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Online games connecting Japan's kids in pandemic era, but addiction worries rising

A boy plays an online game in the Osaka Prefecture city of Toyonaka. (Mainichi/Ryohei Masukawa)

OSAKA -- In the long months of the coronavirus pandemic, with people encouraged to stay in and socially distance, Japan's children turned increasingly to the virtual communities of online games to stay in touch with friends. At the same time, some critics worry that children have come to rely too much on the games.

    An 8-year-old boy in the third grade, with a mask dangling from one of his ears, held a tablet in his hand. He was moving the characters on the screen with his fingers and communicating in English with a friend, who was far from the boy's home in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. The boy's 48-year-old mother watched over him, smiling.

    The boy had moved to Toyonaka in June 2020 after spending some 3 years in the southern U.S. state of Georgia, due to his father's work. His school has not had any temporary closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he is expected to avoid the three C's: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. There was a long period when he couldn't play with his new friends even when he wanted to.

    What provided the emotional support the boy needed turned out to be the online game Minecraft, which was installed on the family tablet. He, together with his friends, could freely create a world by putting blocks together in a virtual space. And like an adventure game, it was possible to see the world from various angles. When the boy was living in the U.S., he rarely played online or video games, but after he moved back to Japan, he stayed in close contact with his friends in the U.S. through Minecraft. He also grew close to the daughter of his mother's friend who also lives in Osaka Prefecture through the online game, and now they meet up once a month to play in person.

    "I still don't have that many friends in Japan, so I'm really glad I have the game," the boy said with a smile. His mother nodded in agreement. "My son didn't speak much when we first moved back to Japan, but through the game, he's become sunnier," she said. "We can play as a family, too, which brings us closer. And I think that being in contact with people living abroad will help my son gain an international outlook." Through a discussion between mother and son, gaming time on the weekdays is limited to 40 minutes or so in the morning before going to school, and about one hour after he comes home.

    Students at Ritsumeikan Primary School play the online game Minecraft in which they build a virtual world using blocks. (Photo courtesy of Ritsumeikan Primary School)
    An image of the Byodoin temple's Phoenix Hall recreated in Minecraft by students at Ritsumeikan Primary School. It was introduced to children abroad online. (Photo courtesy of Ritsumeikan Primary School)

    There have been moves to use online games in schools. Ritsumeikan Primary School in Kyoto's Kita Ward has used Minecraft in its ICT (Information and Communication Technology) class since 2017. Fifth- and sixth-graders are allotted a tablet each, and work with classmates in the virtual world to reproduce Kyoto's cultural treasures such as Byodoin temple's Phoenix Hall. They then present their works to American elementary school children and others, and ask for feedback.

    The purpose of this weekly class is to gain presentation, imaginative and communication skills. "When adults think of games, they have this image of a player silently doing something on their own," Hidekazu Shoto, 38, who teaches the class, said. "But that's not necessarily the case. Because it's a collaborative activity through images, the students cannot use, for example, abstract expressions such as "Go over there," meaning that the volume and quality of communication differs (from non-virtual life). Schools that use games in their classes are slowly increasing."

    There is a wide range of online games and they are recognized as a valuable forum for interaction and as an instructional resource, but there are also concerns that people are using games for longer and longer periods of time, and that they have become tools for escapism. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) newly certified gaming disorder -- gaming that prevents one from performing daily activities -- as an addictive behavior. According to a Japanese gaming industry data almanac for 2021, the popularity of gaming among people in Japan aged 5 to 59 in 2020 increased by 10% from the previous year to 52.73 million people. It is the largest number on record since 2015, when the surveys began.

    A study conducted by the Kyoto Prefecture-based Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) and others on 3,938 men and women aged 20 to 69 nationwide and released in October 2021 showed that the ratio of people with a tendency toward gaming dependency increased about 1.6 times after the coronavirus pandemic began in Japan. In December 2019, before the pandemic, it was 3.7%, while in August 2020, after the virus had spread, the figure was 5.9%. Analysis showed that the chances that a COVID-19 patient developed gaming dependency was at least five times that of someone who did not have the virus. A representative for ATR said, "It's likely that stress from the coronavirus is a contributing factor (to gaming dependency)."

    According to Okinawa Prefecture-based Oneness Group Foundation, which supports people recovering from online gaming dependency and other conditions, unlike gambling and alcohol addiction, gaming dependency is prevalent among children and youth.

    The group takes consultations from those with gaming dependency and their guardians via telephone or email, and provides mental health services. Some of the people who come to the group for help are young people whose days and nights have flipped, and whose grades have slipped as a result, as well as those who could not stop making in-game purchases and went as far as to secretly use their parents' credit cards. The organization said that the number of consultations per month in 2020 went up by around 1.5 times compared to pre-coronavirus times, to about 70-80.

    Oneness Group psychiatric social worker Takayuki Miyake, 47, said, "There are many cases where children and youth who were already familiar with online games became obsessed with them once the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools temporarily closed, or the public was called on to not go out. We, through repeated discussions with people who come to us for support, must figure out why they became unable to stop playing games, and solve problems they carry in their hearts step by step."

    (Japanese original by Ryohei Masukawa, Osaka Regional News Department)

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