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Internet Gaming: When Play Becomes A Drug

by Avis Rumney, LMFT | May 2009

It’s a school night and Mom has just made dinner for 14-year-old Johnny and his sister:

Mother: Johnny, it’s time for dinner.

Johnny: In a few minutes, mom.

[10 minutes later]

Mother: Johnny!! Dinner!! Now!!

Johnny: I CAN’T, Mom.

Mother: Johnny! Now!

Johnny: NO, Mom, I CAN’T! I can’t leave my clan like this! They need my help!

Mother: JOHNNY, NOW! It’s a game! Turn it OFF!!

Johnny: NO MOM!! I CAN’T! I CAN’T! If I leave now, my clan will DIE!!!


Johnny: We’re in the middle of a raid and I can’t just STOP!

Mother: JOHNNY! It’s a GAME! Turn it off NOW or I’ll unplug the computer!!

Johnny: NO, MOM, NOOOOO!! YOU DON’T GET IT!! [Johnny is now sobbing and screaming] I CAN’T JUST GO! THEY’LL DIIIIEEEEE WITHOUT ME!!!! I CAN’T LEAVE THEM!!

[Mother unplugs the computer. Johnny sobs hysterically, lies face down on his bed, pumps his fists into his pillows, and wails.]

In the vignette above, Johnny’s mother intervened. Appropriately, she stopped her son, who was riveted to the screen, absorbed in the action. It is a parent’s job to set limits that promote healthy behavior. Clearly, Johnny would far rather have continued to play than join his family for dinner.

But suppose that Mom had caved in. Instead of unplugging Johnny’s computer, she could have thrown up her hands, walked away from his room, and served dinner without him. Johnny would continue gaming, to his detriment, taking time away from family interaction, missing a meal, possibly not doing his homework and staying up late. Virtual reality is enticing and exhilarating. Were Johnny to continue these behaviors night after night without parental limits, he might become dependent on gaming for fun and excitement, get insufficient sleep, neglect homework, lose interest in other kinds of recreational activities like sports and being with friends, and ultimately stunt his psychological, emotional and social development. This is the danger of letting a child play computer games without parental monitoring and intervention – unlimited playing can lead to dependency and addiction.

An Internet game can grip a child’s attention. Wrapped in the myth and mystery of an alternative existence, the individual crosses the threshold into a different world and his perception of reality becomes distorted. Gaming is one of the newest potentially addicting pastimes to hit the scene, and it is rife not just among teens, but also among younger kids and adults. Some computer games are healthy and can teach valuable skills, such as concentration, creativity, problem-solving, and mastery of a task. Some computer games are educational, with puzzles or problems that enhance math or verbal skills. Most games promote creativity and offer novelty and an opportunity for master. They offer enjoyment, play and relaxation.

Some games have therapeutic purposes, such as virtual sensation games, in which for example, scenes of icy fjords can be used to cool a burn patient. Games can also provide a social connection for people who have physical impairments that keep them housebound. There can be a social element to gaming when players gather to play games – although each player is entirely engrossed in his or her own computer screen. Healthy social elements exist in online games where individuals learn the value of cooperation.

Games can provide social interaction when played with others – for example, two boys playing X-box or a girl and her father challenging each other at Nintendo.

But there is a new generation of games, games which can be seductive, absorbing and potentially addictive. Gaming can lead to addiction in the same way as drinking or using drugs. Scientists have shown that gaming releases adrenaline (which causes excitement) and dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter.) The game becomes so exciting that reality pales by comparison. The player enters a vivid, surreal scene that no real-world setting can approximate. He picks up a weapon or launches a super cyber-craft into space and immediately is imbued with euphoria and quivering with the rush of power and control.

