Excessive gaming leads to rehab centers


    By Rosalie Westenskow

    This summer was full of castles, medieval warfare and a world of fantasy for Joshua Green, who spent more than 200 hours in two months playing “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” a role-playing video game.

    Green, a junior at UVSC from San Diego, Calif., asserts this isn”t a normal habit by any means, but said he has some friends who spend excessive time with their fingers wrapped around video game controllers. One of his friends became so addicted to gaming, he dropped out of school his freshman year in college.

    “I had maybe a month [of excessive playing], my friend had maybe a year,” Green said. His friend would begin playing video games as soon as he awoke, at about 1 p.m., and would continue until 2 or 3 a.m. every day.

    “He”d stop [for a break] about midnight and go to Taco Bell,” Green said.

    Stories like this have caused excessive video game use bordering on addiction to gain increased recognition among psychologists and addiction experts all over the globe.

    Last month, an Amsterdam addiction treatment center opened a gaming rehabilitation program to treat increasing numbers of gaming addicts ranging from teenagers to middle-aged adults.

    As the first residential gaming treatment program, Smith and Jones Addiction Consultants began its intensive program on July 15, 2006 after treating multiple clients who frequently spent as much as 16 consecutive hours playing video games “trying to ”level up,”” according to its Web site.

    Keith Bakker, director of Smith and Jones, told The Associated Press he has already treated 20 video game addicts, between the ages of 13 and 30, since January.

    Video games may look innocent, but can be as addictive as gambling or drugs and just as hard to kick, said Bakker, who has seen addiction signs in patients as young as 8.

    Treatment for video game addicts isn”t an entirely new idea and some clinics already exist in the United States. Elizabeth Woolley – whose son committed suicide in 2001 while playing the online role-playing game “EverQuest” – founded the Safe Haven halfway house in January in Harrisburg, Pa., for those struggling with video game addiction.

    She also founded “Online Gamers Anonymous,” a 12-step program designed to help wean addicts away from their joysticks. The Web site for OLGA, www.Olganon.org, gets up to 3,000 hits a day on its message board.

    Video game addiction often exists as a sidekick to other addictive behaviors or psychological problems. The patients who triggered the creation of Smith and Jones” rehab program all originally came to the center for substance abuse treatment, according to its Web site.

    While many gamers have multiple issues to deal with, video game addiction in itself holds similarities with other addictions.

    Utah County Health Department director Dr. Joseph Miner likens excessive video game playing to a gambling-type addiction.

    “A lot of things that aren”t necessarily physically addicting are psychologically addicting,” said Miner, who hasn”t worked specifically with video game abusers but said he sees it as a problem.

    Not only do video games and gambling have a psychologically addictive element about them, but Denise F. Quirk, director of the Problem Gambling Center in Reno, Nev., said she sees video games as a gateway to gambling.

    “It”s no coincidence that some of the new slot machines look like video games,” said Quirk, who is speaking at a substance abuse conference in St. George this September. “The themes are taking on a more youthful feel.”

    Quirk, who recently received a call from a parent whose son may be addicted to video games, said she is glad to see increased recognition of non-substance abuse addictions.

    “All of us addiction counselors look at it and say, ”Of course it”s an addiction,”” she said.

    Because of increased recognition, Quirk said “there is hope and help when anyone looks for treatment answers regarding addictions today.”

    For many video game aficionados, the addiction becomes a way for them to evade life”s realities. The theme for the popular Elder Series video games reflects this mentality as it invites players to “Live another life, in another world.”

    “Even though people may not come in with gaming addiction as their main issue, I see a lot of people that come in who use it to escape from the pressures of life,” said Brian Armstrong, clinical supervisor for LDS Family Services in Provo.

    Although LDS Family Services, which provides individual, marriage and family counseling, focuses on chemical and sexual addictions, Lori Oldroyd, a service missionary in charge of the addiction recovery program at Family Services, said she has seen overuse problems with video games in her extended family.

    “I just found out that a family member is probably addicted to video games,” she said. “He goes to work and [when he comes home] plays until 3 or 4 in the morning. This is all he does.”

    Many psychologists and counseling centers in Utah Valley said they hadn”t dealt with gaming addicts, but several agreed gaming could be psychologically addicting.

    Clinical psychologist Dr. Robert F. Williams said while he treated less than 10 cases of gaming addiction in the past two years, this was more than he has ever seen before. However, he said the nature of the addiction may prevent over-users from seeking professional help.

    “I don”t think these are people who are likely to come in on their own,” said Williams, clinical director of Child and Family Psychology in Orem. “They are more likely to be referred by other people.”

    Although Williams said he sees the value of treating those with gaming addictions in a separate facility, his experience has not yet led him to create a program similar to the one in Amsterdam.

    “I don”t think it”s an epidemic yet, but I do think it”s part of the general problem that people, and young people especially, are spending a lot of time looking at electronic screens … as a way of avoiding taking on life or dealing with life in a direct way,” he said.

    Video games certainly are gaining in popularity, according to sales statistics. Last month, the NPD Group, which provides global consumer and retail information, announced U.S. video game sales increased 25 percent this June, compared with sales in June 2005. Online video game sales are projected to grow from $3.4 billion in 2005 to more than $13 billion in 2011, according to a press release for a recent study conducted by DFC Intelligence, a strategic market research and consulting firm based in California.

    Some Utah parents, worried about their children spending excessive time playing the games, impose stringent rules on their children”s gaming.

    Camille Merrill of Pleasant Grove allows her three children – ages 16, 12 and 10 – one hour of video games each per day.

    “I do think the kids need to be limited,” Merrill said. “I have one son who would play all day if we let him.”

    Merrill, who only buys “E” (Everyone) rated games, said she isn”t too concerned with the games themselves, as long as they”re played in moderation.

    “I think it”s just another kind of toy and in small amounts it”s good,” she said.

    Many video game players do restrict their behavior, but it can become a compulsion for some.

    “There are examples of it all around us,” Miner said. “Not many people seek treatment for it, but they probably should.”

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