.

Griffiths, M. D., Kiraly, O., M. Pontes, H. M. & and Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fahs, B., & Gohr, M. (2012). Superpatriarchy meets cyberfeminism: Facebook, online gaming, and the new social genocide. MP: An Online Feminist Journal, 3(6), 1-40.

Hegland, J. E., & Nelson, N. J. (2002). Cross-dressers in cyber-space: Exploring the Internet as a tool for expressing gendered identity. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 7(2-3), 139-161.

Huh, S., & Williams, D. (2010). Dude looks like a lady: Gender swapping in an online game. In Online worlds: Convergence of the real and the virtual (pp. 161-174). London: Springer.

Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.

Lewis, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciencies de l’Educacio i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.

McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.

Osborne, H. (2012). Performing self, performing character: Exploring gender performativity in online role-playing games. Transformative Works and Cultures, 11. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0411.

Potts, A. (2015). ‘LOVE YOU GUYS (NO HOMO)’ How gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and Minecraft on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies, 12(2), 163-186.

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

Taylor, T. L. (2003). Multiple pleasures women and online gaming. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(1), 21-46.

Todd, C. (2012). ‘Troubling’ gender in virtual gaming spaces. New Zealand Geographer, 68(2), 101-110.

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.

Working while lurking: A brief look at participant observation in online forums

In offline situations, many social science researchers have employed ethnographic methods as a means of understanding and describing different culture and behaviours. However, ethnographic methods can also be used online for studying various types of excessive behaviour. For instance, I argued in a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction that by being online, gaming researchers have the capacity to become a part of the phenomenon that is being studied. Recently, I along with a number of my research colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, published a paper in Studia Psychologia that online forums are providing a new and innovative methodology for data collection in the social sciences.

cyberpsychology

For those who don’t know, ethnography focuses on accounting for the actions and intentions of the studied social agents, and outlining how such behaviour is rationalized and understood by the wider group. Traditionally derived from anthropology, ethnography aims at studying people and their behaviours and cultures within their socio-cultural contexts. Behaviours and communications are engulfed with meaning by being situated within the field site. What is needed on behalf of the researcher is what Dr. Clifford Geertz described as the production of a “thick description” of what takes place in these field sites to discern the latter’s contextualized meaning.

When it comes to virtual (i.e., online) ethnography, it is important to notice that while in-person ethnography is constrained by the laws of the physical world where the researcher needs to interact with the participants, online ethnography or as Dr. Robert Kozinets calls it in his 2010 book about online ethnography – “netnography” – can be done in a more unobtrusive way without the need to interact with the participants. Lurking is a possibility that Dr. Kozinets describes as opening a “window into naturally occurring behaviour” without the interference of the researcher.

Virtual ethnography takes the idea of participant observation a step further by challenging the notion of a geographically bound and relatively stagnant field site by replacing it with the virtual sphere that has no set boundaries. In this respect, virtual ethnography is what Dr. Christine Hine says “ethnography in, of and through the virtual”. The Internet is used as place, topic and means of research. It is an important qualitative online methodology and has been used in a variety of different research endeavours, including the studies of people’s explorations of multi-layered identities on the Internet, different levels of online experience, and playing Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games such as Everquest.

There are a number of principles that underlie virtual ethnography. Ethnographers must immerse themselves in the (virtual) field site in order to gain an in depth insight into why and how interactions take place and what they mean within the context of the respective virtual sphere. However, the relationship of the latter’s agents to their real (embodied) lives cannot be disregarded. The online space is a space ‘in between’ that is connected to the world outside of the Internet. Therefore, virtual ethnography is but a partial study and cannot deliver a full account of what it sets out to study. It can never be a holistic approach. Nevertheless, this is aided by the researchers who must be reflexive about what they experience, and about the method they use. The involvement of the researcher and the researcher’s interpretation of the actions and communications that occur within the virtual field site are integral to this type of research. In addition to this, the technology of the Internet itself is essential because it provides the tools for, the objects and the context of analysis.

Given the wide variety of advantages of and important insights virtual ethnography can offer for the researcher, potential disadvantages also need to be taken into consideration. The researchers’ active participation in the field site offers them the possibility of in-depth insights that would not be possible without their involvement. However, at the same time, they might lose their critical distance towards the object of their study. Sacrificing some critical distance therefore is a trade-off for in the collection of invaluable and profound data. As Dr. Christine Hine notes, these data are necessarily biased by the researchers’ experience and perception of online interactions in the respective realm that, due to their immersion, is knowledgeable and familiar.

