Gaming addiction: Psychological problem or social disorder?
By Paul Lester
December 3, 2009
Image credit: Eran Cantrell (pyxelated on deviantart)
If you’re more than partial to an evening of World of Warcraft or Call or Duty, best keep track of how many hours you’re wiling away in front of the screen. Gaming addiction is a peculiarly modern phenomena suggested by some as being just as serious as alcohol, drugs and gambling, and there are examples of gamers making themselves seriously ill, or in some rare cases, dying through malnutrition or dehydration. Following the opening of Britain’s first computer rehab clinic, Paul Lester takes a closer look at the issues surrounding gaming addiction to see if things are really as serious as they seem and if dedicated treatment is necessary.
Britain’s first computer rehab clinic opens
Broadway Lodge  is a rehabilitation center in Weston-super-Mare, England, that previously focused on treating more common problems such as drink and drugs. It has now modified its facilities to welcome gamers, who undergo group therapy, watch videos and engage in recreational activity in order to wean them from their addiction. Chief Executive Brian Dudley cites the example of a recent 23-year-old patient in order to illustrate the problems they are facing.
''We developed a treatment for him which followed the 12-step (abstinence) approach, but you can't tell someone never to use the Internet again," he said. ''He had eating issues, he wasn't eating properly. He did very well. He has the mechanisms now to cope with it.
“Obviously this is the very early stages of researching how many youngsters are affected, but I would stick my neck out and say between five and ten per cent of parents or partners would say they know of someone addicted to an online game. However, you can't simply say to a 23-year-old male 'you should never use the internet again'. It's just not practical.”
If gaming addiction is to be taken seriously then, there is a real reason to be concerned. A study by Iowa State University  earlier this year claimed that one in twelve gamers between the ages of eight and eighteen show signs of addiction. National Institute of Media and Family president David Walsh believes that “This study is a wake-up call for families. While video games can be fun and entertaining, some kids are getting into trouble. I continue to hear from families who are concerned about their child’s gaming habits. Not only do we need to focus on identifying the problem, but we need to find ways to help families prevent and treat it.”
Symptoms of addiction
One of the most vocal experts on this subject over the last couple of years has been Dr Jerald Block, a leading authority on compulsive computer use. Last summer he outlined four symptoms of hopeless addiction , which included:
- Forgetting to eat and sleep
- Craving more advanced technology
- Leaving a computer results in genuine withdrawal
- Becoming argumentative, fatigued or isolated from society
Block states "The relationship is with the computer. It becomes a significant other to them. They exhaust emotions that they could experience in the real world on the computer through any number of mechanisms: emailing, gaming, porn.”
Indeed an issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry  last year called for Internet addiction to be added to its official guidebook of mental disorders, with many common symptoms of other addictions, including cravings, urges, withdrawal and tolerance also applying to gamers.
Psychological or social disorder?
Dr. Block does attempt to debunk games as the sole perpetrator to an extent though, arguing that around 86% of addicts have some other form of mental illness , turning to the solace of an online persona to escape reality in the same way a person may turn to drugs or alcohol.
Further evidence does seem to suggest that this may be a more accurate representation of a condition than just blaming games themselves. Europe’s first gaming clinic - the Smith & Jones Centre in Amsterdam  – opened in 2006 and has since treated hundreds of young gamers. During this time it has changed its stance on treatment after coming to the realization that gaming compulsion is not a psychological problem, but a social one.
Founder Keith Bakker argues that “These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies. But the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers - this is a social problem."
He goes on to offer more evidence, stating that 80% of the patients they see have been bullied at school and feel isolated or socially excluded. In the case of younger gamers the blame would fall more squarely on the parents then, and indeed treatment that ignores the wider problem may end up doing more harm than good.
"It's a choice," says Bakker. "These kids know exactly what they are doing and they just don't want to change. If no one is there to help them, then nothing will ever happen."
So whether or not the label "addiction" is used, it would seem clear that too much gaming can be a genuine and serious problem, but the jury is still out on exactly how to treat the condition. Statistics indicate deeper social anxieties that see youngsters turning to games to escape the real world, placing the onus more on parents or the individual to create a more stable social environment. With many symptoms being synonymous with alcohol and drug abuse it follows that the core issue may not be entirely dissimilar, in which case the failure to identify and address the problem could still be extremely damaging to an individual’s development.