Life is tough for Stephen and Louise with their 16-year-old son, Alex.
Alex playing video games like Counter-Strike until late at night has been a source of sadness for the family for years. He was recently diagnosed with autism.
Since earlier this year, Alex has been among the patients of the UK’s National Health Service’s clinic for gaming addicts, which he opened two years ago.
The clinic, which is the only place in the UK to treat video game addicts, opened its doors to the BBC.
Alex, whose family took him to the clinic, was not very interested in the treatment. “It was best for us to talk to other parents whose children are in the same situation. Our support group meets on Zoom every 15 days,” says Louise.
His wife, Stephen, adds, “There are a lot of people all over the country and all over the world experiencing the same things.” “As a family, it’s very difficult for us to have a relationship outside of the house. When there are visitors to us, Alex is constantly yelling and cursing upstairs until they leave. Sleeping is a big deal for us, we often sleep in separate rooms. I have to run a fan in my room to suppress the game noise. “
Often adolescent patients’ urge to play is so strong that it often leads to violent outbursts and conflicts with parents or caregivers. Many of those treated at the clinic threaten to commit suicide if they are denied access to a game console or computer. Their social relationships are almost entirely limited to online or gaming activities.
‘Gaming Disorder’ is a controversial mental health issue and is defined by the World Health Organization as having three characteristics:
- having trouble playing games
- prioritizing play over other interests
- increase gaming despite negative consequences
Some psychologists and the gaming industry question the evidence used to describe this disorder. Until recently in England, it was necessary to go to private doctors for problems related to playing computer games.
The clinic in west London is affiliated with the National Center for Addictive Behaviors. According to psychologist Rebecca Lockwood, the center has made a name for itself in the treatment of gambling addiction, but addiction to video games is a new topic for staff.
“We know that gaming disorder is a rare condition. Its symptoms can be really severe, which surprised us,” says Dr Lockwood.
“People often have a hard time coping with their emotions. They struggle with anger, anxiety and low morale. They also experience physical symptoms like sleep deprivation. This is because they play games at night to connect with players in other countries.”
Becky Harris, director of the clinic and family therapist. He says they have treated more than 300 patients, of whom 200 have been referred to the clinic in 2021. Harris states that 89 percent of those treated for gaming addiction are men. The age groups of the patients are surprisingly different.
“We start treatment at age 13. Several 12-year-olds were sent. We received referrals from parents of children as young as eight years old, but were unable to take care of them. The age of those referred to the clinic goes up to 60,” says Harris.
This is the only clinic in England that treats gaming addiction under the official healthcare system, and its patients are treated from all over the country, usually via video chat. Dr Lockwood considers video therapy an advantage for patients who are reluctant to come to the clinic.
Computer games are just a pastime for millions of people. So, how often does it turn into a behavior disorder?
Is it just a hobby**?**
According to data collected by Ofcom, the broadcasting and communications regulator in the UK, 62 percent of adults in the country played computer games during the pandemic. A recent study by Oxford University concluded that playing computer games is actually good for those who do.
According to Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, the problem is not in the games.
“As far as I know, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that games cause psychological problems,” says Przybylski.
Becky Harris, from the clinic struggling with gaming addiction, emphasizes that they are not against computer games. “We acknowledge that many people view video games as a positive thing in their lives. We’re talking about the minority who have a big problem with that, and it really affects their quality of life, their ability to interact, and their functionality,” Harris says.
Mike, a former patient of the clinic, realized in his mid-20s that he was addicted to video games. Sometimes he was playing World of Warcraft for up to 14 hours a day. This affected his relationship with his family and his education. Eight weeks of treatment gave him a different perspective on games and his life.
“I don’t play as much as I used to. My relationships with my wife, mom and dad got better,” he says.
Mike hasn’t stopped playing games completely, but games are less common in his life now. He says he doesn’t see computer games as a bad thing, he just acts in moderation.
Stories like Mike’s give Stephen and Louise hope that their son can get over some of their distress.
“I’m optimistic because I follow a lot of people on Facebook who are very similar to my son, but they’re all grown up now. I follow them because I find it very enlightening. But it also helps me believe that my son will find his own way,” says Louise.
*Names of old and new patients receiving treatment have been changed.**.*