November 25, 2008

Compulsive Gamers Not Addicted

The first ever clinic developed to treat people addicted to computer gaming says 90 percent of the young people who seek treatment for compulsive gaming are not addicted.

That's according to Keith Bakker, the founder and head of Europe's first and only clinic to treat gaming addicts.

Since opening its doors in 2006, the Smith & Jones Center in Amsterdam has treated hundreds of young gamers.

However, the clinic is changing its treatment after realizing that compulsive gaming is a social rather than a psychological problem.

The clinic shows high success rates treating people with other addictive behaviors such as drug taking and excessive drinking, using traditional abstinence-based treatment models.

But this kind of cross-addiction affects only 10% of gamers, Bakker said. For the other 90% who may spend four hours a day or more playing games such as World of Warcraft, he no longer thinks addiction counseling is the right type of treatment.

"These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies," he said.

"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."

The clinic has since changed its treatment program for gamers to focus more on developing activity-based social and communications skills to help them rejoin society.

Bakker believes the gaming problem is a result of the society we live in today. "Eighty percent of the young people we see have been bullied at school and feel isolated. Many of the symptoms they have can be solved by going back to good old fashioned communication," he said.

Since offering compulsive gamers a place where they feel accepted, the clinic has found that the vast majority have been able to leave gaming behind and rebuild their lives.

Bakker maintains that the root cause of the huge growth in excessive gaming lies with parents who have failed in their duty of care. Although 87% of online gamers are over the age of 18, and after that point they can only seek help for themselves since parents no longer have the right to intervene legally.

But intervention may be the only way to break the cycle for younger gamers. And that means stepping in and sometimes literally taking a child away from a computer, removing them from the game for a period of time until they become aware of their habits and begin to see there are other choices.

"It's a choice. 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."

One 18-year-old gamer being treated at the clinic in Amsterdam was spending at least 10 hours a day playing Call of Duty 4 until he sought help at the center.

"Call of Duty was somewhere I felt accepted for the first time in my life," he says. "I was never helped by my parents or my school. At the clinic I also feel accepted and have come out of myself."

He kept his gaming problem a secret for as long he could, but when he did tell people, nobody offered him help.

"I liked gaming because people couldn't see me, they accepted me as my online character - I could be good at something and feel part of a group."

While he felt a new sense of belonging in his online world, he felt powerless and neglected in real life.

"I was aware that I played too much but I didn't know what to do. But it helped me because I could be aggressive and get my anger and frustration out online," he says.

Along with addiction, aggression and violence form part of the ongoing debate about the influence of gaming on impressionable minds.

After two students killed twelve pupils and a teacher in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999, many believed that their common interest in playing violent games had helped to trigger the massacre.

Feelings of anger and powerlessness often pre-exist a compulsion to play violent games. In some cases, these people find each other in the gaming world and form a bond based on those feelings of alienation and anger, according to research at Smith & Jones.

But Bakker suggests that if parents and other care givers showed more commitment to listening to what their children are saying, these issues of isolation and frustration could bring many young people out of the virtual world and back into real life.

"If I continue to call gaming an addiction it takes away the element of choice these people have," he says. "It's a complete shift in my thinking and also a shift in the thinking of my clinic and the way it treats these people."

He hopes that some day addiction centers like Smith & Jones won't be necessary if parents and adults took more responsibility for the habits of their children.

"In most cases of compulsive gaming, it is not addiction and in that case, the solution lies elsewhere."