When gaming turns addictive and interferes with life

When Vivekananda B Badiger, a Bengaluru-based web developer, was in college, he started gaming. He would go to a gaming arcade owned by his brother-in-law, regularly with his friends, and they’d play for hours. “Age of Empires was my favourite,” he tells us. “I was so good, I started taking part in and winning tournaments, which seemed great because these games weren’t free to play, either.” Badiger would win a tournament and put the prize money down for more games. Soon, it became a vicious cycle. He stayed cooped up in his room, for as long as 18 hours a day, sticking his hand out to take his meals from his mother, not helping around, not meeting anybody except his gaming friends, not studying or going to college. “I lost a year at college and my girlfriend of five years,” he lets on. But what was it, about gaming, that had him so helplessly and hopelessly hooked? “That is the very nature of addiction — a loss of control,” explains Dr Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, who heads the Behavioural Addiction Clinic at AIIMS, New Delhi. “It isn’t that the person who is addicted doesn’t realise the value of what’s at stake, or doesn’t care for their career or family or relationships. They feel bad about it, too, but they just can’t help it. It’s beyond them!”

The signs of addiction

“The most obvious manifestations of a gaming addiction that you should look out for are disturbances in physiological functions,” explains Dr Manoj Sharma, of SHUT (Services for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic, NIMHANS, Bengaluru. “Going to bed very late, waking up too early, taking too many short naps to make up for the sleep deficit, irregular meals, and a sharp increase in appetite for junk food, are all red flags. One may even experience pain in the eyes, neck and wrist.”

In some cases, as in Badiger’s, the signs are more social — decreased communication, avoiding people, locking the room, decline in academic or professional performance, absenteeism and behavioural changes. “In fact, we often get patients who’ve been brought in by their families, with the complaint of behavioural issues,” says Dr Balhara. “It’s only once we start looking into it that a gaming problem is discovered.”

However, be careful not to overreact. According to a 2010 study, published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, there is a difference between ‘excessive gaming’ and ‘addictive gaming’, determined not by the number of hours a game is played, but by the psychological motivation and meaning that gaming has in one’s life. According to the study authors, gaming addiction should be defined by how much the game negatively impacts other areas of life, not by how much time is spent playing. “There is a fine line between being an active gamer and a gaming addict,” Dr Balhara warns. “Since knowledge on the subject is still limited, there is a tendency to overreach and attach labels at the slightest instance. Instead, if you suspect that a loved one may be an addict, seek a consultation.” There are numerous gaming addiction scales available online, but it is better to get a professional diagnosis, so there’s no ambiguity. “We use the ICD (International Classification of Diseases) 11, published by the WHO, to test for behavioural addictions,” he explains. “The ICD 11 doesn’t yet, but will soon include gaming addiction as a separate category — that’s how big a problem it is turning into.”

Who’s at risk?

“While we don’t have any empirical data, as yet, to say who’s more at risk, in my experience, the most prone are teenage boys and young adults, with access to technology and, usually, a certain amount of loneliness, boredom and lack of structure in their lives,” says Dr Sharma. “Anxiety, social phobias and other mental health issues play a role, too.” Dr Balhara concurs. “Most of our patients are aged 16 to 24, and are males; we’ve had only one case where the addict was a woman — also atypical because she was 30 years old, was married and had a child,” he reveals. “What was typical about her, however, was that she had anxiety issues. One of the factors that pushes the addiction is the need to find their own kind, who will not reject them.” Perhaps why, as revealed by a 2010 study in Addiction Research & Theory, multi-player role-playing games were associated with gaming addiction more often than any other video game genre.

Having said that, the role of existing friends cannot be denied. “Peer pressure is an important factor,” says Dr Sharma. Something we see in Badiger’s case. “All my friends were gamers, so to play or not wasn’t really a question, to start with,” he tells us. “And then I was also very good at it, which made it even harder to resist.” “Sometimes, in the case of older men, it starts as a mode to wind down and relax, after a long day at work,” explains Dr Sharma. Somewhere down the line, the thrill of it all just takes over.

Getting over the addiction

The good news: You can quit cold turkey. Badiger did. “My brother-in-law, who owned the gaming arcade we played at, realised what was going on,” he tells us. “When the realisation of what all I’d lost hit me, especially since I understood that I was a bright student and I shouldn’t be throwing it all away, I just gave it up. I didn’t have the heart to close all my accounts, since I’d built them all up from scratch to really high levels; I gave them to my friends.” The calm face his mother put up seemed to have helped his recovery. “She was very matter-of-fact about it, even though I’d lost a year, but that helped me come back to normal, faster,” he says. Something that Dr Sharma encourages loved ones of addicts to do. “You have to be non-judgmental about it all — discuss it and accept it,” he says. “Even though a gaming addiction is the same as a substance addiction in its manifestations, it is not the same in its implications. You have to start with understanding that technology can’t be avoided or taken away. Awareness helps with the quitting process.”

If you have been an addict, realise ‘this has happened to me; it can happen again’. “Focus on what went wrong and restrict the time you spend playing, if you must play,” says Dr Balhara. Dr Sharma cautions against mixing technology with other activities. “Like playing while at the dining table,” he elaborates. Keeping it separate from your everyday tasks will keep you from falling down the abyss. “But most of all, bear in mind: This is a real problem and help is available,” says Dr Balhara.