Dr. Adrian Parke and I applied online ethnography to the study of poker skill development within online poker forums, and published our findings in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. Our study was a virtual ethnographical research design looking at how poker gamblers utilized computer-mediated communication (CMC) to develop their poker skill and profitability, and to examine the factors associated with problem gambling. The study was a six-month participant observational analysis of two independent online poker forums. Dr. Parke participated in poker gambling during the entire study period and used strategies proposed from forum members to develop poker ability. This approach provided an insider’s perspective into how skill development through CMC affects poker gambling behaviour.

We generated forum discussions regarding specific behavioural concepts and cognitive processes based on accumulative analysis of emergent data from the online poker players. Forum interaction was observed, monitored and analyzed through traditional content analytic methods. Membership and participation in such online community forums provided poker players the opportunity to benefit from the consequences of reporting gambling experience and acquiring both poker gambling structural knowledge and skill.

One of the key advantages of data collection via online forums is that it can provide a detailed record of events that can be revisited after the event itself has finished. Furthermore, screen captures can be taken and used as examples or related back to the data collected – something that has been used in the gaming studies field (and outlined in a 2007 paper I published with Dr. Richard Wood in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). Study findings can be posted on bulletin boards and participants have the opportunity to comment on their accuracy or comment on any other observations that they may have. This also helps to empower the participant and can prevent misrepresentation.

Given the increase in the number of hours we now spend online every day, carrying out research online is going to become an ever more popular (and useful).

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

Further reading

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. London: Fontana Press. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The use of online methodologies in data collection for gambling and gaming addictions. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 8-20.

Griffiths, M.D., Lewis, A., Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Kuss, D.J. (2016). Online forums and blogs: A new and innovative methodology for data collection. Studia Psychologica, in press.

Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual methods. Issues in social research on the Internet. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R.V. (2010). Netnography. Doing ethnographic Research Online. Sage: London.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online data collection from gamblers: Methodological issues. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 151-163.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Eatough, V. (2004). Online data collection from videogame players: Methodological issues. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 511-518.

Back tracking: A brief look at using big data in gambling research

I’ve been working in the area of gambling for nearly 30 years and over the past 15 years I have carrying out research into both online gambling and responsible gambling. As I have outlined in previous blogs, one of the new methods I have been using in my published papers is online behavioural tracking. The chance to carry out innovative research in both areas using a new methodology was highly appealing – especially as I have used so many other methods in my gambling research (including online and offline surveys, experiments in laboratories and ecologically valid settings, offline focus groups, online and offline case study interviews, participant and non-participation observation, secondary analysis of survey data, and analysis of various forms of online data such as those found in online forums and online diary blogs).

Over the last decade there has been a big push by gambling regulators for gambling operators to be more socially responsible towards its clientele and this has led to the use of many different responsible gambling (RG) tools and initiatives such as voluntary self-exclusion schemes (where gamblers can ban themselves from gambling), limit setting (where gamblers can choose how much time and/or money they want to lose while gambling), personalized feedback (where gamblers can get personal feedback and advice based on their actual gambling behaviour) and pop-up messages (where gamblers receive a pop-up message during play that informs them how long they have been playing or how much money that have spent during the session).

However, very little is known about whether these RG tools and initiatives actually work, and most of the research that has been published relies on laboratory methods and self-reports – both of which have problems as reliable methods when it comes to evaluating whether RG tools work. Laboratory experiments typically contain very few participants and are carried out in non-ecologically valid settings, and self-reports are prone to many biases (including social desirability and recall biases). Additionally, the sample sizes are also relatively small (although bigger than experiments).

The datasets to analyse player behaviour are huge and can include hundreds of thousands of online gamblers. Given that my first empirical paper on gambling published in the Journal of Gambling Studies in 1990 was a participant observational analysis of eight slot machine gamblers at one British amusement arcade, it is extraordinary to think that decades later I have access to datasets beyond anything I could have imagined back in the 1980s when I began my research career. The data analysis is carried with my research colleague Michael Auer who has a specific expertise in data mining and we use traditional statistical tests to analyse the data. However, the hardest part is always trying to work out which parameters to use in assessing whether the RG tool worked or not. The kind of data we have includes how much time and money that players are spending on the gambling website, and using that data we can assess to what extent the amount of time and money decreases as a result of using limit setting measures, or receiving personalized feedback or a pop-up message.

One of the biggest problems in doing this type of research in the gambling studies field is getting access to the data in the first place and the associated issue of whether academics should be working with the gambling industry in the first place. The bottom line is that we would never have been able to undertake this kind of innovative research with participant sizes of hundreds of thousands of real gamblers without working in co-operation with the gambling industry. (It should also be noted that the gambling companies in question did not fund the research but provided simply provided access to their databases and customers). In fact, I would go as far as to say the research would have been impossible without gambling industry co-operation. Data access provided by the gambling industry has to be one of the key ways forward if the field is to progress.

