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Video Game Addiction: Kiddicted

Study That Says Video Games Are Addictive Reignites Debate on L.I.


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Part 23 of Our Award-Winning Series “Our Children’s Health”

Sitting comfortably on his computer chair before an Xbox-equipped TV, Victor De Leon III, a fifth grader who turns 11 this week, is the epitome of the average carefree, video game-loving boy. But De Leon is not the typical adolescent. The Mastic boy has an internationally famous alter ego—his gaming fans and adversaries know him better as Lil’ Poison, the world’s youngest professional video game player.

He has earned a Guinness World Record for that feat, frequently places high in national gaming competitions, does appearances with the likes of rapper 50 Cent, was scouted out for corporate endorsements that will one day pay for his college tuition and has a documentary about him currently in production. Still, his father, Victor De Leon II, says “He’s just a normal kid” who happens to be an expert at Halo, a first-person science fiction shooter game.


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But is it all too much for someone so young? “I’m used to it, I’ve been doing this for seven years,” says Lil’ Poison, taking a break from his two-hour-per-weekday practice time with his teammates. Having just made a comeback after taking a year’s sabbatical, he also rattles off a list of other interests: swimming, trombone, basketball, paintball, jujitsu. The list goes on.

“He’s very good at managing his time,” says his father, noting that his son’s grades are above average. “Not a lot of adults can do that.” In the wake of the latest study that suggests nearly one in 10 kids between ages 8 and 18 shows signs of video game addiction, and that those addicted have trouble paying attention at school, receive poorer grades and have more health problems, it seems that Lil’ Poison is not one of the kids to worry about.

Leave that to those who take it too far, like the half-dozen teens who robbed a man in New Hyde Park and later brandished bats, a broomstick and a crowbar at drivers in Garden City last June, then told Nassau police they were imitating Grand Theft Auto. But the GTA Six are the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s those in the middle, who are believed to simply play video games so much that they can’t function in real life—and whether being addicted to video games can be a clinical diagnosis—that is the focus of the latest debate.

GAME ON

Well before Lil’ Poison made his pro gaming debut, Dr. Douglas Gentile, director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) in Minneapolis, Minn., has been researching video games’ effects on children.

“I started studying it to basically show that this isn’t like a real addiction because a real addiction means you have to be damaging your functioning,” Gentile says from his office at Iowa State University, where he is a professor of psychology. “It turned out that I was wrong.

“If this at some point becomes a classified diagnosis along with drug addictions and pathological gambling, for example, it will probably be classified as an impulse control disorder,” he says, noting that he prefers the term pathology to addiction (The title of the study, published online two weeks ago, is “Pathological video game use among youth 8 to 18: A national study”).

“You know you should do your homework, but you can’t control the impulse to play the game instead,” he says. Pathological gamers play twice as much per week than non-pathological gamers, the difference between 12 and 25 hours weekly, he says. He is careful to note that “the problem isn’t the games; the problem is the way they get used.”

Regardless, the NIMF has drawn the ire of the Electronic Software Association (ESA), although that is not surprising, as the two groups are frequently at odds.

“Like all forms of entertainment, computer and video games should be a part of a well-rounded lifestyle that includes healthy eating and exercise,” said Rich Taylor, senior vice president, communications and industry affairs for ESA, in a statement. “It is up to parents to determine when and how often their children should play any game. For our part, the industry already provides a wide range of tools and information, including timers and parental controls.”

ESA called the study a quest for headlines, but the harshest words came from the top ABC News pollster, Gary Langer, who criticizes the poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, in his blog. He called out Gentile for erroneously adding a sampling margin or error of plus or minus 3 percent when that notation was unnecessary because the poll was conducted online and therefore wasn’t a random sampling. He also criticized the methodology, as ABC News polls only use random samplings. ESA took Langer’s commentary as a debunking of the entire study.

Gentile admits he should not have added the margin of error line and will clarify that when the study is published, but says the findings are sound. That 8.5 percent of kids in the studied age group who appear to need clinical help should not be left to suffer in silence as a result of semantics, he says.

“This is really an attempt to obfuscate,” he says. “This national study actually comes up with a prevalence number that’s very similar to the other studies that have been done with smaller samples in different pockets of the country. In fact, it looks pretty valid because it’s not wildly out of line with what we’ve seen with other studies.”

BIT BY BIT

This debate is by no means new. It has been raging since the days of Pong, but because the graphics have grown more gory and sexualized over the years while the industry grew into a mainstay of pop culture, it has only gained steam.

Long Island has been the epicenter of the video game debate since before the advent of the Commodore 64, one of the first home computer systems. In the early 1980s, Ronnie Lamm, a mother of two from Suffolk County and then-president of the Middle Country School District Parent Teacher Association (PTA) council, became the international poster woman for the battle when she petitioned the Brookhaven town board for legislation restricting arcade games’ proximity to schools.

