Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Daily Story 69 - Mario Ruined My Life!

I like video games. I don't like shooting games that much, and I have troubles playing games where the main character is an idiot, because they force me to behave in a way that I never would, and it's just painful to sit through a lecture from the other characters even though I would have respected the rules if the game had given me a stinking choice *coughFinalFantasyXcoughcough* but hey, maybe that's just me. The ones that I like best are the ones that have some kind of plot, cute characters, and don't have some confusing as heck battle system that takes forever to figure out. The ones that you could swear were developed by a bunch of guys on weed are pretty awesome, too, because they appeal to my sense of humor.

I see a lot of the positive aspects to video games. So when I see articles like this one, I tend to get a little peeved. Not because I want to defend my precious video games, but because the argument it tries to make is flawed and could in fact cause parents to handle a video game addiction in a way that causes more problems than it solves. See, I haven't become addicted to video games, but I have had times where they have distracted me from more important things in life, but this isn't because I fell victim to the horrible addicting force of video games, but because there was an underlying Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that made it difficult for me to prioritize. So, allow me to explain why I feel that this article does nothing to help children with gaming addictions, starting with the reasons that many kids are getting into hardcore gaming to begin with. First, let's look at what the article has to say on the subject:

"Greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence, and greater impulsivity seemed to act as risk factors for becoming pathological gamers..."

Look at it this way: if someone doesn't have the greatest social skills, then of course video games are going to be appealing. They're engaging, but they don't require incredible social prowess for the player to interact with the characters within the game. Your character's personality and response to others is programmed in, so all you have to do is go through and activate cutscenes. In other words, it's like being social with fictional characters, but the game does all the hard work for you. Honestly, how could that not appeal to someone who can barely get through a day at school without feeling like a social failure? As for that 'greater impulsivity' bit, yeah, video games are pretty good at occupying that bit of the human mind that impulsive people have a hard time getting to shut up. Without video games, this part of the brain would either remain unsatisfied or be occupied with some other semi-mindless task. For me, it's usually listening to music, drawing, or filling in coloring books that work the best at keeping this part of my mind occupied. Video games are simply an easily accessible entity that happens to be very good at satisfying that part of our brains that would otherwise drive us insane with its constant restlessness. And then that part about greater amounts of gaming... well, if you introduce something that is attractive to people with lower social competence and/or greater impulsivity, of course they're going to get obsessive over it if they get to do it a lot.

So, in short, someone like me would turn to video games because it fills a need that can't be filled in school or anywhere else. A need that already existed, not one that was created by the games themselves. Now, let's see what the article has to say about the results of constant gaming:

"...whereas depression, anxiety, social phobias, and lower school performance seemed to act as outcomes of pathological gaming."

Okay, so are we sure that this is strictly because of the video games and not an issue the kids would have developed regardless of whether they've turned into hardcore gamers? I mean, let's look at the risk factors again. Lower social competence and greater impulsivity. Last time I checked, both of those were related closely with anxiety disorders, so isn't it possible that the whole gaming thing is just a coincidence? Or, you know, also an outcome of the disorder that was already there by the time these kids started their hardcore gaming?

Now, you might say, "but what if there was no evidence of the children having this disorder before they became addicted to video games?" and all I can say in response is this: take two seconds to google 'anxiety disorders in children' and you'll see why this is one of those issues that gets me really riled up. Or heck, I'll save you the trouble and quote an article about anxiety disorders in children (link):

"According to the most recent data, the lifetime prevalence for anxiety disorders as a whole in adults is about 25%; the frequency in children is unknown, but felt to be significantly underreported and under-diagnosed. More specifically Social Anxiety Disorder has a lifetime risk of 17%, while Panic Disorder occurs in approximately 1-3% of the adult population.

"Although quite common, Anxiety Disorders in children often are overlooked or misjudged, despite them being very treatable conditions with good, persistent medical care.What does seem to be developing in the medical literature is the consensus that many “adult” psychiatric disorders likely have their first (although perhaps subtle or ignored) manifestations in childhood, and that if left untreated these anxiety disorders in children likely progress to adult versions."

I would definitely recommend reading the entire article, because it explains the issue of anxiety disorders in children very well, but I'm just going to focus on the lines I bolded in the above paragraphs. Notice the theme here? This kind of disorder doesn't always get noticed. Heck, I went through a full-on psychological evaluation in middle school and I didn't get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder until I was in college, after I had taken a basic psychology course, learned about social phobias, realized how closely it matched up with my own life, and began counseling with the anxiety theme as my focus. And yet, all my teachers would comment on how shy I was and how that was impeding my ability to participate in class. In other words, it was painfully obvious, and yet it didn't get diagnosed until I was an adult. So really, I wouldn't be surprised if some of these 'hardcore gamer kids' already suffered from an (overlooked) anxiety disorder before they developed their gaming addiction. Correlation does not always imply causation, people.

Also notice that the video game article says about 9% of the children studied were hard-core gamers. Looking at a few different pages about anxiety disorders (and mental disorders in general) it seems that at least 13% of children have an anxiety disorder of some kind. I'm willing to bet that there's some fairly major overlap between those two groups. Keep in mind, too, that anxiety and depression tend to be strongly associated with each other (read here for more info).

And now we come to my favorite part of the whole article: "And researchers connect the dots by saying the risk factors and behaviors could set the stage for long-term mental illness."

Because clearly these kids weren't headed on that path already. Yes, it's all Mario's fault that these kids are struggling with anxiety and depression. This has absolutely nothing to do with the way the child's brain is wired, it's all the fault of those pesky games that teach children horrible, horrible things that can never be unlearned.

Now, I am by no means arguing that video game addictions aren't a problem. They are. Personally, I've forgotten to eat meals because I was too busy playing a game, and I could give a few more personal examples showing how it can be a bad thing. However, whether video game addictions exist is not as important an issue as the reason video game addictions exist, and I am a firm believer that pathological gaming is not the cause of mental illness, but rather the result of mental illness. If your child is becoming a video game addict, then you would be doing a far greater service to your child to search for any underlying causes that might exist, and while it would be good to limit your child's access to video games, taking them away entirely or punishing the child for their excessive gaming habits is only going to make things worse, because as I've said before (link), having an undiagnosed disorder is painful. It makes you feel like you're not good enough because you can't behave the way people expect you to behave. So sure, taking away a kid's Nintendo might stop them from going on 10-hour gaming sprees all the time, but it's not going to change the way they feel about themselves. To solve the problems that result after excessive gaming, you need to address everything that could have caused these problems, which includes the gaming addiction itself and anything else that could be happening in the gamer's life, including whatever might have caused the addiction in the first place.

Just because you can't see a disorder doesn't mean it isn't there, and just because most disorders aren't diagnosed until the patient is an adult doesn't mean it didn't affect them as a child. My disorder is as much a part of me as my skin tone and hair color, and it's time we stopped blaming outside sources for inside problems when in reality, it's almost always the other way around.

Disclaimer: This is my own view on the subject, and as such some of the information used in my argument may not be 100% accurate.

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