The New Zealand video and computer games industry is booming - raking in $548 million in 2018 alone. However, there is a dark side to its success.
Amanda Smith, a Youth Worker at Te Ora Hau Ōtautahi, has witnessed video gaming addiction first-hand.
Through her work, Amanda says she’s seen many children grow dependent on video games or online devices.
She says children such as those in unsafe home environments, in foster care, and young people left to their own devices are most susceptible.
The most extreme case she has seen has been a 13-year-old boy in her extended family who was addicted to Fortnite.
“It [gaming] was the only escape from his mother's abuse,” Amanda says.
“He’s broken a TV, and a controller when we tried to take it off him ... one time he even pulled a knife on the neighbour. He also stole his grandmother’s debit card and used the money to buy accessories and upgrades”.
The WHO definition
Just last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially added video game addiction — characterised by "a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour" that "takes precedence over other life interests" — to their International Classification of Diseases database.
The classification is the first time the disorder has been officially defined.
An Auckland University study suggests video gaming addictions affect up to three percent of the New Zealand population.
Official numbers of video gaming addiction in New Zealand are not available due to District Health Boards and many other frontline services not keeping records of numbers..
New Zealand has more game developers per capita than any other country in the world.
A Digital New Zealand study, states two-thirds of New Zealanders play video games, and nine out of ten New Zealand households have at least one device for playing video games.
What is gaming addiction?
James Driver is a psychotherapist and New Zealand’s leading expert on gaming addiction.
He explains video games, alongside apps and websites, become compulsive to a person because they meet psychological needs that a person is otherwise struggling to find.
Before becoming a psychotherapist, Driver himself suffered from a gaming disorder.
“My social circle became almost entirely people that I would game with, and my sole source of challenge and excitement in life became gaming - meaning that my social skills and ability to find meaningful challenge and excitement outside of gaming became worse over time,” he says.
Driver receives up to 20 requests a year from parents or teenagers who are worried about video gaming addiction. Now fully booked, he is trying to train other clinicians to be able to work with this issue.
Gaming and gambling – a blurred line
Experts are worried about the similarities between online gaming and gambling such as ‘loot boxes’ - a digital container of randomised rewards, which can be purchased with real money.
Andree Froude, spokesperson for the Problem Gambling Foundation, says loot boxes are something that gambling regulators around the world are grappling with.
“We are seeing many game developers use techniques used in the gambling industry to keep people playing and engaged in the game,” she says.
A study published last year in the Royal Society Open Science journal found "loot boxes either cause problem gambling among older adolescents, allow game companies to profit from adolescents with gambling problems for massive monetary rewards, or both of the above".
What is the gaming industry doing?
The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association represents the voice of Australian and New Zealand companies in the computer and video games industry.
MetroNews approached the association with several questions but they were unable to provide a response.
However, in a statement on their website, the IGEA claims WHOs classification of video gaming disorder is not "based on sufficiently robust evidence to justify inclusion in one of the WHO's most important norm-setting tools".
They also dispute that ‘loot boxes’ encourage gambling stating that “Loot boxes and virtual items in video games are only useable in-game and cannot be “cashed out” for real money and therefore “do not have value outside of the game in the real world”.
"The industry is transparent about in-game purchases – ensuring that prices are displayed correctly, descriptions are accurate, and marketplaces are as clear, as possible,” it states.
A call for more regulations
Massey University’s Dr Aaron Drummond says loot boxes clearly have monetary value or else people would not purchase them.
He’s calling for legislators to recognise the value of virtual items and consider regulating loot box sales.
In June Dr Drummond led a team of international experts to complete the paper, ‘Why loot boxes could be regulated as gambling’.
The research focused on whether virtual items obtained in video games have real-world value, and whether they can be regulated under existing gambling legislation.
In 2018, he also undertook research that found nearly half of the games analysed met all five of the psychological criteria to be considered a form of gambling. Further work on the issue earlier this year showed that problem gambling symptoms of Australian, New Zealand, and U.S. gamers, are associated with greater loot box purchasing.
Dr Drummond wants the Government to improve consumer awareness through content warnings and to implement age ratings that accurately reflect gambling and gambling-like content within video games.
What is the Government doing?
The Department of Internal Affairs began a review of online gambling including gaming last year. It is still underway.
Gambling Regulatory System Director Chris Thornborough explains the problem with gambling-like aspects of video games, is they are not technically defined as gambling according to the current law.
“Aspects of online games such as loot boxes fall in a legislative gap between the Gambling Act and the Classification Act,” he explains.
Thornborough says the department is exploring ways to verify age on online gambling sites, monitoring online trends and is encouraging the gaming industry to adopt voluntary warnings on games.
Netsafe has received several reports related to gaming addiction or raising concerns about possible addiction.
The Classifications Office has also had a number of complaints and enquiries from concerned parents about video games and gambling or gambling-like behaviours.
Shiyi Redpath, a Senior Classification Advisor, says; “International research has shown that the link between loot boxes and problem gambling is twice as strong in adolescents as it is in adults”.
Despite this, she does not believe tougher classifications or age restrictions are needed.
“Our research shows that our classifications are broadly in line with the expectations of most New Zealanders … however, a broader review of media regulation in NZ could well focus on problematic gaming or compulsive behaviour, along with things like loot boxes”.
For the time being, she says the most effective measures are education, screen time, and use of parental apps and family filters.