The Stark Reality of Video Game Addiction

It was April of this year when I felt a familiar pull. I had established a steady routine and was on top of my study, exercise, and work; I needed a hobby. I had always been attracted the narrative structure of video games, especially those with fantasy elements. It was like a movie, but I was the main character. And I didn’t even have to be exactly ‘me’. I could create the best version of me, and live through him. With exam season a month or two away, I seized the opportunity and re-downloaded an old favourite: World Of Warcraft. Little did I know that this would re-ignite my video game addiction.

It wasn’t long until I had established a new routine – one that negated the old one. WoW, as it is commonly known among players, had once again dominated my schedule. 5-8 hours playtime, per day, minimum. With time I never knew I had, I was swift in reaching the game’s maximum level. But there was so much more still to do: more quests, more dungeons, and more achievements. It was a fictional world of never-ending possibility and to me it was far more exciting than this world.

Blizzard’s MMO behemoth is a favourite for gamers.

Thankfully, it was not long before the guilt began to set in. I started to ask myself,

‘What am I actually achieving by logging on every day?’

‘Is it worth the sacrifice of my real life for the good of this one?’

‘What other activity could I set my focus on for 8 hours a day that would actually benefit myself and society?’

Perhaps most importantly, and the inspiration for this article:

‘Is it possible for someone to be addicted to video games?’

The WHO’s decision to declare video game addiction a mental health issue was controversial but essential.

The resounding answer I found to the above question was yes, video game addiction is real. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even classified it as mental disorder. According to WHO, video game addiction can be characterised by:

‘Impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.’ – World Health Organization.

However, for the credibility of both this article and WHO’s clinical reputation, it must be made clear that the disorder obviously does not affect all those who play video games – even those that may play what some might believe to be a considerable amount. It is only when games become the priority above human necessities that the individual has an issue. If it were the case that any lengthy consumption of media was to be considered addiction, then every film connoisseur or Netflix binger would need to seek treatment. That would be nearly all of us.

Demographic at Risk

Now that the distinction between non-addict and addict has been drawn, it is necessary to locate who the addicts are. Certainly, all of us have played one or more types of video games, with a clear majority of us playing them regularly. But the Pew Research Center has determined that there is one demographic in particular that appears to be especially susceptible: young men.

The Pew Research Center concludes there are two types of video game players: those who do and those who do not identify as ‘gamers’. A ‘gamer’ is an individual who has begun to define themselves and their lifestyle by the games they play, whereas a ‘non-gamer’ is more likely to be a casual player. And those most likely to play video games as well as consider themselves to be a ‘gamer’ are adult males, aged 18-29.

‘Fully 77% of men ages 18 to 29 play video games (more than any other demographic group), compared with 57% of young women – a 20-point difference. Additionally, one-third of young men agree that the term “gamer” describes them well, more than three times the proportion of young women (9%) who describe themselves as gamers.’ – Pew Research Center.

Those who openly label themselves gamers are far more likely to spend considerable time playing video games and are thus more likely to become addicts. This is one of two reasons as to why I have chosen to focus this article on the young male demographic. The second being that I conveniently fit in to this category of men aged 18-29 and am therefore curious to find out why this issue is affecting young men in particular.

My first curiosity port of call was just across the hallway, to my roommate. We had gone to school together and above all else, had bonded over our affinity for video games. After questioning my own control over video games, I immediately became suspicious of his:

The flashing lights and booming sounds of the nightclub can easily be replicated in-game.

‘Do you reckon you’re addicted to video games?’

An understandable silence lingered in the air.

‘Uhh, I don’t think so. Like I still go to work and meet up with friends and stuff.’

‘True.’ I replied. ‘But do you reckon you could just stop cold turkey? Like if someone made you?’

‘I mean, yeah, I guess. But why would I?’ It is an odd question to ask, unprovoked.

‘I’ve just been thinking about it.’

‘Well the way I see it is that heaps of people watch TV shows all day and that’s fine. Plus it’s not really hurting anyone and if I play online I get to socialise with people.’

‘I suppose I can’t argue with you there.’

‘And at least I’m not going out, wasting all my money, and stumbling home at 6 in the morning.’

I stared back in a hungover daze. He got me there.

‘But I’m at uni. This is when I’m supposed to be partying as much as I can before I get old.’

That was the end of the conversation, and he’d nearly unknowingly convinced me to drop my case and re-download my beloved WoW again. But my answer about my partying habits is often the same response potential video game addicts give: It’s just what young guys do. You know, before all the responsibilities of life kick in.

