Students battle video game addictionAug 21st, 2009 | By Jason | Category: Awareness, Featured Articles, Features
by Jason McGill
Harmless relaxation? Or addiction?
Brothers Mike and Steve can attest to the addictive power of gaming.
“A year of my life is gone,” Mike said, describing how he has trouble remembering what happened outside the game world during 2007, when he played 25 to 30 hours just on weekends. “I know how, but I don’t really remember why I did those things. That’s what’s scary.
“It’s weird, it’s like everything I value, my family and friends, just disappeared.”
The brothers spoke on condition of anonymity (the names Mike and Steve are pseudonyms) because of the embarrassing nature of their problem. Mike attends Missouri State, while Steve just started at Ozarks Technical Community College.
Both men said they play more video games than they should. Steve play games nine hours on his days off from work and a couple of hours on work days as well. Mike said he has cut down slightly from his gaming peak and now spends closer to 20 hours a week playing.
Both spoke of the sense of achievement they felt from playing video games, even while acknowledging it was all virtual. “I love the teamwork aspect,” Mike said, “how everyone has a job to do and we all rely on each other to get things done.”
Steve likes how games are always available. “Doesn’t matter what time it is, you can always play,” he said. “It’s easy; it’s a good way to fill time.”
Behaviors like these impact college students all over the country. According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 10.8 percent of students reported internet use or computer games had a negative impact on their academic performance, compared to 11.2 percent for depression and 4 percent for alcohol use. One-fifth of students reported sleep difficulties, some of which could be caused by late nights of gaming or internet use.
“I’ll get home from work at eleven,” Steve said, “and I’ll be like, ‘I’m only going to play for an hour,’ and suddenly it’s three in the morning.”
“It’s not that I put off this or that specific thing to play,” Mike said, “but I’ll be so tired the next day that I won’t do as much as I want to or need to.”
Dorothy Warner, in Current Psychiatry, wrote video games facilitate, “the experience of ‘flow’ — a mental state of positive energy and effortless focus.” She compares it to the sensation reported by athletes and artists, including how time seems to become distorted.
Liz Woolley is the founder of On-Line Gamers Anonymous, whose website, www.olganon.org, supports an online community helping people recover from the problems caused by excessive game playing. She believes warnings about excessive gaming should get equal time in university programs with warnings to students about drug and alcohol abuse.
“The gaming companies spend millions of dollars a year on ‘research’ to try to figure out how to keep the gamer,” Woolley said. “Supposedly, (video games) are better than drugs or alcohol (for students), but I don’t think so.”
The OLGA website offers a list of over 40 questions people can use to assess their relationship with gaming. Some of the questions in this self assessment describe symptoms commonly associated with alcoholism, such as, “Do you try to hide how long you’ve been gaming?” and “Have you missed work/school because of your game playing?” It’s offered as a guide, not a diagnostic tool, with the website telling visitors, “You must determine if you think excessive gaming is a problem.”
Whether excessive gaming amounts to addiction is still an open question. As reported in Current Psychiatry, the American Medical Association determined last June that insufficient evidence existed to declare gaming as an addiction. The report said the American Psychological Association may consider adding gaming or internet addiction to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, due to be published in 2012.
Woolley supports the addition of a gaming diagnosis to call more attention to the problem, but she doesn’t like the word “addiction.”
“Some people call it excessive gaming, others say obsessive, others say compulsive, others use gaming addiction,” Woolley said. “We tell a person if they think they have a problem with excessive gaming, they probably do.”
Woolley also urges more research to be done on the effects of excessive play on the brain. “I have seen day after day the effects excessive gaming can have on a person’s life,” she said. “It is very sad.”
Dr. Doug Greiner, Director of the Counseling and Testing Center at MSU, also shies away from the word “addiction” in connection with gaming. He describes addiction as involving chemical and biological changes in the brain, as well as social and behavioral effects. Dr. Greiner said behaviors like obsessive, uncontrollable thinking about gaming are symptoms he doesn’t see often.
“Usually, behaviors like these are symptomatic of avoiding other activities, like going to class or going out with friends,” he said. In this way, excessive gaming or internet use can mask deeper problems such as social phobias, depression, or other addictions.
Steve acknowledged, since he has moved back from Kansas City, he plays games more and goes out drinking less. “Now that I’m back here,” he said, “I don’t really know anyone anymore and playing video games really fills the time where I used to be partying a lot.”
Steve’s experience of adjusting to a new social setting mirrors that of many college freshmen. Woolley said freshmen are more vulnerable to excessive, habitual playing. “This may be their first time away from home,” she said, “They may feel overwhelmed with life as an adult. They may be failing some classes. An easy escape is gaming.”
Dr. Greiner said that freshmen do typically go through an adjustment period, but they are not any more at risk than other students. “You usually see, as time goes on, freshmen getting more involved with classes and with activities at the dorm and so on,” he said, “and so I would say anyone is at risk.”
“Anybody can get pulled too far into it because it’s not something they ever think they have to be careful about,” said Peter Mastroianni, Health-Education Coordinator of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “They know about the risks of drugs and sex, but who ever thinks they have to approach a computer carefully? Their guards are down.”
Dr. Greiner said this kind of problem develops slowly over time. Students may notice more and more preoccupation with the game or the internet, manifesting in avoiding commitments, cutting class, or missing assignments. He said a particular warning sign would be spending extraordinary amounts of money on your habit and borrowing or even stealing to support it.
Dr. Greiner also suggested using common sense. “We’ve all been there,” Grenier said, “where we look up something on the internet and ten minutes later we look up and say, ‘How did I get to this site?’”
Woolley said to remember to not let any one thing dominate your time. “We promote balance in a person’s life,” she said. “Do all things in moderation.”
The Counseling and Testing Center at MSU has counselors experienced in dealing with gaming and internet compulsion. Students seeking help with these or other issues can visit their offices at Carrington Hall, Room 311, or call them at 836-5116. The Center also encourages students whose friends may be showing signs of trouble to contact them for a consultation about the best way to help.
The OLGA website, www.olganon.org, has many active forums for gamers or friends and family of gamers dealing with the fallout from excessive gaming problems. They also host live weekly chats and can help find face-to-face counselors. These services are free and anonymous.
“When I was at my worst, I was deep in denial about it,” Mike said. “I would keep making plans to cut back and control it, but they never worked.” The futility of these efforts, Mike said, lead him to see the extent of the problem and begin to make real changes.
Mike plans to go “cold turkey” from games this semester, taking it as far as deleting Minesweeper and Solitaire from his computer. Steve said once he gets into school, he’ll be able to put down the games and focus on studies. Neither one ruled out seeing a counselor if gaming continues to be a problem.