Playing with their future

Neerja Singh

At any given time, hundreds of school students sit through the night, staring at their screens, manipulating the creatures on their gaming consoles in a bid to save the world. The battles online are more real to them than their struggles in real life. So addictive is this gaming whirl that young people can’t bring themselves to make it to school the following day. And their schools are often caught in a bind. Should they strike their names off their registers or extend a compassionate support to the young lives?

There have been alarming news reports giving gaming its negative image. Reports of self-harm on being scolded for playing games during exams; on being refused an expensive phone to play PUBG; on interventions by parents to end their child’s gaming obsession. The adults in these young lives undoubtedly could not have imagined that what appeared like a minor affliction or a childish tantrum would transform their lives forever.

The screen is a reactive place. It incites impulses and emotions. The pace leaves no time to think. And there is the myth of internet anonymity. It doesn’t bode well that the most common age group that ends up being addicted to gaming is 15 to 19 years. For most, the acquaintance with gaming starts much earlier, at age 10 for many. By then, family time is taken over by the gaming console and that is bound to have repercussions. More the gadgets, lesser the communication within families. Gaming is clearly by then, no longer just a game.

Take the case of Ayush. An easy-going 13-year-old, popular with his friends, he was always susceptible to peer pressure. The influence heightened when he moved to a residential school. Within months, he began to put on weight, his grades began to fall and there was loss of interest in everything around him. The school allowed students to play computer games every weekend for several hours. But the problem was that they owned phones and laptops too. There was no regulation of what they were doing on those gadgets. The school believed that the students had to learn to make the right choices. Ayush’s parents pulled him out of the school and fortunately for the family, the story ended well.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

Not everyone is as lucky. The animations and graphics are so compelling that the players fail to register when a day ends and another begins. Worse, initially the game companies may trick the gamer into thinking it is all free. But once downloaded, they are asked to pay to be able to earn points or simply to go to the next stage. With many young people no longer playing on the fields or hanging out in parks, they end up interacting over gaming. They roam free there in the virtual world that offers a sense of accomplishment that real life does not. It is an escape from the hard work, frustration and pressures of homework, relationships, feelings, anxieties. What’s more, a friend can always abandon you but not so a game.

In 2018, WHO listed gaming addiction as a mental health disorder. The organization described it as ‘a pattern of gaming behaviour characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities.” In a country that is still not able to face mental health issues squarely, it is quite possible for families to miss the red flags.

There is the other risk of age-inappropriate content being pushed at the unsuspecting young gamers. What is worrisome is that the responsible adults in the children’s lives either seem blind or plain resigned to this toxic distraction. Most urban homes today resemble the internet cafes of the 90s. And the young resist any attempts to arrest their obsession, many a time responding with fury. It is not uncommon for a game to continue non-stop for 16 to 17 hours. The rationale amongst the community is that gamers love what they do and that is more special than most others have in their lives. Numb fingers and sore eyes seem like a small price to pay to be able to get through the days happily and even with some peace.

It is true that young children did not just conjure up a game like Fortnite on their own. Prevention therefore makes far more sense than a post-mortem. Many families think they can take care of the problem at home quietly but there is fine line between being sporty and obsessive. The latter can result in bad dreams, even nightmares. It is therefore crucial to acknowledge rather than just resign to the addiction. Gaming has the potential to take the young in the direction of substance use, sleep deprivation and then further up to the use of addictive medications to keep awake.

While the global economy was going into recession during the initial lockdowns, the global video games industry continued to thrive. During the first quarter of 2020, Twitch which is the most popular video streaming platform with 15 million daily active users and 3 million monthly creators, saw a 24 per cent increase over the last quarter of 2019. Indians began participating in online tournaments due to social distancing.

The question to ask is whether video gaming is all bad. It is in fact, credited with improving eye-hand coordination and multitasking skills. Games test the player’s creative cognitive abilities and are known to improve concentration and problem solving skills. They can enhance visual and audial memory. Modern education institutions are known to have incorporated video games as part of their teaching methodology. What better way to enhance creative skills than through a fun and entertaining format? When players work together as co-players and multi-players towards a common goal, the team relationships go beyond the screen.

The bitter truth remains however that residential rehabilitation for gaming-addiction resembles protocols used to treat alcohol and cocaine addiction. Behaviour change and therapy are the primary methods of treating game addiction. While some centres use family, group and individual therapies only, others incorporate gaming medications too in their treatment plans. It is important to start the treatment, avoid triggers and stay committed to recovery.

Adults need to engage with the gaming world their children inhabit from a place of alert information and empathy. The young are not just playing games online, they in fact may be playing with their future.

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational empathy with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at and

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