Maclean’s Magazine Scaremongers Readers into Believing Games Are Comparable to Cocaine

Maclean’s magazine published an article comparing video games to hits of cocaine. So much for “professional” journalism in magazines.

Gaming is a cultural norm. People enjoy gaming for a whole variety of reasons. Whether it is stress relief from a bad day or just a few hours of reprieve from the real world. It is a medium that is unlike numerous forms of entertainment.

In so many ways, gaming really isn’t anything new. Humanity has always found and created different forms of entertainment for thousands of years for a whole variety of reasons. This might include things like looking at paintings, reading books, listening to music, listening to radio, or watching TV. Though the nature of the video game is generally different and arguably more interactive than most forms of entertainment, it is just another form of entertainment that people can enjoy at their own leisurely pace.

However, unlike many other forms of entertainment, video games is comparably newer, spanning decades, not centuries like, say, sculpting, sports, or the aforementioned painting. As a result, it has been subject to numerous rounds of moral panic by competing forms of entertainment. This includes television and magazines. Indeed, for multiple industries such as broadcast news and newspapers, modern technology has become something of a direct threat to their once massive profit margins. As a result, demonizing things like social media and video games has become something of a general past time for legacy media because if people are going to “take dopamine hits”, it better be off of their product and not someone elses.

Recent Credibility Problems with Mainstream Media

At the moment, large media companies have been dragging themselves through the mud after getting busted either misleading readers or straight up publishing outright lies to try and push legislation that they felt was in their business interests (ironically, it’s like to be their own undoing). Because of a pattern of scandals in the media like that, it’s probably little wonder why trust in the media is crashing to the ground.

To that end, it’s probably a case of very poor timing on the part of Maclean’s Magazine that disinformation imparted by traditional media to push a political agenda has caused many readers to be on high alert for when they are being misinformed by those who sell themselves as unbiased and trustworthy sources as of late. In this case, the legacy media company is beating one of the legacy media’s favourite dead horses: that video games are the devil and should be excised from society forever.

Media Has a Long History of Demonizing Video Games

The wild claims come from extremely dubious origins. At most, a handful of studies suggested that video game addiction might be real. When research later tried to confirm the findings, the peer reviews and testing really could not replicate the results. At worst, research has been very inconclusive over whether or not video game addiction is even real at a large scale at all.

I personally know these things because when I was still working on my undergraduate studies, one of my research projects was looking into whether video game addiction and negative psychological effects were real or whether it’s just the media trying to whip their audience into a hysteria. Overwhelmingly, my findings wound up being that although the media thought that negative impacts of video games were conclusive, actual research in peer reviewed journals did not share those same conclusions and frequently conflicted with one another. It was a project that earned me a very strong A+ in the end and caused some of my fellow students to re-think just blindly trusting everything you see in traditional media and give what you see or read a healthy dose of skepticism.

Now, at the time, the media was running moral panic arguments about World of Warcraft, a mass multiplayer online game that everyone was playing at the time (Yeah, I know, I’m dating myself here). At the time, the media was convinced that the game is destroying society by causing marriages to fail, forcing promising students to drop out of anything from sports and post secondary education, and zombifying people in general. What the media withheld from the public more often than not was that the cases they cited were actually outlier cases and far from the norm. They had a story to tell and any annoying fact that obstructed the narrative was frowned upon.

Even back then, though, World of Warcraft was far from the only game to draw the ire of the traditional media industrial complex. Other examples include Call of Duty, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, the Elder Scrolls, and even the Atari era game Berzerk. Though blaming video games for all of societal ills from mass shootings to medical emergencies is a favourite pastime for traditional media, the facts persistently never backed up those wild claims.

The Manipulation of Older Audiences

Fast forward to today and though the video games may have changed, the big media moral panic remains the same. Macleans Magazine is a recent example of this trend of trying to scare their readers into believing that video games will be the cause of societal breakdown. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this whole sorry affair is the fact that their audiences are probably more susceptible to such scaremongering than most other generations. Think about it, who reads magazines? Probably people who are awaiting doctors appointments and haven’t really gotten into using cell phones to pass the time while in the waiting room. More often than not, these are people in the Boomer generation or older.

