Governor Gavin Newsom of California has just signed a law that requires social media companies to ensure that new products are not harmful to minors. Facebook Facebook Instagram Instagram and TikTok are the focus of big Tech and social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Video games are flying under the radar, despite the fact that children in the US spend much more time playing video games than engaging on social media, according to a recent report by Common Sense Media.
Last year, China acted: it banned minors from playing video games on school days and more than an hour on weekends and holidays. Teenagers then flocked to livestreaming platforms to watch others play their favorite games, so a new procedure prevents children from watching livestreams after 10 am. The goal is to reduce gambling addiction or, as the Chinese government calls it, “spiritual opium” because of concerns about how it harms mental health and academic studies.
Such bans may sound outrageous even for an authoritarian country like China. But as a gaming entrepreneur in the US for 13 years and the father of two young daughters, I don’t think parents are doing enough to protect children from the potential harms of video games.
In 2009, I co-founded Storm8v, a video game developer. I have launched more than 50 mobile games. These have been downloaded more than a billion times and have generated sales of more than $1 billion.
I am very familiar with gambling addiction because this is what I have been thinking about every day for more than a decade. (We sold the company in 2020.) I hired product managers and engineers to track players’ actions and analyze their behaviour. Based on the data we collected, we experimented with each feature of our games to find out which versions allowed us to get the most time and money out of our players. For us, gambling addiction was intended by nature: it meant success for our business.
Here is an example of how addiction is cultivated when playing. If you have played mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, you know the concept of “life.” You get five lives a day; every time you lose a game, you lose a life. If you run out of lives, you will be able to play again once your stock is replenished. Why you might ask, would anyone get addicted if the developers prevent players from playing as much as they like?
I used the same mechanics in my games, and that’s how I explained them to my engineering team. Suppose I have a delicious chocolate cake. If I give you the whole cake, you could eat it at once because it’s the best cake you’ve ever had. But you will probably “overdose” and may not want to touch chocolate cakes anymore. What if I gave you a tiny piece every day instead? Gradually, you will develop a daily habit, and you could buy 10 cakes from me.
The ultimate goal is to develop habit-forming games where players come back every day. In other words, it takes away the decision-making. We wanted people to reach for their phones in the morning and jump into our games just as they check their social media and emails.
For a long time, I did not see any problem. I saw our mission as bringing joy and entertainment to the players. That changed when my two toddlers got old enough to be interested in playing the exact games I had built. When I thought about my games in the hands of my daughters, I had to deal with what these products were and what they could afford. Knowing all the techniques by which we tried to provoke addiction, I realized that I did not want to expose my children to this risk. My daughters are now 3 and 4 years old, and I haven’t shown them any games I’ve designed.
Gaming disorders” can “lead to significant impairments in personal, family, social, educational, professional or other important functional areas.”
The exaggerated experiences and rewards built into video games can stimulate our brains to release dopamine. Dopamine, the powerful “feel-good” neurotransmitter, motivates us to seek more of these pleasurable activities. This can lead to addictive behaviour.
A recent study followed adolescent video game players for six years. Most were able to enjoy playing without harmful consequences. But a significant minority, 10 per cent, developed pathological tendencies related to video games, including difficulty stopping the game. Compared to the other group in the study, these players showed higher levels of depression, aggression, shyness, problematic phone use, and anxiety as they entered adulthood.
I am not proud of the fact that I helped to promote these problems. I tell my daughters that I make board games, as they play them at school. Whenever I encourage my daughters to strive to make a positive difference in the world, I wonder if I have done the same.
I am not suggesting that we regulate video games as China has done. But here are three ways how we should think about solving this problem:
Start with parent training. Parents must be aware of the negative effects of the video games they may be letting their children play. I understand that sometimes we have to occupy our children, and giving them a phone is very tempting. But we have to be better gatekeepers.
Changing behaviour is hard if you can’t measure it first. Use tools like Apple’s screen time or Google’s digital well—being to create an awareness of how much time you or your children spend on games – you will be surprised.
Finally, find a balance. Games, of course, can be fun; we just need to find moderation. Growing up, my parents pushed me to eat more vegetables and fruits. Because technology is an integral part of our lives, we need to treat digital well-being like physical well-being and encourage behaviours that are good for us.
I have realized that I also have a role to play that goes beyond my daughters’ safety. In the future, I decided to use my knowledge of video game design forever to try to design educational games that are more engaging.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a mathematics program for young children at the Stanford Haas Center for Public Services. I worked with two kindergarten children and saw how technology and games could help them learn. I asked them what they were interested in and created math games with topics they liked.
The children were delighted to play the games, and in two months, they went from skipping numbers when counting to accurately counting from 1 to 100 and even simple addition. Nevertheless, I believe much more is waiting for children beyond this screen.
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