A Publication of WTVP

Remember when you had to invite people over to your house if you wanted to play cards or a board game?

Remember when you had to invite people over to your house if you wanted to play cards or a board game? Those days are long gone for anyone with Internet access—it is now possible to play a game with or against anyone else online, anywhere in the world. The types of games being played online range from classics like chess and checkers to role-playing games involving hundreds or even thousands of people at the same time. More and more research these days is being devoted to a rapidly developing phenomenon known by many names, such as “game-junkies” and “gamerbrain.” Internet addiction has been treated as a manifestation of an impulse control disorder for many years, but lately a sub-group has become more prominent as individuals engaging in compulsive behaviors related primarily to multi-user games experience serious consequences in their lives.

According to a recent publication by the Entertainment Software Association, the number of online game players has increased 13 percent from 2002. According to the same study, 30 percent of most frequent online gamers are under 18 years of age. The most popular games players engage in online are fantasy or role-playing games. When considering their lure, it is not too surprising that adolescents and young adults are attracted to them. Players can take on identities with qualities they may not possess, or believe they do not possess, in real life. When role-playing, players form social relationships with other gamers, forming groups called guilds. Within these guilds, players complete tasks to gain power and status.

According to researcher Nicholas Yee, “environments like EverQuest can help a person if they’re shy or have trouble forming social relationships. They have this environment where they can safely try new things out. They can experiment with being more vocal, or they can try out a leadership role, which may not be an opportunity in real life.” On the surface, this does not sound like a negative. A place for adolescents and young adults to try out different roles and identities—essentially developmental tasks—at exactly the time they need to be doing this; what could possibly be harmful in that?

The harm can come in the pathological use of computer/Internet games, which can have devastating effects on the individual and his/her family. If the adolescent or young adult confines his/her experimentation and use of developing skills only to the cyberworld, he/she isolates him/herself from human contact and truly learning the skills necessary to thrive in the real world. Other consequences to pathological gaming include a decline in grades, isolation from friends and family, illness due to neglecting physical needs, relationship strain, dropping out of other activities and responsibilities, and job loss.

How does one determine whether or not an individual’s use of the Internet or involvement in gaming is pathological? There are similarities between gaming and other, perhaps more familiar, addictions. An individual who is compulsively gaming or using the Internet can be expected to experience several negative consequences. Two defining characteristics of addiction are exhibited by many who game compulsively: engaging in the behavior for much longer than originally intended and continuing to game in spite of experiencing negative consequences. In 2001, a computer game was implicated in the death of a Tampa, Fl. infant whose father was allegedly so compulsive in his game playing that he fatally neglected the child. The child’s father demonstrated no ability to set limits on his gaming.

Many parents whose children are compulsive gamers may suspect they are getting involved with marijuana or cocaine; the symptoms of compulsive gaming are that similar. For compulsive gamers, tolerance develops, and they become pre-occupied with the game. They cannot cut down or quit their use alone, and experience withdrawal symptoms (headaches, irritability and/or depression) when trying to stop. All areas of their lives are affected, just as with someone addicted to a chemical like alcohol or cocaine. Also similar to chemical use, compulsive gaming may mask other underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem.

Parents are encouraged to set ground rules regarding time spent and sites visited online with their children from the beginning of their Internet gaming experiences. Another tool at parents’ disposal is to locate the computer or game consoles in a central area and refrain from having them in their children’s rooms. This way, it is much easier to engage children in conversation about their Internet use and gaming behaviors, and it lessens the likelihood that compulsive gaming will develop. TPW