Tanks and Tetris: the patterns of Belarusian gaming addiction
In January 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that gaming disorder would for the first time appear as a dangerous mental health condition in the 11th International Classification of Diseases.
Many countries, including China, Japan, and the United Kingdom have already implemented restrictive measures to combat a growing gaming addiction.
Belarus, on the other hand, still experiences euphoria from the global success of World of Tanks, a multiplayer online game created by Belarusian developers. While researchers maintain that gaming addiction rapidly spreads among young Belarusians, no restrictive measures have appeared so far. The cult of the national IT industry, as well as a powerful gaming lobby, prevent a national debate on the alarming health issue.
Belarusians’ gaming preferences
In January 2014, the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus conducted a survey about the gaming age and preferences of Belarusians. According to the survey, 15.6% of adult Belarusians play offline computer games, 15.4% choose online computer games, and 1.4% prefer PlayStation. Hence, each third adult Belarusian uses products of the gaming industry. 10.4% of those surveyed acknowledged that their children also played computer games. This indicates even higher national engagement in the gaming industry, and that it will further grow with the next generation.
At present, young and middle-aged Belarusians constitute the most active group of gamers. However, as respondents’ age increases, their engagement with online computer games decreases. Family life and work commitments leave less time for gaming activities. Moreover, gamers aged 50 or above tend to favour offline computer games. This can be partly explained by income differences. Older Belarusians, including pensioners, generally have lower incomes and cannot afford to pay for mobile internet connection.
Why Belarusian ladies choose Sims over World of Tanks
In ratings of Belarusians’ favourite computer games, easy mini-games such as Angry Birds and Tetris take the lead. World of Tanks holds second position, revealing some patriotism, while two shooter games, Counter-Strike and Dota 2, occupy third place. Apart from these, Belarusian respondents actively play the war strategy game Warcraft, lifestyle simulation Sims, action-adventure GTA, and the racing game Need for Speed.
The survey uncovered a remarkable gender-based segmentation of Belarusian gaming preferences. While men prefer games involving war activities, women tend to favour mini-games and simulations. Mini-games do not require strong engagement and provide female gamers with a sense of gratitude over small results.
Simulation games compensate women for the lack of fashion items, proper living conditions, and social fulfillment. According to a number of social surveys, more than 50% of Belarusian females lack the finance to expand their wardrobes, and fewer than 20% enjoy their living conditions. Simulation games such as Sims allow women to change accessories, clothes, hairstyles, gadgets, and furniture as much as they like. The gaming industry perfectly exploits the unfulfilled demands of female audiences by creating a separate fairy-tale reality.
Time to raise the alert?
Several Belarusian researchers have investigated students and their gaming activities. In 2013 a survey of Brest State University students discovered that 72% of male students and 33% of female students suffered from gaming addiction. Another survey of students of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics indicated that each third student experienced some form of gaming addiction, and each seventh student required therapy. The researchers warn that gaming addiction progresses quite quickly as new generations acquire easier access to gadgets.
At present, Belarusian medics do not possess a proper methodology of gaming addiction treatment. Despite the growth of gaming addiction among Belarusians, neither medical communities nor government officials have called for additional research or restrictive legislative measures. Yet researchers include aggressive marketing among the major reasons of the growing gaming addiction in Belarus. Another problem is parental ignorance. Some parents facilitate gaming activities from fears of the bad influence of the street, others view gaming as an easy way of preoccupying a naughty child.
Consequently, Belarusian legislators and medical communities have to work in two directions: to prohibit the aggressive marketing of computer games and to raise awareness among parents. Obviously, banning gaming adverts might cause resistance from the powerful Belarusian gaming industry, hence medics have to become the decisive voice in a prospective national debate.
Is it right to play for the Nazis in a battle of tanks?
Apart from health concerns, gaming addiction also raises ethical questions. First, children and teenagers get exposed to a large portion of violence, which inevitably harms their fragile psyche. Second, a range of computer games depicts historic events in a contradictory manner. Thus, Russia has recently banned the distribution of computer games that present Soviet soldiers in a bad light.
As for World of Tanks, gamers possess an option to play for Nazi Germany. While the majority of gamers drive Panzers and Tigers without any prejudices, certain voices have already questioned the moral standards of those Belarusian gamers choosing to be a part of the virtual Wehrmacht. At the same time, Wargaming – the developer of World of Tanks – hardly counts as the only company in the global gaming industry to exploit history. A sense of personal affiliation to particular historical events brings additional excitement and urges gamers to invest more efforts and finance.
Although gaming addiction has spread quickly among young Belarusians, counter-measures to combat the problem will not appear in the near feature. To put it bluntly, the Belarusian government benefits very much from a powerful gaming industry. Though Wargaming pays its corporate taxes in Nicosia instead of Minsk, tank battles distract a large portion of Belarusian society from active changes in real life and absorb social tensions. While men fulfil their warrior instinct by planning virtual military campaigns, women cure their social frustration by changing wardrobes and furniture in a simulation.