Unlike other consumptive and potentially addictive behaviours (smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, etc.), researchers can study real-time gambling (and other potentially addictive behaviours like video gaming and social networking) in a way that just cannot be done in other chemical and behavioural addictions (e.g., sex, exercise, work, etc.) because of online and/or card-based technologies (such as loyalty cards and player cards). There is no equivalent of this is the tobacco or alcohol industry, and is one of the reasons why researchers in the gambling field are beginning to liaise and/or collaborate with gambling operators. As researchers, we should always strive to improve our theories and models and it appears strange to neglect this purely objective information simply because it involves working together with the gambling industry. This is especially important given the recent research by Dr. Julia Braverman and colleagues published in the journal Psychological Assessment using data from gamblers on the bwin website showing that self-recollected information does not match with objective behavioural tracking data.

The great thing about online behavioural tracking data collected from gamblers is that it is totally objective (as it provides a true record of what every gambler does click-by-click), is collected from real world gambling websites (so is ecologically valid), and has large sample sizes (typically tens of thousands of online gamblers). There of course some disadvantages, the main ones being that the sample is unrepresentative of all online gamblers (as the data only comes from gamblers at one website) and nothing is known about the person’s gambling activity at other websites (research has shown that online gamblers typically gamble at a number of different websites and not just one). Despite these limitations, the analysis of behavioural tracking data (so-called ‘big data’) is a reliable and cutting-edge way to assess and evaluate online gambling behaviour and to assess whether RG tools actually work in real world gambling settings with real online gamblers in real time.

To get access to such data you have to cultivate a trusting relationship with the data providers. It took me years to build up trust with the gambling industry because researchers who study problem gambling are often perceived by the gambling industry to be ‘anti-gambling’ but in my case this wasn’t true. I am ‘pro-responsible gambling’ and gamble myself so it would be hypocritical to be anti-gambling. My main aim in my gambling research is to protect players and minimise harm. Problem gambling will never be totally eliminated but it can be minimised. If gambling companies share the same aim and philosophy of not wanting to make money from problem gamblers but to make money from non-problem gamblers, then I would be prepared to help and collaborate.

You also need to be thick-skinned. If you are analysing any behavioural tracking data provided by the gambling industry, then you need to be prepared for others in the field criticizing you for working in collaboration with the industry. Although none of this research is funded by the industry, the fact that you are collaborating is enough for some people to accuse you of not being independent and/or being in the pockets of the gambling industry. Neither of these are true but it won’t stop the criticism. Nor will it stop me from carrying on researching in this area using datasets provided by the gambling industry.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). An empirical investigation of theoretical loss and gambling intensity. Journal of Gambling Studies, 30, 879-887.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Theoretical loss and gambling intensity (revisited): A response to Braverman et al (2013). Journal of Gambling Studies, 31, 921-931.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M., Littler, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Legal aspects of responsible gaming pre-commitment and personal feedback initiatives. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 6, 444-456.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Auer, M., Schneeberger, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Theoretical loss and gambling intensity: A simulation study. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 16, 269-273.

Braverman, J., Tom, M., & Shaffer, H. J. (2014). Accuracy of self-reported versus actual online gambling wins and losses. Psychological Assessment, 26, 865-877.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). Addiction to fruit machines: A preliminary study among males. Journal of Gambling Studies, 6, 113-126.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2011). Approaches to understanding online versus offline gaming impacts. Casino and Gaming International, 7(3), 45-48.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2015). Research funding in gambling studies: Some further observations. International Gambling Studies, 15, 15-19.

Money for nothing (and your clicks for free?): Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’?


Video gaming has evolved from a single-player platform to a multi-player realm where interaction with other players is often a necessity. In order to enter the game, players must first create an avatar, a representation of their self in the game that is used to explore and interact with the virtual environment. When creating an avatar, players can also buy virtual assets to augment and/or enhance their online character. Virtual assets are items or customisations for video game avatars, bases, and characters that are purchased with real money.

In a previous blog, I looked at some of the anecdotal evidence that claimed a few individuals had become ‘addicted’ to buying virtual assets. At the time I wrote that article, there was almost nothing published academically on the psychology of virtual assets and why people bought virtual assets. A few months ago, Jack Cleghorn and I published a qualitative paper in the journal Digital Education Review based on our interviews with gamers that regularly bought virtual assets. Today’s blog looks at some of our findings.

For researchers, the buying of virtual assets provides an opportunity to try and understand why people become so immersed in games and what motivates gamers to spend real money on items that some would consider as having no value. In a multi-player environment, it becomes clear that the avatars seen on screen are graphical representations of someone real and may be part of human desires to be noticed, respected, and interacted with. Furthermore the gamer controlling their avatar has motivations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Virtual item purchases are therefore likely to impact on a gamer’s psychological wellbeing.

