Escapism through esports might be leading to societal problems in the future
“All children, except one, grow up.”
So wrote J.M. Barrie about Peter Pan in 1911. At the time, it was interpreted as an expression of melancholic fantasy - that children are so innocent that we’d all be better off to remain in a state of blissful naivete rather than thicken our skin with adult fears, regrets and cynicism. Peter Pan, the perennial arsehole who simply refused to recognise any adult responsibilities, is simply a metaphorical idyll – a dream for anyone who fears age and the progressive march towards inevitable death.
We can’t revert time – that’s the simple truth, albeit one denied by numerous diet programs, clothing brands, social media filters, influencers and plastic surgeons. Beyond the physical wear and tear on our bodies, our minds are under increasing pressure as we stumble through an ever more hectic life in the digital era, so its perhaps not surprising that technology in the form of esports has become so stratospherically popular.
They offer new, ageless worlds into which you can escape and rejuvenate – pixelated havens within which people can be whatever they want to be.
That is, be whatever they aren’t in real life.
For lack of a Holy Grail to extend youth into infinity, esports have come to the rescue, burgeoning from niche hobby to global entertainment behemoth in under a decade. Research firm Newzoo predicts that by 2021, esports will generate more than $1.6bn in total revenue with $1.3bn coming from brand investments. Additionally, a 2018 paper by Juniper Research forecast that global spending on ‘loot crates’ and skin betting (that is betting with the weapon wraps, or ‘skins’ within games) would reach $23 billion this year and double to over $50 billion by 2022.
There are now numerous games that could be classed as global blockbusters including Fortnite, League of Legends, CS:GO, Dota2, Rocket League, FIFA and PUBG and a conservative estimate puts the number of esports enthusiasts at over half a billion people globally – and rising. Recent research suggests that by 2021 esports will have more regular fans than all US sports outside the NFL and globally, esports is well on track to overtake football as the most popular sport to watch within the decade.
Whether esports - a sedentary pastime for both participants and viewers - should be classified as a sport at all is a debate for another forum. What is certain is that whilst there are many positives attributable to the teamwork, coordination, persistence and skill required to master these games, very little noise is being made about the potential long-term negative side effects. Days and nights spent in front of two screens, employing four fingers of one hand and a digit of the other, conversing via headset with compatriots and adversaries across the globe whilst fuelled by copious amounts of sugary energy drinks doesn’t sound like a recipe for wellness.
In fact, just the opposite.
The repercussions were flagged as far back as a decade ago by Thomas Weiss in his mouthful of a study “Fulfilling the Needs of eSports Consumers: A Uses and Gratifications Perspective”.
He examined the gratifications obtained through online and competitive offline gaming. Those studies highlighted ten need gratifications. Of these, five were competitive (competition, achievement, challenge, reputation, and rewards) which focussed on prosperity through competition and five were hedonic (social relationships, escapism, self-fulfilment, fun, and virtual identity) and related to immersion and socialisation.
Looking at these hedonic gratifications, ‘Social relationships’ is about gaining social recognition whilst escapism refers to employing the virtual environment to suppress thinking about real world problems and avoid responsibility. ‘Self-Fulfilment’ describes the satisfaction of individuals' needs for endorsing their own beliefs and attitudes, ‘Fun’ denotes the perceived enjoyment of players and ‘Virtual Identity’ mirrors a player’s ability to enact different roles and to do things they are not capable of doing in real life.
Of these hedonic gratifications, all but Fun should be red flagged as potential dangers, especially in the realm of adolescent and young adult men – a cohort most definitely at highest risk of succumbing to some pretty unpleasant forms of mental illness including addiction, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Behavioural addiction, as an addiction to esports is defined, is increasingly common with an incremental increase in cases in line with the growth of the esports industry. The brain’s reward centres drive a compulsion to continue to play games regardless of any negative impact that doing so may have.
Beyond behavioural addiction, there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest the catastrophic impact gaming addiction can have on a player’s relationships, social life, world view, life prospects and general well-being.
The World Health Organisation estimates that between three and four percent of all gamers are addicted to esports, a number totalling approximately ten million young (under 35 years old, most male) players worldwide. If this statistic follows the explosion in the growth of esports even remotely then we’re looking at a significant social problem in the future.
And yet the problem remains hidden. Because esports as a business is moving at the speed of light, the pastoral care afforded to young players remains an afterthought – or at least, not a high priority.
Esports has been one of the few industries to claim a boost from lockdown, with US telecoms giant Verizon reporting a 75% increase in gaming traffic and Streamlabs data showing Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming usage increased more than 20%. With such popularity comes incremental risk as young men spend even more hours glued to their screens, so it’s the responsibility of a number of factions to undertake a total overhaul of how players and fans are cared for and protected: -
The game developers, hardware manufacturers, professional teams and their players, parents and the government to become appraised to potential dangers, fund research into the negative aspects of the industry and put in place barriers to harm as soon as possible.
Beyond the hard effects of potential addiction there are even less obvious societal implications at stake. In his excellent book ‘Consumed’, Benjamin Barber explores the emergence of infantilization amongst consumers, an emergence no better represented than in the childlike fantasy worlds of computer gaming: -
“For consumer capitalism to prevail you must make kids consumers or consumers kids … dumb down grown-ups, disempower them as citizens”.
Esports aren’t a bad thing – quite the contrary. Gaming has been proven to enhance a number of neurological traits including problem solving, memory, multi-tasking and brain speed. However as with anything fun, you can have too much of a good thing. It’s ironic that the conservative press gets its knickers in a knot about the amount of blood spilled in shoot ‘em up game whilst the actual long-term dangers are remarkably akin to those caused by any other addictive behaviour.
Harry is the founder of Brand Architects, a UK based strategic brand and marketing consultancy specialising in digital start-ups, online gaming and esports.