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The problem with video game 'addiction'

Erika Faust | Interrobang | Lifestyles | October 17th, 2011

According to the experts, you cannot be addicted to video games. No matter how many hours you spend playing each day, no matter if your professional and personal lives fall apart because of how much you play, and even if you feel as though you have no control over how much you play, you may be classified as a 'heavy user' or 'overuser,' but not as an addict.

Substance addiction is defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) with two criteria: tolerance (including the need for increasing amounts of the substance in order to achieve the same effects) and withdrawal (including the inability to cut down or control use). But since video games don't have a measurable chemical effect (as substances like alcohol and heroin do), they cannot be classified as addictive. Though there has been a push from the mental health community to put additional research and resources into the area for years, the APA rejected to classify it as an official addiction in 2007. Despite what the DSM currently says, many people who have experienced problem video gaming believe that video game addiction is a very real issue.

Dr. Andrew Doan hasn't played a video game since the summer of 2008. He battled a 30-year problem of overuse: from a youth spending 10 to 20 hours every week playing games on the Atari, Commodore 64, NES and Sega Genesis systems; to a young adult devoting 20 to 25 hours weekly to games like Civilization, Master of Orion, Sim City and more; and eventually to playing games like Warcraft II, Ultima Online and Diablo for over 40 hours weekly while in medical school.

"Medical school was easy for me, so I used the gaming to give me adrenaline rushes, a sense of accomplishment, mental challenges, the camaraderie of online guilds and mental avoidance of the daily stress of having little money and raising a young family," Doan explained. "This led to an ugly, out of control, positive feedback loop of addiction."

And yes, said Doan, this was an addiction. "Video game addiction is real and it is destroying our talent. I was lucky that I survived, but I know other doctors, professionals and friends who did not do well. People lose their jobs, families and some have lost their lives."

Altogether, Doan estimated he had devoted over 20,000 hours to gaming over eight years. "That's (like) holding two more-than-full-time jobs," he said.

Doan's problem gaming almost cost him his marriage and children. He turned to the Church for support and took four years to complete a 12- step recovery program. He said he has also found solace in On-Line Gamers Anonymous, an online forum for overusers. "It is good to know one is not alone. It has been helpful for me as I am able to help others understand the addiction and provide hope to others ... which is also part of the healing process for an addict."

Emily and Darren (last names withheld to protect their identities) lived together in Surrey, B.C. for nearly their entire 10-month relationship. Though they no longer speak, Emily recounted what it was like living with someone who seemingly had no control over his gaming habits.

She estimated that Darren spent at least 12 hours each day playing the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, forgoing social outings and spending time with Emily to participate in raids.

"He had no job and he had no money because all he would do was sit and play," she remembered. "It got to the point where I'm 21 and I'm up at 4 a.m. worrying about bills. I was working three jobs ... so that I could keep up my apartment and food for both of us."

Darren would often be cruel and lash out at Emily if she ever got between him and the game, criticizing her and sometimes turning violent.

Dr. Steven Kline, Professor of Communications at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has studied the way video games have affected the way children play since the early 1990s. He attributed Darren's outbursts to militarized masculinity: "This is about his identity as a gamer. What she's violating is very compulsive." He noted that Darren's behaviour was somewhat typical of what is reported by heavy players: 'My girlfriend gets on my case (about gaming), so I had to get rid of her.'

In his studies throughout the 1990s, Kline explored the nature of children's attraction to video games: why kids were choosing this 'virtual play' over playing outside with each other. "This didn't strike me as a necessarily good thing for children's wellbeing and social development. I became concerned with the shift in the forms of play."

Kline and his researchers also studied the compulsive aspects to gaming using diagnostic criteria for compulsive behaviour. The team asked gamers to examine their own gaming habits with criteria that included out-of-control play, disrupted sleep patterns, disturbed social relationships and conflict in their lives. The results showed that the symptoms became more pervasive as users were spending more time gaming, and many gamers readily admitted they felt addicted.

"These people are exhibiting these psychological symptoms and can self-diagnose — they recognize these symptoms, these feelings of having behaviour that they can't control," Kline said.

Now the people Kline studied in the '90s are in their 30s and 40s, and video games are not just for kids anymore. "In fact, for many of (the people who were studied), video games remain a major part of their lifestyle."

The problem that overusers like Darren and Doan face is that there isn't much help or resources available as problem gaming isn't yet understood as well as it needs to be by experts.

"While more study is needed on the addictive potential of video games, the American Medical Association remains concerned about the behavioral, health and societal effects of video game and Internet overuse," Dr. Ronald Davis, President of the AMA, was quoted by the Washington Post. "We urge parents to closely monitor children's use of video games and the Internet."

With some more research, video game addiction may become better understood, leading to more support and resources for those who need it. According to ScienceDaily, video game addiction may be included in the next version of the DSM, due to be published in 2013.

In London, there are few resources for problem gamers to turn to. A strong local resource for help with substance and gambling abuse is Addiction Services of Thames Valley, but it is currently unable to provide services for problem gamers. "We know problem gaming is a significant issue; however, we are not currently mandated or funded to provide services," explained Joshua Keene, Addiction and Mental Health Counsellor at ADSTV. He also noted that there is a desire within the community for agencies like ADSTV to provide supportive services for people with this problem.

Overusers like Doan have found the On-Line Gamers Anonymous website to be a helpful source of support, discussion and more. Visit it online at
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