Jeff* was 11 years old when he started online video gaming in the mid-1990s, but he never thought the activity would become a problem.
He was wrong.
“I used to say that if I were spending four or five hours a night working on a model train hobby, no one would criticize me, and I was taking a lot of flak just because it was video gaming,” Jeff, 34, said.
“Looking back I realize that was just rationalizing the behaviour. If you’re doing a hobby, you can stop. I couldn’t.”
Jeff said that his real life took on secondary importance.
“I’d be at work and all I could think about was when I could log onto World of Warcraft again. Everything else I was doing seemed like a waste of time.”
Video games are enjoyed by millions of people around the world without any harmful effects. Most players will never have to worry about it becoming a problem.
But for a small number of people, what starts out as a fun hobby becomes a debilitating habit.
Cam Adair founded Game Quitters in 2014 as a support group for gaming addicts and the group has connected with 75,000 people worldwide. His experience mirrors Jeff’s and he said that it’s common to many addicts.
Adair began playing games when he was nine years old, but by the time he was attending the Hockey Academy in Penticton, he had graduated to online gaming; an activity that took over his life.
“I dropped out of Penticton, never graduated high school, quit hockey … all the while thinking that the gaming world was more important than anything else. I suffered from depression, contemplated suicide, and the only place I found solace was in the games.”
He added that the games are designed to feed that addiction.
“They are designed to be engaging and fill an emotional need. They provide escape, measurable progress, a sense of purpose, even a social connection of a sort,” Adair said
“People who are addicted start to identify more with their online persona than with the real world. When they are asked to leave that world, it’s like they’ve experienced a break-up. It can rock their world.”
That experience sounds very familiar to Jeff.
“In the game, I could earn recognition and respect. In the real world I felt anonymous, but when I logged on people would be messaging me and asking for my help. I was seen as a valuable asset … an expert and someone important.”
The issue is the focus of a new documentary by filmmaker Laura O’Grady, entitled Game Over.
The film, available on Telus Optik TV On Demand and STORYHIVE YouTube, recounts Adair’s story and delves into the issue of video game addiction by speaking to those who are trying to beat the condition as well as some success stories of those who have managed to leave gaming.
“About three percent of the gaming population will develop this condition,” O’Grady said.
“The thing we try to get across is that these are great people and it’s really hard to predict who will become addicted. That’s why it’s important for us to be aware of the condition and watch for it and help when it happens.”
In January 2018, the World Health Organization listed gaming addiction as a mental health condition for the first time.
Jeff, who now has three children, the eldest whom is discovering computer games for himself, explained that despite his own negative experiences, in today’s world it’s impossible to stop children from experiencing online gaming.
“What I would tell parents is that you have to know what’s in the games your kid is playing and be aware of the dangers. These games allow people to create a second life and it’s important that parents make sure that, for their children and for themselves, that second life doesn’t replace your real life.”
*Name has been changed