The growing market for virtual items indicates that transactions are becoming commonplace in gaming. The virtual market functions similarly to real markets in that there is demand, fluctuating markets, and profits to be made. The importance of virtual items to some people is illustrated by a divorce claim in a story on Hyped Talk in which a wife made a claim for over half of her husband’s virtual assets. In a different case (outlined in a 2005 issue of The Lawyer), Qiu Chengwei, a middle-aged man killed a fellow gamer over a dispute involving a virtual item. Obviously these cases are extreme but they highlight the fact that virtual items can have both financial and psychological value for gamers.

But why do people buy virtual items? Performance and general quality of an item is seen to be an important motivation whether the item is real or virtual. Online, an appeal to social status may be a better predictor for purchase behaviour than function. However, some claim that appealing to social status has no motivational significance in purchase behaviour. Another unique element of buying virtual items is the potential exclusivity. Exclusive or limited items tend to be unattainable through gameplay and instead must be bought with money. Exclusivity online has been shown to be of importance, and segmentation is a technique used by the games producers that limits certain items to certain classes, levels, or races. This has been shown to stimulate purchase behaviour. The amount of time invested in a game is also key to understanding spending patterns, and gamers will often buy virtual items after a dedicated amount of gameplay has been spent building an avatar.

Naturally, the longer the amounts of time that are spent online and in-game, the more the player emotionally and psychologically invests in the game. The concept of ‘flow’ (formulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in many papers and books) has been applied to gaming and can involve becoming emotionally attached to a character (in fact I published a paper on this with Damien Hull and Glenn Williams in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and affects consciousness and emotions of the individual experiencing it. A key element of feeling ‘flow’ is the experience and perception of the world of the avatar and has been applied to electronic media. The adaptation of ‘flow’ to the virtual world suggests that just like other leisure activities, an individual investing time in an environment where they feel socially accepted can become emotionally attached to their avatar. Gaming has been shown to affect consciousness and emotions of gamers that are both necessary in experiencing ‘flow’. It could be that purchasing of virtual items is also motivated – at least in part – by the feeling of emotional attachment to an avatar.

Gamers are being drawn in to an environment by the appeal of social interaction, manipulation of objects, exploration, and identification with the avatar. To some gamers, the virtual world can takes on more significance than ‘actual’ life and residency in their preferred games is what they consider their actuality. This suggests that the reward of gaming is great, indicating that those individuals who buy virtual items are doing so because they feel involved in an environment that benefits them personally.

Given the lack of empirical research, the qualitative study I published with Jack Cleghorn was based on in-depth interviews with six gamers who all regularly bought in-game virtual assets. We examined the (i) motivations for purchasing virtual items, (ii) psychological impact of purchasing virtual items on self-esteem and confidence, (iii) social benefits of gaming and virtual asset purchasing, (iv) emotional attachment to an avatar, (v) choice of items and customisation of the avatar as a form of self-expression, (v) impulsivity versus thoughtfulness in purchase intentions of virtual items, and (vii) impact of transaction machinery on the ‘game experience’ from a gamer’s perspective.

Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), the study was exploratory and aimed to understand the psychology underlying purchase intention of virtual items and assets among online gamers. As a result of interviewing the gamers, seven theses emerged: (i) motivation for purchase, (ii) social aspects of the gaming and purchasing, (iii) emotional attachment to the avatar, (iv) psychological reward and impact, (v) self-expression, (vi) ‘stock market gaming’ and gaming culture, and (vii) research/impulse buying. The use of IPA allowed each gamer to share their unique experience of playing and purchase behaviour.

Despite the negative aspects of online gaming, the gamers in our study emphasised a more positive side to buying virtual items and gaming more generally. Item exclusivity and item function were major motivating factors and contributed to an item’s importance in-game. Another key motivation for purchase behaviour was the appeal to social status. Attainment of items demonstrates to others how powerful the gamer is. Naturally, if an item has benefits for the avatar it is more likely that the gamer will spend money to obtain it. Function linked to progression, purchasing items, and buying in-game currency are all sometimes a necessity to progress. Novelty and collectability were also important motivators for some of our gamers. Despite subjective motivations, purchasing virtual items arose out of gaming as a predominant pastime. All of the gamers in our sample were dedicated gamers who spent relatively large amounts of time online and, as perhaps expected, larger gaming commitment to led to purchase behaviour.

An integral part of multiplayer gaming is the interaction with other gamers. The feeling of ‘social presence’ in an online environment is reliant on an emotional response to social interaction and the gamers in our study felt social satisfaction. The game sometimes enabled social interaction that might not otherwise be present. Previous research has shown how emotional attachment to games affects behaviour. Our study highlighted the role of emotional attachment to an avatar as a predictor for purchase intention. As well as emotional attachment increasing likelihood of spending, the spending of real money on items increases the attachment felt. It could be that purchasing virtual items may be a cyclical behaviour. It is also the case that purchasing affects the cognitions and emotions of gamers – ‘pride’ was a feeling that resonated among our interviewed gamers.