The Addicts Agree

I wanted to hear other’s stories, from gamers themselves. I searched not just for proof of addiction, but the negative results of their habits. Fortunately, online forums such as Reddit afford users honesty through their chosen anonymity. Although there was a whole slew of testaments against video game addiction, two particular answers to the question,

‘What’s the worst case of video game addiction you’ve witnessed?’ stood out to me.
User SavSoul, a victim to my personal drug of choice – World Of Warcraft – said this:
‘World of Warcraft ruled my life for a solid 6 years. Family outings? Sorry. Gotta raid. Social events with friends? Need that new mace sorry breh. Put on about 75lbs strictly cause of my sedentary lifestyle with the main focus being WoW. My hair and teeth were dirty. I smelt. I was a mess to say the least. But that same terrible video game addiction has led me into the beautiful life I currently hold. 100lbs slimmer and no longer under the chains of Blizzard Entertainment.’

r/askreddit allows ‘Redditors’ to ask their embarrassing questions anonymously.

According to the World Health Organization, this ex-gamer would have easily fitted with their definition of a video game addict. His clear prioritsation of the World Of Warcraft over the world of reality lead him to miss a number of social outings. Furthermore, and increasingly serious, SavSoul’s health and sanitary standards diminished, resulting in a dirtier, heavier version of his past self. Fortunately enough, the Reddit user is a success story – a story wherein he recognised the addiction and sought to defeat it.

User Xahtier’s tale of an estranged friend is not so fortunate:

‘Best friend in high school was an excellent student and an over-achiever for his age. ‘Years later, after I moved to a new school, we kept in touch. But only once in a while would I message him. By the time I finished college, he still hadn’t been to any more school since 12th grade, and still doesn’t have a job. He stole his brother’s debit card to buy some Facebook game bullshit (the kind of games he used to despise.). He’ll be 21 this November, and he hasn’t done a single thing with his life yet, all because the only thing he cares about is video games. He developed social anxiety, and because of it refuses to see a doctor, for fear of meeting a new person or facing his problems.’

‘Dragon Age’s’ Morrigan was a common receptor of this odd romance.

This appears to be a common case among those addicted to video games. There is so much potential, so much wasted energy. This is a more serious case in which the game has taken such a hold of the individual’s life that the fear of the real world begins to consume their reality, resulting in a fracture in relationships and the potential growth of other disorders such as anxiety and depression. Other Reddit users go so far as to confess that they had real romantic and sexual feelings for video game characters, more so than they did for their real-world spouses.

YouTube user, Tone Loke, offers an interesting insight in to his own gaming addiction in his video essay titled ‘The Bitter Reality Of Video Game Addiction’:

‘I know a lot of people out there in this big world play games for fun but many of us play games because we have to. That’s what addiction is. When you can’t control yourself not to do it.’

Loke goes on to explain his addiction to the usual suspect, World Of Warcraft:

‘World of Warcraft ruined my motivation to leave home, to finish college. And it ruined the relationship I had with a really lovely girl.’

Indeed, video games were no longer a ‘past time’ for Loke – they became an everyday crutch. Many games and many years later, Loke broke free of his self-inflicted curse. In an interesting twist of fate, the ex-addict now gets paid to talk about video games, and is now utilising his platform to actively encourage his readers to step away from the screen and in to the real world.

‘South Park’s’ interpretation of the video game addict may not be too far removed from reality.

Video Game Addiction – Why Young Men?

The anecdotal evidence is in: young men are struggling with their video game addictions. But the attraction for these men could run far deeper than a compelling story and some pretty pictures. Dr. Warren Farrell, a critically acclaimed author and academic, has spoken on the ‘boy crisis’ for many years. For Farrell, video games play a major role in this crisis, giving men an undeserved sanctuary of retreat, and a free opt-out ticket from society. In a recent discussion with superstar psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson, Farrell had this to say:

‘We have – through technology – a perfect escape. That escape is in to video games, where you can identify with the hero and you can lose the game as often as you wish with nobody noticing. Then, as you begin to get better with certain manipulations, you can play that game with certain types of people and increase your skill set at the game. But you’re never able to translate that in to everyday life and so you start becoming addicted to that game which is designed to increase your dopamine without having to actually achieve anything.’

Farrell has discussed the important roles boys and men play in society for decades.

When you lose at work, in a relationship, or in any general area of life, there are direct consequences. However, when you lose in-game, all that happens is that you learn from the experience with no dire results – there is nobody watching, ready to mock or feel sorry for your failure. And once young men begin to succeed in these virtual domains, then their ape-like brains are recognising that achievement and begging them to find more of it. The bittersweet truth of that achievement is that upon logging off the game reality sets in, and the guilt of not actually achieving anything is realised. So, why ever log off?

