Regulation, sin taxes, and fines are coming for the game industry globally, and you can thank the Entertainment Software Association’s mishandling of concerns raised about addiction for that, according to Andrew Przybylski, experimental psychologist and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

In a talk on the science of video game addiction at the Game Developers Conference last week, Przybylski spelled out the many ways that science has yet to prove or disprove that video games are addictive in the same way as drugs or gambling. But he also noted that the game industry’s response to the World Health Organization’s investigation into the issue likely pushed the industry toward calamity.

Last summer, the World Health Organization noted that it may soon recognize “gaming disorder” as an addictive disease. But the group was still sorting through how it would be defined. The group also noted that in order to be added to the International Classification of Diseases, it has to be adopted by the member states of the WHO during the World Health Assembly in May 2019.

“It’s very easy to think of something like the World Health Organization as an organized body that really has its ducks in a row,” Przybylski said during his talk. “But they really didn’t, they were really quick soft about this gaming disorder thing. The people who were working on the ICD letter, they’d really gone out on a limb and there was a lot of debate internally and then the ESA decided to publish a rebuttal.”

The problem, Przybylski said, was that the rebuttal “cherry-picked” bits of different research — including his — that showed games weren’t so bad or that games are great for cognitive development, but excluded parts of the same research that showed that the good found in games are often overblown.

That rebuttal, Przybylski said, forced the WHO’s hand and led to what he called a “circle the wagons moment” within the United Nations.

“So now they’re much more convinced that they were right the whole time and you’re all evil,” he told the room of game developers. “I would have warned you not to do this.

“My piece of advice here is I think you probably all should consider bracing for impact.”

Przybylski said that there are a lot of bad things that can come out of the sort of reactive stance the ESA took about addiction and video games.

“We’re going to stigmatize the hobby of more than a billion people on the planet,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of really dumb regulations coming down the pipe. Depending on the patchwork of markets and regulations, in some places more aggressive regulators are going to fragment the market. There are going to be some kind of labeling rules, there’s going to be sin taxes. And there are going to be fines.

“So in a lot of ways there have been short term victories that are going to lead to long term defeats on this.”

Przybylski started his talk by walking through the history of concerns raised by researchers and politicians about video games, including the notion that gaming can cause an increase in violence or aggression. He then methodically walked through how addiction is defined and the ways that video game addiction hasn’t been properly researched.

Addiction, he said, has a medical definition that involves an active ingredient behind it. So smoking has nicotine, for heroin it’s an opioid, for gambling they believe it’s dopamine.

But for something like shopping or gaming, it’s not clear what that ingredient or mechanism would be, he said. Despite this the American Psychological Association and the World Health Organization built definitions for gaming addiction which included symptoms.

Research, Przybylski said he found, was broken down into four types: measuring addiction, neuroimaging studies, an examination of the addiction and how it fits into other issues, and finally treatment.

Most of the 250 or so studies he found were about measuring addiction, typically done through surveys.

“So when you look at this literature, by and large, the data is actually fairly low quality,” he said. “The studies aren’t done very well. There isn’t a lot of transparency. There are two billion video game players in the world. These 200 studies, they’re kind of garbage, we’re really going out on a limb.

“We don’t know what we don’t know because research isn’t being done properly and in the meantime, we’re going to have monster-of-the-week scary stories and that’s more than enough to motivate regulators and that’s more than enough to motivate who run health systems in a way we would have never seen with violence and aggression.”

So the lack of good research combined with the ESA’s poor handling of WHO, has created a problem that Przybylski believes will plague the industry for at least another half decade.

His solution is for the game industry to become proactive and have a fundamental shift in its approach to things like gaming addiction and gaming aggression.

“This is going to involve in considering what are your first principles,” he said. “Articulate what you will do as game developers to be a responsible citizen and designers of playgrounds for children. This is going to involve reading human rights law.”

Lego, he noted, has ethical design principals.

“I think you need to be part of good science, I think you need to promote it,” he said. “I think you probably need to coordinate because none of you are as big as a Google or a Facebook.

“The defensiveness needs to stop.”