Since the beginning of this year, the young man has been a patient of the National Center for Gaming Disorders. It is a clinic that is part of the public health system in the United Kingdom and is specialized in the treatment of this addiction.
His parents took him to the clinic, but Alex has not adjusted. Louise believes that although the treatment is not working for her son, there was an unexpected benefit for the rest of the family.
“The most useful thing for us is to talk to other parents whose children have the same problems with video games. Our support group meets once a fortnight via Zoom,” says Louise.
Her husband Stephen adds: “I think the best thing is to realize that you are not alone. There are many other people across the country and around the world who are going through the same situation.”
“For us, as a couple, as a family, it has been a challenge because it is quite difficult to have interaction outside the house. “When we have visitors, he stays upstairs playing, yelling and swearing. Sleeping has also been a big problem, to the point of having to turn on the fan to not hear it while playing”, he adds.
The desire of patients (mostly adolescents) to play is so extreme that situations of violence and confrontations with parents or caregivers are often generated. If denied access to video game consoles or computers, many of the patients threaten suicide. Their social interactions are almost always limited to activities on the internet or while playing games.
Video game-related disorder is a controversial condition, defined by the World Health Organization by three characteristics:
- Poor control of game activity
- Prioritize play over other interests
- Continue gambling activity despite negative consequences
An undertreated condition
Some psychologists and the video game industry itself question the evidence used to define the disorder. Until very recently, at least in the UK, help for gaming problems could only be found in private healthcare.
But this clinic, based in west London, is part of the National Center for Behavioral Addiction. Problem gambling treatment is well established, but video game treatment is new territory for staff, according to consultant and clinical psychologist Rebecca Lockwood.
Lockwood says that the video therapy sessions allow the treatment to reach more people. “We know that video game-related disorder is a fairly rare condition. The symptoms can be really very serious, something that has surprised us,” she says.
“People often have a hard time controlling their emotions. They have problems with anger, anxiety and experience low mood. There are also physical symptoms such as loss of sleep. That’s because they play at night to connect with players abroad”, she added.
200 patients in 2021
Becky Harris is the clinic’s director and family therapist. She says they’ve seen more than 300 patients, 200 of them in 2021. Harris describes 89% as male patients, of a surprising age range.
“We started treatment at the age of 13. We have 12-year-old children who have been referred, we also heard of parents with children as young as 8 years old, but we have not been able to treat them. We have patients up to 60“.
They often receive treatment through video call sessions. Lockwood thinks there are some advantages to video therapy. “It allows us to interact with people who are usually quite reluctant to go to the clinic, because they are usually not very motivated to commit to following a treatment,” she explains. For millions of people, video games are a common pastime, a source of entertainment and connection.
So when does it cross the line and become problematic behavior?
62% of adults in the UK played video games during the pandemic, according to the national Office of Communications. And a recent study by the Oxford University Internet Institute concluded that playing video games is actually good for gamers’ well-being.
Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the institute, thinks the games themselves might not be the problem. “As far as I know, there is no quantitative scientific evidence that there is something special about games that causes any kind of psychological damage. There’s a whole range of activities or behaviors you can overdo, whether it’s eating or exercising, for which there’s much stronger evidence,” he says.
“If someone is suffering and the game is part of that, like any passion, this is part of a person’s life and experience. Probably the best way to think about gaming at the moment… is to treat it like any other hobby, and use it as a way for the therapist to connect with a patient,” he adds.
Not against games
At the National Center for Gaming Disorders, Becky Harris is quick to point out that the clinic is not against video games. “We fully accept that for many people video games are a really positive thing in their lives. We’re talking about that small percentage who have a big problem with them and it’s really affecting their quality of life and their ability to interact and function,” she says.
Mike is a former patient of the clinic and says he became aware of his video game addiction when he was in his 20s. He played World of Warcraft up to 14 hours a day. This severely affected his relationship with his family and interfered with his studies.
He attended an eight-week therapy course that gave him a new perspective on video games and his life.
“I stopped playing so much. My relationship with my wife and parents improved. I’ve taken steps to fix all the issues, but it was this one last push that I needed. It put me on the right path”, he analyzes.
Mike hasn’t completely stopped playing video games, but says it takes up less of his time now. “It’s not that I think video games are bad. It’s just that I do it in moderation,” he says.
It is stories like Mike’s that give Stephen and Louise hope that one day their own son can solve some of their problems. “I feel optimistic because on Facebook I follow many people who look a lot like our son, but are now adults. And I follow them because his words are very enlightening, but also because it helps me feel that he will find his way,” says Louise.