The Challenges of Stopping Gaming Addiction
> 11/23/2005 1:47:44 PM

In December 2001 Wired News ran this story, asking the question, “Is there such a thing as gaming addiction or is the very concept a crock of excrement?”  Through her reporting, writer Julia Scheeres answers a resounding, “YES!”

Now, almost four years to the day, I have to ask, “How far have we come?”  If we knew what we knew back in ’01, what has been done to ameliorate the growing epidemic of video game addiction?

Gaming has been in the news a lot recently.  XBox 360, the first of the next generation systems, hit store shelves this week and was greeted with the kind of consumer jubilation that is usually only reserved for Harry Potter novels.  Yesterday, a New York Times story detailed the movement of video gaming into college curriculums.  In China parents are suing game developer Blizzard after their child killed himself, they say, because of an addiction to the company’s game Worlds of Warcraft.

There is no question that video games occupy a greater portion of the public consciousness then they did even four years ago.  This may in fact be the year that revenues from the gaming industry finally overtake those of the film industry.  With the release this year of the PSP and XBox 360, there are now eight major consoles with games in production.  If computers are your weapon of choice, the variety in and overall size of the gaming market continues to grow steadily.  Where EverQuest was once the dominant force in the world of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games), there are now dozens of fantasy worlds and scenarios that gamers can choose from. 

Ivan Spielberg, a contributor to The Psychology of Combating Stress, Depression and Addiction, has worked with patients suffering from gaming addiction.  I asked him about the often hazy line between casual or even frequent gaming and those who are addicted.  “When it’s interfering in your life in some way, relationship or job or motivation, then it’s a problem.  I ask [patients] how compelled are you to play?  Even when you’re not playing, how much time do you spend thinking about it?  The difficulty is that [gaming] isolates people even though they feel like they’re interacting on some level.

"Like any compulsive behavior, playing video games provides an escape from a reality that is often too painful to deal with.  It is these issues that must be addressed in anyone who is suffering from an addiction"

Gaming, Spielberg noted, adds another option to the pile of possible addictions.  “The real danger is cross-addiction because addicts often give up one thing for another, i.e. someone gives up pot for drinking.  Dual addiction can also be a big problem.  A lot of people form very dangerous relationships with pot or alcohol and gaming.  In these situations, it can often be difficult to disentangle the two problems."

Video game addiction provides a unique challenge to mental health professionals in a number of ways.  First and foremost, because of its place at the forefront of technology, the video game industry moves quickly.  By the time researchers are able to examine a facet of gaming addiction, the technology has moved on to newer and possibly more troubling places.  This trend is evident in the ever growing worlds of MMORPGs.  Until recently this style of gaming was relegated to a subset of highly tech savvy gamers.  Now though, with new computing and networking advances, even casual gamers are getting involved in games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online.

Secondly, video games are not nearly as financially devastating as other addictions.  Heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol all have very real costs.  Depending on how often an addict needs a fix, these drugs will destroy bank accounts.  A gambling addict will often lose massive sums of money.  Video game addiction comparatively, has a small cost to pay.  An upfront investment, in a computer or console, along with a game is all a gamer needs to get started. 

A third factor that has stifled further professional exploration in the realm gaming addiction is the activity’s perception as a harmless past time.  Little kids play video games, college students play video games, heck, even my grandfather has played video games.  So how did video games just destroy my business associates marriage?  This is obviously a multi-layered question, and gets directly to the heart of the problem. 

While full blown stats aren’t easy to come by, the anecdotal evidence for the destructiveness of video game addiction is in.  One need look no further than EverQuest Widows, a message board set up in July of 2001.  On this board spouses share stories of how their relationships were ruined by the game EverQuest, an MMORPG.  Some of their stories are almost too wild to believe.

It is clear that gaming addiction has become a problem that the mental health community needs to address more thoroughly.  Gaming addiction presents new challenges and must be met with creative and adaptable solutions.  Like many other addictions, video games themselves are not the problem. It is the behaviors and attitudes that interfere with everyday life which must be addressed.  And it is at those same behaviors and attitudes that any new treatment should be aimed.

More information:

In yesterday’s Great Falls Tribune, a paper out of Montana, writer Amie Thompson offers this breakdown of gaming addiction.  Her article contains a number of stories that illustrate the dangers and warning signs of the problem. 

Dr. Maressa Orzack specializes in computer addiction services.  At her website you can find more information about cyber and gaming addictions.

A study performed at Charité University Medicine Berlin, in Germany has shown that those addicted to video games undergo similar psychological and physiolgical reactions to those addicted to drugs.

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