Anonymous | Writer | Sunday, 1 February 2015

'Living With A Video Games Addict Made Me Realise It Can Be As Destructive As A Drug Or Alcohol Addiction'

The Debrief: Basically - it's almost impossible to help, and online gaming is a nightmare

Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo

On December 24th I ventured into what I can only describe as a Christmas war zone. It was the GAME department of Hamley’s Toy Shop and I was on a mission to buy Steam vouchers for my ten year old nephew. No, not because I’m a terrible Aunt who hasn’t spent enough time with her nephew to think of a personalised present, but because he genuinely really wanted some barcodes that buy him more lives and more weapons on computer games. 

Despite the joy on his little child face I felt a bit icky. It’s not like I put a pack of cigarettes in Santa’s stocking but I was encouraging his already quite intense devotion to gaming. 

It was particularly worrisome to me because for the past few years I’ve lived with an addictive gamer. I’ve seen how, unchecked, an addiction to video games can be as destructive as a drug or alcohol addiction.

It's easily hidden

I live with three guys, including Alex. When we moved in I contributed some kitchen essentials - crystal glassware and an eggcup that looks like a Viking. Alex brought an X-Box to hook up to the TV to watch iPlayer, so sure, he won that round.

Occasionally I had to endure a few rounds of Fifa before The Apprentice but generally it was social. I had a favourite Tekken character (Wang Jinrei). It was fun.  But as everyone trundled off to bed often Alex would say he wasn’t tired yet and he’d play for a while by himself, against the computer or strangers online. 

He’s a graphic designer and mostly works from home, so his irregular sleeping habits and penchant for procrastination seemed normal. But when I went freelance too, I saw the routine Alex had got into. A regular day would be something like this: 

Wake up at midday. Respond to emails and calls about work. Put off starting that work with a few rounds of Call of Duty. Lunch – a tin of tuna and a Viking egg. Telling himself 'one more game before having a really solid afternoon’s work’. Ten more games. Telling himself: ‘A cup of tea, and I may as well play a game while I drink it’. Ten more games. 9pm: begin work. Midnight: ‘A game as a reward for having done some work’. Twenty more games. 4am: bed. 

I was concerned. He casually mentioned that he was turning down some jobs because they didn’t appeal to him, which was really at odds with what I knew about his career aspirations. Sometimes when I would come home he would be in the precise position I had left him in a few hours earlier – sat, cross-legged, less than a metre from the television. I had a friend staying on the sofa one night who told me Alex had come into the living room and turned on the console before realising there was a guest in the room. It was 3am. 

It's almost impossible to intervene. 

I confided my concerns with our other flatmates. We were all aware Alex had suffered from gaming addiction as a teenager, so surely it was our responsibility to intervene. But for all our whispered conferences we were totally stumped as to how to help him. His gaming habit wasn’t directly affecting us in a way that substance abuse would, so it was difficult to find a way to talk to him about it. It is essentially a hobby. 'Hey mate, we think you’re spending too much time pressing flowers and we think you might need to cut down'. I mean, how someone spends their own time is up to them. 

We made light jokes about it sometimes, ill-advisedly I’m sure, but we never let on that we knew he was playing through the night. The only thing we could think to do was to make sure the guys stopped playing with him. socially. If Alex asked them whether they wanted a game, the plan was that they would make up an excuse not to, so that he was unable to use the group social aspect as a way of covering up his initial urge to reach for the console. It’s something groups of friends will often do with alcoholics. 

Online gaming ruins everything

Unfortunately the above intervention didn’t work because here enters the League of Legends. For those not familiar with League of Legends, it's a multi-player online game (rather than a superhero group who come round to help you tackle your friend’s addiction) which you play on your computer. Ergo in your own room – away from the judging eyes of your housemates. It’s ever-expanding (i.e. you don’t complete it), designed to be as addictive as possible, and  has a 'thriving tournament scene'. These sorts of games also play on feelings of responsibility and guilt because you join groups of other online players to accomplish missions. A few months into Alex’s dalliance with League of Legends it wasn’t uncommon for him to miss birthday dinners and parties to stay at home, or rather stay in the League. He was withdrawing from us more and more, and when we did see him he seemed both exhausted and anxious. He genuinely didn’t have the energy to invest in friendships, and his self-imposed isolation was feeding the addition, and the vice-versa. 

You might not have the time/inclination to help them

I wish I could say I helped him to quit, but I didn’t. I had thrown myself into a new job so I was rarely home and exhausted (but in that good smug way). To waste precious time on something that gave nothing back suddenly seemed ludicrous to me. My new perspective made me start to view his gaming habit as a choice he’d made rather than an addiction, and I gave up thinking of ways I could help him. 

When it comes to kicking the habit, gaming addicts are on their own. They need to figure out what it is that makes spending time in virtual worlds more appealing than real-life. If you can help in that regard – perhaps they are unhappy in their jobs, under a lot of stress, or feeling depressed – then you might help them address the reasons why the exploitative games industry was able to hook them in. 

In the meantime, I’m going to buy my nephew socks from now on. 

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Illustration: Marina Esmeraldo 

Tags: Housemates Head To Head, Health