Page last updated at 03:03 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Compulsive gamers 'not addicts'

By Paddy Maguire
BBC News, Amsterdam

Keith Bakker, Paddy Maguire
Keith Bakker (right) regularly takes time to meet and talk to gamers.

Ninety per cent of the young people who seek treatment for compulsive computer gaming are not addicted.

So says Keith Bakker the founder and head of Europe's first and only clinic to treat gaming addicts.

The Smith & Jones Centre in Amsterdam has treated hundreds of young gamers since the clinic opened in 2006.

But the clinic is changing its treatment as it realises that compulsive gaming is a social rather than a psychological problem.

Using traditional abstinence-based treatment models the clinic has had very high success rates treating people who also show other addictive behaviours such as drug taking and excessive drinking.

But Mr Bakker believes that this kind of cross-addiction affects only 10% of gamers. For the other 90% who may spend four hours a day or more playing games such as World of Warcraft, he no longer thinks addiction counselling is the way to treat these people.

"These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies," he says.

"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."

In response the clinic has changed its treatment programme for gamers to focus more on developing activity-based social and communications skills to help them rejoin society.

Social ties

"This gaming problem is a result of the society we live in today," Mr Bakker told BBC News. "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."

In most cases of compulsive gaming, it is not addiction and in that case, the solution lies elsewhere
Keith Bakker

By offering compulsive gamers a place where they feel accepted and where their voice will be heard, the clinic has found that the vast majority have been able to leave gaming behind and rebuild their lives.

For Mr Bakker the root cause of the huge growth in excessive gaming lies with parents who have failed in their duty of care.

But he is quick to point out that 87% of online gamers are over the age of 18 - and once they cross that line, help is something they need to seek for themselves because parents no longer have the legal right to intervene.

For younger gamers, intervention may be the only way to break the cycle. That means stepping in and sometimes literally taking a child away from a computer, removing them from the game for a period of time until they become aware of their habits and begin to see there are other choices.

"It's a choice," he says. "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."

Alone together

George [not his real name] is an 18-year-old gamer being treated at the clinic in Amsterdam. He was spending at least 10 hours a day playing Call of Duty 4 until he sought help at the centre.

"Call of Duty was somewhere I felt accepted for the first time in my life," he says. "I was never helped by my parents or my school. At the clinic I also feel accepted and have come out of myself."

Screenshot from Call of Duty 4, Activision
'George' used to spend hours every day playing Call of Duty 4

George kept his gaming problem a secret as much as he could but when he did tell people, he says that no-one offered him help.

"I liked gaming because people couldn't see me, they accepted me as my online character - I could be good at something and feel part of a group."

Underlying that new sense of belonging was a young man who felt powerless and neglected in real life.

"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," he says.

This kind of aggression is not uncommon in young gamers who feel frustrated with their real lives. Besides addiction, aggression and violence form part of the ongoing debate about the influence of gaming on impressionable minds.

When two students killed twelve pupils and a teacher in the Columbine High School shooting in the US in 1999, many believed that their common interest in playing violent games had helped to trigger the massacre.

Research at Smith & Jones seems to imply that feelings of anger and powerlessness often pre-exist a compulsion to play violent games. In some cases these people find each other in the gaming world and form a bond based on those feelings of alienation and anger.

Mr Bakker believes that if there was more commitment from parents and other care givers to listen to what their children are saying then these issues of isolation and frustration could be dealt with at source and bring many young people out of the virtual world and back into real life.

"If I continue to call gaming an addiction it takes away the element of choice these people have," he says. "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."

Mr Bakker sees a time when addiction centres like Smith & Jones could close down if parents and adults in the community took more responsibility for the habits of their children.

"In most cases of compulsive gaming, it is not addiction and in that case, the solution lies elsewhere."

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