When he was 7, Markus (not his real name) played his first computer game. At 12, who would sneak to his parents’ computer in the middle of the night. When he was 18, he would play up to 16 hours a day.
Markus was on a straight path to computer addiction, until he was diagnosed by a doctor and he decided to get rid of his computer.
Markus is the prototypical gaming addict, says Jannis Wlachojaiannis, who works for the Berlin-based Lost in Space project.
Wlachojaiannis says the average addict’s age is 23. Most are men: Women who get addicted to computers tend to become obsessed with social networks, says Bernd Sobottka, a German psychologist.
People who end up in hospital with the condition usually only admit themselves after they’ve lost nearly everything: partners and jobs, their real life. About 90 per cent are men and the average age is 30.
Most have found they prefer a virtual life to the real one, where they can instantly gratify their needs for friendship and recognition.
Markus, now in his 20s, said he realized his problem when he found himself barely eating, living off iced tea because he didn’t want to sacrifice gaming time to the time it took to prepare a meal.
His case is not unusual.
“The whole day revolves around gaming. Gaming was my only goal,” says Markus. “Like a drug addict wants his product, I was after time, so I could play.”
Those are all symptoms, says Sobottka.
“When PC use dominates life and leads to mental, physical and social restrictions, then we see that as an illness,” he explains.
That means, someone who plays six hours, but still finds time for socializing in person, doesn’t need to worry. Addiction is not determined by the number of hours played, says Wlachojiannis.
“If someone gets aggressive and agitated because he can’t play, that’s a sign of addiction,” he notes.
Going cold turkey is not enough to combat addiction. That is because the addiction is usually papering over larger problems in the person’s life. Many are uncomfortable in the real world, preferring to be the hero of a game.
That is how the vicious circle begins. Playing means problems can be ignored, but ignoring the problems usually makes them worse. Many need professional help to break the cycle, either with an addiction centre, a therapist or a special clinic.
Markus realized his problem when he almost failed to complete his studies because of his gaming. “That’s when I wondered if there was something wrong with me,” he says.
A doctor diagnosed him with depression and gaming addiction. Markus got rid of his computer, wrote a list of 200 things he should have done long ago and began working on the list.
But days devoid of gaming felt too empty. Thanks to the diagnosis of depression, he was eligible for therapy, since gaming addiction is not always recognized as a disease. In the end, he grounded a self-help group.
Although his story sounds like it has a happy ending, Markus remains plagued by depression and finds that he is often impatient.
“I’m keeping my head above water,” he says. And he still has to promise, every day: “Today I’m not going to play.”