The Chinese multinational Tencent announced last week that it will include facial recognition in its games to identify when minors connect. It thus seeks to ensure that the government-imposed curfew that prevents children from playing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. is observed. Debates on the sidelines about whether China takes another turn of the screw in citizen control, the movement of the company, owner of sector references such as Epic Games (Fortnite) and Riot Games (League of Legends), puts on the table what is the degree of responsibility of developers to prevent or alleviate addictions. In the West, companies have barely gone beyond the incorporation of parental control mechanisms. Experts believe that, without going to dystopian extremes, more could be done and point to parents as the best filter.
To begin with, something can be done from the game design. The structure of some of them makes it easier to fall into addiction, although it does not explain the problem in its entirety. As Alberto Oliván, narrative video game designer argues, it is easy to get hooked on titles close to random, based on slot machine mechanics. It refers to those who base their experience on opening cashiers, pay-to-win and dedication of huge hours. “Addictions take advantage of a design flaw in our brain where the reward circuits are overstimulated. All products that take advantage of such error, exploit the most intimate factor of the human being. It seems immoral for a company to benefit from this, ”he adds.
The World Health Organization (WHO) included video game addiction as a disorder in 2019. Despite the fact that until next year it will not officially appear in the lists of diseases, it understands that the behavior pattern of those affected by this disorder is serious enough to suffer a “significant deterioration at a personal, family, social, educational level, occupational or other important areas of operation ”. And if we talk about minors, the debate becomes even more important due to the ease with which they can be attracted to it. gaming,or hooked in 5.5% of the cases according to a study by the Jaume I University of Castellón.
Companies are uncomfortable with this debate. Few speak about this reality or simply take refuge in one of its preventive tools. In Nintendo they allude to the parental control available in its most recent game console, the Nintendo Switch. It has a app mobile from which to limit the playing time, which, once reached, warns the child that their time is up gaming. It also controls what they play and restricts access to the titles that those in charge decide. From Sony they suggest a similar mechanism for their PlayStation. A parental control incorporated in the console with which to limit spending in the store on-line or play time. And up to here. Apart from these options, corporate silence reigns.
The love of video games is the majority among adolescents. The 2020 yearbook on this industry in Spain, prepared by the Spanish Association of Videogames (AEVI), shows that 71% of those between 12 and 24 years old play daily, dedicating an average of 7.5 hours per week. A time away from more than 12 hours in the United Kingdom and almost nine in France and Germany. The figures would surely be smaller without developers who do not stop publishing more and more titles. The question is how companies can prevent the addiction of the little ones while promoting products designed just to entertain.
Developers indirectly push parents to take on the role of firewall. They leave under their responsibility that the little ones do not fall into addiction, no matter how much games launch warnings of the importance of healthy consumption or warnings that we have been in front of the screen for many hours. For Gabriela Paoli, an expert psychologist in technological addictions, it would be convenient to explain to the children how the industry works and what their relationship with it should be. “We must avoid using games as an emotional pacifier, to distract or calm them, because there we have lost the battle. It is important to see what the game is about, what the theme is, what objectives it raises and whether they are, in addition to games, bearers of the values that you want to transmit to your children ”, he says.
Marian García, director of Orbium Desarrollo, knows perfectly the problems caused by this addiction, such as social distancing, mood swings or academic failure. Hand in hand with the workshops that he has launched in different institutes, he has seen how more and more adolescents are hooked. The reasons, he argues, are based on speed, immediacy, positive reinforcement, hiding one’s real identity, escaping from outside problems and the ease of starting to play. “I have seen children who spend an average of 75 euros a month on internal purchases of video games. Or kids with a lot of anxiety for not spending so many hours on-line with his teammates and stay behind in a game, “he says.
One of the solutions advocated by García, who considers that Spain lacks the necessary infrastructure to adequately treat this disorder, would be for the companies themselves to make treatments available to affected families. Or subsidize in some way the centers that address this problem. “In other areas, companies promote research. Why not do it in this field, that of technological addictions? ”He asks. “The mobiles are present every time from small. I do not know if society is prepared to digest the debate well. The use of new technologies requires adaptation and there is hardly any education about it ”, he says.
It is difficult to find solutions beyond appealing to business ethics, critical thinking or the common sense of families. In the background, individual freedom collides, no matter how young the players are, with a business activity based on digital leisure. China has opted for tight control, but in Europe legislation is unlikely to go in the same direction. At best, in the interest of moving towards responsible consumption, some experts look towards the regulation that is beginning to occur with bookmakers on-line. Restrict hours, access or advertising slots. Neither should you demonize an industry as a whole, but the potential risk exists and it is trading higher.
Some developers acknowledge that their awareness of the problem has increased after learning that the disorder is on the rise. Observing teenagers addicted to a product designed to entertain, although with some titles the limits move between very narrow margins, they do not like it. They are aware of their social role and of the sensitive material they handle in the studios. “The question is not just making money, which is important, but how you want to get it. You do not care? Do you care about the players? Do you want to make products that make them enjoy and reflect? We have a responsibility when creating videogames ”, concludes Oliván.