Earlier today I made a flippant remark on twitter that resulted in my deeply offending a colleague.
My colleague, who was out of the office today, was tweeting some concern over the content of an article on the BBC website. The article in question was on the subject of Games Addiction. I know a few LARPers. I know a few WoWers. I know people who play card games, and I’m not talking about Solitaire. Some of them spend considerable amounts of their lives doing this, and I have never really understood why. So, in less than 140 characters, I sarcastically remarked about there being no connection between Games Addiction, and his absence from the office today.
It turns out that people who don’t know what they’re talking about should not tweet. The purpose of this blog is to raise awareness about a controversial but little-known, serious issue related to mental health; and the importance of thinking before you speak.
His response was simple, and perfectly reasonable. And less than 140 characters. “I appreciate that’s meant to be a joke, but I don’t feel that such issues are appropriate to make light of.” I was a little taken aback. We aren’t the oldest of friends you see, we don’t know each other terribly well. People that know me, know that like to make people laugh. I often use sarcasm as a comedic tool, but the idea of upsetting someone makes me hate myself as a human being. It’s a fine line. Today I fell on the wrong side.
Clearly also worried about offending, he tried to explain himself ‘it’s a serious issue, and you wouldn’t mock someone for it, the same way that you wouldn’t mock someone who suffered from alcoholism.’ This stopped me dead in my tracks. If you know me, you know that I don’t find alcoholism funny.
Worried about what the hell I’d done, I looked up this BBC article. It warned that online games companies needed to do more to prevent players developing a pathological addition to the games. It followed from an editorial published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory.
It spoke of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) being “an inexhaustible system of goals and success.” Something began to resonate with me, and I did further research into Games ‘Addiction’. I use the apostrophes because Games ‘Addiction’ was not officially recognised as a disorder in the recent DSM-5 review. Despite this, Wikipedia lists the symptoms as compulsive game-playing; social isolation; mood swings; diminished imagination; and hyper-focus on game-play achievements, to the exclusion of other life events.
Suddenly, it all became clear to me. I’ve seen those symptoms before, just not related to games-playing. Dammit, I’ve experienced them before. When considering other well-documented addictions, you can immediately see why people might rank this alongside them.
It’s not that simple, however.
If you go a bit further into the issue, as my colleague has done in his blog, you can start to learn why it isn’t officially recognised as an addiction. The biggest point is the fact that there aren’t necessarily any real rewards in game-playing. Steve makes some sound arguments about its classification as a compulsion, rather than an addiction. He argues that games and game-playing provide a shelter for people with more serious social issues, for people who are suffering. The real reward, in these cases, is the escape from the troubles in your life, rather than the thing itself. By ignoring this issue, you are putting vulnerable people into further danger. This was the source of his rage over the article.
So, addiction vs compulsion. While it is not for me to try to talk about which classification is ‘right’, I highly recommend that you read Steve’s blog. It really makes you think about the nature of addiction, and whether we are avoiding fixable social problems by labelling them as medical problems.
The worst thing about the whole debacle with my colleague is that he felt the need to explain his response. Whilst I’d remained in dumbfounded silence, he’d sent tweet after tweet desperately trying to explain – in less than 140 characters – the big issues in Games Compulsion. It was clear that he feared that he’d possibly broken this previously professional relationship. But something else was clear to me.
Too many twits had made me a twat.
Of all people, I should have understood that different experiences have different effects on people, and you can’t make assumptions about people’s pasts. No one has the right to make flippant remarks about such things that they know nothing about.
The worse worst thing, is that I’ve done this before. During my internship at the Science Media Centre, the DSM-5 debate was still in full swing. One day, I drew their attention to a small piece in The Times newspaper, where an academic had made some defamatory comments about Female Sexual Arousal Disorder. I’d drawn their attention to it, not because I recognised that it was, in-fact ‘very SMC’ (messy, controversial, difficult to understand science, likely to be misreported), but because I thought it was funny. Shockingly, I didn’t get the ha-ha-nudge-nudge-wink-wink response I’d anticipated. The article was met with outrage by the Centre, rightly pointing out that it is a serious, little-known condition that can be devastating to sufferers. Helen Jamison, the deputy director, was ready to launch an SMC attack on this subject, when it emerged that the academic had been completely misrepresented by the printed version of the newspaper. His real standing on the issue, explained in an expanded quotation on the Times website, was much more discussional and understanding. For the printed version, a few sentences had been extracted from some vital context.
Though my real motivations for highlighting the article remained unbeknownst, it should have taught me a lesson – don’t go laughing about things you don’t understand. Well, I’ve learnt that lesson now. Steve, I’m sorry.