When boomers were growing up, save for those who specifically chose the field of computers as their career, more often than not, grew up without a computer. At most, there was an arcade somewhere in town that you can use to let the quarter sucking machines help you pass a slow afternoon. Otherwise, computers were this weird foreign concept that only nerds found interesting for whatever reason. Entertainment was more likely listening to the radio, listening to an LP collection if you had the money, playing fetch with a dog or hanging out at bars in the evenings. Computer technology rarely, if ever, entered into the equation in every day life.

As a result, older people are generally more likely to view technology of any kind negatively. It was difficult for them to see any money in these newfangled computer dipsey-doodles when there was plenty of money in door to door sales or delivering the newspaper. Whether they realized it or not, those pocket protector wearing dorks who were wasting their lives away in computer labs were about to see the initial boom in technology. Making computer software could land you millions. Developing video games could one day have you owning an entertainment empire. Creating websites could turn your interesting idea from a garage could one day create a trillion dollar company. This during a time when most couldn’t understand what a computer even was.

With that kind of upbringing, it’s probably no surprise that such target audiences can be easy prey to manipulative hit pieces aimed at trying to confirm various biases towards technology, amplifying fears to ridiculous proportions all the while selling the story in a medium that was once considered reliable – print media. If it was long winded and printed in a glossy magazine, then that was a sign that it was well researched and produced “professionally”. Nevermind that the content could be completely bunk, that was, sadly, ways that some people honestly believed they could tell if a piece was trustworthy or not once upon a time.

Maclean’s Sets the Stage for the Article

As for the piece itself, readers didn’t even get a chance to read the article before the narrative was already pushed on the reader. The August 2023 edition of Maclean’s Magazine was adorned with a cover featuring what looks like a zombified teenager with eyes glazed over as if in a trance. He is sitting in a dark room and a large all capitalized font screamed “ZOMBIE GENERATION”. The smaller font ominously warned “A group of Canadian parents say their kids are so addicted to the video game Fortnite that they’ve stopped eating, sleeping and showering. Now these parents want to hold its tech-giant creator accountable.”

The fearmongering wasn’t just the product of some old writer with a wild imagination, the fearmongering was the selling feature to get people to actually reach out and pick up the magazine. Fear is literally the selling point of the entire edition of the magazine. What’s more, if it was printed by Maclean’s, then it simply must be true and that what they uncovered was an earth shattering story that could change the nation forever. Who wouldn’t want to be the first to read such trite amazing high quality journalism. They’ve been around for over 100 years, who could possibly question it?

With the narrative already set, the article itself is primed for even further scarmongering. Plastered above the article that actually requires scrolling past is a massive picture of a blue eyed brown haired kid holding a controller. You know, just to further prey on the fears of readers who really wouldn’t know any better. I mean, look at this cute little kid. His life is practically being destroyed in real time right now! Those people who made the game? They are total MONSTERS! What’s more, the picture on the cover is definitely of a different age group than the kid. Well, the cover says it’s destroying a whole generation, so who cares about piddly little details like that. Everyone’s lives are being taken away, obviously.

All that is even before reading a single word of the actual article. When you actually get to the headline, the fearmongering is already dialed up as it is and punctuated by “They lost their kids to Fortnite”. Oh my goodness! It’s tragic. The children! The children! Their lives are being destroyed as they get ripped away from their parents. What’s going on? I don’t know! Clearly all the children in the world are being lost to this evil menacing video game. Sure I don’t have any context whatsoever, but who needs context when you have all these manipulative pictures and text? I mean, if you can’t trust that, what CAN you trust???

The Article Itself

The article begins with the story of an innocent sounding kid named “Cory” who not only wanted to be a professional soccer player, but also showed promise that he could break through. The article detailed a diagnosis of ADHD, stating, “Cody, whose name I changed to protect his privacy, had been diagnosed with ADHD, and his parents had detected other signs of neurodivergence: he organized his bathroom countertop fastidiously and couldn’t fall asleep unless his blanket was folded to his liking.” The article tried to pull away from that and, rather than wonder if this could be problematic for the topic at hand, simply minimized it as an obstacle that he was overcoming on his path to greatness.