In addition, some Internet games are interactive, and the online persona, or avatar, created by one player is involved with other avatars, represented by other people. Each player is then involved in the fate of his fellow avatars as they challenge deadly monsters in hostile territories. Suddenly the gamer has a whole network of otherworldly allies he can band with yet never meet in person. From playing occasionally, to an hour or so a day, the individual progresses to playing every day for more and more hours, staying up late, losing sleep, missing out on face-to-face social interactions, falling asleep in class or on the job. Gaming becomes compulsive and the impulses to play become uncontrollable; the player continues to play despite harmful consequences. At this point, the gamer has stepped over the line into addiction.

Addiction to gaming, like any other addiction, is treatable. Addictions characteristically have biological, psychological and social aspects, and each of these areas needs to be addressed. With appropriate, effective treatment, recovery is possible. For children, effective treatment includes the family.

It is estimated that worldwide over 160 million people play computer games. Over 11 million of these play the popular multi-player online game, World of Warcraft. Adult gamers comprise a large percentage of the game-playing population, with females over 18 representing a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys 17 or younger. However, virtual worlds have been created for children as young as three years of age. Gaming is particularly dangerous in children as their brains are still maturing. Children are especially susceptible to behaviors that cause brain changes which can result in addiction.

Most video games initially engage the curious individual through beautiful scenery or surrealistic visual effects enhanced by a reverberating sound track. The player becomes excited – adrenalin starts to surge – similar to the experience of watching the opening scenes of a five star epic movie on IMAX. In starting the game, the player begins to explore a new world, create a story, score points, or accomplish a task. Awash with feelings of pleasure and success, the player can get seduced into wanting more and more. A game can be exhilarating and uplifting. It creates a high.

In today’s world of increasing speed and complexity of technology, games have evolved that weren’t even imaginable a few years ago. Pac Man played in video arcades several decades ago has morphed into sophisticated software available for the home computer. Many computers come with some simple games already installed. Most of today’s popular games require the purchase of additional programs. There are “simulation” games in which the individual builds a city, and also more advanced strategy-based simulations in which the player can fight a battle, race a car or fly a plane. Another category of game is the First Person Shooter, where the player is involved alone in some aggressive act – Grand Theft Auto is a popular one in this category. And there are adventure games like Oblivion in which the individual creates an avatar and ventures into a make-believe world to embark on a journey or begin a quest.

While all the games listed so far carry with them the risk of addiction, most of them are solitary (which itself can be problematic), and do not engage the player in any kind of joint venture. However, unlike their tamer cousins, MMORPG’s -- Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, such as the World of Warcraft (WOW) – involve the avatar in an online guild or clan (a group) of other avatars. This takes on the flavor of a team sport – except that the team members are imaginary characters who appear on a screen to interact with the equally imaginary character of the player. Gamers communicate online to strategize the moves of their avatars against a horrific monster, and the success of the team in fighting the Mobs (monsters) depends on the co-operation of the avatars. If one player leaves during a raid – that is, while his clan is fighting off a monster – it threatens the success of the raid and the survival of his fellow avatars.

Computer gaming becomes dangerous, especially for kids, when the content of the game is inappropriate, and either overtly or implicitly sexual or overly violent in nature. Gaming can become expensive when gear or equipment is offered to enhance the wardrobe, weapons or environment of the player, and gamers are lured into expanding their possessions. Although these items are bought with “virtual dollars,” virtual money is purchased with real money. Some games require subscription fees and monthly payments. Gaming becomes damaging and potentially addictive when the high of gaming supplants the pleasure of all other recreational pursuits. Virtual reality takes over real-world reality and robs the person of a healthy perspective, time for real-world life, and the opportunity to interface with real people. Gaming is harmful and destructive when a gamer chooses playing games at the cost of health, or interpersonal, educational and age-appropriate developmental activities such as sports, dating or having a job.

