Gaming addiction in NZ: Why getting help is so hard

Gaming addiction in NZ: Why getting help is so hard
Photo credit: Getty

"I knew I had a problem," says Ditty, a recovering gaming addict, "when I went overseas on holiday and I made a mate log in to my account every day and play for me so I wouldn't lose points."

Everyone has heard a gaming horror story.

Whether it's going home with a guy to find Pepsi bottles filled with pee by the TV. (For when you're gaming and don't want to stop to urinate.) Or the Korean gamer who died of organ failure after a 50 hour straight gaming streak. Or even just your neighbour who's worried about how their teenager spends all day and night getting stoned and playing Call of Duty.

And while parents stress that it's melting kids brains, and gamers rage that their hobby is maligned, the media bounce between calling it an educational tool and an impending epidemic. Behind all the noise, there is a large number of people who have tipped into addiction.

Most Kiwis play because it's fun. Would you rather blow up a missile base or zumba? And 67 percent of us play videogames, mostly for a hobby.

It's not just greasy teenage boys who do this. While boys outnumber girls in the teens and early 20s brackets, women outnumber men in the 45+ bracket. On the whole, women make up 48 percent of gamers, and both genders play more "in depth" than "casually." Neither is it a 'young thing'. The average age of a gamer in NZ is 34-years-old, on average, they've spent 13 years playing videogames. But despite this fact, only 21 percent of us admit to being gamers, largely because of the name's unsociable, unhygienic connotations.


But for some people it isn't a hobby.

According to James Driver, a former gaming addict and now psychotherapist specialising in gaming addiction, 3 - 4 percent of young people suffering genuine addiction. "It's a small percentage number but significant as a total number of young people who might be affected. And a lot of those people would not be seeking help."

But it's not just young people suffering from this. In Mr Driver's experience, "I've come across a number of stay at home parents with problems around gaming. When the kids go to school they have more time on their hands... they game to fill in the time and what was downtime becomes obsessive and their main way of socialising."

All you have to do is jump online to forums such as Stop Gaming, where every day streams of self confessed addicts admit to having problems with gaming. "My life is in shambles," one user wrote, "I live with my grandparents, all my relationships have failed and I want to be a better father to my son."

"Gaming is robbing me of a substantial portion of the joy I used to feel" writes one, "Working out, reading books, conversing with family and friends, connecting with my girlfriend... I couldn't care less about all that stuff. All I want to do is game." Users express over and over again that they're losing interest in life, losing their relationships, losing their family ties. Many are failing at grades, living at home and inside, dropping out of uni and are just profoundly lonely.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association Internet Gaming Disorder, into its diagnostic manual as a behavioural addiction. It's stated that it needs further research, although that doesn't mean they don't think it's a legitimate condition. According to Mr Driver, the classification is because "it's clear we think this is a real thing but there's more work to be done in reaching a consensus on how to diagnose and treat it."  

Officially, addiction is categorised: excessive preoccupation, withdrawal symptoms like sadness and irritability when unable to game, increasing amounts of time gaming, lying about your usage, significant impact on relationships, usage despite knowledge of psychological problems, difficulty controlling usage, loss of interest in other activities, use of gaming to escape negative moods, and increased tolerance to gaming where you need to spend more time to get the same effect.  

And gaming addiction, as with other forms of addiction, is often the symptom of deeper psychological issues. "Addiction is typically a symptom not a discrete condition of itself." Driver says there's a high correlation with anxiety and depression. "I always feel miserable after gaming" says one gamer on the online forum StopGaming, "So I just go back to playing, and keep myself in a downward spiral of self-loathing and borderline depression. Also my social life has suffered a lot. I rarely see my friends anymore and stay inside most of the time." Stories like this pop up every few hours.

Gaming is also thought to worsen conditions like depression. "Someone who's already anxious is more susceptible to developing any addiction," says Driver, "and an addiction is likely to exacerbate depression and anxiety." It's self reinforcing. US research released in 2011 also suggested gaming may increase symptoms of depression. It's also been linked to untreated disorders such as OCD and anxiety.

However genuine the addiction is for those who suffer it, addicts struggle to get help. Firstly because they're often worried they won't be taken seriously. "It's taking me a long time to admit that I have a problem because I feel so embarrassed about it." says one woman on the forum, "A lot of my friends are sober from alcohol or hard drugs, so there's a part of me that feels like I'm making up this issue or that it's not real."

Mr Driver says his clients feel their gaming addiction is not 'valid.' Some clients say it would be easier to have alcohol or drug addictions, because then their condition would be taken more seriously.

Some had even had experiences where they have sought help, only to be judged by the professional. Because of the widespread squabbling over whether their addictions are 'real', patients report being dismissed, belittled or ignored by physicians who tell patients to simply "just stop." It's one of the reasons why a large number of addicts don't seek help.

Another problem with seeking treatment is that you can sustain a gaming addiction for a long time before you see the consequences, meaning addicts take a long time to get help. Often gamers only stop years in, when they realise the opportunities they've missed out on. For instance one forum user decided to quit only when he realised he was giving up his dream of applying to teach English abroad. "It is my dream to travel and experience new things, but instead of working on the essay, I stayed home and played games all day. That's when I was unhappy, and decided to quit."

Even when addicts realise they need help, their options in NZ are limited. There are no gaming rehabilitation centres here the way there are for drug and alcohol services. The options are really to either see a trained addiction counsellor or to look online for support. 

"In New Zealand there's not a lot of treatment options available," says Mr Driver, "a lot of people have been contacting places like the problem gambling foundation or Salvation Army gambling programs because they are as close as possible. But those services aren't able to help." He knows of a couple of other therapists with experience in the area. But that's about it. 

While we currently have no gaming addiction rehab centers, this is going to change. "Look at Austraila," says Mr Driver, "and Germany, the US, Korea - they already have multiple treatment centers for online addiction. I can see it very much being something in our future here." Because one thing is for certain, even though we're ignoring it the problem is not going away.