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Gaming - A 21st Century Addiction

I've spoken a lot about the subject of addiction in previous blogs and the fact that it takes many forms - not just the drugs and alcoholism that most people automatically associate with the word, but also such vices as gambling and smartphone addiction. However, one of the most common issues we're seeing at Phoenix at the moment is a particularly 21st Century form of the problem - that of computer gaming. Video gaming might sound like a harmless enough pursuit but it becomes a serious issue when it causes people to withdraw almost entirely from the real world to the extent that relationships suffer and genuine human interactions diminish. Although billions of people play video games, the majority of these cannot be considered addicts. The World Health Organization estimates the number of those who do struggle with an addiction is in the region of 3-4%. The difference between a healthy fun gaming hobby and an addiction is the negative impact the activity is having in your life. But as with any other form of addiction, there is always hope. With the right help you can break the cycle and replace potentially harmful patterns of behaviour with more positive and beneficial ones.

The award-winning steampunk fantasy Thief: The Dark Project held me in its vice-like grip for months on end.

Anyone who's ever played any form of video game will almost certainly be aware of the genre's addictive qualities. I'm going to put my hand up right here and declare from the outset that I've experienced the intoxicating grip of the pure escapism offered by these immersive virtual worlds. Around twenty years ago I became hooked on the highly-acclaimed Thief: The Dark Project - a first-person stealth game developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos Interactive. Thief, which was so successful it spawned a couple of sequels as well as a 2014 reboot, was the first PC stealth game to use light and sound as game mechanics and challenged the first-person shooter market by placing its emphasis instead on non-confrontational stealth gameplay. Set in a medieval steampunk metropolis, players took on the role of Garrett, a master thief trained by a secret society who, while carrying out a series of robberies, became involved in a complex plot which threatened to unleash chaos on the world. The game achieved widespread critical acclaim, was placed on numerous hall-of-fame lists and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. Thief appealed to me on many levels. My personal affinity with Robin Hood has already been well documented in previous blogs and the character of Garrett, the hooded thief, bore more than a passing resemblance to my favourite hooded man of legend. The secret society subplots appealed to my esoteric predilections and the steampunk world in which the story was set resonated with my lifelong fascination with Victorian London. All the required ingredients were therefore present for me to cast aside the mundane drudgery of my ordinary life and set foot inside an alluring fantasy world in which I finally had the opportunity to be everything I secretly wanted to be - the hero of an epic adventure, armed the tools, skills and capabilities to take down the bad guys and single-handedly save the world from apocalyptic destruction.

However, even I was unprepared for the sheer extent to which the game would take over my life during the next few months. I was so gripped - so completely intoxicated - that hours and whole days would pass without me being able to force myself away from the computer screen. The need to crack the next conundrum, steal the next treasure, overcome the latest threat and reach the next level was so strong that I would frequently end up playing right through the night without even being aware of the passing of time. The games are, of course, deliberately structured this way, ruthlessly deploying the age-old use of cliffhangers and story arcs to appeal to the innate human need for instant gratification and keeping you constantly wanting more. When, after several months, I finally cracked the final level and successfully completed the game, the sense of triumph was short-lived and swiftly replaced by one of anti-climax and even profound feelings of depression and loss. Thief had become my reason for getting up in the morning, my motivation for rushing home from work at night, and suddenly that was gone. There was no new level to aim for, no more booty to steal, no villain to stop or world to save. Completing the game had left a massive void in my life and I experienced a severe withdrawal which was only really satiated by the eventual release of the sequel: Thief 2: The Metal Age, whereupon the whole cycle started all over again.

Video games are intentionally designed using state-of-the-art behavior psychology to keep you hooked in this way. Games are immersive experiences that provide you with a high amount of dopamine, and overexposure to this level of stimulation can cause structural changes to your brain. You begin to live in a world where you expect instant gratification. Games are so immersive that it’s easy to play for hours and hours without even noticing that a minute has gone by. They allow you to escape and see measurable progress. They create an environment where you feel safe and in control - you can even be killed and go back and try again. In recent years game developers have increasingly deployed manipulative game design features such as in-app purchases, micro-transactions, and loot boxes that some governments have declared illegal – because they are a form of gambling. Video game addiction exists because game companies are billion dollar industries and the more people they have hooked on games, the more money they make.

The movie Ready Player One not only made for highly entertaining viewing but was also an intelligent and thought-provoking study of the gaming addiction phenomenon.

The addictive appeal of gaming was highlighted quite superbly by the 2018 hit sci-fi movie Ready Player One, based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the Warner Bros film takes place in the year 2045 when most of humanity uses the virtual reality software OASIS to escape the desolation of the real world. Orphaned teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a gaming geek who hides behind the much cooler persona of his online avatar Parzival, discovers clues to a hidden game within the program that promises the winner full ownership of the OASIS, and joins several allies to try to complete the game and claim the prize before a corrupt company can do so. This quest within the game, and the lengths players are willing to go to in order to win it, is a brilliant portrayal of the pitfalls of gaming in which targets, goals and over-arching missions are used to keep people hooked from one level to the next. Praised for its stunning visuals, and loaded with fan-pleasing pop culture references, the film was well received by critics and viewers alike and painted an entertaining, intelligent and thought-provoking picture of the appeal of avatars, the escapism offered by virtual worlds and the dangers of over-dependence upon them. The film ends with a subtle yet powerful moral message as Wade and his friends, having won control of the OASIS, take the decision to shut it down for two days a week in order to compel people to spend more time in the real world and interacting with each other in proper face-to-face relationships.

