As someone who had a game addiction in high school, I want to reach out to those of you know someone who is addicted to a game, particularly parents. I love games and am still an avid gamer, but I will clearly state that game addictions are very real. Adults and children alike put thousands of hours into games like World of Warcraft or Halo while ignoring their real lives. When non-gamers look at these children and adults, they tend to blame the game. They don’t look at the individual to see what voids these games are filling. They don’t look at what is missing in this person’s life like friendship, self-esteem, challenge, or acceptance. Games become addicting when they fill one of these voids just like television, drugs, or eating disorders. However, games can actually be very useful learning tools, provide great challenges, or offer stress relief, so I want to emphasize that games should not be demonized. The truth is that the problem is much deeper.
Now there is a fine distinction between a gamer and a game addiction. For many people, games are simply their way of enjoying themselves like reading a book or baking a cake, and they put in a lot of hours. Games become addictions when they become detrimental and interfere with your real life. When I was in high school, I played EverQuest religiously. EverQuest is similar to World of Warcraft in that it is an MMO (massive multiplayer online) game. That is, many people all over the world log on to the game and play together. As soon as my backpack hit the floor of my room, I was on that game until at least 11pm at night. I had just moved from Lubbock, Texas to Houston in the middle of high school. Classmates had already formed cliques, and the private school I went to was intimidating. My classmates were not gamers. They did not watch anime or read fantasy books like I did. I didn’t really find anyone with my interests or hobbies except for those that were a bit segregated. I eventually settled in with an odd group of people who weren’t exactly a perfect match but tolerated my interests. I turned to games for the friendship and self-esteem that was missing in my life. EverQuest players shared all my same interests and were extremely accepting and friendly.
As I developed my game character, I found that I was good at the game. The traditional lectures in school did not keep my interest or challenge me. In EverQuest, I was able to make powerful character builds (specific combinations of skills and attributes) and optimize my dps (damage per second) and so I became an asset to the guild. I created crafting and skill spreadsheets and thought about ways to enhance my leveling efficiency during classes. Soon, I had established friendship and recognition in the game, but in the real world, I did not have those things. I was spending 5 hours on the game every day like a part time job.
Let me assure you that my parents were very good (but busy) parents. They did everything they could to keep me off EverQuest. They hid my game, they set a timer by the computer, they grounded me from the computer, they forced me to take a sport, they put the computer in the study where they could monitor…they did pretty much everything they could think of. They even asked me for ideas about how to keep myself off the computer. However, I always found a way around the restrictions even if it meant I had to wake up at 3am in the morning to play while they slept. My parents couldn’t keep tabs on me at all times and trusted me to act like a responsible adult (which I didn’t). I don’t know what they could have done to keep me off the computer, honestly. I was determined to get my fix. Therefore, I want to take another approach for parents who are exasperated like my parents probably were.
1. I think what would have helped the most was talking about the game. If my parents would sit down to watch me play or ask me about the game, I would have been thrilled. The game was another life to me, and I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to show off the complex charts and spreadsheets I had made. I still to this day have vivid memories of running around forests, watching the sun set from the highest point I could climb, or teaming up with a dozen people to take down large creatures. I was bonding with human beings thousands of miles away. Parents, even if it seems silly or unhealthy to you, please get involved. You are so special to your child, and your interest could make a world of difference.
2. Try the game. Look at the game through their eyes and see what they are experiencing. You don’t have to be good at it; in fact, your child may really enjoy protecting you and showing you the ropes. Once you have entered their world, you can speak their lingo and they will be more inclined to hear you out. You may be surprised to find your child is very popular in their gaming community. Make a contract with your child that he or she can only play when you are playing with them. You need to experience the game before you demonize it. It’s very true that some games are violent and may be inappropriate for your child’s age. However, when you criticize the game, you are criticizing the place your child feels respected and accepted. He or she will be defensive if you constantly attack that second life. Find out what is missing in their life by watching them play and listening to them and then go from there.
3. Watch how they play. Games like Grand Theft Auto often get a bad reputation as a violent and sadistic game, but I know several people who simply like to build and customize cars on Grand Theft Auto and then drive around town. Ask them questions when they make decisions in the game to understand what they are getting out of the game.
4. If your child is willing to give up their addiction but is struggling, help them. Try giving up something with them together even it isn’t a game. You can make it a cooperative effort or a competition.
5. Help them find new interests or try weaning them off MMOs with shorter, less immersive games. You can make gameplay a social activity with your child. I have a fun article about using games as family activities on my website. Short puzzle games like Portal or Braid are fun, challenging, and fulfilling. I have spent many hours watching my boyfriend play puzzle games while joking, advising, and talking with him.
Sometimes it takes something big to pull someone out of a game addiction. In my case, it was getting a different game. After looking at my logged hours my senior year of high school, I realized that this would probably not do well for me in college. Instead of attempting to go cold turkey, I switched over to Guild Wars which has a smaller game world than EverQuest. I was able to do a mission with some people for an hour or two and then move on to something else. It was extremely hard to leave those friendships with my guild members. However, I was determined, and it made my senior year of high school a bit of a nightmare trying to stay away from EverQuest. I actually ended up writing a lot of stories that year about EverQuest, and I found this very helpful. Somehow, reflecting on those adventures with my guild members produced those nostalgic feelings that were pleasant without being consuming. I realized at that moment that I could use games to help me in real life. I became excited as I put my EverQuest skills to work for me in real life. I made scripts, stories, and art around my fantasy world. I organized my school work in the spreadsheets once designated for EverQuest, and I participated in fanfiction sites where I could share what I made.
When people think of game addictions, they often think of kids sitting in the basement, getting fat, eating Cheetos, and living at the computer while their life wastes away. While that is definitely an indicator of a game addiction, sometimes they can be much more difficult to detect. In my case, I was able to keep my grades high, eat lunch with friends, and also participate in track which kept me healthy. However, underneath it all, I was apathetic with my real life. Classes were too easy and boring, and EverQuest challenged me in new, interactive, and fulfilling ways. My friendships were mostly shallow, and EverQuest encouraged me to work with strangers in challenging, collaborative ways, making me feel more bonded to my online guild members. I hated track with a passion, but it kept my mother satisfied and unsuspecting of my game addiction. I was living a mechanical life while letting my imagination and passion unfold into the game. I was just going through the motions of life, and everywhere I went my mind was on the game. Life was slipping out of my fingers because the game gave me everything I needed, and real life kept trying to take it away from me. I developed an irritation with everyone who tried to pull me away from my game. I was flaky with social events and doing only the bare minimum in real life that would allow me to keep up my gameplay. Everything that I encountered in life – trips, extra homework, school events – were evaluated and judged on how they would affect my gameplay.
Parents, your children are experiencing vivid, immersive adventures every time they load a game. Games have so much to offer as far as problem-solving skills, scientific inquiry, and technology literacy, but they are still media. If your child’s personality drastically changes while he or she plays the game, you might want to look into why. I would recommend that you do not react to the situation with hostility but curiosity until you know for sure it is an addiction. Look beneath the game to what void that game is filling. If you don’t know how to begin a conversation with your child, try directing them to my site. They can read the spin-off of this article that directly addresses them. Ask them what they think of my experience and if they have ever struggled like that before. Ask if they know anyone with a game addiction and what advice they would give that person. If you think your child has a serious addiction please seek professional help, but I will be happy to answer e-mails with my own personal experiences. Please remember, however, that I am not a psychologist and am not qualified to give professional advice.