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Dependent on your point of view

Opinion: Games 'addiction' might not exist - but that's no reason to ignore its 'victims', says Tim Ingham...

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Those whose hackles were raised at the news of Rowe's upcoming report - and I'm typing with one hand pointing ceiling-ward - are absolutely right when they argue that physical exercise can inspire compulsive behaviour, too. Likewise, countless smart, energised, attractive types admit to becoming "obsessed" with dramatised televisual pap like The Apprentice or Big Brother.

As with these alternatives, MMOs bring stimulating, comforting recreation to millions of healthy, content lives. We all survive a little easier with a distracting vice - and I can think of plenty worse.

But perhaps unlike other captivating pastimes, MMOs evidently leave a handful of susceptible fans open to worrying displacement. If you're the owner of a Royal Flush of self-loathing, they offer a persistent, alternative palette - one that can not only help you forget about real life problems, but real life altogether.

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This is in no way cause to question or restrict the genius behind the globe's most successful online titles - nor to assume that even the most down-on-their-luck players will gain anything but huge social benefits from being part of an MMO community.

No matter the "hidden psychological devices" Panorama 'uncovers' on Monday, the act of gaming has never been recognised as 'addictive' by any prominent medical or psychological literature. Blizzard has no need to feel guilty.

But that doesn't mean it's not time to take stock, and perhaps acknowledge that interminable entertainment - which offers an attractive, alternative persona to players - may not be suitable for every gamer, and may exacerbate psychological problems. Rather than stomp our feet about the freedom of the many, it might be wise to at least make a small effort to protect the few.

Square Enix is obviously alive to this very danger. "We have no desire to see your real life suffer [as a result of playing]," it warns on a pre-play screen during Final Fantasy XIV. "Please do not forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work."

It is encouraging to see a global MMO game-maker take steps towards admitting that some people are vulnerable to over-indulgence. However, if we want to protect people's lives - and, as a by-product, banish heartbreaking testimonies like those that will doubtlessly be riddled throughout Panorama on Monday - a greater effort is needed.

If, as the BBC claims, kids are spending 21-hours a day playing MMOs, surely paid observers of these games' servers know it's happening - and that it's not on? Why aren't they pulling the plug?

If families, school and work are being so palpably and completely neglected by even a few players, perhaps a cross-industry effort to curb anti-social behaviour wouldn't do any harm?

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Maybe a standardised cap on playtime within a 24-hour period for under-18s would be a sensible option - or a media campaign to push the parental control options contained in WoW and others?

It's all very well our business representatives denying that games 'addiction' exists at all - and questioning the profiteering clinics that boast it can be 'cured'. Both are perfectly valid defences.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room to ask if we couldn't be doing more to protect the tiny minority of consumers whose lives are being harmed, not helped, by the Greatest Entertainment Industry on Earth.

Perhaps, after all, we have a responsibility to remind these 'victims' just how addictive real life can be.

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