If you are the parent of a child who is interested in games, look below for some pointers to protect your child. Do not enable your child by letting him or her play computer games unmonitored or without setting time limits. If your child needs additional help or support, don’t hesitate to call an addiction counselor or fool yourself into thinking “he’ll grow out of it.” More often than not, just like with drugs, a person gets progressively more involved as he spends more time gaming. Recognize that if your child is in trouble, the family must be involved in the treatment process. If you are an adult, and an adult loved one is suffering from the fallout of excessive or addictive gaming, do not enable that person. Let them know, in a firm but loving way, that you are concerned about him or her, and that you will not in any way support his gaming habit. If you are an adult and you are having trouble with excessive gaming, call for help today. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can begin to heal and recover. Recovery is possible and help is available.

Parents’ Frequently Asked Questions

How can I know which games are OK and which ones aren’t?

Games have ratings that suggest the appropriate age level for play and the level of filtering or blocking the parent can do from another computer. Review the ratings and familiarize yourself with the filtering information that comes with the games.

Educational games like Big Brain or Brain Fitness are good. Games that have “endings” and games the player can stop at any time are safer than games that can’t easily be stopped during play:

  • A player can stop simulation games like auto racing, Sim City, and Microsoft Simulator X, although they don’t have a defined “ending.” Some simulation games are good choices for teens.
  • First-person shooter games such as Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto can be stopped.
  • Games that are hard to stop during play are the MMOGRP’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Player Games), in which a raid can last 12 or more hours and the player drives a sense of importance and loyalty from staying in the game to the end of the raid – leaving mid-game means abandoning his online friends. This category includes the very popular World of Warcraft (WOW).
  • Games with significant violence and sexuality are not good choices. WOW is violent. Guild Wars is hypersexualized.     

How can I keep my kid safe around games?

Monitor how much time your child plays games – spending two hours per day in front of all electronic media is the maximum limit of exposure recommended for children by the American Psychological Association. Other tips:

  • Role-model moderate use of electronic media.
  • Allow game-playing only after homework and household chores are done.
  • Place the computer in a common area of the house.
  • Spend time with your kid having him or her teach you about the games he is playing.
  • Monitor the types of games your child plays. Don’t allow games that have significant violence, sexuality, or that cannot be stopped without major upset to the player, like World of Warcraft.
  • Make sure you actually know what is on your child’s computer.
  • Check your credit card bill. If the game requires a subscription fee, or the purchase of virtual money to buy gear, who is paying for these charges?
  • Manage the technology. Use a password to protect your operating system. Contact your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to block ports.

How can I know when my kid isn’t safe?

Look for the same signs that let you know your kid is safe in other ways:

  • How is he or she doing at school?
  • Have there been changes in his behavior at home?
  • Have there been changes in sleep patterns? Hygiene?
  • Have you noticed mood shifts?
  • Is he participating in other recreational activities?
  • How are his peer relationships? Is he socializing?

What should I do if I’m concerned my child is already playing games too much?

Call and make an appointment to meet with an addictions counselor who has expertise in working with gaming. Be aware that if your child is gaming excessively or possibly is addicted, stopping gaming can cause withdrawal and significant mood and behavior changes. It is better to work with a counselor versed in gaming addiction than to intervene by yourself.                       

How do you work with gaming addiction?

This depends on the extent to which the individual is involved in the gaming world. As with any other addiction, the addictive behavior needs to stop and ample support must be provided. It is essential to manage the emotional and behavioral symptoms of withdrawal. The individual needs to resume the developmental tasks that were arrested when gaming became primary. Real-life recreational activities need to take the place of gaming.

Recovery from addiction to gaming is a process similar to recovery from any other addiction – it is behavioral, psychological and social in nature. Family involvement is key. Developing social relationships is important. In time it will be essential to assess whether psychological problems existed before gaming became excessive. The addicted gamer needs help to pursue recovery in every area of life that has been affected – health, sleep, hygiene, school, work, relationships, and care of home or surroundings. Recovery is possible and help is available. By following the guidance of an addiction counselor, a gamer can recover and develop a healthy, sober life.

If you know of a child who is involved in excessive gaming or is overusing other electronic media, please contact us. The earlier the intervention, the sooner the child can return to normal development and healthy functioning. 

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