“He got so hooked to (online) gaming that he skipped his meals, started living like a recluse and even stopped attending school, and it was then that the case was brought to my attention” – remarked prominent Child Psychologist with a premier school in Mumbai about a case of Minecraft addiction that was escalated to her. I was looking for cases of online gaming addiction (Minecraft), if any, and this particular instance left me zapped!
Before delving deeper into my interactions with her and what came out of the discussion, lets delve a bit into online gaming.
With the widening of Internet reach, online gaming has quickly gained traction. Now online gaming is a hundred-billion-dollar plus industry that continues to innovate and expand on a global scale. As per Entertainment Software Association (ESA)’s latest report, 25% of the computer and video game players are under the age of 18 years and 60% are male. Besides, 25% of parents do not impose time limits on their children’s Internet use in general and 17% of parents do not impose time limits on video and computer game playing (ESA, 2010). From these statistics, it’s apparent that gaming, and particularly online gaming, is an integral element of children and adolescents’ leisure time activities.
In ‘Simulation Games’ and ‘Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games’ (MMORPGs) players :
(i) inhabit massive game worlds concurrently,
(ii) develop virtual alter egos, namely avatars, and
(iii) play with the world over anytime and anywhere.
Also, they enable immersion in a reality that is both simultaneously fantastic and poignantly real.
While gaming is a pleasurable pastime activity, research suggests that excessive online gaming may in extreme cases lead to symptoms commonly experienced by substance addicts.
Excessive engagement with MMORPGs can lead to addiction in a small minority of players (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011). Since online and offline video and computer games are particularly appealing to children and adolescents (ESA, 2010), these groups may be particularly at risk (i.e., more vulnerable and susceptible) of developing gaming addiction.
Furthermore, owing to the 24/7 nature and almost mandatory excessive play required in playing MMORPGs, online gaming may be more problematic for ‘at risk’ individuals than offline gaming (Griffiths & Meredith, 2009).
Irrespective of the benefits associated with gaming (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014), unrestricted gaming may be highly absorbing and time-consuming, and may become addictive for vulnerable individuals. Research and clinical evidence over the last three decades, supports recognition of the most severely maladaptive forms of gaming behaviour as an addictive disorder.
Also, there is growing evidence of high prevalence of addiction to computer games and videogames among children, which is causing concern because of its harmful consequences. There is also emerging evidence of an association between videogame addiction and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The first Minecraft alpha build was released in 2009 and since then the game went on to become the bestselling game of all time with over 200 million copies sold. A study published by the Indian Journal of Public Health, claims that post the lockdown, 50.8% of the participants spent more time gaming.
Online games saw a spike in the number of players during the pandemic. After PUBG, the second-highest game is Minecraft that has been played by 8.2 lakh people. Due to lockdown, Indians also participated in a slew of online tournaments as well.
Since 2018, the World Health Organization’s updated guidelines for mental health conditions include "gaming disorder". The latter is characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to the latter over other activities and interests, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
To be fair, Minecraft is amongst the more benign computer games. Common sense media is a very popular and sensible site which rates games and shows for kids. It describes Minecraft as "Sandbox-style game with open online play that fosters creativity" and rates it 8+. Most kids seem to outgrow it by their mid-teens.
Especially when compared with games like PUBG , which Common sense media - describes as "Violence is a core mechanic of the gameplay, as competitors hunt other players using a variety of realistic weapons such as rifles, machine guns, and crowbars." PUBG is rated 14+. World of Warcraft, another very popular MMORPG is rated 16+. Minecraft on the other hand can be positive and creative. Some of the output from Minecraft can be positively enchanting, such as this image:
Online gaming addiction in children and adolescents:
A review of empirical research
Behavioural addictions, such as online gaming addiction, have typically been categorized either within the frameworks of impulse control disorders or substance dependencies (Grüsser & Thalemann, 2006). Impulse control disorders is characterized by the “failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others” (APA, 2000, p. 663). Substance dependence has certain discriminative features which include “a cluster of cognitive, behavioural, and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues use of the substance despite significant substance-related problems” (APA, 2000, p. 192).
To assess possible addiction levels, an eight-item scale to assess psychosomatic health symptoms is generally constructed (headache, shoulder-/neck pain, stomach-/intestinal pain, sleep problems, feeling sad/depressed, feeling restless and nervous, feeling tired or sleepy during daytime, and heart palpitations).
