Experts compare video gaming to gambling

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TORONTO - It starts innocently, as a time filler on a bus or a stress buster after a hard day at the office.

If playing time is cutting into time spent with family or other life activities, it may be a problem.

But as the shiny gems of Bejeweled Blitz or Candy Crush’s brightly-coloured bonbons burst in a satisfying cascade of explosions, you may find your playing takes a more compulsive tone.


A few minutes may turn into an hour and you still haven’t loaded the dishwasher, picked up the book you are reading or engaged in a conversation with your partner or kids.


The fact is, some of these games can really hook users, experts say. And while there may be net gain to playing for many people, you may want to keep an eye on how much time you are devoting to them and what it is costing you, both in terms of what you aren’t doing as a consequence and sometimes even what you pay to play.


“It’s not a problem unless it’s causing problems,” says Dr. Bruce Ballon, a psychiatrist who developed the gambling, gaming and Internet use clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.


“But some people forget it is actually causing problems, such as ‘Oh, I’m not hanging out with my family as much anymore,’ ‘My kids are getting angry about it’ or ‘I’m playing these games in the middle of dinner.”’


Ballon created his clinic because he recognized the similarities between Internet and video games and gambling. “There are huge parallels,” he says, suggesting the visual and audio cues as well as hidden costs built into some games are very much like online gambling.


“It’s inherently reinforcing,” Susan Whitbourne, a psychologist who studies casual video game playing, says of this type of entertainment. “They know what they’re doing when they make these things. They’re designed to be engaging and exciting and pretty.”


Both Whitbourne and Ballon insist these games have good qualities, both as stress relievers (Ballon) and potentially as cognitive training tools for older adults (Whitbourne).


For instance, Whitbourne says the need to constantly scan an evolving field of play and respond rapidly to those changes mirrors the skills drivers need. Practising them by playing these types of games may slow the decline of driving skills in older adults, she and others hope.


Whitbourne, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wasn’t looking into the addictive aspects of the game when she started the study, though her own personal experience perhaps might have led her there.


She was introduced to the game by a student, and remembers thinking: “Wow, this is really making me respond a lot more quickly than I feel comfortable doing. I wonder what that’s about?”


When Whitbourne started looking into it and similar games, she found there was very little research on them. When she wrote about their potential for sharpening cognitive health on her blog at Psychology Today, PopCap, the company that makes Bejeweled Blitz, asked if she’d like help studying it. They posted a link to a survey she devised on their Facebook page. “I got 10,000 people overnight. It crashed the server.”


She wasn’t aiming to see if people found it addictive. But in a section where people could make additional comments about the game, a surprising number raised the issue. In fact, 14.7 per cent of 10,308 respondents offered that they found the game had addictive qualities.

- The Canadian Press

Organizations: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Geographic location: Toronto

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