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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Technology, gaming, gambling and the risks to our social relationships

Andre Serzisko

Reprinted from the "Problem Gambling and Video Gaming" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 5

Growing up in the 80s in a remote patch of boreal forest in northern Saskatchewan, I vividly remember playing cards for pennies with my family, betting on the outcome of a game at the local pool hall and the simple joy of escaping into video games as we watched the rise of Pac Man, Space Invaders and Asteroids. “Addiction” was something we attributed to those using alcohol and drugs, never to behaviours like technology use, gaming or gambling.

Technology fascinated me, and when we dumped our typewriters and liquid paper in favour of hard drive towers and a backspace button, I was in my element.

Technology heralded the way forward, a new life for everyone on the planet. Consider what this could have meant to individuals in isolated communities, and for young people struggling to find their way in the world. It was an opportunity to be connected to everyone else, to take part in a global social community—to end the geographic isolation that plagued our northern small town. We would now determine what communities we belonged to, we were in control of whom we engaged with and how this was to happen … or so we thought.

Times may have changed, but the promise of technology and the allure of escape in a video game, or a gambling opportunity, are no different today from when I was growing up. For me, the draw of technology has always been similar to the draw of substance use. It provided me with the opportunity to distance myself from my experience of poverty and isolation. Others can be attracted to a sense of gaining control over their environment, or the excitement that comes with conquering an enemy or completing a quest.

When I connected with the online gaming world as a young adult and stood at the precipice of a limitless Internet, I felt something I hadn’t felt before: a sense of belonging. I found in the world of gaming a new and fulfilling way to express myself.

For most people, participation in the gaming world is lighthearted fun, providing recreational and, often, social satisfaction. For a few, however, this sense of casual belonging and camaraderie morphs into an all-consuming activity and takes on a meaning far greater than the game itself. In my own experience, the allure of gaming required me to make some difficult life choices: Was I going to continue to walk towards that precipice? Or was I going to try to find a new path?

Over the past 25 years as an educator, therapist and program coordinator in the substance use and gambling fields, I have seen that the opportunities for escape have become increasingly more sophisticated. Access to these opportunities has in many cases come out of advances in technology. In fact, technology itself seems to have become a problem for some. Many of us find it harder and harder to turn away from the screens that have found their way into our lives. We might think we are controlling how we interact with the world through technology, but in many ways our technology seems to be exerting control over us.

Families routinely purchase more than one television per household, many of us have smartphones and children are using tablets or their parents’ phones as soon as they can hold objects. Many of us play games via technology—it might surprise you to know that the average age of the typical gamer is 36, and so-called gamers are not exclusively male.1

As the global corporations that provide these gaming opportunities cozy up with companies that offer gambling services, the line between gaming and gambling becomes increasingly blurry: we see in-game betting opportunities, offers to purchase loot boxes that contain random prizes, micro-transactions that advance us through the gaming experience. These features have made video gaming almost indistinguishable from gambling. Even Pac Man has been turned into a competitive player-on-player gambling opportunity, with its release planned for sometime this year.2

We have achieved that continuous global connection that we only dreamed of decades ago—though it has taken us in a direction that many of us did not foresee. But is this non-stop access to a globalized, commercialized world worth it? What is the ultimate cost of all that connection?

Already, an increasing body of research—from academic and practitioners’ organizations such as the Canadian Pediatric Association and similar groups around the world—warns us of the hazards of screen time for children. Recently, the World Health Organization has put its cards on the table, identifying a new categorization for gaming problems.3, 4

While technology has certainly shaped how we gamble and game, blaming technology, or even the access that technology gives us, for our current relationship with gaming is not the answer. After all, gambling and gaming as pastimes have been around for thousands of years,5 and technology is here to stay. A more relevant and meaningful question to ask ourselves is why the use of technology is becoming so pervasive for so many.6

Some researchers in the addictions field suggest that while we increasingly seek connections online, we are in fact becoming more and more emotionally disconnected from each other. The number of times we connect with others through social media has escalated dramatically, and yet studies show that we feel more isolated and are less likely to make face-to-face connections with people.7

Arguably, the online world enables us to participate in communities of like-minded people, where we can discuss everything from politics to sex. But just as people can take on an avatar in the gaming world—and be whoever they want to be—individuals can also take on an avatar in online discussion forums and on social media platforms. Ultimately, we do not know if the opinions and personalities we engage with online are real or assumed, and we have few tools at our disposal to assess their validity.

In our relationship with gaming, gambling and technology, it may be that what we are searching for is, and always has been, in front of us all along: an exploration of our self and our relationships with the people around us, and the meaning of those relationships—learning where we find the most comfort and the most connection. Finding the balance between our need for connection with others and our desire to control or escape our environment is a task that all of us must undertake if we are to successfully navigate between the real world and the digital one.

About the author

Andre is a registered clinical counsellor. He is a trainer and clinical supervisor with Citizens’ Counselling Centre in Victoria, BC, and the Provincial Prevention Coordinator with BC’s Responsible & Problem Gambling Program (RPGP), which offers support and education to those experiencing difficulties with gaming and gambling. All services through the RPGP are free of charge and can be accessed by calling the Gam Info Line at 1-888-795-6111. Visit the RPGP website at choicesandchances.ca

Footnotes:
  1. See www.statista.com/statistics/274912/average-age-of-gamers-in-canada and www.statista.com/statistics/274906/gender-split-of-gamers-in-canada.
  2. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ROQpa1WA-4.
  3. Canadian Press. (2018). Video game addiction a disorder? WHO says, yes. CBCnews.ca. April 4.  www.cbc.ca/news/health/video-game-addiction-1.4604883.
  4. World Health Organization. (2018). Gaming disorder. Online Q&A.  www.who.int/features/qa/gaming-disorder/en.
  5. Choices and Chances. (2018). Gambling through time. choicesandchances.ca/read/gambling-through-time.
  6. Osuch, M. & Turner, S. (2017). Addiction to modern technology: What the science says. Elsevier Connect, August 2. www.elsevier.com/connect/addiction-to-modern-technology-what-the-science-says.
  7. Primack, B.A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J.E., Whaite, E.O., Lin, L.Y., Rosen, D., Colditz, J.B., Rodovic, A. & Miller, E. (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(1), 1-8. doi: doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010.

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