games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Video Game Addiction

June 4, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Playstation 5 Xbox Series X

Before we begin …

Kind of a heavy topic again. If you listened to my podcast about it recently, I had a little more to say about it that just wouldn’t fit in the confines of the podcast. No humor or caption gags in this one. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled fun next time.

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide Podcast! By the time this is up, the newest episode will be up: a discussion with 411Mania’s very own Sean Garmer, about the differences in raising boys and girls in gaming, how the industry has changed when it comes to girl gamers (and how far it still has to go), and a few tangents. Hey, we’re gamers. We tend to do that. Like, share, subscribe, rate and review if you would.

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This week’s business.

For over 25 years, my mother-in-law owned and operated a preschool. For my non-American readers not familiar with our preschool system, it’s a semi-sorta-schooling program for kids ages 3 and 4. With standard preschools, there’s almost never curriculum or homework; rarely does it go more than 3 days a week, and rarer still does it go more than four hours in a day. The idea is to acclimate kids to a schedule and large-scale social interaction before being thrown into primary school.

I heard a lot of stories about the more challenging kids my mother-in-law had in her career. Kids on the spectrum, kids with impulse control issues, kids who refused to acknowledge authority, kids who just didn’t seem to be where they should for their age. I don’t say any of this to mock or make fun of them. As a father of a kid with special needs, and two kids diagnosed with ADHD, I am 100% sensitive and sympathetic. I only say these things because it’s part of the point I’m building towards about parenting and the challenges children can present that we aren’t ready for.

Nobody wants to hear the phrase “we need to talk about your child” from a teacher. The first four words are never never followed up by anything you’ll be excited to hear in any context. Coming from a teacher, it’s guaranteed to fill a parent with creeping dread. You’re about to found out that your kid whipped out their junk on the playground, or beat the stuffing our of another kid for not sharing their Capri-Sun. My MIL had to tell parents that more than a few times in her career. Some parents heard what she said and responded how any sensible parent should; with appropriate concern and understanding, filled with a parental need to do what they must to help their child.

But some parents didn’t listen so well. Some parents had a hard time remembering their children are 1) children, and 2) human. They refused to believe their child could be anything but a golden angel, so perfect even Mary Poppins looks like Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile by comparison. Whether they just had a blind spot when it comes to their child being a human being and not of divine bloodline, or they feel admitting a child’s fault is somehow a reflection on them, I don’t know. All I know is, more than once, she would get pushback over real concerns. “Not my child!”, they’d say. They’d question her qualifications (preschool administrators must go through extensive early childhood psychology training, which includes recognizing abuse, burgeoning developmental difficulties, etc.), insist their child would grow out of it, and so on.

It’s not a problem limited to that age, either. Hell, as the kid gets older, there’s more things for willfully stubborn parents to pretend their child isn’t capable of; drinking, drugs, sex, bullying, self-harm, sexual alignment, gender identity. You get into the teenage years, and the possibilities are endless with issues that some parents will, with great enthusiasm and no hesitation whatsoever, plunge their heads into the earth’s core to avoid admitting their child isn’t on fast track for sainthood. I have never been one of those parents. I am the first to admit my children are not flawless avatars of divinity. I think anybody who does view their children as unimpeachable paragons are doing their child a gross disservice.

As of the time of this writing, the most downloaded episode of my podcast has been my interview with Elaine Uskoski, on the subject of gaming addiction. She approached me to appear on the show after I appeared on her nephew’s podcast, talking about my nephew’s suicide and mental health. When I conceived of the column and podcast, I had a lot of topics in mind; gaming addiction was not one of them. Not because I refused to believe it was a thing; more that I didn’t know it was a thing to begin with. It’s like if I asked you to list ten kinds of berry, and after you were done, I asked why aren’t tomatoes on the list; if you didn’t know they were a berry, you very well couldn’t include them, right? That’s the boat I was in. And I think that’s because, as part of the generation that grew up with Atari and Nintendo and arcades, the idea of video game addiction existed just never crossed my mind. It was a hobby, a form of entertainment, nothing more. Video games? Addicting?!? It sounds nuts. Do you hear of people getting addicted to Monopoly or parcheesi? No, so why would video games be any different?

After speaking with her, though, and reading her book, and doing the research, I discovered this was a very real, very dangerous condition. It is a behavioral addiction, like sex or gambling or self-harm, where the chemical reaction that spurs addiction is in the depth one participates in the activity, not the object with which one interacts. Think of it this way: a single shot of heroin is 100%, unequivocally bad for your health. Trying to 100% Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey isn’t bad on its own; doing so while neglecting to do things like feeding yourself, bathing, sleeping or attending to life’s responsibilities is not good.

Like heroin or alcohol or gambling, video game addiction is never about the game itself. It’s about the feeling one gets from a game that they’re not getting from their real life. Perhaps a person’s self-esteem is low because they have a poor self-image; perhaps their grades are failing, or they’re unhappy in their job; perhaps its a bad relationship. Whatever the case, it all amounts to the root cause being something internal that is robbing them of the joy of life, and the feeling of achievement they find in video games is giving them that shot of dopamine they’re not getting elsewhere.

