When the game never ends

Posted by Hitarth Jani | 5:14 AM | 0 comments »

Gaming can be harmful, especially for boys. Candida Crew reports on a Dutch clinic that is trying to steer young people back to a more balanced life.

'If gaming ever stops you doing something you want to do, like playing football in the park, that's your own choice," Michael Rowan says. "But if it stops you doing something you need to do - like, with me, visiting my granny who was ill and could have done with the company - that's when you've got a problem."

Rowan, 20, from Bristol in England, is just one of many recovering gamers who have graduated from Keith Bakker's Wild Horses Centre in the Netherlands over the past couple of years. Bakker is an improbable saviour. As he talks about his passion for helping young people cope with what he predicts is "the worst addiction the world is ever going to see", it's impossible not to be won over by his vitality and enthusiasm. As Bakker says, there are as yet no other clinics taking the problem seriously. "Only a hospital in Korea that locks them up and gives them shock treatment. The whole of society doesn't necessarily believe gaming is as addictive and damaging as it is. Everyone's in denial."

Bakker's approach is intuitive; he is no stranger to addiction himself. A roadie who had worked with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Prince, and a former full-blown alcohol and cocaine addict, Bakker left America in 1985 for "a fresh start" in Europe. He chose Amsterdam and a year later added heroin to his repertoire.

"I got clean in a prison cell in Holland in 1989," he says, "and went to a farm run by a bunch of Christians - the only people who'd have me. For them, God's calling was to bring junkies out of the city to milk cows. I owe my life to them."

Fast forward to 2004, and Bakker had built up a successful internet company as well as set up his Wild Horses Centre to treat all kinds of addicts. The centre now has 21 staff, 25 consultants and 10 buildings in Amster-dam, including day centres and accommodation. It has treated more than 1000 addicts, and 2½ years ago began its pioneering work with video game addicts from all over the world. It's not cheap, at about $1000 a day - with the average stay 30 days.

Bakker employs the 12 steps - abstinence treatment used in clinics the world over - but he has devised a program to help gamers deal with the emptiness they feel when they stop gaming. "The amount of dopamine in their heads while they're gaming is higher than if they'd taken amphetamines," he says, citing a recent German study, "and the dopamine's higher while they're trying to win the game than when they're actually winning it. Winning is almost a letdown, so there's this deep, unsatisfactory thing going on all the time."

Bakker involves them in exciting activities during treatment - such as paintballing and skydiving - so they can discover new ways to get their blood pumping.

For Michael Rowan, who took part in football, yoga and circuit training during his treatment, engaging in physical activity again was a shock. "I'd lost two stone [13 kilograms] in muscle and water weight, which I gained back in my six weeks there, eating well and being active.

"We're working on the gamers' self-esteem all the time," Bakker says, "so we have them climbing walls, doing different tasks. We teach them how to take care of themselves: basic hygiene, regular sleep, day structuring. We have communication workshops. We look at every aspect of their lives: health, nutrition, work, career, school life, free time and leisure. I need them to be part of the community at all times, not even reading. If they start to isolate themselves, I have to keep a real eye on them. They are very good manipulators so we have to be extra careful not to become part of their game.

"One guy from the US, he was just about to go home, his parents had come to pick him up, but I felt something wasn't quite right. Then the penny dropped. In his head he'd made us all part of one big video game, his family, his therapists, the other clients. He was so angry he'd been caught out. I made him stay an extra two weeks, and to date he's not gone back to gaming."

Bakker readily admits he is not a counsellor or therapist but, in the absence of much research into gaming addiction, a lot of what he does seems to be common sense. What he does know is that of the 100 or so gamers he has treated, only one has gone back to gaming. He says he has been inundated with people desperate for information about gaming addiction but is open about the fact that on many scores he is as clueless as the next fellow.

To address this, next year he is going to open a 2000 square metre centre in the Netherlands called the Gamesterdam Foundation (partially funded as a charity by gaming and computer companies) with the specific purpose of attracting "the best people internationally, psychiatrists and so on", to research this 21st-century phenomenon.Questions he would like answered are endless, but include: "Why is it invariably boys who become addicted? Should gamers avoid all potentially addictive substances? Why are gamers only ever really hooked on killing games? What's going on with someone who's getting off on shooting people's heads off?"

Perhaps the scariest thing about gaming addiction is the age at which addicts become hooked. Most drug or alcohol abusers at least reach their teens before becoming addicted. As Ian Williamson, a child and adolescent analyst in London points out, these youngsters are more vulnerable.

"Part of growing up is managing complicated feelings about identity, separation from the family, sexuality, and with that often comes sadness," he says. "If you can blank that all out by laying waste to a virtual world, then the developmental processes are shelved."

Bakker says he knows six-year-old gamers who are not playing with their friends any more. "We're going to get a whole new breed of addict in their crucial development years," he says. "I see boys from as young as six, although we have only treated them from 14 upwards. They become very, very isolated and have no social skills. I've heard terrible stories of physical violence at home when their parents have taken away their power cables."

Roderick Tobi, from Haarlem, not far from Amsterdam, started gaming at 12. It was an escape from a difficult reality that included a liver condition and several allergies that necessitated regular visits to hospital. In the world of video games, he says, he could become "a character with no defects". "I felt compelled to play more and more," Tobi, now 20, says. "[After]I graduated from school - I could have got higher grades - I got up at 2pm, played until 5pm, had 'breakfast', played until eight, had 'lunch' with my parents - their dinner - played until 11, then ate my dinner, then played until 6am. My mother used to cry. At one point I was so angry with my parents for telling me to stop, I threw the vacuum cleaner out of a window."

When he arrived at the centre, Tobi was incapable of expressing any emotion except anger and unable to look after himself in any adult sense at all. Having undergone treatment for six months, he now has a job waiting for him back home, as a rubbish collector. "Not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I'd like to do photography." He is looking forward to rebuilding his relationship with his parents, making up to them, and to spending time with family, friends … and people.

0 comments