Why The Sun's "games as addictive as heroin" article does more harm than good

Feature Ryan Lambie
9 Jul 2014 - 06:38

The Sun has run an article suggesting that videogames are "as addictive as heroin". Ryan takes a closer look...

British tabloid newspapers have long thrived on attention-grabbing headlines, and yesterday's edition of The Sun was no exception. "Gaming As Addictive As Heroin" the paper trumpeted, before laying out a rather disparate selection of claims to back the statement up.

Cases cited included a Candy Crush fan from Sheffield, a student who spent half of each and every day playing League Of Legends, and a story from earlier this year about several teenage Call Of Duty players who had, tragically, committed suicide.

That games are addictive is something newspapers have covered many times before. The Sun's latest article is, however, unusually hysterical even by the paper's typical standards. Above a box-out, videogames are described as "the scourge of our generation", Dr Mark Griffiths provides a list of 10 questions designed to help readers ascertain whether they're a game addict. The questionnaire reads like any test for addiction. The questions include: is it the most important thing in your daily life? Has it affected your day-to-day goings-on at school or workplace? Do you play games as a way to make your mood feel better? 

The fact is, anything that affects the dopamine levels in the brain can be potentially addictive. As a bizarre top-10 list in The Mirror proved earlier this year, it's possible for people to become hooked on sausages, the wearing of wigs, funerals, tanning, coffee enemas and chewing lumps of ice. The one thing that links all these disparate activities? They all send a rush of chemicals hurtling around the brain - a sensation which could, for some people, lead to addiction.

Playing games, with all the fear, excitement, danger and joy they can provoke, are therefore just as likely to be addictive as anything else that alters the chemical levels in our brain. To suggest that games are as aggressively addictive as a class-A drug, or that "Brits reach next level of mental health risk" is, however, entirely misleading - something Dr Griffiths, who provided that 10-point questionnaire was clear about when he spoke to Eurogamer.

"I've spent well over 25 years studying video game addiction," Dr Griffiths said, before later adding, "Most kids can afford to play three hours a day without it impacting on their education, their physical education and their social networks. Yes, I believe video game addiction exists, and if it is a genuine addiction it may well be as addictive as other more traditional things in terms of signs, symptoms and components. But the good news is it is a very tiny minority who are genuinely addicted to video games."

Dr Griffiths also added that he'd been asked to provide the questionnaire (which is "based on real criteria I use in [his] research"), but hadn't seen the rest of the article published yesterday. "There is no evidence the country is in 'the grip of addiction'," he continued. "Yes, we have various studies showing a small minority have problematic gaming. But problematic gaming doesn't necessarily mean gaming addiction."

Addiction - to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or anything else - is a damaging reality for people all over the world, and in every case, there's a difficult emotional or economic situation behind it. But suggesting that videogames have, through some fuzzily-delineated breakthrough in technology, somehow become as much of a danger to us in recent years as a banned substance is irresponsible and misleading.

The cases cited in the article - a Taiwanese man who suffered a cardiac arrest after playing League Of Legends, a teenager who shot his parents, the suicides mentioned above, and so on - are genuinely tragic, and hint at deep-seated psychological problems among those concerned. There may well be lessons to be learned from them, but is there direct proof that these incidents were all directly caused by playing games? If so, the article doesn't say so. Instead, the entire topic is conveniently topic down into a graphic with the words "Violent Games Brain" printed above it.

The Sun's headline might hint at a genuine concern for the nation's wellbeing, but like all media-led moral panics, it merely serves to sell more newspapers. At the same time, it obfuscates a more nuanced debate about a serious subject.

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