The popularity of gaming in Oman has taken a hold, but experts warn parents that it comes at a high cost to their children, says Alvin Thomas. This time, it’s Game Over!
Gerald is a 16-year-old grade 11 commerce student at one of the reputed Indian schools in Oman. He’s also a self-confessed “gamer”. His routine is quite simple: school starts at 7.15 am and wraps up at 1.55pm. He makes his way home, has lunch and then heads to his room with a bag of chips and soda, settling on his favourite beanbag.
Waiting for him in his room is a PlayStation 3, loaded with the latest first-person tactical shooting video game: Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 3. But what happens next is alarming. For the next eight hours, Gerald engages online with four other gamers from around the world, gruesomely murdering opponents with a range of tactical weapons.
He proudly claims he is the leader of his team – a feat he achieved in 2015 when he singlehandedly slaughtered more than 50 players in an online multiplayer event.
It is evident Gerald is proud of his gaming skills. But as he talks to me, his eyes stay firmly glued to the screen in front of him. The quick movement of his thumbs on the analogue controller is enough evidence that he has years of PlayStation experience under his belt.
“A normal life isn’t something my son lives,” says Gerald’s mother, before adding that his gaming marathons have become a daily occurrence.
“There’s very little a working mother can do to restrict a child who is addicted to his PlayStation.”
Talking to the Gerald’s mother, I learn that her son’s erratic lifestyle has taken a toll on his studies. She says Gerald was always among the best in his class, scoring above 80 per cent in his early years of school. But she blames his gaming addiction on lack of interest in school.
“We’re far beyond the point of correcting our son,” she admits.
Gerald received his first PlayStation at the age of 10, when his mother took up a full-time position as a teacher in Oman. It was her idea to keep Gerald occupied during his time alone.
“The biggest mistake a parent can make is to set up a personal entertainment hub for his or her son or daughter,” she says, before advising parents to engage with their children from their early years.
It is clear that Gerald’s gaming addiction is taking its toll; while his studies are suffering he is now getting aggressive and violent when asked to step away from his gaming console.
But Gerald is just one teenager among a sea of youngsters who are addicted to gaming.
According to a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), increased levels of addiction are found in gamers who spend between two to five hours every day on gaming.
The report states that more than 90 per cent of children in the US play video games. However, that figure rises to 97 per cent when narrowing it down to adolescents aged between 12 and 17. Children younger than eight who play video games every day spend, on average, 69 minutes on handheld console games, 57 minutes on computer games and 45 minutes on mobile games and tablets daily.
Studies linking gaming and violence are conducted frequently, but the reports have been known to contradict each other.
But, APA’s report points out a consistent relation between violent video games and raised aggression levels. Worryingly, the report also shows a decrease in pro-social behaviors, empathy and sensitivity to aggression. Over a 15-year period, recorded incidents such as the Columbine massacre (1999), the Colorado theatre shootings (2012), Sandy Hook massacre (2012) and Washington Navy Yard massacre (2013) have been attributed to violent video game usage.
Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that more than 85 per cent of video games children and youth play contain some form of violence. So it is only fair to raise concerns over the effects that violent video games have on individuals, especially children and adolescents.
“There are two sides to the story if we start discussing about the effects of gaming,” says Natalia Gomez, a psychologist at Al Harub Medical Centre in Muscat.
“Playing games can help in enhancing hand-eye coordination, imagination and memory. However, if the child is exposed to more than two hours of gaming on a daily basis, it could lead to negative reactions.”
According to Dr Gomez, children under the age of 13 are very impressionable and the genres of games they play contribute to the way their brain develops.
“Expose a child to an aggressive game at a young age and he or she will almost certainly show increased levels of aggression and lack of empathy – at least at home,” she says.
“Normalising aggression is something game developers have successfully accomplished over the years.”
She adds that the sheer originality of graphics – using three-dimensional modelling and laser construction techniques – in games produced today is worrying. “Kids today are exposed to almost realistic levels of blood and gore,” she says.
She says that a child like Gerald who spends eight or more hours gaming every day raises the risk of him having a problem distinguishing between reality and virtual reality.
“While gaming, it is normal for a child to detach himself or herself from the surroundings,” Dr Gomez says. “In such a scenario, the child may have a problem switching back a normal life because the virtual reality has taken the place of reality in the child’s life.
“A child can also show reduced amounts of empathy and increased amounts of violence; but does it mean he or she will commit a criminal act? Probably not!”