From there, the article briefly mentions the pandemic and everything shutting down. It then detailed him starting into playing video games to pass the time, which is, honestly, quite reasonable under the circumstances. However, the article, in a masterful stroke of attempting to plant the seeds of fear, said, “He was partial to the “battle royale” mode, in which he had to outlast up to 99 other players in a Hunger Games–style fight to the death.” The article acknowledged that the parents were uneasy at giving a 13+ game to a kid under the age, but showcased them dismissing these fears as possibly overblown because it looked like a cartoon. It’s a subtle, but classic “that’s how it starts” type scenario being set up.

The article then covers a trajectory by noting this:

Alana allowed Cody to play Fortnite for two hours at a time, a few nights a week. When he was gaming, he wouldn’t eat, drink water or even go to the bathroom. If he lost a round, he’d yell and slam his controller on the ground. When Alana would tell him his time was up, he’d beg to continue. “He was miserable when he couldn’t game,” she says. “That’s all he wanted to do.”

Keep in mind that the parents let him play a game that has a rating higher than the recommended age. Indeed, parents have to make judgment calls on this because labels are meant for the general society. After all, different people have different levels of mental maturity. If I let my 10 year old son play a game meant for people 13 years and up, is he able to handle something like that? Would it be appropriate in my kids particular case or will I decide that maybe he isn’t ready for that? These are critical decisions to make.

Up to this point, the article admits that the parents didn’t fully understand the game. They just noted the cartoon nature of it and thought it might not be so bad. The reality is, the parents should have looked up what the game is like first. What exactly is involved in this game? Are there micro-transactions involved that I should be concerned about? Is the game too violent in nature? A lot about this can be looked up on Google or YouTube and you can get a lot of answers. If researching online is too hard for parents of someone who hasn’t entered in his teenage years (these days, really?), then they can talk to other parents. What is this game really like? Are there things to be concerned about?

In this case, it sounds like the parents did none of the above if the article is anything to go by. Instead, they just made assumptions because it had a cartoon look to it and that’s it. Hey, mistakes do happen when raising kids. There is no one-size-fits-all instruction manual out there. Somewhere along the line, mistakes will happen. What’s more, the article didn’t mention anything about parents explaining everything in moderation to him. What is an acceptable amount of time for video games? What are signs that the kid is gaming too much and what are the negative consequences of this? Up to this point, the article doesn’t mention that the parents did any of that.

References of Drugs Start Being Applied

Ultimately, this really sounds like a child getting into something he was not mentally prepared to handle. Indeed, this is where the article could have been a very positive one. Maybe, it could have been about how to talk to your children about video games. Younger generations are going to get exposed to video games sooner or later anyway. This is very similar to how children can handle relationships later in life (ala the famed “birds and the bees” talk). Another topic could have been when is it appropriate to allow your child to access video games? What is an appropriate amount of screen time? Why is school important over video games? If the kid wants to be a game developer, then explain what kind of skills goes into it and why post-secondary education is important.

All of the above would have been perfectly valid angles to go in. There are probably several other healthy ways the scenario shown above could have been treated. This wasn’t about fostering a healthy discussion about younger people and video games. This wasn’t about parenting in the modern age. What this was about was selling fear. With the image of the blue eyed kid fresh in readers minds, the article then starts laying on thick references to drug use.

Cody whined and pleaded, but she held firm. He started to cry, and then came the screaming. Alana begged him to calm down, but he shrieked for five straight hours. She had to shut the windows so the neighbours wouldn’t hear.

That evening was the start of a long nightmare. Whenever Alana forbade Cody from gaming, he had panic attacks, wailing and weeping. He writhed on the floor and told his parents he wanted to die. “It was like taking heroin away from an addict,” says Alana. Sometimes she thought, maybe today it will be different, and so she let him play. But the behaviour never changed. “We felt like his drug dealers.”

I still remember the first (and only) time I won a round of Warzone. Adrenaline rushed through my body. My heart raced and my breath quickened. When I got that final kill, I leapt from my couch and whooped with joy. It didn’t matter that, in the real world, my victory didn’t matter. The high was intoxicating.

