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Experts Reflect on Video Game Addictions

Brandon CrispIn light of recent events where a Canadian teen ran away from home after an argument with his parents over his favourite Xbox game, some psychology experts call for better understanding and support for video game addiction.

Experts hope that stories such as Brandon Crisp’s don’t happen again, but in a time where kids are always more connected and see video games as an integral part of their lives and identity, nothing is for certain.

Brandon Crisp, a 15-year old Ontario student, made headlines in late 2008 when he fled his Barrie home. His parents were convinced Brandon had an addiction to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and took his gaming privileges away. Read More...

Brandon was found dead only kilometres from home after a three-week search. This sad event has many educators, parents and researchers asking that policy-makers take these types of addictions more seriously.

"The issue has been raised over and over again, but nothing seems to happen," said Simon Fraser University's Stephen Kline, who started studying youth gaming in the late 1990s.

Kline points out that no solid data exists to show how many teens are compulsive gamers, though he estimates it affects between 15 to 20 per cent of boys who play games. "I would like to see a concerted effort to gather some of this data and begin to think more seriously about video gaming, because it's clearly impacting the lives of many people."

“Research suggests gambling elevates dopamine,” says Kimberly Young, PsyD, clinical director of the Center for Online Addiction and author of Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction -- and a Winning Strategy for Recovery. Gaming falls in the same category. “Even with alcohol, it’s not just physical. There’s a psychological component to the addiction, knowing ‘I can escape or feel good about my life.’”

According to the Center for Online Addiction, warning signs for video game addiction include:

-Playing for increasing amounts of time
-Thinking about gaming during other activities
-Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
-Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
-Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming

“I’ve had so many parents call me over the last year or two, particularly about the role-playing games online,” says Young. “I see it getting worse as the opportunity to game grows – for example, cell phone gaming.”

Taking action

To help teens struggling with gaming addictions few options are available. But in Toronto, a new pilot project treating problem gaming, gambling and Internet use at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health exists. Though it currently only accepts a small number of patients, it is a project to be watched closely.

However, in other nations also struggling with a large number of gaming “addicts”  the government is wasting no time intervening. For example, China has put in place a military-style treatment boot camp outside of Beijing. There are also about 40 government-sponsored clinics treating Internet and video game addictions in South Korea.

“This is starting to become a global effort of recognizing this isn't just a problem of the West, this isn't just a problem of the East," said Douglas Gentile, director of research at Minnesota's National Institute on Media and the Family.

"We're 10 to 20 years away from getting the culture to understand this is a serious problem that isn't just about choice," he said. "It isn't just about 'I like to play' versus 'I don't like to play."'

Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants, says the toughest part of treating video game addicts is that “it’s a little bit more difficult to show somebody they’re in trouble. Nobody’s ever been put in jail for being under the influence of [a game].” The key, he believes, is to show gamers they are powerless over their addiction, and then teach them “real-life excitement as opposed to online excitement.”
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“Parents need education, the educators need education, let's put the resources in, let's not squabble about jurisdictions," said Emily Noble, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, whose organisation plans on actively lobbying governments.

"If we can prevent one more tragic situation, I think that's important. If it's one kid, whether they're committing suicide or tragically killed, it's one too many."