A Curious Exchange on Gambling

I belong to the school of thought that views happiness as a state of emotional equilibrium in which one's desires and material expectations are socially and environmentally sustainable. Should one feel unable to attain the required dose of desires in a highly competitive setting, this can indeed lead to much misery. The broad theme I'd like to develop is that the mass entertainment industry would be more aptly named the misery industry. One does not need access to official statistics to claim that the gambling, booze and video-gaming industries, all growth sectors under New Labour, are responsible for many severe cases of emotional disturbances, in which short term thrills are soon offset by long term compulsive obsessions, bankruptcy, ill-health (lack of exercise, substance abuse) and depression.

I contacted Dr Mark Griffiths, professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, to enquire about the nature of his research. I had read his name in a letter to the Guardian newspaper (praising government policy) and in much Internet research on the psychological effects of gaming (either gambling or video-gaming, especially of the violent first-person shooter kind). Not surprisingly, though in true academic style erring on the side caution, Dr Griffiths works were nearly always cited by those defending the industry.

On 4/6/06 2:05 pm, "Neil Gardner" <neilgardner63@f2s.com> wrote:

Dear Mr Griffin (horror of horrors I used the wrong name and inadvertently downgraded a professor to a mere esquire),

I am writing a book about the psychosocial causes of the new generation of psychiatric labels, chiefly AS, OCD, ADHD and Tourettes. Although there may be genetic markers for the emergence of the traits associated with these new categories, I would dispute that they are primarily genetic in origin, but may develop as a result of chiefly environmental and some other physiological factors.

Childhood exposure to electronic media has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, broadly speaking the same time-frame in which these new mental disorders have gained prominence in the public psyche. I am not suggesting a direct causal link between ADHD and excessive exposure to TV or violent video games, but the latter certainly affect behaviour with dramatic effects in some vulnerable and emotionally deprived individuals. More important recent economic and technological changes have led to new patterns of socialisation with greater emphasis on presentation or smarminess.

Many contend that the entertainment industry merely responds to public demand, e.g. people like gambling, so business responds by offering gambling opportunities. Call me naive, but within 10 minutes walk of my flat in Cricklewood London are 3 William Hills, 2 Paddy Powers, 1 Gaming Centre and a Bingo Hall. Prominent adverts for gambling sites appear on billboards, buses, high-profile news Websites and in my e-mail inbox. As a Java/PHP programmer and database engineer I have been contacted to work on several gambling web sites, something I have refused. So if addiction to gambling had no environmental causes, then why would advertisers spend literally millions on attracting new gullible punters?

I note on your site:

Some of our research and consultancy is conducted in conjunction with and supported by the gaming industry as well as from academic research grants. We can offer our research services to investigate any of the areas outlined above.

Very few organisations (if any) can offer the depth of psychological knowledge on gaming that we can offer. We can carry out primary and secondary research, provide consultancy expertise, and promote staff development and training through helping staff understand the customer and their working environment and through brand development by raising their awareness regarding social responsibility.

Translated into plain English, this means "We will furnish research to support conclusions that serve the PR interests of the gaming industry" or rather if your gaming magazine/website wants some pseudo-scientific evidence to deny the psychological effects of 9 year-old kids playing Halo 2 on their X-Box 4 hours a day, we'll be happy to comply. The usual techniques deployed are:

  1. Downplay the extent ofthe problem (e.g. only late teens play "Kill Your Neighbour 3")
  2. Identify other causesof the psychological side effects associated with gaming
  3. Stress the positive aspects of gaming.
  4. Stress the choice available to consumers (e.g. X Gaming Company also produces a child-friendly ping pong simulator)
  5. Ridicule all research emphasising the adverse effects of addiction gaming
  6. Deny that it is addictive.
  7. Identify other related pursuits or games which may be addictive or psychologically damaging (e.g. fruit machines or online paedophile imagery, the former caserefers to outdated technology and the latter to a taboo almost universally condemned by public opinion, but if imagery of child sex corrupts, then surely imagery of hedonistic violence would do the same)
  8. Pepper your report withpreviously erudite terms that gaming journalists can quote to arguetheir case e.g. Many first-person shooters have been found to have a 'cathartic' effect on gamers (do a quick Google for the word cathartic and you'll find it re-quoted on thousands on gaming web sites).

I would welcome evidence that British academia is not, as would appear from your Web site, for sale.

Neil Gardner

And here is Prof. Griffith's highly professional reply:

On 5/6/06 08:10 am, Mark Griffiths <Mark.Griffiths@ntu.ac.uk> wrote:
  1. My name is Griffiths not Griffin
  2. I am both a Dr and a Professor and definitely not a Mr
  3. I have spent 20 years researching problem gambling and problem computer game playing and have never downplayed potential problems (see attached CV)
  4. Your interpretation of our unit's work couldn't be more wrong.
  5. Type in my name and addiction to computer games or gambling into Google and you will find 100s of hits
  6. Your e-mail is potentially libelous and I am passing it onto our legal department

Well readers can do the Googling for themselves and then do a little discrete research into their funding. A typical comment by the media-savvy professor is his remarks reported on the BBC Website in the aftermath of a school killing by a Manhunt-obsessed teenager:

"Research has shown those aged eight years or below do in the short-term re-enact or copy what they see on the screen.