The human brain rewards pleasurable and arousing activities—for example, eating chocolate or smoking cigarettes—by releasing dopamine. A study published in Nature showed that gaming can more than double a player’s baseline dopamine levels, resulting in the sort of elation I felt when I won a round of Warzone. Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman claims that, for some players, gaming can increase dopamine levels as much as having sex or snorting cocaine. Our brains are programmed to seek out more of these hits, which is what drives gamers to keep gaming. People with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder—kids like Cody—have abnormal dopamine receptors. For them, games like Fortnite act as a firehose of feel-good chemicals.

The trouble is that the euphoric feelings don’t last. Gamers develop tolerances. They need to play more to achieve the same rush. After overloading their brains with happy signals, an equal and opposite reaction occurs. Their baseline dopamine level drops. They get angry, sad and apathetic. When they lose a round or their parents kick them off their consoles, they throw their controllers, enter withdrawal-like hazes and lose the drive to do just about anything else.

It doesn’t help matters that games are cheaper, more advanced and more accessible than ever before, says Jeffrey Derevensky, a McGill University psychology professor who sat on the advisory panel that helped the WHO identify the disorder. “Kids are walking around with a mini-console in their pockets,” he says. “Gaming is a hidden addiction. You can’t smell it on their breath and you can’t see it in their eyes. And so parents are often totally unaware of what their children are doing.”

But modern video games—Fortnite, Warzone and their ilk—are especially seductive, stuffed with features that prey on the brain’s desire for dopamine. This evolution has gone largely unchecked. Even as industry giants have rolled out increasingly addictive games, they’ve maintained that their products are innocent fun.

The Canadian class actions against Epic are novel because they allege a different sort of affliction: an addiction to a video game. The suits argue that the company knew, or ought to have known, that Fortnite could cause players harm, such as IGD. And because Epic failed to warn players about those dangers, the suit says it should be liable for the damage it caused.

The comparisons to taking hits of crack to video games is so thick, you would think it was applied into the article with a paint roller. The purpose of the article is clear: it isn’t designed to inform, it was designed to scare. Throughout the entire article, it doesn’t even bother to try to differentiate between excessive gaming and even casual gaming. For the author, there is no line. As far as the author is concerned, the moment you pick up a controller or touch the keyboard, you might as well by snorting lines of cocaine because there is zero different. Simply put, this is straight up disinformation.

What’s more, the article actually goes out of its way to try and drive home the point that anyone and everyone will get addicted to games and be turned into a “zombie”:

For some players, it’s too enticing to resist. A boy in South Carolina kept playing Fortnite even as a tornado ripped through his town. An eight-year-old in Tennessee went to the ER with a bladder problem because he refused to stop playing long enough to go to the washroom. It’s not just kids. Several pro sports teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays and Vancouver Canucks, have restricted their rosters’ Fortnite-playing privileges, concerned that excessive gaming was throwing players off their game. In the U.K., a divorce-services website reported that couples had begun citing Fortnite as the primary reason for their split. Speaking at a mental health conference, Prince Harry called for the game to be banned. “It’s created to addict,” he said, “an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible.” Two months after Harry made those comments, Epic Games participated in an inquiry into addictive technologies at the U.K.’s House of Commons. One MP suggested the game was designed to make money off of its players. “I would disagree,” Epic’s general counsel said. “The battle royale mode is free to play.”

Moreover, it pushes this to the extreme that every game is a problem:

Cody isn’t the only kid addicted to Fortnite, and Fortnite isn’t the only game ensnaring children. Parents are losing their sons and daughters to Minecraft and League of Legends, to Roblox and Rocket League.

Is There Really a Conclusive Problem of Widespread Video Game Addiction?

Notably, while reading this article, I didn’t see much in the way of research to back up any of these claims (a very big red flag in and of itself). It cites a few lawsuits (while admitting that the lawsuits were dismissed) and quotes a couple of people, but in the realm of actual research, there simply isn’t much there. So, what does actual research show? We actually did the digging (something the author seemed to fail to do).

One researcher actually challenged the validity of studies concluding that video game addiction is a widespread phenominon:

Based on the assumption that people with video game addiction must be affected similarly, researchers have surveyed gamers on similar criteria to determine what percent have an addiction. These include questions such as, “How often do you find it difficult to stop gaming?” and “Have you deceived a family member, significant other, employer, or therapist regarding the amount of time spent engaging in gaming activities?”

