Trapped in Azeroth

Photo credit Oona Raisanen
The rising prevalence of gaming addiction is leading experts to speak out about the consequences, reports Justin Currie-Smith

Reese James has been gaming since he was a child, but it wasn’t until life got the better of him in 2009 that it began to take a toll.

By 2010, he was trapped in the fantasy world of Azeroth, home to the insanely popular multi-player online role-playing game World of Warcraft, and would remain there until 2013 when he finally sought help.

Reese, 26, is not bitter or broken about those three years. His addiction may have strained the relationship with his family and been the final nail in the coffin of the relationship with his girlfriend, but he is surprisingly upbeat about it.

“It sucked, yeah, but probably better it was games than drugs,” he says.

With no job and no money, Reese became more and more isolated from friends and family, diving head-first into the world of gaming as an escape from the real world. He found little comfort there.

“Looking back, I’m not even sure if I was having fun any more.”

Gaming addiction is a real condition, so much so that the American Psychiatric Association added “internet gaming disorder” to the DSM-5 research manual after its first review in two decades, highlighting the rising occurrence of gaming addiction among teenagers and young adults.

Although the addition does not yet classify gaming addiction as a legitimate mental disorder, it highlights the changing approach of the mental health community as recognising it as an area needing further study.

Gaming addiction has all the characteristics of an addiction: damage to personal life, withdrawal symptoms, physical stress and pain and in some cases even death.

The numbers surrounding video game addiction are sketchy at best. To date, there have been only a handful of major studies performed. This is an industry estimated to be worth close to US$100 billion a year worldwide, and this number is growing.

The statistics that do exist – such as the Iowa State University study reporting that roughly 1 in 10 people who play video games are classed as addicted or the Entertainment Software Association report that calculates about 155 million people in the US alone regularly play video games – paint a bleak picture.

So why do these concerning numbers result in what is essentially a footnote in the bible of mental illness?

Clinical psychologist Neil Gullan, who works with people suffering gambling addiction, believes video game addiction should receive the same amount of attention given to gambling addiction, but recognises why it doesn’t.

“There’s a stigma attached to video games that they are only for children and people seem to think that we should treat sufferers the same way we would treat a child going deadweight in the car because they wanted McDonalds.”

When SBS’ Insight program interviewed a man who had lost $1 million in three weeks, people were sympathetic. But when a gaming-addicted South Korean couple let their 3-month old child starve to death, they were met with condemnation. Dr Gullan believes these attitudes needs to change.

In a dimly-lit internet café in the depths of Melbourne’s Chinatown, hordes of gamers occupy rows of computers for hours.

Self-described “hardcore gamer” Steven Lim, 25, is happy to talk. Steven, a security guard for Wilson Security, does not apologise for his gaming habits.

“People will ask me how I can spend all my spare time gaming and I just think, ‘how’s it any different from spending my free time reading, watching TV or shopping’.”

While Steven, also known by his gamer handle Eys, is often the first to say “let’s take a break” among his gamer colleagues, he is acutely aware of the fact that not everyone shares his passion for video games and, more importantly, can see through the negative portrayals of gaming.

“People don’t understand that this is just a pastime like any other. Too much of anything is bad, but if it’s not having any negative impact then, you know, who cares?”

Dr Gullan says the lively imagery, bright colours and catchy jingles trigger the rewards system in the brain, which associates inserting coins with a pleasurable response. Likewise, completing a level, winning the game or finding an exciting new treasure triggers the same pleasure.

Despite the slot machine just being a video game costing (and rarely rewarding) money, Dr Gullan believes that people – most commonly parents and their teenage children – still only see gaming through the negative light so often portrayed in the media.

“A parent will see something sensationalist in the news about a person showing real signs of addiction and then immediately think their teenage son who spends all his free time playing World of Warcraft is an addict.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

In 2008, Fox News host Martha MacCallum and child psychologist Cooper Lawrence claimed that sci-fi roleplaying game Mass Effect featured “the ability for players to engage in full graphic sex” and that it taught adolescent boys to consider women as purely objects of sexual desire.

The sensationalist claim was based on a barely explicit cinematic, close to the culmination of the 30-plus hour game, and neither MacCallum or Lawrence had actually played it. The game received a “mature” rating by the ESRB and Australian Classification Board.

These days Reece is able to play games in moderation.

“I stopped entirely for close to a year and cut off communication with everyone I played online with, but I recently jumped back online just to talk with them.

“They’re nice people, I would like to spend time playing with them again.”