Our study also highlighted how gamers research items before purchasing them. It might be expected that easy-to-use transaction machinery might facilitate spending. However, in reality, the gamers we interviewed were guarded with their spending online and recommendations from friends playing a major role in purchase behaviour. Virtual assets can be then researched and the placing of real monetary value on the virtual items indicates the value they may hold to the gamer. Unlike media coverage focussing on the more negative impact of online gaming, our study highlighted the positive aspects of purchasing virtual assets for the gamer. They are able to feel connected socially, feel confidence in themselves and their success, express their inner and ideal self without constraint or fear, build lasting relationships, impress people, and generally benefit from gaming and buying virtual items.

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.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., Hussain, Z., Grüsser, S., Thalemann, R., Cole, H. Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. In P. Felicia (Ed.), Developments in Current Game-Based Learning Design and Deployment (pp.74-90). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Guo, Y., & Barnes, S. (2011). Purchase behavior in virtual worlds: An empirical investigation in Second Life. Information and Management, 48(7), 303-312.

Hamari, J. & Lehdonvirta, V. (2010). Game design as marketing: How game mechanics create demand for virtual goods. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 5(1), 14-29.

Hassouneh, D., & Brengman, M. (2011). Shopping in virtual worlds: Perceptions, motivations and behaviour. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 12(4), 320-335.

Huang, E. (2012). Online experiences and virtual goods purchase intention. Internet Research, 22(3), 252-274.

Hull, D., Williams, G. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Video game characteristics, happiness and flow as predictors of addiction among video game players: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 145-152.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. Available at: http://hypedtalk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/virtually-addicted-chinese-women-claims.html [Accessed: 6 March 2013].

Lee, P. (2005). The growth in the computer game market is leading to real legal issues in virtual worlds. The Lawyer, 19 (19), 14.

Lehdonvirta, V. (2009) Virtual item sales as a revenue model: Identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. Electronic Commerce Research, 9(1-2), 97-113.

Li, Z. (2012). Motivation of virtual goods transactions based on the theory of gaming motivations. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 43(2), 254-260.

Manninen, T. & Kujanpää, T. (2007). The value of virtual assets – the role of game characters in MMOGs. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 2(1), 21-33.

Are you ‘intexticated’?: Another look at excessive smartphone use

Yesterday, I received a copy of a new book called Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? by Dr. James Roberts (a Professor of Marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas). It’s a populist and easy-to-read book that you can read from cover to cover inside two hours. It’s not an academic book but there’s lots of input from various academics around the world (including me – which is why I was sent a copy of the book). It’s a fun read and is written by someone (who like myself) loves technology and all the great benefits it brings us.

The main thrust of the book doesn’t concern addiction per se, but is more concerned with how smartphones take us away from or compromises other things in our lives like our friends, our loved ones, our hobbies and (in extreme cases) our jobs. Roberts describes this as ‘cellularitis’ – “a Socially Transmitted Disease (STD) that results in habitual use of one’s cell phone to the detriment of his or her psychological and physical health and well-being”. In the second chapter, Dr. Roberts uses my addiction components model to describe his ‘Six Signs of Cell Phone Addiction Scale’ (although uses an older version of the components model taken from a paper I published on internet addiction back in 1999 in The Psychologist).

One of the chapters on the phenomena of ‘phubbing’ (i.e., phone snubbing – where someone you are socially interacting with would rather be on their smartphone, rather than talking to you). One recent paper by Dr. Roberts published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior even had the title ‘My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone’. The chapter also contains a 9-item ‘Phubbing Scale’ that Roberts developed with his colleague Dr. Meredith David (and a later chapter also includes the ‘Partner Phubbing Scale’). Academic research into phubbing has already started (see ‘Further reading below) and I’ll hopefully write a blog on that in the future. I also liked the concept of being ‘intexticated’ defined as being “distracted by the act of texting to such a degree that one seems intoxicated”.

In previous blogs I have examined the concept of mobile phone addiction, the most recent of which argued that there was nowhere near enough empirical evidence to be able to confirm whether addiction to smartphones exists. Dr. Roberts asked me about the topic for his book and here are the answers to the questions he asked me.

Can someone be addicted to their cell phone? Why or why not?

