I was privileged to meet with Cam Adair, founder of GameQuitters.com , on his recent visit to London and talk to him about the subject of gaming addiction.
Cam is 30 years old, and was born and brought up in Canada. As a teenager he dropped out of high school due to his addiction to gaming; he then turned this addiction around at the age of 20. He had become suicidal, but at the point where he wrote a suicide note, he had an epiphany. He realised he had lost control over his own safety and that he needed help. He made the decision that he would live his life to the fullest. He found a counsellor, went ‘cold turkey’ and gave up gaming, and his counsellor held him accountable on this.
Cam now visits schools in the US and other countries to talk to students about switching from gaming to healthier, sociable activities.
He is also a consultant for The Cabin Group’s Video Game Addiction Treatment Programme (theedgerehab.com/gaming addictiontreatment), which they have developed in collaboration with him. The Cabin Group is a globally recognised addiction treatment provider with a collection of inpatient and outpatient treatment centres around the world.
Q: Tell me about GameQuitters
A: GQ is an online peer support community for people struggling with video game addiction. It’s a space for them to open up and be vulnerable in a way they’ve not been able to be before.
- We currently serve about 75,000 people a month in 95 countries.
- We have a Facebook Group with over 800 parents who are members. They share approaches and solutions to their challenges with their kids’ gaming addiction within the FB Group.
- We love to encourage professional support and therapy and I also know that for the vast majority of gaming addicts, online is where they feel comfortable. And being with their peers is where they feel comfortable and my hope is that in doing so, that helps them move one step closer to living a life they want. If that then encourages them to seek additional support – professional support – then that’s also a big win for us.
Q: Why do people become addicted to gaming?
A: There are three primary pathways:
- As a way to escape real life.
- Because it’s easy to advance in a game and you can see progress quite rapidly.
- It provides a ‘social’ experience.
For people who enjoy gaming, it provides a sense of purpose; you know what to do next; there is a sense of control (you can block people if they annoy you); and it gives a sense of identity – online, you are someone, which is in stark contrast to your real life.
The ‘measuring stick’ for gamers is the XP bar. Real life doesn’t come with an XP bar.
Gaming provides a heightened level of stimulation. You can also fulfill your emotional needs, which are to escape from stress, to socially connect, and to feel progress and purpose.
In real life, it’s hard to get all this stimulation through one activity. When you’re addicted, you can game for fifteen hours straight and not even think about it. Gaming warps the connection between effort and reward and also warps your idea of the amount of stimulation you think you need. And compared to getting a job, gaming appears far more rewarding to those who become hooked. It takes months to build up money in the bank from your salary, but gaming rewards are instant.
Q: How have things changed since the early days of the more ‘innocent’ video games like Super Mario?
A: Games have evolved to the point where developers are using state of the art behavioural psychology and consumer research. Gaming and gambling are intersecting – so that gamers are being compelled to spend money within a game. This is unregulated because virtual goods aren’t included under gambling law. So gambling law needs to be modernised.
- For example, “Loot Boxes” within games need to be labelled as gambling and therefore fall under the regulation of gambling law.
Companies throw in the word “educational” in order to compel kids to feel that they have to game so that they can become ‘tech-savvy’.
Q: Is gaming a primary addiction, or does it tend to go hand-in-hand with other addictions?
A: Gaming, anxiety and depression go together for those who become addicted. People self-medicate with gaming, porn, and the internet; these three together add up to digital addiction. That’s an addiction in its own right, just as much as an alcohol or substance addiction.
Q: Is there a personality profile for people who do ‘extreme’ gaming?
A: They tend to be risk-takers, but with high levels of social anxiety. Therefore they will be attracted to gaming in order to escape their anxiety and avoid getting a job. This personality also craves instant results and gratification – gaming provides constant and predictable rewards (as well as intermittent rewards throughout a game, to keep you there).
- A gamer can see the XP Bar moving as he progresses through the levels of a game. He’s getting constant feedback. This is the instant gratification that someone with anxiety and low self-esteem needs, to make them feel better.
Q: What are the tell-tale signs parents need to watch out for in terms of their child being in danger of becoming addicted (or realising that they may even already be addicted)?
A: The biggest sign is if your child is unable to control or limit their gaming.
Other major signs are:
- A loss of interest in other activities – often to the point that their life revolves around gaming.
- And especially – continuing to game despite negative consequences, such as a drop in school grades.
Q: What about the storytelling element of gaming? Humans are hard-wired to tell and ‘consume’ stories. When a gamer goes into recovery, how do you allow for this need, which is a healthy one?
A: Currently we focus on following more of a hero’s journey arc. You’re quitting gaming to play the game of life, and you are the character you get to play.
- I always ask parents “What kind of games do your kids play?” And then I suggest that they match those to interests that the kids can pursue in the outside world.
Q: What advice can you give parents who want to do their best to avoid their child becoming a gaming or digital addict?
A: My advice is that for children under 12, there should be almost no screen time at all. If they’re glued to a screen, they’re not developing ‘intangible’ skills.
I would encourage parents to:
- Develop boundaries and limits, and practise putting them in place.
- Develop emotional resilience (to withstand the demands and tactics of rebellious teenagers).
- Monitor their own use of technology.
- If kids are already gaming, to have conversations around re-building the family unit – in order to break their kids’ habit of isolating themselves in their bedrooms.
- Set up a parents’ committee at school or in their community to support each other and develop and share solutions to the challenges of the use of technology and gaming.
- Ask their teenagers to show them proof that they’ve done their homework.
- Resist the temptation to be friends with their kids. Parents need to set the rules and to put agreements about screen time in place.
- Organise more weekend activities in order to have quality time with their kids. Do things where community groups come together.
I’m grateful to Cam for these insights into gaming addiction and how parents can find support in order to tackle it. I hope to follow this up with a post on how gaming addiction is treated through a specialist programme at the Cabin re-hab in Thailand.