Since the introduction of gaming systems, every system has had games people become obsessed with. Even Pong, with its most elemental of graphics and repetitiveness, could keep people occupied for hours. With Nintendo 64 came Perfect Dark. With every new game system and every new game, came a new generation of “gamers” and new opportunities for the lure to become overwhelming. When computer games became on option, particularly when online, interactive games were developed, the problems escalated. Players quickly became addicted to Diablo, Starcraft, Everquest and Halo.
Then came World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game (RPG). Clearly there is something about this particular game that seems to draw people into a dangerous addiction. There are organized “guilds,” a group you join so you can fight as part of a team.The guild agrees to “meet” somewhere in the game at a designated time for an “instance” which can take any where from a half hour to four hours to finish. If you miss an instance, you might get kicked out of the guild. So your whole life begins to revolve around what the guild tells you to do. The more you play, the better you get; the better you get, the higher the level you are at. The lower level players are at the mercy of the higher level players when they are in or looking for a guild. Get kicked out of the guild you’re in; and, if you’re a lower level player, you may have a hard time finding a new guild to accept you. So there is pressure to play more and more to raise your level. Part of the attraction is that every thing is happening live and the game enables you to communicate with any of your friends that are on at the same time. During the day, kids are at school, adults are at work. The only time you know for sure the people you communicate with are on the game is at night. A lot of people end up staying up all night playing. Some forget to eat they are so consumed with their “game.” Dr. Maressa Orzack, clinical psychologist and founder/coordinator of the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital in Newton, MA, estimates that 40% of the six million World of Warcraft players are addicted to the game. She also believes that game developers, such as Blizzard (developer of World of Warcraft), intentionally structure their games to be addictive.
So how do you know if someone has an addiction? It’s an addiction when it begins to disrupt school and work and causes problems in your social life and most often happens to young men and boys. Specific symptoms include: spending most non-school or work hours on games, falling asleep in school or at work, lying about your game usage, becoming irritable, anger, or depressed when not playing, dropping out of other activities, becoming more hostile in your daily life, and feelings of euphoria when playing. Physical symptoms associated with excessive game play include: carpal tunnel syndrome, back and neck aches, dry eyes, migraine headaches, and neglect of personal hygiene. Gaming causes dopamine production to double, accounting for the euphoric state during game play. According to experts, gamers exhibit classic withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders.
The problem with treating gaming addictions is that you can’t simply take away a computer. Kids are using them for homework, everyone uses them for email, shopping, research. And, it may be even tougher to get someone to admit that they have an addiction to games-my son, for example, always points to the fact that he is communicating with his friends while he is on the game. But, even though the gamers may be talking to friends over the Internet, they are not physically with other people; they are choosing isolation and this isolation is a classic symptom of addiction.
About a year ago, a clinic opened in China specifically to treat people with gaming addictions and just recently another one opened in Amsterdam. Some question whether or not obsessive gaming can be classified as an addiction as it is not physically addictive. However, other experts classify it as a clinical impulse control disorder, similar to gambling or compulsive shopping.
What can you, as a parent do, is keep your kids from becoming addicted to games or to help them beat an addiction? Dr. Orzack recommends cognitive behavior therapy, supports groups and, for some, medication. Cognitive behavior therapy teaches patients to identify the problem, solve the problem and helps them learn coping skills to prevent relapse. Antidepressants may be necessary to treat the depression associated with withdrawal and Zyban (which is used to treat nicotine addiction) can also be used. Parents recommend the following steps: impose strict time limits on your child’s computer/game system usage, don’t let children have computers or game systems in their bedrooms, provide alternatives, and removing the games from the computer system and destroying the disks. You may even need to hid the CPU or game system until the addicted child is able to use it responsibly.
The first step to beating any addiction is to get the addict to admit that they have an addiction. Hearing it from their peers will probably be more effective than hearing it from a parent. In the case of World of Warcraft, the web site www.wowdetox.com will allow the addict to read what others are saying about their addiction. Hopefully, your addict will recognize themselves in this forum and real healing can begin.