In Ready Player One, the hero Wade is able to swap his geeky persona for that of the far cooler avatar Parzival (right). But in reality we don't have to rely on video games to be able to unleash the power of our inner hero.

Though often sensationalised, gaming addiction is a real and growing problem. Last year the World Health Organization listed and defined it as a medical condition in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases. Some countries had already identified it as a major public health issue. The Yes We Can clinic in the Netherlands is currently Europe’s only addiction treatment centre for young people. Those who check into the clinic are not allowed to have mobile phones, laptops or iPods with them. Nicotine is the only addictive substance permitted and young people are not allowed coffee or fizzy drinks. There is no contact with their family for the first five weeks, after which parents are invited to a bonding week. The clinic treated 30 people for gaming addiction in 2016 and 90 in 2018. So far this year 55 young people have sought help. A significant number are being sent over from the UK, where there are no NHS facilities catering for people with gaming disorder. There are a handful of private clinics offering treatment but waiting lists can be long. Jan Willem Poot (40), a former addict turned entrepreneur, who set up the Yes We Can clinic, says other screen-based addictions are also becoming more common, with people experiencing dependency on Netflix, pornography or social media. “They have found a way to feel better just by being in the online world because it is escapism," he explains. The clinic has treated a large number of girls in particular who have required admission for social media addiction. Jan said: “That has a lot to do with personality disorder, where they are so insecure they need confirmation by sending 20-30 selfies or Instagram posts a day – they need the likes to get confirmation that they are still attractive or liked.” Poot says devices in video games such as loot boxes – where players pay a small fee for a chance to obtain a random assortment of virtual items – get people hooked even deeper.

Video game addiction is a compulsive mental health disorder that can cause severe damage to a person's life. It’s common for a video game addict to spend over 10 hours a day gaming, usually well into the night, and many suffer from sleep deprivation. Immersed in their experience, gamers are known to have poor diets consisting mainly of energy drinks full of caffeine and sugar. Many are dehydrated and malnourished. In more severe cases, gaming addicts report agoraphobia – a type of anxiety disorder in which they fear leaving the house – and others identify with hikikomori — a term popularized in Japan as reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life. Gaming addicts tend to be moody and irritable, depressed, physically aggressive, and refuse to go to school or work due to gaming. To be a gaming addict is to experience functional impairment in multiple areas of your life, and the long-term effects can be devastating. Gaming addicts can fall out of school or college. They get divorced. And they struggle with unemployment. Some common warning signs to look out for include excessive preoccupation with video games, withdrawal symptoms such as as irritability, anxiety, boredom, cravings, or sadness; loss of interest in previous hobbies, any negative impact on relationships, school work or career caused by participation in video games, and the use of games to escape negative moods.

The good news is that help is available for those struggling with a video game addiction. Game Quitters is an online peer support community with hundreds of free videos, a community forum, and an affordable program for both gamers and parents. If you or a loved one are struggling with a video game addiction, seek help immediately. It can change your life. Here at Phoenix we have considerable experience of working with this kind of issue and are currently seeing growing numbers of young people in particular for problems stemming from addiction to gaming and other forms of online activity. We treat the issue with a non-judgemental and empathetic approach and employ a wide array of tools and techniques to help clients forge new patterns of more positive behaviour. As I mentioned earlier, I've experienced first-hand the addictive qualities of gaming so I understand only too well the pull and allure of of virtual worlds, particularly at a point in history where real-life is for many people becoming increasingly stressful, depressing and unappealing. However, the secret to true and lasting happiness lies not in escaping from the real world but rather in turning your real life into a magical adventure instead. People are drawn to online avatars because such characters allow them to play the hero. They can dispense temporarily with a real-world identity they might not be entirely comfortable with and lose themselves in the escapism of an alternative, cooler, more glamorous persona, just like the character Wade does in adopting the avatar Parzival in Ready Player One. Video games allow us the opportunity to become a spy, a soldier, assassin, master thief, gangster or rebel. They allow us to indulge our inner fantasies and to become the heroic superman we aspire to be. But the fact is that we don't need an avatar to become superman. That perfect version of you already exists inside yourself. It's never too late to become the hero of a real-life adventure. You just need to find the courage to make that leap and to be prepared to unleash the Phoenix within.

Here at Phoenix we don't believe in removing a client's psychological crutch without replacing it with something else. No matter whether the addiction in question is gaming, drugs, alcohol or smoking, taking away the prop without seeking to address the underlying issue fuelling the problem behaviour will ultimately only do more harm than good. People who fall prey to the addiction trap are almost always seeking a form of escape from some kind of problem in their lives, whether that be anxiety, social alienation or trauma. We always look to unearth and treat the root cause of the addiction in order to instil clients with a greater and deeper sense of internal wellbeing whereby the problem behaviour is no longer required. We can teach safe ways of tapping into that natural state of wellness through use of methods such as mindfulness, NLP, hypnosis and Integral Eye Movement Therapy (IEMT), all of which induce altered states of consciousness in which we can access quite safely and naturally the high-performance state which athletes refer to as being "in the zone". We also make considerable use of storytelling, drawing on the symbolic power of mythology and archetypes to demonstrate how easily one can start to create one's own reality in order to transform a stressful and mundane life into a bona fide adventure of infinite possibilities. Having undergone that very process myself, I speak from personal experience here and can testify that a life transformed in this way is infinitely more satisfying than the false high provided by computer simulations. If you think you or someone you know might be addicted to gaming and would like to find out more about how Phoenix can help, visit our website at or drop us an email at now.

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