Recent studies have shown that 97 percent of children and teenagers in America -- the majority of both boys and girls -- play video games regularly. Some experts fear that this feel-good recreational activity may give rise to a new type of addiction -- video game addiction.
Anyone who's friends with an extremely active World of Warcraft player may be familiar with the phenomena -- a tendency to spend more and more hours online every day and to withdraw from real world relationships in favor of virtual ones. In some cases, gaming addiction has led people to die from physical stresses of gaming marathons, particularly in countries like China and South Korea where internet cafes are popular. While few have hard numbers on the topic, many psychologists and medical professionals haven't been afraid to chime in on the topic and how widespread the illness might be.
Now one of the foremost experts in the field has come forward to say that some figures of the prevalence of gaming addiction are greatly inflated. Keith Bakker, the founder and head of Europe's first and only clinic to treat gaming addicts -- the Smith & Jones Centre in Amsterdam -- says that while many of his young patients have a serious problem, most cannot be labeled as addicts.
He says that about 10 percent of patients respond well to a tradition abstinence-based treatment regiment, the hallmark of an addiction. Many of these patients are cross-addicted to alcohol, sex, and/or drugs.
The vast majority of patients though show little response to the traditional addiction recovery programs. The reason says Mr. Bakker -- they're not addicted.
He says that close to 90 percent of compulsive gamers, people with a serious problem affecting their lives, are not addicts. Rather, he says they have social problems. He describes, "These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies. But the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers - this is a social problem."
The clinic, already a pioneer in the field, is now leading it further by developing a unique treatment regimen. The regiment places compulsive gamers into simulated social scenarios to help them rejoin society and learn to socialize.
Mr. Bakker states, "This gaming problem is a result of the society we live in today. Eighty per cent of the young people we see have been bullied at school and feel isolated. Many of the symptoms they have can be solved by going back to good old fashioned communication."
Thus far the treatment is working -- the vast majority of the clinic's patients have gone out and been able to live normal lives.
Who's to blame for this problem, though? Mr. Bakker says that parents do indeed deserve the blame in some cases. However, he aptly points out 87% of online gamers are over the age of 18. After 18 he says, much like alcoholics, compulsive gamers must realize themselves that they have a problem. However, for younger gamers parental intervention works well, he says. He states, "It's a choice. These kids know exactly what they are doing and they just don't want to change. If no one is there to help them, then nothing will ever happen."
Young people like George [name changed], an 18-year old who played Call of Duty 4 ten or more hours a day, are excited to finally find a place that is willing to look at their problem in a unique light. Says George, "Call of Duty was somewhere I felt accepted for the first time in my life. I was never helped by my parents or my school. At the clinic I also feel accepted and have come out of myself... I was aware that I played too much but I didn't know what to do. But it helped me because I could be aggressive and get my anger and frustration out online."
Aggression, both online and in games, adds Mr. Bakker, stems from social isolation. He reminds psychologists and medical professionals worldwide, "If I continue to call gaming an addiction it takes away the element of choice these people have. It's a complete shift in my thinking and also a shift in the thinking of my clinic and the way it treats these people. In most cases of compulsive gaming, it is not addiction and in that case, the solution lies elsewhere."