Shoot to thrill: Is gaming just a harmless hobby?
The growing popularity of addictive, violent games like Fortnite, which are played predominantly by men, has caused widespread concern. But is it justified? Alex Meehan reports
Ask most people what their idea of a stereotypical player of video games is, and the odds are the answer will be a teenage boy.
But taken as a group, not only are most gamers not teenagers, they're also almost equally likely to be women as men. Recent research from the US-based Entertainment Software Association shows that the average age of gamers there is 34 years old, and women aged over 18 make up a significantly greater portion of the video game-playing population, at 33pc, than boys under 18.
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However, while men and women enjoy games more or less equally, figures show they don't play the same kinds of games, and more violent action and adventure games make up a disproportionate percentage of the games men play. Women are more likely to play puzzle and social games than they are titles like Fortnite and Call of Duty.
And it's these violent games that are most likely to attract public attention and be the source of concern at their impact on players. Recently Prince Harry turned his attentions to the wildly popular online game Fortnite, calling for it to be banned.
"That game shouldn't be allowed. Where is the benefit of having it in your household? It's created to addict, an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible. It's so irresponsible," he told the BBC during an event in London a few weeks ago.
This free-to-play game pits 100 players against each other over the internet and has been a huge success for its makers, Epic Games. Launched in 2017, it has attracted more than 250 million registered players around the world and according to Epic it's achieved the remarkable feat of having 10.8 million people playing at the same time. Almost three quarters of these players are male.
But is the moral panic around these types of games justified? The research is unclear; some studies have suggested a link between playing violent games and increased teenage aggression, but many more have found no such link. Nevertheless, the perception that they are in some way dangerous persists.
"There's a subculture of people who do these things to excess. If you're a lonely or depressed person, then games can be a great escape mechanism, but I don't think that's inherent to gaming. I've never gone that deep into that place, but I know people who have," says Alan Pepper, a 35-year-old games enthusiast from Marino in Dublin.
"I've been playing games pretty much my entire life. When I was very young my brother had a ZX Spectrum and so I was exposed to games by watching him. In my house, it was normal for people to listen to an album, watch TV, read a book and play a video game - that's the world I was born into."
Pepper works in digital communications and marketing and describes himself as a moderate gamer but says that in his youth he played a lot more.
"When I was younger, I put way more time into gaming than I do now, but that's true of lots of hobbies. People have more time in their teens and 20s. Today I play for an hour or two every evening but I don't see how that's different from people who come in from work and watch Game of Thrones or a boxset on Netflix," he says.
"Yes, there is a stereotype of the sad lonely man who sits in a dark room and only plays games and doesn't have any social skills but that kind of person exists in the movie world and in the TV world as well.
"They exist in general, it's not something unique to gaming, it's just the people that are attracted to them."
In Pepper's opinion, there is a lot of pressure to be a certain way in life, to say the right things and be the right thing.
"Some people can deal with that and some people can't. And those that can't can end up down a gaming rabbit hole, but you can also find guys in their 30s running for six hours at a time on a Saturday and they could just as much be escaping from their problems as some guy sitting in his house playing video games," he says.
Pepper owns a Playstation4, a Nintendo Switch and a PC that all get used for playing games. As far as he's concerned, gaming is actually a mainstream hobby that just seems to go under the radar of the mainstream media.
"The first tab on the Google Play store is for games. Google isn't messing about with that - everyone is playing games. Your mum is playing games, you're playing games - they're everywhere. It might just be solitaire or word games on your phone but that doesn't matter, it's all still gaming."
Nevertheless gaming can have a dark side. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included video game addiction in its International Classification of Diseases for the first time, and there are now therapy centres in Ireland treating the problem.
Austin Prior is an addiction counsellor and board member of the Rutland Centre, which treats people for video game addiction in Dublin. "With gaming, a key indication that there is a problem is when the amount of time someone spends playing games starts to impact with other aspects of their life. I've come across people who spend too much time late at night gaming with a knock-on effect that they don't make it into work or college on time or don't get assignments done on time. For people with families, it's about people playing so much games that they start to neglect their responsibilities," he says.
"It's like any addiction, if your gaming is impacting negatively on your life then you need to cut down or stop. The difficulty arises for some people when they try to cut down and find they can't."
On the face of it, video game addiction doesn't seem like a particularly damaging form of addiction, compared to drugs, alcohol or gambling but according to Prior it can present real difficulties for sufferers and their families.
"Interesting, I've seen very few people actually presenting with the problem but I get a lot of phone calls from the parents of young men who think their son has a problem and usually the son doesn't agree that's the case," says Prior.
"With gaming, we're definitely in an area where it's a problem that's bubbling under the surface. There are a lot of people out there who are convinced they don't have a problem but others around them don't agree. Maybe they don't see any negative consequences just yet in their life but that can change as they grow older and have more responsibilities."
But is gaming itself a negative thing to do? Are games in and of themselves intrinsically addictive? Prior thinks that it's not the activity that's necessarily bad but rather it's the attitude the player has towards it. He also thinks that in some ways, gaming can have a lot of similarities to gambling.
The reason? Game developers spend a lot of time, energy and money on making their games as enjoyable and playable as possible. Depending on the payment model, the longer a player spends in the game, the more likely they are to pay for upgrades and character improvements. Making a game addictive can make it more profitable.
"The thing that makes gaming addictive is the element of risk. If you always won, it wouldn't be interesting but because you have to keep coming back to try to win, there's an element of unpredictability that hooks people in. It's not unlike the person spending hours in front of a Las Vegas-style one-armed bandit, they're pulling the lever to engage with risk," says Prior.
"And it's similar in the context of lost time. People often think I'll just play for an hour and then find they've been there for four or five hours and they've missed a deadline, or it's 5am and they have to be up for work or college in two hours' time."