THERAPISTS ALL OVER the globe breathed a sigh of relief when the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed gaming addiction as a mental health condition.
This new classification of Gaming Disorder means that when worried parents drag their pasty-faced and overweight children in for some counselling that therapists don’t have to play around with words any longer.
Now we can finally call this issue as we see it and suggest to these weak bodied kids with the thumbs of Mr Universe that they are in danger of falling prey to a serious condition known as Gaming Disorder.
A harmless activity?
Of course the naysayers will say that it’s all a load of pearl-clutching twaddle and that this classification by WHO is creating a needless moral panic about a fairly harmless activity.
However this classification isn’t targeting the average gamer who spends a couple of hours every evening happily gaming with his mates; this classification is about behaviour that destroys people’s lives.
A healthy enthusiasm adds to your life and an unhealthy enthusiasm takes away from it; indeed it is a sign that the gaming is becoming problematic when the person begins to reject their friends so that they can play with more ‘serious gamers’ online.
Gaming disorder isn’t fun
Gaming Disorder involves staying up all night to play or getting up in the middle of the night to play; it involves rejecting loved ones and neglecting responsibilities in favour of playing.
It’s forgetting to eat, disregarding personal hygiene and resisting going to the toilet so that you soil yourself in your bid to keep on playing.
Just last year, Brian Vigneault, 35, got up to take a smoke break when he was twenty-two hours into a 24-hour gaming marathon and he collapsed and died. There is CCTV footage of another man, Wu Tai, twenty-four years old, slumping in his chair and dying after gaming for 19 consecutive hours.
Another man, Hseih, thirty-two years old, lay dead for several hours in an internet café in Taiwan before his death was even noticed.
Stories abound about ‘hikikomori’, the term used in Japan to describe a person’s complete social withdrawal from real life into a virtual life. Out of a total Japanese population of 127 million, there are an estimated 700,000 hikikomori cases, and another 1.5 million cases suspected to be on the verge of becoming hikikomori.
But this epidemic isn’t confined to Japan: there are reports of cases in the USA, South Korea, Morocco, Spain, France and Italy. I work as a therapist in Birr, Co Offaly and I have received calls from parents wretchedly concerned about their grown-up children who have totally isolated themselves in this manner.
These individuals usually live with their parents and can spend over 23 hours a day in physical isolation, browsing on the net and playing video games.
The parents or the delivery man leaves their food outside their door and going to the toilet is often their only connection with the real world.
Gaming Disorder, as classified by WHO, has three characteristics; impaired control when gaming, prioritising gaming over other interests and escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.
Many parents who come to me worried about their children’s gaming habits often comment that it’s all fine until they try to shut down the game. Maybe it’s time to go to bed or maybe the family need to leave the house and suddenly the mild-mannered, good natured kid turns into an aggressive maniac screaming about how he’s just got on to the next level.
The rule of thumb about addiction is that if the activity is negatively impacting your life in one or more of the key areas such as health, school, family then there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Of course denial is the immediate response from addicts because addicts will go to the ends of the earth to defend their right to continue to use.
As one client told me, ‘I prefer my friends online and I prefer myself online.’ The problem with this is that online friends cannot give the depth or emotional sustenance that real-life relationships can provide.
You can’t make love with your online girlfriend and online friends can’t give you a hug. Although the topic of conversation might be profound and, of course, many people make lasting online connections, yet something remains lacking.
It’s like the difference between falling in love and being very fond of someone – it’s hard to describe but immediately recognisable when it is experienced.
Although the inner world of the gamer seems filled with excitement and the synapses in their brains are lighting up as if they really are successfully seeing off attackers in a war zone, in reality, they’re doing nothing of the sort.
In reality, they are missing out on real life; missing out on the beauty of nature, missing out on loving relationships and missing out on the satisfaction of meeting responsibilities and contributing to a better world, all for this virtual, fake-exciting, wasted life frittered away while sitting on an armchair.
Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker.
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