Warning Signs Appear Along Road to Video Game Addiction
"People often go without sleep or skip meals to play video games. That can lower your immune system," Dr. Samuel Sharmat, a psychiatrist with a subspecialty in treating addictions, told TechNewsWorld. "It can also affect other areas of your life, like social interaction. Video games represent a form of escape from reality that can be dangerous."
09/13/06 4:00 AM PT
As technology becomes a large part of many consumers' everyday lives, the risk of overexposure to new advances grows for people of all ages. Children, however, may be especially at risk of becoming too dependent on devices and outlets such as television sets, cell phones, music players, video games and the Internet.
Part 1 of this three-part series explores the potential that exists for babies and young children to be adversely affected by too much exposure to technology before they are ready. This second installment takes a look at the growing problem of video game addiction.
Eleven-year-old William showed every sign of video game addiction.
The pre-adolescent frequently skipped school and refused to complete his homework. His mother often found him slumped over his desk in the dead of night, feebly clutching his mouse and peering at the screen through half-opened eyes weighted down by sleep deprivation. His finger was always poised to strike the click button at the first appearance of the virtual enemy.
Once at the top of his sixth grade class, the formerly gentle William had turned into a vicious, brute boy who threw his elderly grandmother down a flight of stairs, repeatedly struck his mother and threw otherwise violent tantrums when denied access to his gaming habit. His mother was grasping at straws when Howard Sherman, an implementor of interactive fiction, was brought in to consult on William's case.
"William's mother was at her wit's end. Describing to me the back-and-forth battling raging in her home, I could hear it more in the tone of her voice than in the actual words she spoke. She was on the verge of giving up. She was a broken woman," Sherman told TechNewsWorld.
William's mother sought advice from Sherman, widely recognized as a technological guru in the realm of computer fantasy, at the suggestion of her son's psychiatrist. Sherman worked with the doctor to outline various technological measures that could be implemented to keep young William from logging onto the Internet to play Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games.
William's mom took the cheap and simple option -- a password-protected firewall combined with not-so-cheap psychiatric sessions -- to get to the root of her son's addictive behavior. In his soft voice, the short, thin wisp of a boy revealed that he played the game because it made him feel powerful and respected.
The firewall worked for a while, but soon manipulation and sheer violence took over -- and the struggle continued.
A Deadly Addiction?
William is not alone. More and more people of all ages are falling prey to video game addiction. In fact, there have been several news reports of some people playing the games for a consecutive 24-hour period -- or even longer.
In the past year alone, there have been at least two reported cases of people dying from the effects of intense game-playing behavior. Just recently, a Chinese child was inspired by a video game to commit suicide.
Such incidents are rare, of course, but video game addiction is not. While addiction is not yet mainstream, it is a growing malady that has medical experts concerned.
"People often go without sleep or skip meals to play video games. That can lower your immune system," Dr. Samuel Sharmat, a psychiatrist with a sub-specialty in treating addictions, told TechNewsWorld. "It can also affect other areas of your life, like social interaction. Video games represent a form of escape from reality that can be dangerous."
Quantifying the Problem
There are some attempts to quantify the magnitude of the problem. AOL Games conducted a scientific study to determine how prevalent video game addiction really is.
Although most of the 1,209 14- to 55-year-olds surveyed considered their gaming "casual recreation," about 10 percent of those who play games on their computer, console or cell phone admit they have become addicted. About four percent actually hide their gaming use from family and friends.
What's more, 33 percent of those surveyed admit to having missed a favorite TV show due to their gaming habit, 19 percent have skipped a meal, and 25 percent have played games all night until the sun came up. Nearly 20 percent said they would most prefer to have their video games if stuck on a deserted island.
Who's at Risk?
Psychologists report that some people are more prone to video game addiction than others. When these people are introduced to video games, their predisposition for addictive behavior manifests itself. Psychiatrists believe the performance-based reward systems inherent in video games drive this addiction.
"Video games are different than some other technology addictions we see in that video game designers are building the addictions into the game," Sharmat explained. "The element of rewards is addictive. One of the most addictive rewards is when the game actually tells the player they've done a good job."
If the individual enjoys rewards, is dependent on legal substances such as nicotine or coffee, or exhibits thrill-seeking behavior, they may be more prone to video game addiction, Sharmat said. Likewise, individuals whose environments easily influence their mood are most at risk.
There are warning signs along the road to video game addiction. Psychologists report that these signs resemble those of most other addictions. Those teetering on the brink of gaming addiction may have constant thoughts about video game play; exhibit irritability when someone prevents them from playing; experience negative outcomes in relationships or in school or work activities; have intense feelings of pleasure or guilt; overspend on video game technology; or experience loss of sleep. Such symptoms are magnified in full-blown addiction.
"If you think you or someone you know might be addicted to video games, take a notepad and write down how much time is spent playing the games," Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based child psychologist who focuses on children's trauma, told TechNewsWorld. "Is your income declining, are you answering your phone, are you skipping out on social activities to play the game? Do you feel empty when you are not playing?"
Video game addiction is more than a behavioral addiction. Psychiatrists noted that receiving rewards and bonuses actually releases a chemical called dopamine in the brain. This is the same chemical that is produced by the use of cocaine.
Gaming Addiction Recovery
Video game addiction recovery centers are springing up to help addicts, as are addiction specialists offering one-on-one therapy.
William's recovery began when his mother took him to a different psychiatrist, one who specialized in treating people with addictions. The specialist identified the motives behind William's addiction and mapped out a framework for his ongoing treatment.
Today, 12-year-old William has conquered his addiction and there is peace in his family. There are many others around the world like him, however, who are tormented by his former affliction, and specialists urge them to seek help.