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Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Thursday, 1 June 2006 10:21 UK

Just one more

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Games console handset

What's claimed to be the first in-patient clinic for computer game addicts in Europe is to open next month, while the Priory clinic is warning about super-sized wine glasses. Are we addicted to more than we like to admit?

"There were 15 year olds being brought to us who were showing the same behaviour as 50-year-old gambling addicts," says Keith Bakker, director of an addiction consultancy in Amsterdam, Holland.

Except the compulsion of these youths - almost always boys - was playing computer games.

"We knew about drugs like crack, but we couldn't find a programme anywhere for kids like this," he says. "And we saw enormous parallels between problems with gaming and alcohol and gambling."

As such, the Smith and Jones consultancy has set up its own treatment centre - an eight-bed residential unit, where Mr Bakker says patients will need to spend four to eight weeks.

'Out of control'

The youngsters, who might have been spending almost all their waking hours playing computer games, will experience symptoms of withdrawal, he says. "There can be anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, dreaming about games, nightmares, shaking."

If a gamer said he wanted to go out for the night and meet people we'd throw a party
Keith Bakker

The consultancy is already seeing about a dozen "outpatient" youngsters each month who have both a drug and computer game addiction - but increasingly there are calls from youngsters who have gaming as their primary problem.

These screen obsessives are often awkward adolescents who "want to escape reality", he says. They lack social contact, their parents might be divorced or too busy to see them, they might lack confidence. In short, they need to get out more.

But Mr Bakker says that parents shouldn't underestimate the seriousness of the problem.

"This can get totally out of control. These games can be designed to keep the players going, there's no pay-off, it's like climbing a mountain with no top. They're not in their rooms playing games about collecting flowers. They're up there for 18 hours a day playing computer games about killing people."

The treatment will mean intervening in this obsessive pattern, understanding the underlying issues and changing the direction of their behaviour. But it requires a different approach from tackling drug addiction.

Mobile phones
"I'll just answer this text ..."

"You can't do a urine test to see that they're not still gaming. And if a coke addict said they wanted to go out to a club or to see people, we'd be worried about whether they'd meet a dealer. But if a gamer said he wanted to go out for the night and meet people we'd throw a party."

But adults who have never been troubled by computer-generated mayhem shouldn't be smug. Because Mr Bakker says that dependencies are much more common than we like to admit - and the vast majority of addictions of all kinds remain unrecognised.

You don't have to be a stereotypical junkie or a nighthawk in a casino to be an addict.

Mobile phones and texting can become a compulsion - leaving us feeling vulnerable and panicked when we're not able to send a message or make a call.

"My own mobile phone fell in the canal and I freaked out," he says. And anyone unable to resist text messaging is looking for the same instant gratification, the same quick fix.

Sip, glug, gulp

There are other forms of compulsion than can slip below the radar - not least because they seem so respectable and unsurprising.

Wine glass
Super-size me - wine glasses have become like "beer glasses on stems"

What could be more the hallmark of a busy professional than opening a bottle of wine each night? It's been a tough day, you deserve it. Sounds familiar?

Except that Nick Gully, director of addiction services at the Priory clinic in south-west London, says that the overall increase in wine consumption, and the social acceptability of a bottle before bedtime, can mask more serious drinking problems.

"People have more disposable income and we work at such a fast pace - and people will come home and have a glass of wine - and there's no problem with that," he says.

But he warns that for some drinkers, behind the "just a glass after work" can be a progression to an increasing number of bottles each night.

"We're noticing more people who have alcohol problems without realising it. The normalisation of drinking in this way can conceal it."

It doesn't help that the wine glasses we're using now have been supersized to the dimensions of a small vase, he says, "more like beer glasses on stems". The alcohol volumes rise, one glass turns into several bottles and the risks of a drinking problem increase alongside.

Addiction: 'any psychological or physiological overdependence of an organism on a drug'
Compulsion: 'behaviour motivated by factors that compel a person to act against his or her own wishes'
Source: Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

But there are warnings against any exaggeration of the extent of addictions - particularly claims about widespread addiction to various forms of technology.

Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says that while there might be people who are "excessive" users of the internet or text messaging, there are very few who are really addicted.

He argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between addiction and "habitual" behaviour - and that for genuine addiction, such as for gambling or alcohol, it's a much tougher proposition.

And if people are compulsive users of online gambling sites, sitting at the screen day and night - it's the gambling that is the addiction and not the technology.

But Mr Bakker says he's watched gaming obsessives behave when they get close to the object of their desire. "It's like the coke user coming up to the dealer, you can see them start to sweat."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The comment '"just a glass after work" can be a progression to an increasing number of bottles each night' rings true in my experience. In one of my previous jobs, I worked alongside a colleague who stated one day that 'I can't unwind at night unless I've had half a bottle of wine'. This was some 4 years ago, and I worry about the extent to which her addiction may have developed. What was also worrying was that others in the office agreed and there seemed to be an acceptance that this was 'normal' behaviour.
Anne, Stretford, UK

I like PacMan and have painted myself yellow, can I have the telephone number....
JH, Tylers Green

Large wine glasses are not new. I remember a chain of wine bars in the seventies that used to sell wine by the half-pint and pint in beer type glasses!
Michael de Grey, Bath

This article is extremely annoying to me. I'm a gamer, all of my friends are gamers and I think the way we are being portrayed is disgraceful. This article makes out that we are all anti-social junkies who spend all our lives "training to kill people". Gaming doesn't make people violent, we aren't addicted to it, we just enjoy it. Would you say that the thousands of people who sit down and watch hour upon hour of TV are addicts? No I've never seen articles about that. For some reason people have just decided to start picking out gaming as the latest "threat". It's unbelieveable
Lee Cammock, Durham