Local media outlets covered the story; then, national publications and networks picked it up—and ran with it. Before long, Lamm became the default spokesperson for the PTA and a lightning rod for calls of oversight and regulation across the country. She appeared on more than 180 television shows and 3,000 radio programs around the world. She voiced the concerns of countless parents, doctors and teachers, warning against video and arcade games’ potentially negative effects on children.

Back then, it was arcade games that were popping up in hotel lobbies, pizza places, bars, strip malls and luncheonettes that were catching kids’ attention, not the latest incarnation of high-tech gaming systems like Xbox and PlayStation. Lamm says her efforts were born out of a shared mission between parents: protecting the children.

“It was a very interesting time of questioning,” Lamm, now a grandmother, tells the Press. “This is something new, something that parents were embracing, possibly for the wrong reason, and school districts at the time had concern about children cutting out of school to go to [play] video games. But our initial concern was the safety of children in bar lobbies, in luncheonettes. Where were these machines? Were they in the backroom? Were they being watched? Children are hanging out here… What was their supervision?”

As a greater awareness of the issues surrounding video games grew and Lamm’s questioning spread to a global audience, it spawned even more questions about the potential negative effects video games posed to impressionable young children. Doctors and parents from around the world weighed in to Lamm, raising concerns about desensitization and addiction.

“We heard from psychologists and [about] the idea of desensitizing children to killing,” says Lamm. “If you press a button and someone dies, it’s a lot different than hearing the screams, seeing the blood, smelling the decay.”

Lamm says that the next time she heard the desensitizing issue brought up on the national stage was in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, in which two students murdered 13 people in a shooting rampage. Some analysts have contended that the killers’ shared interest in playing violent video games could have contributed to their desensitization, and, consequently, their actions and the massacre.

Lamm, who is no longer actively involved in the debate, stresses her belief that video games in and of themselves aren’t the whole problem, but rather just a piece of the greater puzzle.

“I don’t think that any one issue is going to cure the ills of the world,” she says. “I think [we need] good parenting, alert parenting, alert schools… I think Columbine has definitely brought some of this to the fore.”

REMATCH

Video games are a booming business. The industry reported annual U.S. sales of more than $42.6 billion in 2008, up from annual sales of more than $35.9 billion in 2007—an 19 percent climb, according to the NPD Group, a consumer and retail market research firm.

It’s also an evolving field. Colleges and universities across the country have begun adding video game-oriented courses to their curriculum, offering enrollees the chance to design, program and create their own video games.

Hofstra University offers a Video Game Development Summer Camp, where would-be video game programmers between grades 2 and 9 can learn video game design, development, programming and computer modeling and animation. It also hosts a Video Game Design Intensive Workshop for kids in grades 2 to 12.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University offers students a unique, two-year Masters of Entertainment Technology degree. The program, through Carnegie’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), features both video game and interactivity components, says Donald Marinelli, executive director of the Center. Students create specialized interactive games that teach players skills, ranging from the art of the Chinese alphabet to flight simulators to getting kids to exercise, among other projects.

Marinelli says the Center has two steadfast rules regarding the video games created there: No murderous violence and no pornography. He’s quick to point out, however, a different reason for the restrictions than those important to video game activists: “We’re not censoring them; what we’re saying is, can you get more imaginative?”

Marinelli, a professor of drama and arts management who co-founded the Center in 1999, is critical of Gentile’s study. He says it’s common sense that if somebody’s pathologically playing video games to the exclusion of everything else, they probably might be antisocial and have other problems. The same would go for someone pathologically watching football games. Or someone who pathologically eats hummus, he adds.

“As far as that report goes, they found out that if you’re a pathological player of video games you’re a wacko,” he says. “It’s like, no sh*t, Sherlock.”

END GAME

Perhaps it’s programs such as Carnegie’s ETC that are another part of the puzzle that Lamm mentions—transforming a fascination with video games into a lucrative profession in a growing field through specialized skills that create new technology that can better society.

Peter Justeson, a 26-year-old graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s ETC and Stony Brook University (and former video game critic for the Press), is a perfect example of this. Captivated by video games throughout his youth, he sought out schools with good reputations in computer science, with a goal of working toward game development. He’s currently working for developer Avatar Reality, living near the beach in Honolulu.

“Video games actually offer a lot of potential benefits to society,” says Justeson. “Some games like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit are ironically encouraging people to exercise more, there’s a training program for surgeons that uses video games to improve their hand-eye coordination and dexterity, and many people are exploring the educational potential that video games offer.

“Still, a lot of the potential benefits of games are even now just potential because games are largely unexplored beyond an entertainment medium,” he adds. “With the increased attention and broadening audience, I expect to see a lot more experimentation with what can be done with games as a medium.”

When it comes to reports such as Gentile’s, even a former video game activist like Lamm agrees that it’s what society does with the findings that’s the most important.

“The study in itself is of no value unless parents have read it,” she says. “Parents will now take the initiative.”

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