Participants are asked to consider how often they had experienced these symptoms during the past 2 months choosing from the following options: i) less than once a month, ii) 1–3 times a month, iii) 1–2 times a week, and iv) 3 times a week or more often. The respondents are categorized into four different categories of gamers, namely addicted gamer, problem gamer, engaged gamer and normal gamer (Brunborg et al. 2013, 2015). Respondents who indicate that all four items measuring the core components of addiction (relapse, withdrawal, conflict and problems) has occurred at least sometimes are classified as addicted to video games. Respondents scoring at least sometimes on two or three of the same items were classified as problem gamers. Respondents who score at least 3 on the three first items (salience, tolerance, mood modification) but who do not score 3 or above on more than one of the core criteria were classified as engaged. The remaining respondents are categorized as non-problem gamers.
Questionnaire for Study
A questionnaire devised on the lines of the eight-item scale as mentioned earlier (here questions are more) was devised for our study and it was shared amongst all known people in family, extended family, social media, networks with kids. The results of the questionnaire study are provided, observations and inference are provided in Annexure at the end of the blog.
I was fortunate enough to interview one of the Counsellors of a premier school in Mumbai who has regularly dealt with cases of addiction in children related to online gaming especially Minecraft. Her responses form part of the survey questionnaire. Besides. following salient points can be noted from my online meeting with her viz.,
- In every class / session, at least five cases of students come to each Counsellor per year related to addiction to online gaming and even Minecraft (there are total four Counsellors in the school)
- These involve children engaging playing of online games upto eighteen-nineteen hours per day.
- Addiction cases involving Multiplayer Gaming are akin to the levels of substance abuse as per DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder)
- In absence of self-regulation, such addictions are similar to that of narcotic substances like cocaine
- Parents, generally in cases of addiction, have been unable to control the online gaming time for their wards
- Extreme cases of addiction involves the children losing eye contact, loss of cognitive and connecting skills, loss of appetite.
- Direct monitoring of children in addiction cases is a must
- The best way to prevent such cases to involve children in family time on a daily and continuous basis.
Solutions, Way forward and Recommendations
Children / teenagers with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to spend too much time playing video games, but you need not donate his/her xBox to charity or lock up his/her iPad just yet. There are things you can do to steer him/her toward a more balanced digital life are as follows viz.,
- Making alternatives more appealing: One may works with one’s children /teens to find other activities that will engage him and that will help him develop new interests and hobbies. If your child is creative, you can nurture other interests like, say, buying him art supplies and signing him up for painting or drawing lessons. Cooking lessons are very popular among kids / teens with ADHD. If your teen is an adrenaline junkie, encourage him to take up exciting physical activities, like skateboarding, skiing, rock-climbing, or surfing, as an alternative to screen time.
- Broadening children / teen’s digital horizons. If your child loves technology, he / she can be encouraged to use it for more productive pursuits than playing games. He may use his smartphone or a video camera to make videos that he can share with family members or post on YouTube. He can also learn some programming language and create his own video games, or even design games and animations.
- Set a schedule: Parents from families of teens with ADHD may need to do a trade-off with their teen: Homework first, then games. If grades drop, gaming time drops, too. The way a parent presents this is important.
- Controlling the Internet: A fail-safe strategy is to keep the router in your bedroom, so you can control the Internet. If your child / teen isn’t listening to your requests for limited playtime, unplug it.
- Balance video games with other types of play: Video game playtime need not be deemed as negative, but considered part of a healthy “play diet.” If your child is spending a substantial proportion of his time engaged in outdoor exercise, socializing, doing his homework, then spending some time playing online games may not be a bad thing. Online games can give kids substance to talk about with their friends, sharpen their digital skills, and improve some critical thinking skills, as long as they don’t overdo it. This balanced approach calls for involvement of the entire family. Parents need to practice what they preach by showing some restraint in using their smartphones, tablets, and other devices.
- Take a family vacation from technology: One day a month, or more, shut off all electronic devices: televisions, computers, cell phones, etc. Use this time to work on a bonding as a family: go on a trip, read, play board games, or do an art project. Have a plan to keep everybody in the family engaged and involved. You might find that no one really misses his/her technology very much.
Though, social scientists and naysayers may scream “ Every social association that is not face-face is injurious to health” , some may dig their feet for Minecraft and say its completely safe under moderation. The game has great takeaways as an academic tool and may even facilitate in developing team skills. Whether the use degenerates to extreme levels in children so as to be equivalent to substance abuse or not, it depends a lot on parents and their deft handling of their children’s online time and general upbringing.It is an important judgement call to define what is moderation and what is not. We talk about how much is healthy screen time for a teenager here.
So, as a responsible parent, you have a choice to make. You cannot allow your children free unfettered access to this game. Even though it has it's pluses, it can have a negative impact as well. But in a measured controlled way, it can be a positive influence and entertainment for your child.