Confessions of a Video Game Addict

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Although addiction is serious, knowing one’s limits can be a great preventative tool

By Spike Henn

Over the span of four years, I have spent 473.2 hours in games or apps using the Steam interface. This number does not include the hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours that I have spent playing on consoles, handhelds, my smartphone, or other computer interfaces. Video games have been a huge part of my life since I was young, and I do not see that changing any time in the future.

My most recent binge happened after the Nov. 10, 2015 release of Fallout 4. I played the game nearly every day for five weeks, logging 55 hours of total playtime. My wife has said that she missed me during that period, and my social life suffered while I lived the life of the character in the game.

But was I addicted to the game? At what point does chronic playing become an addiction?

I decided to consult a professional. “As a clinician, I boil everything down to functional impairment,” answered Dr. Ryan Wohlman, a psychological resident at Life Development Resources in Lakeville, Minnesota. He does not personally agree with the term “addicted,” but instead likes to look at the topic as a hobby that has gone too far.

Wohlman explained that there are two ways to look at functional impairment that could imply an addiction. The first way is to ask whether playing causes overwhelming distress when a person is away from the game, therefore showing a loss of control. The second way is a question of the overall impact the playing has over a person’s life—is it impacted negatively by playing video games?

Using Wohlman’s criteria, it’s possible that I had an addiction to the post-apocalyptic, action-role-playing game; although, I would deny any negative impact it had on my life. My wife may beg to differ.

University of Minnesota students like Jack Waibal, a junior studying computer science, and Austin Preisler, a senior pursuing a double major in history and philosophy, have also seen their lives negatively affected by gaming. Both shared stories of witnessing the consequences of compulsive gaming among acquaintances and family members. They also shared their own stories.

“There was a point where I did think that I was addicted, and I had to consciously take a step back and get a grasp of things,” Waibal said.

Video games are not the root of addiction, but they usually catch a pretty bad reputation for building fake online relationships. This isn’t always a problem, but Wohlman said that when a cyber-relationship takes more precedence than a real-life relationship, it becomes an issue.

The game Fire Emblem Awakening was Preisler’s drug of choice. “For about the four months afterwards, I played it and played it and played. My social life quickly deteriorated. After those four months, I had that sobering moment, where I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” he said. “I do my homework at midnight or one in the morning. I am playing this game in which I am fostering relationships in the game but not doing anything in actual life.”

In the cases of Waibal and Preisler, they were able to address the issue before it truly became an addiction, but unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone.  

Video games are a bigger part of people’s lives than one might think. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 42 percent of Americans play video games for at least three hours a week. And much more serious accounts of addiction exist in the world today.

Articles from various news sources tell the tales of those that could not escape their addiction. In 2005, a South Korean man died after a 50-hour gaming session. In 2011, Chris Staniforth, died from cardiac issues related to a marathon session of Halo. And in 2012, a Taiwanese man collapsed and died after playing Diablo III for 40 straight hours.

Of course, Waibal, Preisler, and I have survived our stints with video games, and we now like to think we have our compulsions under control. But our stories, and the stories of those who have died, offer some evidence that video games can present a source of addiction. And yet, video game addiction is not recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Lucas Willkom, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, shared that he has heard of video game addiction referred to as game compulsion. And although the AMA does not have a static definition of video game addiction, there are other psychological disorders that correlate with video game addiction.

“Usually a variety of people come in with depression or anxiety. Turns out they have a cyber addiction,” Wohlman said.

Diagnoses like ADHD, anxiety, depression, and impulse control disorder act as red flags and potential risk factors of gaming addiction. Age also seems to be a factor, as most who show signs of addiction are teenagers. These teens are typically brought in by parents, and Wohlman estimated that only 5 percent of the teenagers he has seen actually wanted to be there. But teens are not the only ones who play video games.

According to the ESA, the average age of a gamer is 35. And most 35-year-olds would not have their mothers and fathers dragging them to seek treatment. This means they may continue a destructive behavior, which in some cases, may lead to death.

While I am still in somewhat of a denial of having a video game addiction, I confess that I meet some of the criteria for functional impairment. And I found that I am not alone. Even Wohlman, a man who seeks to treat those facing impulsive gaming, said he saw himself meeting the criteria. Thankfully, he has some techniques for dealing with it. For example, he said he does not play any multiplayer games and sets timers when he plays. Using these methods, he has not played more than four hours in one gaming session since his undergraduate career.

The techniques were successful for Wohlman, but what he said was most important was knowing his own limits. He said he is now able to identify when his thoughts begin to drift toward compulsion, and that’s when he sets down the controller and begins to work on his real-life masteries.

Since putting limits on gameplay, Wohlman has run four marathons, and he is beginning to master juggling. As gaming empowers the player, Wohlman advocates for gamers to empower themselves in real life by learning new skills.

Overall, I may have had a bit of uncontrolled impulse toward video games; however, I was able to identify when I was starting down the path of no return—the path that leads to neglecting my wife and schoolwork. Early identification is the most effective way of dealing with the issue. Prevention is key.