That depends on how ‘addiction’ is defined. I believe that anything can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are present. Some people may confuse habitual use of such technology as an addictive behaviour (when in reality it may not be). For instance, some people may consider themselves cell phone addicts because they never go out of the house without their cell phone, do not turn their cell phone off at night, are always expecting calls from family members or friends, and/or over-utilise cell phones in their work and/or social life. There is also the importance of economic and/or life costs. The crucial difference between some forms of cell phone use and pathological cell phone use is that some applications involve a financial cost. If a person is using the application more and is spending more money, there may be negative consequences as a result of not being able to afford the activity (e.g., negative economic, job-related, and/or family consequences). High expenditure may also be indicative of cell phone addiction but the phone bills of adolescents are often paid for by parents, therefore the financial problems may not impact on the users themselves.

It is very difficult to determine at what point cell phone use becomes an addiction. The cautiousness of researchers suggests that we are not yet in a position to confirm the existence of a serious and persistent psychopathological addictive disorder related to cell phone addiction on the basis of population survey data alone. This cautiousness is aided and supported by other factors including: (a) the absence of any clinical demand in accordance with the percentages of problematic users identified by these investigations, (b) the fact that the psychometric instruments used could be measuring ‘concern’ or ‘preoccupation’ rather than ‘addiction, (c) the normalisation of behaviour and/or absence of any concern as users grow older; and (d) the importance of distinguishing between excessive use and addictive use.

What signs or symptoms would you look for when deciding if someone is addicted to their cell phone?

You could argue that a person is no more addicted to their phone than an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle. Individuals tend to have addictions on their mobile phone rather than to their phone. For me to class someone as addicted to their mobile phone they would have to fulfill the following six criteria:

  • Salience – This occurs when the mobile phone use becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their phone they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with their mobile phone).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of mobile phone use and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’) when on the phone.
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of mobile phone use are mobile phone users gradually build up the amount of the time they spend on their phone every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to use their phone because there is no signal, mislaid or broken phone, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much on their mobile phone.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive mobile phone use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive mobile phone use to be quickly restored after periods of control.

What is one suggestion you could offer to help someone better control their cell phone use?

I don’t have a single suggestion. If there was a single suggestion to overcome or better control problematic phone use then I could give up my whole research career. However, my tips on digital detox can be found here.

 

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

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0054-y

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Fact or fiction? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 12, 246-250.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Karadağ, E., Tosuntaş, Ş. B., Erzen, E., Duru, P., Bostan, N., Şahin, B. M., … & Babadağ, B. (2015). Determinants of phubbing, which is the sum of many virtual addictions: A structural equation model. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 60-74.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (in press). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Roberts, J.A. (2016). Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? Austin: Sentia Publishing.

Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.

Ugur, N. G., & Koc, T. (2015). Time for digital detox: Misuse of mobile technology and phubbing. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 195, 1022-1031.

Ringing the changes: Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction?

Over the last decade, I have published various papers on excessive mobile phone use both in general and related to particular aspects of mobile phone use (such as gambling and gaming via mobile phones (see ‘Further reading’ below). Recently, some colleagues and I (and led by Dr. Joël Billieux) published a new review in the journal Current Addiction Reports examining disordered mobile phone use.

I don’t think many people would say that their lives are worse because of mobile phones as the positives appear to greatly outweigh the negatives. However, in the scientific literature, excessive mobile phone use has been linked with self-reported dependence and addiction-like symptoms, sleep interference, financial problems, dangerous use (phoning while driving), prohibited use (phoning in banned areas), and mobile phone-based aggressive behaviours (e.g., cyberbullying).

Despite accumulating evidence that mobile phone use can become problematic and lead to negative consequences, its incidence, prevalence, and symptomatology remain a matter of much debate. For instance, our recent review noted that prevalence studies conducted within the last decade have reported highly variable rates of problematic use ranging from just above 0% to more than 35%. This is mainly due to the fact most studies in the field have been conducted in the absence of a theoretical rationale.

Too often, excessive mobile phone use has simply been conceptualized as a behavioural addiction and subsequently develop screening tools using items adapted from the substance use and pathological gambling literature, without taking into account either the specificities of mobile phone “addiction” (e.g., dysfunctional mobile phone use may often be related to interpersonal processes) or the fact that the most recent generation of mobile phones (i.e., smartphones) are tools that – like the internet – allow the involvement in a wide range of activities going far beyond traditional oral and written (SMS) communication between individuals (e.g., gaming, gambling, social networking, shopping, etc.).

The first scientific studies examining problematic mobile phone use (PMPU) were published a decade ago. Since then, the number of published studies on the topic has grown substantially. At present, several terms are frequently used to describe the phenomenon, the more popular being ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) addiction’, ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) dependence’ or ‘nomophobia’ (that refers to the fear of not being able to use the mobile phone).

PMPU is generally conceptualized as a behavioural addiction including the core components of addictive behaviours, such as cognitive salience, loss of control, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. Accordingly, the criteria (and screening tools developed using such criteria) that have been proposed to diagnose an addiction to the mobile phone have been directly transposed from those classifying and diagnosing other addictive behaviours, i.e., the criteria for substance use and pathological gambling. For example, in a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, Dr. Peter Smetaniuk reported a prevalence of PMPU around 20% in U.S. undergraduate students using adapted survey items that were initially developed to diagnose disordered gambling.