Although questions like these may reasonably assess someone’s behavior, researchers use too many different questionnaires to be compared cleanly. Even when researchers use the same survey, they sometimes interpret the results differently.

In other words, someone would need to answer “Yes” to six of the eleven Gaming Addiction Screening questions to be considered addicted. They would need to respond “Sometimes” or “Often” to five or more of the ten questions in the Ten Item Internet Gaming Disorder Test to qualify. If the same person took both surveys, one survey might conclude that they had an addiction and the other might not. Further, some studies only measure how many hours per week a person spends gaming instead of targeting the effect games have on their functioning.

Other critics of the diagnosis point out that gaming has been unfairly targeted and pathologized. A person who plays golf instead of spending time with family is inconsiderate. A person who plays video games instead of spending time with family is addicted.

This demonstrates a clear bias. Society considers video games a waste of time, so an enthusiastic gamer is criticized more harshly than someone with a more acceptable hobby.

Most of us have looked up from our phones and realized that half an hour or more had suddenly passed. The hypnotic “flow” which we experienced blinded us to the passage of time. Autistic people* and those with ADHD are especially susceptible to this phenomenon. So if, for example, a person with ADHD finds it particularly difficult to turn off a game, does that person have an addiction or is it simply how this kind of stimulus affects those with ADHD?

Some research has found that heavy gamers have reduced gray matter in areas of the brain associated with attention, impulse control. However, these studies do not sufficiently demonstrate that gaming caused the differences, only that they are associated. Correlation is not causation. Some studies even show that brain scans for people with ADHD look remarkably similar to scans of those with gaming disorder, even after treatment.

This isn’t even a one-off incident of research putting into question this idea that video game addiction is plaguing society and leading whole generations to personal ruin. Another study suggests that this so-called “video game addiction” concept isn’t even wide-spread in the first place:

What the study says

  • BYU conducted a six-year study on video game addiction, the longest ever on the subject, according to the university.
  • 90% of gamers do not play in a way that’s harmful to them. These gamers do not suffer negative long-term consequences.
  • 72% of adolescents were low in addiction symptoms.

That is very far removed from the fear Maclean’s Magazine is trying to sell here – which is that all video games are an addiction and there is no safe amount for consumers. What’s more, we very certainly aren’t losing a whole generation of people to video games as the Maclean’s article implies over and over again.

What’s more, research does say that your brains are not going to melt and turn you into a “zombie” as the article implies. Here’s an article on that research:

Essentially, playing video games, even for hours at a time, didn’t appear to impact their cognitive abilities.

“Our studies turned up no such links, regardless of how long the children played and what types of games they chose,” Jie Zhang, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Houston College of Education and a member of the research team, said in a press release Tuesday.

“The study results show parents probably don’t have to worry so much about cognitive setbacks among video game-loving children, up to fifth grade. Reasonable amounts of video gaming should be OK, which will be delightful news for the kids. Just keep an eye out for obsessive behaviour.”

In the study, published in December in the peer-reviewed Journal of Media Psychology, researchers looked at the video gaming habits of 160 fifth grade students in public-school in the U.S.

So, in conclusion on that front, well, so much for video games causing an entire generation of people to be addicted like crack addicts and zombifying them into a glazed over stupor. It’s probably why research wasn’t exactly included in the article. Saying that 90% of people who play games are not addicted really undercuts the “ZOMBIE GENERATION” narrative being pushed by the Maclean’s Magazine article. After all, the goal of the article wasn’t to inform, but to whip up readers into and anti-video game frenzy.

An example of the Maclean’s Magazine article punctuating this is this:

Cody isn’t the only kid addicted to Fortnite, and Fortnite isn’t the only game ensnaring children. Parents are losing their sons and daughters to Minecraft and League of Legends, to Roblox and Rocket League.

Does Maclean’s Actually Cite Real Problems? Yes

While the core of the Maclean’s Magazine article is very easily debunked by basic levels of research, it does actually manage to cite actual problems in the gaming industry. For instance, it cited the issue of Fortnite utilizing dark patterns to get people to spend more money. It also admits that a lawsuit did result in the developers removing this as well. So, it was actually a success in stopping a very real problem.