I have to agree with Mark Griffiths - there seems to be too much of a willingness to call something an addiction (thereby absolving some blame from yourself) than seeing the behaviour for what it really is. I sat on the train last night and a young girl was constantly on her phone - almost looking through the phone book for people to call, just to chat. Is that an addiction - no, but why is it different to any other form of repetitive behaviour ?
GDW, London

I'm 25 and don't play computer games any more. Between the age of about 8-16 I played Nintendo games for several hours every day, and it was very damaging to my ability to interact with people. My father stopped me playing them before I went away to University because he feared for my development. When I read about people that are in clinics because of gaming addictions it doesn't surprise me.
Roger, Cardiff

"They're up there for 18 hours a day playing computer games about killing people." Glad to see these consultants understand their patients - oh wait...
Chris Monteiro, Harrow

My fiance is always playing games on his X-Box. He uses it as a way of occupying a few spare hours, the same way 80% of the population spend their evenings watching TV. it is hard to drag him away from it but that's only because he enjoys it so much and he's quite competative.
kate , birmingham

This doesn't mean anyone has to ban anything. Some people are prone to excess. If eating cabbages was the only legal thing to do, some people would over do it!
Fred Hamster, UK

Here is yet more exaggeration, and another attempt to show the country how games are supposedly "poisining the minds of our poor, innocent children". 99.9% of people who spend "all of their waking hours" playing games are adults. Stop creating fear through senseless ignorance and guilt by association.
L . Jennings, Wakefield

Three months ago I woke up in the back of an ambulance having had a seizure while out walking at lunch time. After some tests I was told that I had been drinking too much. Not drinking too much at the moment of the seizure, I was sober when it happened, but just drinking too much in general. I was just as described in the article; I used to have a couple of glasses of wine or a couple of beers with dinner. Well, I thought I did. After the accident I realised that just those glasses of wine/beer were adding up to a minimum of 28 units a week and I had to add my Friday and Saturday nights out on top of that. It really is all too easy to drink way too much on a regular basis. I wasn't an alcoholic, and I certainly wasn't getting drunk every night, but I drank enough to damage my health quite seriously. I now don't drink at all and I don't miss it. The benefits of a glass or two after work are far out weighed by a clear head every morning and a far better nights sleep.
Anon, London

There's a simple solution for the gamers... take away their computers and game stations... no clinic and no problem!
Paul Darken, Liverpool, UK

I am an addict, I have to have my 'fix' of gaming every day - just like a drug addict or alcoholic does. I use a Game Boy Advance or my NDS (Nintendo Dual Screen) for a fix during the day whilst I am at work and my PC when I get home. As a result my work has suffered and my home life is poor. I am seeing a counsellor for my obsession/ addiction problem but I still need to have my daily fix, I know its wrong, I can't help myself and must play. Just because its not destroying my physical life like drugs or other addictions can, doesn't mean that it is not bad for me - it is and I have to control myself or I will become withdrawn and lose everything including my wife and children! I am not some 15 year old adolescent but a 30 something working professional, it is not just restricted to the young!
anon, Bristol

I'm a 29 year old Software Tester, married, with a fairly active social life, but also have a rabid interest in gaming. I find that mulitplayer computer gaming relaxing and sociable, and have made numerous friends this way. However, I do recognise when I have been playing too long. I used to play for hours on end, but now will only play for 1-2 hours before I get too tired, and not always every day. I can see how younger people become so absorbed by gaming culture, always trying to get a higher score, or honing their skills. But also it is a method of escape for them, it was for me. I wouldn't call myself an addict, as I can control when I start and stop playing.
Daniel Billing, Bath, England

Given I spent half an hour in World of Warcraft last night tracking down enough of the herb Dreamfoil - in some cases these games ARE about collecting flowers...
Zoroaster, Malvern, UK

My best friend was so addicted to video game that he used to spend every night playing until 4:00am, and the morning after he could not get up to go to work. We had several conversations about this and the fact that his life was a mess due to this addiction, but everytime he was saying he wanted to give up, he could not hold it for a week. The funny thing about it, is that he was addicted to only one game (Pro Evolution Soccer 4/5), a football videogame, and he was not himself a big football fan. With the help of his employer, familly and friends he eventually manage to get ride of it and finally gave the X-box to his 15 years old cousin. I always feel bad about the fact that I paid for half of the video game console, as he could not afford it at that time !!!

I've always felt fairly grateful that I don't like wine since it means I don't get caught up in the 'obligatory' drinking at the dinner table or at social events where wine is served. If I want to unwind at the end of the day (although I prefer to manage my work in a way that doesn't cause me stress in the first place) I have to find another way to do it (usually the gym), instead of just getting the wine out like my friends do. It's also considerably cheaper for me to eat out, I don't like coffee either so I save there too!
Jennifer, Netherlands, ex-UK

I think there's a very fine line between addiction, obsession, hobbies. "Addiction" is used to describe things that society frowns upon, even if not completely justified, eg soft drugs, gambling, drinking. "Obsession" or "Hobbies" describe things that are considered harmless, and more socially acceptable, for example plane/train spotting, any form of collecting, excessive exercise, internet surfing / chatting / downloading. These are all basically the same thing, giving the mind something to focus on to mentally escape from the frustrations of daily life. The secret is balance, don't let any one obsession get out of hand, but recognise they are obsessions/addictions.
Justin Cleator, Luxembourg

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