Gaming under the guise of sport has no place in our schools

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Exposing high school students to addictive gaming under the guise of sport is reprehensible and is no better than addicting them to booze. Parents must wake up to the risks and stop schools from allowing it.

AUSTRALIAN high schools are increasingly signing up to eSports programs. They might as well be opening lunchtime pubs in their canteens. Addicting their students to gaming is no better than addicting them to booze and it certainly isn’t sport.

From the very beginning of computer gaming, just as with real life games, people have been keen to watch others play.

In 1980, just two years after the release of the first major commercial computer game, Space Invaders, Atari organised the world’s first tournament. Ten thousand players battled little green invaders across the US, with Rebecca (then Bill) Heineman being crowned the ultimate winner, and taking home a Missile Command video game console then worth US$3000.

For a long time the revenue earning power of computer gaming competitions was limited by the inability to compete directly against other humans. The competitions were essentially overblown High Score shootouts, where every player was pitted against the game algorithm and the winner was the one who understood how it worked the best. It understandably had limited mass appeal.

And then came the internet and with it, the ability to design games which pitted people against people. Sure, the game controlled the environment and its rewards and punishments, but now for the first time the skills of other humans could affect your ability to win. It was suddenly a lot more like a physical sport. And with that, a new age of gaming dawned, the age of eSports.

That industry is now worth around US$1 billion a year and growing very fast. It is predicted to have worldwide revenue of US$1.8 billion by 2022, when eSports will be included as a full medal sport in the Asian Games in China, the world’s second largest multi-sport event (behind the Olympics).

These “eSports” are free online computer games played in teams. Usually five players co-operate and attempt to destroy a base protected by another team of five players while protecting their own base. The most popular games at the moment are DOTA 2, League of Legends and Overwatch but the list is growing all the time and the new kid on the block is the wildly popular, Fortnite.

And just like real sports, the audiences are eating it up. The global audience is currently well north of 380 million people. Needless to say, an audience that big attracts hundreds of millions in sponsorship dollars, not to mention in-game purchases and merchandise.

It is this potential honey pot and massively accelerating growth that has attracted media, telecom and the owners of traditional sports. Telcom companies are buying teams and securing streaming rights and sporting organisations are funding leagues to expand their audiences.

Locally, several AFL franchises have ploughed money into eSports. In 2017. the Adelaide Crows purchased a franchise. It was quickly followed by Essendon the following year and North Melbourne, Collingwood, Geelong, West Coast and GWS are actively considering following suite. Adelaide now run the Meta High School eSports League, with the 2019 season involving 160 schools in Australia and New Zealand.

Participating schools establish “teams” of competitive gamers who “train” for hours each week after school and compete in the online leagues. The games are free to play and can be played all the time regardless of being in a “team”, so I suspect most of the players get in a lot more “training” than the hour or two they do at school. And probably use the need to “train” as an excuse for access to their devices at home.

The graphics and sound are exhilarating. The excitement and tension in the players is real.

These games are the very best, the most addictive, the most evolved, the gaming industry has to offer. Their purpose is to addict young minds to the point of obsession, so that billions can be drained from their bank accounts in the form of micro purchases (of costumes and characters) and billions more can be drained from the accounts of sponsors who want access to the players and their fans. And our schools have just signed up as part of the gaming industry sales force.

We wouldn’t tolerate a brewery sponsoring a Chug-a-lug competition at the local high school. And we wouldn’t be too keen on a casino installing pokies, sorry eMaths machines, in the library.

So why on earth are we allowing companies whose entire purpose is to addict young minds open up shop in our schools.

It isn’t sport just because they call it sport. eSport is addictive gaming, pure and simple, so don’t let your school fall for the marketing BS designed to turn your kids into a product for sale to the highest bidder.

 

First published in the Courier Mail.

Excerpt from Teen Brain

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I started researching this book because two mothers of teenagers told me to. My wife, Lizzie, said she was barely able to get through a conversation with another mother of teens without hearing about a child in counselling or on medication for anxiety and depression. Then my publisher, Ingrid, said exactly the same thing. Both of them felt something wasn’t right. This wasn’t how they grew up. They felt something was going on in the world of teenagers that was being hidden by the happy selfies on Facebook and Instagram, and they both wanted me to start digging to see if their hunches were right.

Before I started, I really wondered why I was bothering. Surely, I thought, everything that could possibly be written about parenting teens had already been done, and done better than I could ever do. Sure, there seemed to be more fuss in the media about teens overusing their phones, but I put that down to the perennial intergenerational problem of ‘teens these days’. Yes, it was a minute-by-minute fight in our house to keep the kids away from their school mandated iPads. And yes, the presence of those devices in the house had introduced a whole new level of sneaky behaviour and teen angst. But I put all that down to normal growing pains.

Then I started reading the research on the significant changes in reward pathways in adolescence. I wondered why I’d seen nothing much in the press about that well established biological reality. And I wondered why I saw even less about why that might be a problem in an age when billions are being spent by tech companies to encourage teenagers to become addicted to their products.

I knew software is engineered to addict. When it comes to non-business-related software, addictive products sell. Non-addictive products die a fast death. This is especially the case when every product in the category is ‘free’. I’d worked long enough in the industry to know how product management and marketing work. But I didn’t know that teens are particularly susceptible to addiction.

I knew it was always a struggle to prise a screen from our teenagers’ hands, but I tended to have a vaguely dismissive, ‘What harm can it really do?’ approach. And yes, I felt devices in schools were a significant distraction likely to impair performance, but I had no sense of how uniquely destructive to teen wellbeing they could be.

In short, I was happy to drift, uncomfortably, through allowing teen access to devices and accept, uneasily, the assurances that while they might be distracting, it was for the best or at least would do no permanent harm. That was until the union-of-the-mothers-of-teens told me to have a good hard look at it. In a nutshell, here’s what I found:

  1. The biology of puberty makes the teen brain uniquely fragile. It makes teens susceptible to addictions that can last for life and usher in mental illness.
  2. Parenting is much more permissive and parents need to harden up to save their kids.
  3. Unfettered access to screens is driving an epidemic of addiction, depression and anxiety, the likes of which we have never witnessed before.

What I found was frankly terrifying. In less than a decade we’ve totally changed the future of the human race, and we’ve done it without so much as a backward glance. Think that’s an overreach? Bear with me while I explain. …