"But there's been no longitudinal research following adolescents over a longer period, looking at how gaming violence might affect their behaviour."

This basically admits excessive or under-age gaming may cause some adverse effects, but essentially downplays their gravity and passes the buck over to parents or other potential causes. By using terms "longitudinal research" the professor belittles the fears of millions of readers unaware of what he means exactly. Now consider his piece in the British Medical Journal heralding video-games as a form of anaesthetic to distract children suffering pain. This must be an exceedingly marginal benefit, as other forms of hypnosis could also be used, e.g. imagery of a soccer match would have a similar effect in a football-obsessed child. But it convenienty allows the much-quoted researcher to once again downplay the adverse effects of obsessive video-gaming, noting merely that they are "prevalent among children and adolescents in industrialised countries" but without considering the huge disparities in prevalence within the industrialised world, e.g. Compare the prevalence of video game addiction in the UK or Denmark with that in Italy or Spain.

Indeed the CV Prof. Griffiths kindly sent me says it all:

GRANTS/CONSULTANCIES AWARDED
Dec 97 (BMG)£1500Effects of violent video games
Jan 98 (Interlotto)£5000Social impact of online lotteries
Mar 99 (AELLE)£2500Lottery addiction in Europe
Aug 99 (Action 2000)£500Millennium Bug Apathy
May 02 (British Academy)£5000Online multi-player computer game playing
Oct 02 (British Academy)£5000Computer game playing and time loss
Dec 02 (Intel)£1000Online computer game playing/spatial rotation
Feb 03 (British Academy)£5000Online computer game playing/addiction
Mar 03 (Centre for Ludomania)£1500Technology and gambling
July 03 (British Academy)£5000Aggression in slot machine playing
Oct 03 (RIGT)£45000Psychology of Internet gambling
Dec 03 (Herbert Smith)£1500Internet gambling
Apr 04 (Camelot PLC)£30000International Gaming Research Unit (Core funding)
May 04 (UQAM)$2500Slot machine gambling/Interactive technologies
July 04 (RIGT)£16000Coping skills in problem gamblers
Sept 04 (888.com)£1500Transferable skills in poker
Dec 04 (Paddy Power)£8500Social responsibility in Online Gambling
Jan 05 (Wace Morgan)£1500Gambling addiction (Case study research court reports)
Jan 05 (Claude Hornby Cox)£1500Gambling addiction (Case study research court reports)
June 05 (Norwegian Government)£2000Gambling addiction
Jul 05 (Nat Lott Commission)£10000National adolescent gambling prevalence study
Aug 05 (Ultimate Poker)£3500Online poker identities
Nov 05 (Norwegian Government)£4000Slot machie addiction in Europe
Jan 06 (RIGT)£10000GamAid/GamStop evalution
Jan 06 (ALC)£8000PlaySphere evaluation
Feb 06 (RIGT)£240000Adolescent gambling (with Tacade)

Highlighted are organisations that are either in the gaming industry or spurious regulatory and research institutions funded by the gaming industry (e.g. RIGT, Resposnibility In Gambling Trust). It may seem odd for those of us who live in the real world that Prof. Griffiths should dedicate so much time to investigating the dangers of slot machines, when other more modern technologies pose a much more imminent danger to the psyche of millions of young people today. The very fact that such individuals are heralded as experts should ring alarm bells.

For fear of stating the obvious here is my reply:

On 5/6/06 11:18 pm, "Neil Gardner" <neilgardner63@f2s.com> wrote:

Dear Dr Griffiths,

Thanks you for CV and in particular for the list of grants you have received. I am intrigued as to why you would want to seek libel action against an e-mail? In my experience a person would only seek such action if a) they fear losing credibility (and why would you if are prepared to defend your findings intellectually) b) they are being smeared by the mass media. The second option hardly applies. Why not just let your work stand on its merits and let others investigate the funding and bias of your research?

I clearly believe that certain sections of the entertainment industry are at least in part responsible for a good deal of misery and psychological problems. But I would hardly expect the industry itself to fund research that would severely restrict its operations. What would you say if our opinions on the safety of tobacco were informed by research co-sponsored by tobacco multinationals or if the safety of methylphenidate were evaluated by research funded by GSK? (and I don't even support a smoking ban - as a rule I'd regulate big business rather than private individuals)

(1) My name is Griffiths not Griffin
(2) I am both a Dr and a Professor and definitely not a Mr

Is that of any great importance?

BTW did you write a letter to Guardian a few weeks backs commending the government on its new Gambling Regulation Act with key terms such as "responsible gambling" and stressing new restrictions on fruit machines (which IMHO is an extremely marginal problem)?

You may disagree with my assessments, but please don't libel me. The very action, as any psychologist should know, is a sign of weakness.

Author: 
Neil Gardner
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