Before COVID-19 turned us all into Howard Hughes for a year, we already knew our oldest, R, was not enjoying school. He had self-esteem issues due to his appearance (he was born with some craniofacial irregularities from a condition called Goldenhar Syndrome), and because he didn’t have straight A’s, he viewed himself as stupid. He has a singular personality and a sense of humor that many people just don’t understand, especially his age, so his circle of friends is small. Now, add in a year of imposed isolation and everything that came with the lockdown? It was the perfect storm. He’d play video games for hours on end, come out for dinner (sometimes), go back in and disappear until he passed out at whatever o’clock in the morning. Rinse, repeat every day. He’d wear the same clothes for days on end, and asking him to shower was as heavy a lift as asking him to mow the lawns of all thirty or so houses in our loop. Chores? FOR. GET. IT. I had a better chance of running into Queen Elizabeth at 7-11.

It wasn’t until I saw in Elaine’s book the signs of addiction spelled out that I saw this awful, rancid flower was starting to bloom right under my nose. It wasn’t as bad as her son had gotten, but it wasn’t trending in a positive direction, especially after we limited game time due to failing grades. Without that hit of happy-brain-juice, he was spiraling.

The suicide of my nephew, which I spoke of a few months back triggered an even greater depression in R. Even the most fatalistic of teenagers still has something of a sense of immortality; after all, they have SO MUCH LIFE ahead of them. They have grandparents who are still alive and active. Losing someone close to his age, and by his own hand, destroyed that sense of immortality. Death could happen to anybody. You could even be driven to do it to yourself. That knocked out whatever kept him anchored down. All the warning signs that didn’t seem related, all the symptoms we didn’t connect, suddenly came into sharp relief as one big map of mental illness. And hiding in video games was how he was self-medicating.

We’ve caught it early. He’s getting therapy now, and I’m hopeful for his future, both as a human being and as a gamer. I’d hate to have him give them up, only because I know, even before the depression started to set in, how much he enjoyed them. I don’t believe he’s that far gone. But then again, I didn’t know video game addiction was a thing, so, I may be talking out of my ass here.

The point of all this is to say that we, as the first generation of gamer parents, might be at a disadvantage when it comes to recognizing gaming addiction, because we’re too close to the subject. We grew up playing games. The idea of them being potentially toxic – not in a pearl-clutching, histrionic, Maude Flanders way, but in a real, personal way – feels like anathema to everything we’ve come to know about video games since Atari and Nintendo turned this from a secret hobby for nerds to an entertainment monster that generates so much revenue, it now dwarfs pornography by a factor of ten.

You have to be vigilant, though. Elaine nearly lost her son, and it was a long journey back to sobriety and good health. Others haven’t been so lucky. I’m not trying to sound alarmist. This isn’t something a vast majority of gamers will encounter … but, like all potential addictive behaviors, there’s no way to predict what gamers it COULD hit. Gaming isn’t boys in dark arcades and basements anymore. The gender split is getting closer to even with every passing year. Adults of all stripes play games, from stay-at-home parents to corporate executives. Barack Obama had a Wii in the White House. There is no demographic left untouched, which means there is no demographic that can claim to be safe. If you are a gamer parent or just a parent of gamers, your child is at risk as much as any other with a video game console. I’m living proof. It started to happen right in my own house, and I feel like an ass for not seeing it sooner. As it stands, I’m lucky I caught it when I did.

If you’d like to know more about video game addiction – how to spot it, the dangers it can present, how to approach someone you suspect is addicted, treatment options, etc – there are a ton of resources out there, far more than there were even five years ago.

For starters, I’d highly recommend Elaine’s book, Cyber-Sober. I should say, up front, that there are potential triggers in there, such as suicidal ideation, as Jake is very candid about his experience. It’s a great place to start. Likewise, Game Quitters is an organization dedicated to helping identify, tackle and recover from gaming addiction. I want to stress here that neither Elaine or the people at Game Quitters are anti-gaming. Far from it; I’ve kept in touch with Elaine, and she recently bought a Switch for herself and her husband. She and GQ will both say gaming can be enjoyed in moderation, and that it is only when the line is crossed that it becomes dangerous.

If you know someone whom you believe has a video game addiction, there are recovery centers out there. Recovery.org has a whole section devoted to video game addiction recovery. While the official recognition of the diagnosis happened in 2018, there is still a small number of therapists and treatment centers out there, so do be aware that getting treatment might have some challenges. They should in no way be roadblocks, though.

One more thing. Addiction is a disease that hits everybody in the family in some way. It’s not uncommon for parents, siblings, significant others, and friends to make excuses or underwrite the addiction because it’s easier than drawing a line in the sand. That road ends in one place, and it’s the one you want to avoid at all costs. You may need to seek treatment or counseling as a family. This is not an indictment or a referendum on your parenting. You did not “fail”. No parent is perfect, and no child grows up perfect either. Addiction won’t be overcome by blaming or shaming, and it sure as hell can’t be conquered by taking the focus off who its supposed to be on because a parent has a sore ego. It’s all about work. Long, hard, emotionally draining work. Don’t make it about you. The addict needs all the support they can get.

And in closing …

I’ll finish off the industry biographies of the major platforms with PC gaming. Another area I’m unfamiliar with! I’ll try not to leave out anything blatantly obvious like I did with X-Box. Like, you know, keyboards or steam or something.

See you in 2.