Although many scholars believe that PMPU is a behavioural addiction, evidence is still lacking that either confirms or rejects such conceptualization. Indeed, the fact that this condition can be considered as an addiction is to date only supported by exploratory studies relying on self-report data collected via convenience samples. More specifically, there is a crucial lack of evidence that similar neurobiological and psychological mechanisms are involved in the aetiology of mobile phone addiction compared to other chemical and behavioural addictions. Such types of evidence played a major role in the recent recognition of Gambling Disorder and Internet Gaming Disorder as addictive disorders in the latest (fifth) addiction of the DSM (i.e., DSM-5) In particular, three key features of addictive behaviours, namely loss of control, tolerance and withdrawal, have – to date – received very limited empirical support in the field of mobile phone addiction research.

Given these concerns, it appears that the empirical evidence supporting the conceptualization of PMPU as a genuine addictive behaviour is currently scarce. However, this does not mean that PMPU is not a genuine addictive behaviour (at least for a subgroup of individuals displaying PMPU symptoms), but rather that the nature and amount of the available data at the present time are not sufficient to draw definitive and valid conclusions. Therefore, further studies are required. In particular, longitudinal and experimental research is needed to obtain behavioural and neurobiological correlates of PMPU. In the absence of such types of data, all attempts to consider PMPU within the framework of behavioural addictions will remain tentative. It is worth noting here that it took decades of empirical research before disordered gambling was officially recognized as an addiction (as opposed to a disorder of impulse control) in the DSM-5.

The current conceptual chaos surrounding PMPU research can also be related to the fact that while the number of empirical studies is growing quickly, these studies have (to date) primarily been based on concepts borrowed from other disorders (e.g., problematic Internet use, pathological gambling, substance abuse, etc.). This approach is atheoretical and lacks specificity with regard to the phenomenon under investigation. In fact, by adopting such a ‘confirmatory approach’ relying on deductive quantitative studies, important findings that are unique to the experience of PMPU have been neglected. As an illustration, no qualitative analyses of PMPU exist, and only a few models have been proposed. This implies that most studies have been conducted without a theoretical rationale that goes beyond transposing what is known about addictions in the analysis of PMPU.

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

Additional input: Joël Billieux, Pierre Maurage, Olatz Lopez-Fernandez and Daria J. Kuss

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioral addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 154-162.

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (2015). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3) (pp. 591-606). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.

Net losses: Another look at problematic online gaming

I have examined problematic and/or addictive video gaming in a number of my previous blogs. Despite the increasing amount of empirical research into problematic online gaming, the phenomenon still sadly lacks a consensual definition. Some researchers (including myself, and others such as John Charlton and Ian Danforth) consider video games as the starting point for examining the characteristics of this specific pathology, while other researchers consider the internet as the main platform that unites different addictive internet activities including online games (such as my friends and colleagues Tony Van Rooij and Kimberley Young). There are also recent studies that have made an effort to integrate both approaches (such as some work I carried out with Zsolt Demetrovics and his team of Hungarian researchers in the journal PLoS ONE).

I have noted in a number of my papers on addiction (particularly in a paper I had published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Substance Use) that although each addiction has several particular and idiosyncratic characteristics, they have more commonalities than differences that may reflect a common etiology of addictive behaviour. Using the ‘components’ model of addiction, within a biopsychosocial framework, I consider online game addiction a specific type of video game addiction that can be categorized as a nonfinancial type of pathological gambling. I developed the components of video game addiction theory by modifying Iain Brown’s earlier addiction criteria. These are:

(1) Salience: This is when video gaming becomes the most important activity in the person’s life and dominates his/her thinking (i.e., preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (i.e., cravings) and behaviour (i.e., deterioration of socialized behaviour);

(2) Mood modification: This is the subjective experience that people report as a consequence of engaging in video game play (i.e. they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or, paradoxically, a tranquillizing and/or distressing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).

(3) Tolerance: This is the process whereby increasing amounts of video game play are required to achieve the former effects, meaning that for persons engaged in video game playing, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend online engaged in the behaviour.

(4) Withdrawal symptoms: These are the unpleasant feeling states or physical effects that occur when video gaming is discontinued or suddenly reduced, for example, the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.

(5) Conflict: This refers to the conflicts between the video game player and those around them (i.e., interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (e.g., job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (i.e., intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time engaged in video game play.

(6) Relapse: This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of video game play to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical at the height of excessive video game play to be quickly restored after periods of abstinence or control.

