On 20 January, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe presented a Bill to the House of Lords for the Secretary of State to develop and publish a health and wellbeing strategy with health advice, specifically related to video gaming.
Although the Bill is still in its early stages, it remains an interesting indication of how health effects of gaming are being considered in the UK.
Coincidentally, the Bill has been published in the same week that the Information Commissioner’s Office published its ‘Age Appropriate Design: a code of practice for online services’. This Code is designed to help protect children and the use of their personal data within the digital economy and specifically references online games.
The increased interest from the health and regulatory sectors in the video games space, particularly in relation to children, is of no surprise. In 2018, the World Health Organization revised its International Classification of Diseases to include ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health disorder. This, combined with statistics last year that showed the UK video games sector was valued at £3.86bn – more than video and music industries combined – shows an increased understanding of the sector and how regulation of it should be a necessity.
If passed, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State must publish a video gaming health and wellbeing strategy including:
- findings from academic and medical research on both the positive and negative mental, physical and socio-economic effects of video gaming on children and adolescents
- a ten-year plan for how the Government intends to mitigate these negative effects and accentuate the positives
- research to be undertaken by the National Institute for Health Research, the video gaming industry and other appropriate bodies into the aforementioned positive and negative effects as well as video game development methods that could alleviate any negative effects
Following publication of the strategy, health advice must be published, taking into account the information and research findings from the strategy, with the aim of assisting gamers to minimise the risk of experiencing adverse effects of gaming and maximising the beneficial effects.
It is encouraging to see that the Bill gives equal weight to the potential advantages, as well as the potential downsides, of video gaming.
The outdated negative stereotype of ‘gamers’ focuses on a perception of gaming as an anti-social activity with one individual playing in a solitary environment. It is important that the strategy and research also takes into account the positive aspects of gaming that many non-gamers may not see. If you pop into any popular video game stream (see twitch.tv or mixer.com), you’ll find thousands of gamers actively interacting with each other and engaging with an entertainer streaming his or her play.
Gaming has evolved into a cooperative activity that can build new friendships and help maintain relationships at distance. I was recently approached by a colleague looking for advice on purchasing a gaming console to enable him to easily maintain regular contact and ‘hang out’ in-game with his son at university.
That is not to say that there aren’t also negative health impacts of gaming. For example, the use of loot boxes (an in-game purchase that allows a player to obtain a randomised chance of winning certain rewards) in many popular video games has drawn international attention for being akin to gambling. Just last week, the NHS mental health director, Claire Murdoch, called for a ban on virtual loot boxes which are “setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble”.
Further, the UK Interactive Entertainment Association has launched its Get Smart About PLAY campaign this year, encouraging parents to use tools that manage screen time and in-game purchases. Nevertheless, the downsides of gaming tend to attract more press attention than the benefits, which admittedly are harder to perceive if you are not actively involved in the sector.
Therefore, it is important that any strategy and advice proposed by the Secretary of State balances both and takes into account the views of those directly involved in gaming, not just researchers and health professionals observing it from afar.
Development and publication
In developing both the strategy and the advice, the Bill requires that “the Secretary of State must consult persons he or she considers appropriate” and a list of those persons must be included. The persons chosen will be important in determining how the gaming community reacts to the strategy and the health advice that develops from it.
As noted above, it seems obvious that relevant researchers and medical consultants would be included in that list.
However, it would be interesting to see whether the Secretary of State would consult gaming industry professionals too. Video game developers and publishers have important insights into the process of developing games, the health considerations taken into account when doing so, and hold vital data in relation to the use of their games by children and in-game purchases. Video game journalists have insights into trends in popular games and an understanding of what appeals most to gamers. Perhaps most importantly, professional players, streamers and content creators should also be consulted as they directly relate to and engage daily with those individuals, including children, that the strategy and advice are aiming to protect.
The Bill requires that the advice be published in a way that the Secretary of State considers appropriate for bringing it to the attention of users of video games. A simple online written guide would be unlikely to grab and hold the attention of the gaming community. A short pamphlet inside video game boxes would be an easy way to directly target many gamers, but with the increase in digital purchases and mobile gaming, such a method would miss a large proportion of the community.
Instead, or in addition, video game publishers could be required to provide short, pop-up health advice notices each time a player commences an in-game transaction such as a loot box purchase. Better yet, advice in the form of short video advertisements featuring popular gaming personalities could be placed in gaming streams or Twitter and YouTube adverts. This would almost certainly attract the undivided attention of young gamers that look up to professional gamers and streamers.
The ICO’s code of practice for online services
The ICO’s Code of Practice aims to protect children within the digital world in order to give them a safe space to learn, explore and play (states the Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, in the foreword to it). The online services to which the Code applies specifically includes ‘online games’, and code standard five requires that information society services that are likely to be accessed by children must not use children’s personal data in ways that have been shown to be detrimental to their wellbeing or that go against industry codes of practice, other regulatory provisions or Government advice.
As noted above, game developers hold vast amounts of data relating to players’ in-game purchases, use of video games and playing habits. This data and the data trends will inform game developers in making their video games more compelling through various strategies used to extend user engagement and to increase the chances of players making in-game purchases. The Code requires that developers carefully consider the impact on children if using their personal data to support such features, and state that they should:
- avoid using personal data in a way that incentivises children to stay engaged, such as offering personalised in-game advantages (based on use of the individual user’s personal data) in return for extended play
- present options to continue playing or otherwise engaging with the game neutrally without suggesting that children will lose out if they don’t
- avoid features which use personal data to automatically extend use instead of requiring children to make an active choice about whether they want to spend their time in this way (known as data-driven auto-play features)
- introduce mechanisms such as pause buttons that allow children to take a break at any time without losing their progress in a game, or provide age-appropriate content to support conscious choices about taking breaks.
It is clear that the video games industry has developed rapidly. Unfortunately, understanding of the sector by regulators, and consequently appropriate regulation, has somewhat lagged behind.
The gaming population is no longer just children playing story-based games alone in their bedrooms. It is a combination of adults and children from all across the world playing games together and engaging in communities that exist in-game, on streaming services, and on platforms such as Reddit, Discord and Twitter.
Gaming communities can be fantastically supportive and can have various mental, social and even economic benefits (speak to British teenager, Jaden ‘Wolfiez’ Ashman, who won just under £1m competing in the Fortnite World Cup last year).
However, there are certainly risks to children’s (and frankly some adult’s) health and wellbeing that come as a consequence of this evolution, and regulation now needs to catch up.
Video game development and publishing companies are corporate entities driven by profit-making, and in a sector that involves direct and ongoing engagement with content consumers greater protections for children should be put in place. The implementation of the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018, and now a focused Code of Practice from the ICO, shows that steps are already being taken in the right direction to prevent the misuse of children’s personal data.
If the Bill presented by Lord Brooke proposing the strategy passes through the remainder of the stages, increased research and resulting advice would be another step in the right direction towards greater understanding and appropriate regulation.
However, it is essential that the research, strategy and advice are undertaken in consultation with a broad range of industry professionals that understand the industry from the inside as well as those able to observe it objectively from the outside.
One would hope that the results would show and help to amplify the many significant benefits that come from gaming and the communities that it builds, whilst simultaneously reducing (if not removing) any adverse risks to children and the associated ‘gamer’ stigma.