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Warren Farrell’s conversational partner in this instance, Dr. Jordan Peterson, has also had much to say about this apparent plight of failed manhood. In his now infamous interview with feminist journalist Cathy Newman, Dr. Peterson carefully dictates why his lectures resonate with this demographic:

‘What I’ve been telling young men is that… there’s an actual reason to grow up. Which is that they have something to offer. People have within them this capacity to set the world straight and that’s necessary to manifest in the world. Also, doing so is where you find the meaning that sustains you in life.’

Jordan Peterson – A much-needed modern champion for dispossessed young men.

Acknowledging, fighting, and beating video game addiction is part of what it means to ‘grow up’. The sleepless nights and endless effort young men sink in to a hobby that affects the eventual outcome of nothing could actually be placed in more significant and worthy domains. That is the ‘meaning that sustains you in life.’ Conversely, Dr. Peterson also commonly speaks on the ‘hero’s journey’, a concept coined by the late author Joseph Campbell. Although a complex, cross-cultural theory, Dr. Peterson encapsulates it’s meaning in one small phrase:

‘Slay the dragon, get the gold.’

Interestingly, this is the generic purpose of many video games like World Of Warcraft and League Of Legends, both of which have clear mythological narrative roots. However, Dr. Jordan Peterson obviously isn’t urging men to literally do this. In this instant the metaphor means that as individuals we must face the difficult task ahead of us, complete it, and reap the benefits. In this instance, young men must recognise and overcome their video game addiction, defeat it through conscious and meticulous effort, then they will experience a wealth of free time and a free mind.

The Cold Truth of Science

The allure to spend more time in these alternate realities is obvious. Why risk failure and embarrassment in the real world, when you can be guaranteed success online? Battling dangerous monsters and courting beautiful elves is far more appealing than the drag of everyday life. However, recent studies may prove to be the key in bringing young men back to earth. A 2013 paper in the academic journal, Principles Of Addiction agreed that young single men were the predominating demographic for video game addiction. Furthermore:

‘Some individuals are more susceptible than others to video game addiction. Individuals with poor time management skills are more likely to engage in persistent and uninterrupted video game play. Dispositional factors that have been linked to increased risk of video game addiction include neuroticism, trait anxiety, sensation seeking, compulsiveness, low self-esteem, and depression.’

Like ‘World Of Warcraft’, there’s no real end-game in ‘League Of Legends’.

The journal suggests that weaker-spirited men are at a higher risk of addiction due to the safety and security that immersive worlds – particularly those within RPG’s (role-playing games) – can offer. This is similar to other addictions, which can be difficult to break out of if one’s character does not allow it. These attributes tend to be the composition of the young man who is addicted to video games. However, a report by the Journal Of Behavioral Addictions published in 2014 also discovered that those who do engage heavily in video games are at risk of other, more tangible lifestyle afflictions:

‘The current study showed that video game addiction was associated with higher levels of depression, poorer academic achievement, and more conduct problems. This is in line with several other studies that have investigated the possible detrimental effects over time of experiencing problems with video games.’

It was also found that video game addicts were more susceptible to becoming alcoholics.

Unlike the former academic journal, the latter predicted that these negative mental and physical affects would be a result – not a cause – of video game addiction. This combination of causation through disposition, and then the resulting negative effects of prolonged addiction to video games is even seeing non-skilled men completely withdrawing from the workforce entirely in favour of a virtual life. Online publication, Big Think believes the following frightening statistics could be due to the increase in video game technology:

‘The numbers paint a dreary picture. Between 2000 and 2015, employment rates for lower-skilled men in their twenties dropped from 82 percent to 72 percent. In 2015, about one-fifth of them reported having not worked at all in the past 12 months. And, for the first time in decades, they’re more likely to live with their parents than a romantic partner.’

This is more so the picture many will mentally paint when imagining the video game addict: he’s a single and lonely loser who lives at home with his parents and has no prospects. But the stark reality of video addiction is that like all addictions, it can affect anybody. Because the allure of an alternate reality where you alone are the glorious hero is a hard offer to turn down. Especially when you peak outside those curtains to see the harsh light of reality.

Saying goodbye was difficult but necessary.

Finding a job is hard. Making friends is hard. But most importantly, admitting you might have an addiction is hard. When I realised it took every ounce of my being to not sit down to that dusty desk and enter the world of my Blood Elf Mage, I finally realised I had a problem. And that was the first step towards bettering myself, and opening my eyes to the possibility of video addiction.

I hope this piece has done the same – to consider that you or someone close to you might be facing a battle they didn’t even know they were fighting. Therefore, I say it’s time to put down the mouse, the control, and the phone and become the real life hero; for your family, for your community, and for yourself. Video game addicts don’t have to accept hopeless careers, failing grades, or fragmented relationships. But like all addictions, the choice is with the individual to make real and lasting change.

The first step is to admit you have a problem. I’m certainly glad I did.