16 Aug 2016 17:18 IST

Pokémon Go highlights video game addiction like nothing else

Internet and gaming addiction in India has reached alarming proportions

The latest video game sensation Pokémon Go has expanded player injury into the physical realm. In Melbourne, a 22-year-old woman was killed by a hit-and-run driver while playing the game; CBS News has credited robberies , instances of people falling off cliffs and minor car crashes to addicts who play the game.

The game can be played on most smartphones and draws users out into the open to catch virtual Pokémon, that can be found in the real world — such as a park or a mall. Addicts, with eyes glued to their screens in search of the elusive characters, are completely oblivious to their surroundings and end up getting hurt.

The real danger

Video game addiction is more dangerous than substance addiction — alcohol, drugs or smoking — mainly because children start out really young. Parents are complicit in this act because a smartphone can distract (and calm) a wailing child like no other device.

Phones make excellent babysitters and are instantly available to tired parents, who want relief after a hard day at work. By the time a child has spent a year growing up on video games, he/she wants nothing else.

Today’s children have lost the ability to interact with one another. When they gather, they no longer engage in physical games with balls and bats, but merely sit around a room, interacting with their screens. The only sounds that emanate from such a room are those made by devices. With the use of headsets and in-ear buds, the squealing and laughter that have always been associated with the young have begun to diminish as well.

Why the addiction is dangerous

Children like video games because they get to control the environment through and through — a world very different from reality. If a character is hurt or killed, it is no bother. Quitting the game and replaying it brings the character back to life.

If the game level gets too difficult, it is easy to dial it back a notch and play within your abilities. Any learning that occurs is restricted to what the game developer had in mind.

Video game players don’t have to talk, reason, listen or negotiate with it. The game never complains. It is never tired. It doesn’t misunderstand or get upset. It doesn’t show emotion or empathy. As a result, there are no arguments or disputes. In the comfort zone that players are in, they can get what they want by commanding a dumb device that is completely at their beck and call.

When these addicted players are forcibly taken away from this environment, they see the pitfalls of interacting with humans — like having to communicate. This becomes such a big burden because inherent in all communication is the principle of give and take.

They therefore long to return to the virtual, comfort zone that they enjoy so much. They limit human interaction to the barest minimum — like saying a curt hello or indulging in a smile — until such time their physical needs (getting a drink or food) are met. And they rush back to the gaming world in a flash.

This is a serious problem globally. In May, the Washington Post reported that in South Korea, Internet addiction has a formal definition. There, students are diagnosed and sent to government treatment centres. In China, militaristic government “boot camps” have treated millions of children. Japan, too, has tested an Internet “fasting camp” for young people.

“Those who say they suffer from Internet addiction share many symptoms with other types of addicts, in terms of which chemicals are released into the brain, experts say. The pleasure centres of the brain light up when introduced to the stimulus.

“Addicts lose interest in other hobbies or, sometimes, never develop any. When not allowed to go online, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression or even physical shaking. They retreat into corners of the Internet where they can find quick success — a dominant ranking in a game or a well-liked Facebook post — that they don’t have in the real world, experts say,” says the Post.

India is often heralded as the country that will likely provide human capital to the rest of the world. But internet and gaming addiction in India’s middle class and upper class families have reached alarming proportions. This is a trend that must be reversed quickly. One hopes that the dangers of Pokémon Go will trigger such a move.

The game has unmasked the dangerous world of video game addiction and done us all a favour. It is up to us to seize this opportunity and ask where this addiction is taking us.