While no criminal incidents have been “directly” linked to individuals addicted to violent video games, there has been speculation about the aggression they cause.
The 1997 Bethel Regional High School shooting in Alaska, in the US, is a good example. Student Evan Ramsey took a gun to school and killed two people and wounded two others.
While his act wasn’t linked directly to his addiction to violent video games, an investigation revealed that he was hooked on the first-person survival horror shooting game Doom.
Anders Behring Breivik, the 37-year-old Norwegian who orchestrated a horrifying attack that killed 77 and injured 319 people in the government quarter of Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in 2011, was known to have used video games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for training. He also confessed to using a holographic display as a part of his training to help him target his victims.
To date, no incidents of aggression or violence linked to gaming have been reported in the GCC. However, a report from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, suggested that a certain genre of video game (unnamed) has been instrumental in promoting violence, terrorism and theft in the city.
At the time, the head of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Sakina campaign, Abdel Moneim Al-Mashawah, was quoted saying: “Video games pose a threat to young people as they have stripped them of their religion, nationalism, families and emotions.”
In view of such reports, games such as Grand Theft Auto and Godfather II, an open world action-adventure video game series, have been banned for sale and reproduction across the Sultanate and various parts of the GCC, including the UAE.
A total of 22 games are banned in Oman.
However, following a quick investigation, we found that these games were easily available to purchase on the black and grey markets, depending on the title and type of console.
It is surprising how easy it is to purchase a game banned in the Sultanate. The prices of these games can vary from RO25 to RO30.
“When I wanted to purchase Grand Theft Auto V, I headed straight to a game shop in Ruwi,” says Aabid, a former classmate of mine. “They charged me an additional RO2 because the game wasn’t easily available to them,” he adds.
A video game shopkeeper in Azaiba says: “It is the sheer amount of attraction these kids have to violent games that force us import these banned titles.
“The market for illegally imported CDs is at an all time high and if the demand for these games remain, we will have to keep importing them,” he adds.
Dr Gomez says that the increase in addiction for electronics and gaming consoles is prevalent around the Sultanate. She calls this condition “Arousal Addiction”, which is when an individual is hooked on a particular device (such as gaming consoles or smartphones), resulting in the person spending more time on the device than interacting with their peers.
Speaking about its effects on children, she says “Arousal Addiction” also has the power to lead the child towards sociopathic behaviour, which could lead to issues such as abandonment and psychological instability.
In an ideal scenario, she says a child must split his or her day into eight-hour portions, when they can:
Combatting video game addiction starts at home, Dr Gomez says.
“Parents have to start monitoring what their children are exposed to,” the psychologist says. “They [parents] could also sit down with their children after sessions of gaming and show interest in what they did.”
“Later, the parent could explain what the child saw and maybe give an adult’s opinion on the matter.
“For example: Grand Theft Auto contains obscenities such as indecent commentary and nudity, and the parent could probably explain to the child why that is wrong.”
This will give the child an opportunity to differentiate between virtual reality and reality, she says. And the interaction between parent and child will help to instill a level of empathy and attachment in the child.
Tessy Roy, a mathematics teacher and psychology student in Oman, says the amount of time a child spends playing games and browsing is directly proportional to the time a parent spends away from the child.
“Parents of this generation have nobody to blame but themselves,” she says. “Working parents spend close to 10 hours of their day at work and they subsequently spend very less time with their family.”
Tessy believes that this is the very reason why children are so reliant on gadgets and consoles.
“This void left in the lives of the children is something that is replaced with video games and the online world,” she says.
“Children of this generation are different in so many ways. The attention spans of students today are much lower than that of students from the previous years.”
She also adds that virtual media has successfully provided them with a visual medium for the transfer of information – something teachers of today cannot replicate due to a limitation in curriculums. Thus, students find it harder to concentrate on their lessons.
Mohammed agrees with Tessy. His brother Wadah, a 27-year-old engineering student, is addicted to gaming.
“Wadah should have graduated from college three years back,” Mohammed says. “However, he even forgot about his semester exam because of a game.”
Wadah had to repeat the year because of his mistake. Mohammed says that all of Wadah’s friends have settled down with families and jobs; and that he is the only member of his group yet to graduate from college.
This year marks Wadah’s eighth year in college, while for the past 10 years, Mohammed says he has never seen his brother spend time away from the television or computer.
“My brother doesn’t talk to anyone anymore; he has no friends; no job; no nothing,” Mohammed says. “We’re planning on sending him to a psychiatric hospital to get him help.”