John Charlton and Ian Danforth analyzed these six criteria and found that tolerance, mood modification and cognitive salience were indicators of high engagement, while the other components – withdrawal symptoms, conflict, relapse and behavioural salience – played a central role in the development of addiction.

Researchers such as Guy Porter and Vladan Starcevic don’t differentiate between problematic video game use and problematic online game use. They conceptualized problematic video game use as excessive use of one or more video games resulting in a preoccupation with and a loss of control over playing video games, and various negative psychosocial and/or physical consequences. Their criteria for problematic video game use didn’t include other features usually associated with dependence or addiction, such as tolerance and physical symptoms of withdrawal, because in their opinion there is no clear evidence that problem video game use is associated with these phenomena.

Arguably the most well known representative of the internet-based approach is Kimberley Young who developed her theoretical framework for problematic online gaming based on her internet addiction criteria which were based on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – (Fourth Edition, DSM-IV) criteria for pathological gambling. Her theory states that online game addicts gradually lose control over their game play, that is, they are unable to decrease the amount of time spent playing while immersing themselves increasingly in this particular recreational activity, and eventually develop problems in their real life. The idea that internet/online video game addiction can be assessed by the combination of an internet addiction score and the amount of time spent gaming are also reflective of the internet-based approach.

Integrative approaches try to take into consideration both aforementioned approaches. For instance, a 2010 paper by M.G. Kim and J. Kim in Computers in Human Behavior claimed that neither the first nor the second approach can adequately capture the unique features of online games such as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), therefore it’s absolutely necessary to create an integrated approach. They argued that “internet users are no more addicted to the internet than alcoholics are addicted to bottles” which means that the internet is just one channel through which people may access whatever content they want (e.g., gambling, shopping, chatting, sex, etc.) and therefore users of the internet may be addicted to the particular content or services that the Internet provides, rather than the channel itself. On the other hand, online games differ from traditional stand-alone games, such as offline video games, in important aspects such as the social dimension or the role-playing dimension that allow interaction with other real players.

Their multidimensional Problematic Online Game Use (POGU) model reflects this integrated approach fairly well. It was theoretically developed on the basis of several studies and theories (such as those by Iain Brown, John Charlton, Ian Danforth, Kimberley Young and myself), and resulted in five underlying dimensions: euphoria, health problems, conflict, failure of self-control, and preference of virtual relationship. A 2012 study I carried out with Zsolt Demetrovics and his team also support the integrative approach and stresses the need to include all types of online games in addiction models in order to make comparisons between genres and gamer populations possible (such as those who play online Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games and online First Person Shooter (FPS) games in addition to the widely researched MMORPG players). According to this model, six dimensions cover the phenomenon of problematic online gaming – preoccupation, overuse, immersion, social isolation, interpersonal conflicts, and withdrawal. Personally, I believe that online game addiction can be defined as one type of behavioural addiction. In fact ‘internet gaming disorder’ has just been included in the appendices of the new DSM-5 in order to encourage research to determine whether this particular condition should be added to the manual as a disorder in the future.

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

Additional input: Orsolya Pápay, Katalin Nagygyörgy and Zsolt Demetrovics

Further reading

Charlton, J. P., & Danforth, I.D.W. (2007). Distinguishing addiction and high engagement in the context of online game playing. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(3), 1531-1548.

Demetrovics, Z., Urbán, R., Nagygyörgy, K., Farkas, J., Griffiths, M.D., Pápay, O. & Oláh, A. (2012). The development of the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire (POGQ). PLoS ONE, 7(5): e36417. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036417.

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

Han, D. H., Hwang, J. W., & Renshaw, P. F. (2010). Bupropion sustained release treatment decreases craving for video games and cue-induced brain activity in patients with Internet video game addiction. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 18, 297-304.

Kim, M.G., & Kim, J. (2010). Cross-validation of reliability, convergent and discriminant validity for the problematic online game use scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(3), 389-398.

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.

Peters, C. S., & Malesky, L. A. (2008). Problematic usage among highly-engaged players of massively multiplayer online role playing games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 11(4), 480-483.

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.

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.

Porter, G., Starcevic, V., Berle, D., & Fenech, P. (2010). Recognizing problem video game use. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 120-128.

Van Rooij, A. J., Schoenmakers, T. M., Vermulst, A. A., Van den Eijnden, R. J., & Van de Mheen, D. (2011). Online video game addiction: identification of addicted adolescent gamers. Addiction, 106(1), 205-212.

Young, K. S. (1998a). Caught in the Net: How to recognize the signs of Internet addiction and a winning strategy for recovery. New York: Wiley.

Young, K. S. (1999). Internet addiction: Symptoms, evaluation, and treatment. In L. Vande Creek & T. Jackson (Eds.), Innovations in clinical practice: A source book (pp. 17, 19–31). Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.