In January, the documentary Web Junkie was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, capturing the attention of world media. Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, the documentary shares with the world a boot camp type of therapy center for Internet addicts in Daxing, Beijing.
The therapy center uses a variety of methods to treat teenagers hopelessly addicted to the Internet, especially online gaming. One of the methods shown is electroshock therapy, which was first used by Yang Yongxin, director for the Center for Cyber Addiction Treatment in Linyi, Shandong province. However, due to the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness and safety, electroshock therapy was banned by the Ministry of Health in July 2009.
Addressing the problem of "electronic heroin", as the staff at the center refer to it, is largely an uphill battle as more young people take to online gaming and vendors have more money to invest in games. Parents have reasons to worry.
Online gaming vendors in China are not angels, as they sometimes walk a fine line between gaming and the propagation of violence and pornography due to the lack of effective laws and regulations. It is the vendors who should have the "treatment", instead of the youngsters whom they solicit into their gaming worlds. Parents of the "patients" are just desperate for a cure to a problem they do not know much about.
It is worrisome, however, that China is the first country to define Internet addiction as a chronic disease, as such labeling shifts the focus of social intervention onto medical treatments whose effectiveness is still questionable until verified by an independent evaluation agency. Giving addiction to gaming a medical name and treating it relieves parents and educators from guilt and the responsibility they have in helping young people.
Families can play a more effective role than any treatment center. Parents should spend more time with their children, encourage them to make friends and seek out more active things to do in real life. Moreover, parents should not always criticize their children for having fun. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes. Parents should work with their children to mix their studies with healthier kinds of play. Children, deprived of the chance to relax, escape to the world of games whenever they have a chance.
American game designer and advocate Jane McGonigal wrote Reality is Broken, which summarized the reasons games make people happy. Games fill many gaps in reality. For instance, we can safely fail in a game, whereas reality sometimes overtly punishes the making of mistakes, even though making mistakes is part of any learning process. When children in real life feel lonely, helpless and unimportant, games connect them to a larger meaning. Games also connect them to others when in reality they barely talk to anyone.
When the Chinese Internet addiction treatment was reported in the US, I asked McGonigal what she thought of it. She said that by resorting to such treatment people "ignore the actual problems in these individuals' lives". So instead of clueless adults trying to fix children with a "gaming problem", why not take inspiration from game design to fix reality instead?
Though not an online gamer (except for Angry Birds while I am waiting for something) I have learnt quite a bit about education from the ways games engage kids. For instance, instructors often complain that students do not take their feedback seriously and make improvements in their learning. What if we learn from the ways games provide immediate, constant and multi-dimensional feedback to keep gamers engaged for extended periods of time?
Similarly, many online collaborations in online teaching fail, while such collaborations are wildly successful for multi-user games. Educators have much to learn from the design of games.
In the US, people are more relaxed about online gaming. Educational uses of games and the gamification of education remain popular trends in education. There are now courses teaching people how to use games or principles distilled from gaming to solve actual social problems. This is not such a far-fetched idea as, broadly defined, most social activities are actually "games", with their own roles, rules, penalties for violations, and rewards for improvement.
Games can also be designed to bring various stakeholders into "play" in organizing activities or programs for the larger good. Crowd sourcing in gaming has huge potential for social entrepreneurship, which is still in its infancy in China.
While much ought to be done to tame the beast of online gaming, China should also ask not what can we do to get children off games, but what have we done to get them off reality. Online gaming has the potential to go offline, or at least to teach us a thing or two about making the real world a better place, before we have more epic failures.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.
(China Daily 02/22/2014 page5)