Another problem the article does cite that is a legitimate problem is the issue of loot boxes. Trust me, I am yet another person out there that will be happy to say that this is a really bad thing for gaming as a whole. This is because you are essentially paying real world money for a chance to get something good. By definition, that is gambling no matter how many times developers try to just compare it to a Kinder Surprise. Introducing that to underage people is unacceptable.

Countries have gambling laws for a very good reasons. The last thing you want to do is get children into gambling with real money early on. There is huge amounts of math that goes into such things and knowing odds inside and out isn’t something you can expect young children to know. Heck, I’ve been through university and even I don’t know everything about things like pot odds in poker. It’s hard to expect every child to know these things as well, let alone understand the consequences. some will more than likely see flashing lights and large numbers and think it’s no big deal to put all their allowance money on the table thinking they have a chance. It’s wrong.

So, there are lawsuits out there challenging developers trying to skirt various countries gambling laws by trying to repackage gambling as just another harmless video game. What’s more, this is actually an aspect of games that can actually be challenged. Are you putting money into something for the direct chance to win something good in the game itself? If yes, classify it as gambling and have the game be treated the same as slot machines. Simple.

Article Cries Out for Government Intervention, But Offers No Solutions

Sprinkled throughout the article is the calls for government intervention, yet noting that government not intervening. The article treats this as the government just being gullible and children’s lives being ruined as a result of inaction, leaving parents to fend for themselves. Notably absent in the article are actual solutions.

In watching the legislative process for many years now, if there is one thing the government needs, it’s specifics. The article makes many wild claims of video games being addicting and destroying an entire generation. OK, let’s give the author the benefit of a doubt for a moment and entertain this ridiculous notion.

So, first question, what specifically is addicting about video games? Is it a levelling system that’s in place? Is it that it has a battle royale system in place? What specific mechanic in a given game makes it “addicting”? The article itself doesn’t actually spell this out clearly. Instead, it just someone with ADHD becoming addicting to games which, as that one cited researcher points out, could be a case of confusing the two and not knowing where the ADHD ends and the game begins.

Simply put, you aren’t going to convince government to put together a reasonable law saying that if a game is “addicting”, then it should be banned. This is because if a game is banned for being “addicting”, then the game manufacturer is going to challenge this in court. A judge will have to sit there and ask if it violates a theoretical law about “addicting video games” and make determinations on, at best, aspirational fuzzy logic. What’s more, the developer will easily point to the Charter of Rights and Freedom and say that censoring them is a violation of freedom of expression. That alone already represents a massive threat to the law itself.

The article does make comparisons to other things like tobacco, but the problem is, there was something specific about cigarettes you can point to and legislate. Cigarettes have nicotine to get users hooked on it. There are other ingredients that directly link to cancer. It is scientifically conclusive that smoking cigarettes are bad for your health. Only an idiot would dispute that. On the other hand, Maclean’s argues that video games are bad because, uh, reasons and like such as.

What’s more, this article, for a lot of people, smacks of parents blaming video game developers for poor decision making on their own parts.

More Evidence Why Trust in Media Has Fallen

There’s plenty of research that says trust in the media has fallen to record lows. Last year, one study said that trust in the media is at a record low:

According to the Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report, trust in the Canadian news media has sunk to its lowest point in seven years.

The study, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, has found that trust in the news has dropped 13 per cent since 2016. Only 42 per cent of Canadian respondents trust “most news, most of the time,” a slight drop from last year’s 45 per cent.

These numbers were backed up by another study by Ipsos that had similar results:

An Ipsos poll, conducted on behalf of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) for their annual conference this past week, showed that overall trust in traditional news media is down 14 points since pre-pandemic levels and 8 points since 2021.

Does blatant misinformation such as anti-vaxxer and white supremacy nonsense play a role in that? Quite likely. Yet, as we’ve seen over and over and over and over and over again, blatant disinformation is not the only reason people can lose trust in the media. Sometimes, it’s also the media itself simply doing a really bad job and publishing disinformation themselves. The Maclean’s Magazine article is, simply put, just one more chunk of evidence we can throw onto the pile.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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