Meanwhile, a range of countries has taken a different approach towards the growing gaming industry. In China, internet giant Tencent has limited the playing hours for the most popular online games. South Korea has legally banned access for children under 16 from online games between midnight and 6am (the so-called “shutdown law”). In the UK and the European Union, special regulatory bodies strictly classify video games according to the level of violence. Hence, the global trend of limiting gaming activity contradicts Belarus’s more ignorant approach.
How EU money stimulates Lithuania-Belarus border cooperation
On 30-31 January, the heads of the Lithuanian town of Panevezys and the Belarusian one of Vitsiebsk met in Minsk. At present, with relations between the two governments poisoned by the dispute over the Astraviec nuclear plant, such local-level relationships take on added importance.
Both countries would like to develop cooperation in promoting tourism or improving border security, not only for internal reasons but also because the European Union (EU) pays for such cooperation. The EU can go further by making the distribution of money under its transborder program more proportional, improving regulations and, finally, liberalising the visa regime.
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The reason for border cooperation
Difficult border procedures between Belarus and Lithuania first emerged 15 years ago, when Lithuania completed its negotiations to join the EU. For many residents near the border that day proved tragic because it divided relatives in neighbouring villages. Until then the region lacked real boundaries – neither during Russian/Soviet rule, nor in the days of the Grand Duchy.
For example, in the Lithuanian village of Rakai, inhabited primarily by ethnic Belarusians, many used to work in Belarus. Only in 2003 the recognition of a real border meant they needed to look for a job in Lithuania or move to Belarus.
Often people from the same family, who had lived all their lives within several kilometres of each other, found that they needed an expensive and complicated visa and take a lengthy detour to reach the nearest border crossing point, only to sometimes face a long queue at the border checks inside the next country.
The border affected not only families but also economic relations. For example, in 2018 the Lithuanian Carriers Association announced that trucking companies lose €100,000 each day because of the queues at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The capacity of the border crossings is simply failing to receive the flow of truckers.
Naturally enough, culture, tourism and common history suffered as well.
EU as a sponsor of cross-border cooperation
The truth is that without EU money the countries would make much fewer steps towards each other, as both are pretty poor and may have other priorities. At the meeting in the Lithuanian embassy in Belarus, the heads of Panevezys and Vitsiebsk discussed the European Neighbourhood Instrument for Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. The program budget for 2014-2020 amounts to €81 million, of which EU funds account for €74 million.
In 2007-2013, during the previous program, more than two hundred Belarusian, Latvian and Lithuanian organisations built or renovated around 150 sites and held over 300 events. Thanks to the EU funding, common tourism routes appeared, journey time on the Vilnius–Minsk train fell to just two and half hours, joint youth football camps took place, and firefighters from the three countries organised field exercises. On the whole, 57 projects received €37 million.
The funds under the current program aim at: the promotion of social inclusion and the fight against poverty; the support of local and regional good governance; the promotion of local culture and preservation of historical heritage; and the promotion of the border management and border security.
Despite being listed last, border issues are not less important; they usually consume the largest amount of money. Without the assistance of the EU, all the existing border infrastructure in this region would have looked obsolete. At the same time, the number of visitors between the two countries keeps growing. Even Belarus, which is hardly attractive to tourists, issued 73 thousand visas in Lithuania during 2017. Furthermore, Lithuanians also enjoyed a visa-free regime in Hrodna and when entering Belarus through Minsk airport.
Belarusians and Lithuanians visit each other’s countries for goods and services that are cheaper or better. For example, some Belarusians prefer to give birth to children in Lithuania, while Lithuanians go to Belarus for dental services.
How can the EU help?
Brussels could do a few things that can make cross-border cooperation more effective. In 2017 the monitoring committee of the programme Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus selected 30 projects for funding. Among them, only two projects have Belarusian organisations as the lead beneficiaries. In all the others, as insiders told Belarus Digest, Belarusian organisations play a secondary or even marginal role. For example, as guests at workshops in Lithuania or Latvia.
According to Belarus’s ambassador to Lithuania, the problem lays in the fact that “Belarusian organisations have difficulties to work with European funds, but this will change with having more experience and improving the regulations inside the country.” The European Commission could have paid more efforts to ensure that programme funds get distributed more proportionally between participating countries, even if the current disproportion has some objective grounds.
The EU can continue to invest in border infrastructure, but in fact, the reason of traffic jams hides in the regulatory hole. Truckers who travel across Poland have the right to import 200 litres of diesel fuel at a time, while there are no such restrictions in Lithuania. Therefore, many truckers choose the route via Lithuania and the solution to this problem requires a joint decision.
Also, the EU should finally liberalise the visa regime with Belarus. Lithuania is not only a mecca for parties of wealthy Belarusians, but also a place where poor Belarusians have their families, whom they cannot see due to high visa costs.
At the end of the day, while the political elite quarrel, communication between the people could bring communities closer together.