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Video Games as a Controlled Substance

“Games are so addictive!”

“You’re killing our children!”

It’s a common objection I hear from concerned parents when they learn of my chosen mission field: video games. I remember a woman approaching me at a faith-forward business conference. We chatted for 10 minutes before she realized I made video games – at which point  she literally crossed herself, backed away as if I were a serpent, and spent the rest of the weekend shooting unhappy glares our way.


To be fair, while most responses aren’t nearly that dramatic there are real reasons for parents to be concerned. Video Game Addiction is a real thing, attracting more and more study. I’ve seen hundreds of anecdotal stories about serious health problems like blood clots, fatal dehydration, and seizures. Recently China passed a law that limits children to 3 hours of on-line gaming on weekends and forbids them entirely on weekdays.


The common thread through many of these concerns is ‘children.’ Unfortunately, that association is misleading and a big part of the problem.


This typically assumed, and unspoken, connection between video games and children is a demographic artifact of when game consoles first became widely available. I was 10 years old when I pulled an Atari 2600 from under the Christmas tree and from that point forward gaming was a native part of my life. Games of that era were indeed fairly innocent but soon the medium matured. What was appropriately called a “toy” in the ‘80’s became a ‘form of expression’ by the ‘90’s. The first content rating system, the ESRB, wasn’t even founded until 1994. The children’s toy was growing up but our thinking was not. Despite today’s wide awareness of mature gaming content, there is still a reflexive gestalt where games are made for kids and  simultaneously inappropriate for kids.


To deal with the issue of video game addiction we must first break the habit of thinking of games as toys. The video games of today cover a range of content just as wide as film or fiction. Some games are made for children but many others are made for mature audiences, including pornography.


Games are also big business which leads to the application of sophisticated techniques and technology to maximize profit. Zynga, for instance, was infamously quoted as not being a game company at all, but rather a data company that used games as a front end for their deliberately addictive extraction algorithms. Modern video games are often engineered around a dopamine reward loop in order to chemically encourage ongoing play. This playtime is then monetized actively through in-game merchandise or passively through advertisements. Entertainment that contains a satisfying emotional “payoff” is nothing new, in fact it’s a mark of quality. But modern video games are different in how they customize the reward loop in real-time for each player. What’s more, the growing use of AI optimization will surely increase efficacy by an order of magnitude. It is precisely this micro-tuned hormonal reward cycle that makes the best games so fun, and also devilishly addictive.


Given these market dynamics, and given the physiological vulnerability of an immature mind, we would do well to realize that games cannot – and should not – be seen as toys anymore and therefore relegated to children in our minds. With this understanding, we can begin to see games in a more culturally mature way and better speak to addiction concerns.


What if, instead of toys, we thought of video games like alcohol?


When we think of alcohol in connection with children, several things naturally occur. We recognize an experiential continuum from a sip of communion wine to a fifth of whiskey. We intuit healthy limits for adults that lead to lower limits for children. We are fully cognizant of the deeply documented addictive properties of alcohol and we have a nuanced understanding of its costs and risks, both personal and societal. More to the point, we are aware of and have learned to deal with the specific difficulties alcohol presents to the undeveloped mind and body of a child.


As a thought experiment, imagine a parent distressing over their 12-year old’s alcoholism. Then you learn little Suzy’d first been handed a beer to keep her quiet and occupied in the back seat when she was 6. A beer now and then became a daily shot of tequila by 10 and then things got out of hand. The story sounds both tragic and absurd but it’s unlikely you’d call this parent a victim. You’d likely call them something else. But to be fair that’s because we understand, at a societal level, the serious risks of alcohol addiction for children.


When a parent tells me of their child’s video game addiction, I’m half heartbroken and half frustrated. On the one hand, they should know better. They should intervene. On the other hand, we currently lack the kind of societal awareness around games that we have around alcohol.


When Netflix released The Social Dilemma, the faith community was abuzz with its disturbing implications. People were shocked to learn that social media companies were methodically customizing their experiences in order to make more money. But many also felt vindicated because deep down they always suspected it to be true. My personal reaction was not only to limit my own participation in gaming, but to determine – with the bolstering of  a clearly documented rationale — to be more active in guiding how, when, and where my adolescent daughter used her mobile phone.


Herein lies the point and suggestion of this article. As both a player and creator of video games I am well aware that video game addiction is a real risk, for myself to be sure, but even more so for my children. But I do not forbid games in my home; instead I treat the matter with intentionality, direction, and (Lord willing) wisdom.  Games come with age-appropriate limits and my children understand my reasons.  My hope lies in educating and empowering parents so they no longer feel helpless and teaching kids the risks so they no longer feel entitled.


Truly there is nothing new under the sun. . . . And that gives me confidence we will find the appropriate balance with gaming as we have with other mediums from the past.

Chris Skaggs

is the Founder and Chief Operations Officer of Soma Games and Soma SoulWorks. Created in 2005 Soma Games fancies itself the “C.S. Lewis of video games,” striving to make artistically excellent games for people who may never go to church but find themselves having fun while pondering eternal things. Soma SoulWorks is the ministry side of Soma’s coin producing teaching and podcasts that seek to reach young adult “creatives” especially those working in arts and entertainment. Chris is an Intel Black Belt recipient and frequent speaker at mobile and game-developer conferences, including GDC (Game Developer Conference), CGDC (Christian Game Developers Conference), Casual Connect, Serious Play, and Intel Innovators Forum.

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