Hong Kong teen kills self over online game; why does this sort of thing keep happening?
C. Custer | On September 6, 2013 at 3:00 pm
It’s a shame that tragic stories related to gaming aren’t that difficult to find (you wouldn’t think a tech website would even need a tag for murder, for example). The latest, via Tencent Games, is that an 18-year old high school student in Hong Kong’s San Po Kong neighborhood jumped off the roof of his family’s apartment building and died. The reason for his apparent suicide seems to be an online game transaction; the teen had purchased 30,000 points for a favorite game (which game hasn’t been disclosed) that never appeared in his account. When he tried to check the purchase online, there was no record of it. Dismayed, he apparently chose suicide.
Obviously, the game company that scammed him bears some of the blame for this, but I’ve written so many stories about extreme real-world reactions to in-game disappointments that I began to wonder what scientific research was out there that might be able to shed some light on these violent incidents.
One point of interest is that there seems to be a link between anxiety and aggression and gaming addiction. A 2010 study in the UK (with an admittedly small sample size) found results suggesting that students with five specific personality traits (including anxiety and aggression) were more likely to acquire and develop gaming addictions. To be clear, this does not mean that video game addiction leads to aggression — studies suggest that is not the case — but rather that aggressive people may be more likely to get addicted to games in the first place. And if they do become addicted, that can make things worse: other academic research has suggested that game addiction is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression.
This study found that players of MMORPGs — the online role-playing games that are hugely popular throughout China — actually use the games to alleviate negative feelings and moods. This may be especially true in China, where Tiger-Mom style authoritarian parenting has been connected* to gaming addiction in high school students.
Of course, none of these studies are conclusive, smoking-gun proof of anything. But if, for example, it’s true that aggressive people are more likely to get addicted to games than “normal” people, and it’s true that games are used by gaming addicts to alleviate negative feelings, then it starts to become easier to understand why people occasionally react in such extreme ways when their gaming experience is soured or interrupted.
It’s important to understand that the driver here seems to be the inherent differences in people’s personalities, though, rather than games themselves. I spoke with Dr. Zaheer Hussein, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby and the co-author of a study that found MMORPG players used games to relieve negative feelings. “[Violence] is not a normal reaction [to games],” he told me
There are both physical and psychological problems that are inherent within people that can lead to such negative behaviour. I believe video games/MMORPGs/iPad games can be inherently addictive; they possess specific mechanisms that can cause addictive play amongst players. We must not forget individual differences amongst game players. Each individual will react differently to these games because we have experienced things differently.
With much more research still to be done, and incidences of game-related violence still popping up, it’s likely that the correlation between games and violence will be a hot-button issue for many years to come. But while it seems clear that games can and do have strong psychological effects on people, blaming them for murder and violence appears to be a bridge too far, as those actions may have been triggered by something in a game, but they likely stem from something deeper within one’s personality.
*I can’t find this actual paper online, but have seen it paraphrased and cited in several places. The full citation: Wang et al. (2006). Research on the relationship between the tendency toward computer game addiction and parental rearing styles in senior high school students. Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 12, 460 – 462.