Virtual Addicts – Times Publications, April 2008
Liz Woolley pounds on the front door of her son Shawn’s apartment.
“Shawn,” she cries. “Shawn. Open up.”
For weeks, the 21-year-old had isolated himself in the one-bedroom apartment, phone disconnected, ceaselessly playing the online fantasy game EverQuest. The last time Woolley came to visit, he wouldn’t even let her inside. Instead, he spoke to her through the crack in the door, insisting “everything was fine.”
But Woolley knows things aren’t okay and she isn’t going to let her son be alone on Thanksgiving Day. The family is meeting at Shawn’s aunt’s house later this afternoon for dinner, and she is determined to make sure he’s there.
“Shawn,” she hollers, again banging on the door.
There is no answer.
She tries the door knob and is surprised to find it unlocked. With her other hand, she pushes the door open, but it is stopped by the chain lock.
A foul smell is emanating from the apartment.
Her stomach sinks. Something’s not right.
Shawn had never had it easy. As a child he was diagnosed with depression, schizoid personality disorder, attention deficit disorder and epilepsy.
Lately, however, things had gotten worse. Shawn had grown up playing video games, but since he was introduced to EverQuest, a year prior, gaming had become an obsession. Within three months of playing the game, his personality began to change. He quit his job, dropped out of school, stopped taking his medication and was evicted from his last apartment. Although the game induced seizures, he wouldn’t stop playing. Shawn began to ignore his friends and family, and when he did see them he talked incessantly about the game.
Recently, Shawn had come to his mom crying when a fellow EverQuest gamer, one he had been adventuring with for six months, stole his character’s money and refused to give it back.
“It’s only a game,” Woolley had told him. He didn’t seem to understand.
Frustrated and frightened, Woolley leaves the hallway of the apartment and returns with a bolt cutter. She slips it through the crack in the door, cuts the chain lock and bursts inside.
Scattered on the floor are dozens of empty pizza boxes, fast-food wrappers and dirty laundry.
Shawn is slumped in a rocking chair in front of the computer screen. At his side lies the .22-caliber rifle he used to end his life.
EverQuest is still running on the computer. Shawn and his game’s character are motionless.
“I just saw the game, and I knew this was his message to me. I knew it had something to do with the game,” Woolley recalls, now more than six years after Shawn’s suicide. “The mental illness was part of it. But the game also, definitely, had a part in it. It was like a drug. He went over the edge with it.”
For most players, video games are nothing more than a harmless hobby. But a small, growing number of gamers are finding themselves unable to control the compulsion – forsaking their jobs, education and relationships for the fantastical life they’ve built inside the game.
Extreme cases, like the suicide of Shawn Woolley, are rare. However, in professional circles, many experts are treating video game addiction as a legitimate medical concern.
ADDICTED TO GAMING?
Nearly 90 percent of children in the United States play video games and, according to the American Medical Association on Science and Public Health, as many as 15 percent of them — more than 5 million kids — may be addicted.
Last year, the American Medical Association even considered classifying video game addiction as a condition tantamount to drug and alcohol dependency. It opted later to encourage more research on the subject.
Paul Gallant, a board certified interventionist and former clinical outreach coordinator of Sierra Tucson, an addiction treatment center, says that for some, dependency on video games can absolutely be considered an addiction.
“It’s what I call a process addiction. This is a behavior that causes a change in the brain chemistry,” Gallant says. “There’s not an introduction of a chemical into the bloodstream, such as alcohol, cocaine or heroin, but the high is neurochemical. It’s a high that’s connected with a behavior. It’s very similar to gambling addiction.”
Between eight and nine percent of “youth gamers” in the United States could be “classified as pathological or clinically ‘addicted’ to playing video games,” according to an April 2007 Harris Interactive poll. A 2005 survey by the Entertainment Software Association found that “video game overuse” was more common in Internet-based “massive multiplayer online role playing games,” such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest.
These online fantasy games unfold in real time, with about 30 million players interacting worldwide in the fantasy realm. The games have no ending, a factor that could contribute to their addictive potential.
Still, some players and game designers say classifying game addiction as a “mental illness” is a bit absurd.
Scottsdale resident Matt McCurdy, 20, is an avid gamer who plays nearly every night. One time, he says, he played for nearly 16 hours straight.
McCurdy claims that gaming is not an addiction.
“It’s more of a consistent hobby. Work is boring. My life’s not all that interesting. But you can play games and pretend to be someone else. It’s an escape – saving the world is pretty cool – fighting aliens and killing bad guys,” he says.
Still, Gallant has seen an approximate 20-percent increase in calls each year from desperate family members and gaming junkies who find themselves neglecting their loved ones, skipping school, even losing their jobs due to their preoccupation with video games.
“With the fantasy games, it’s a whole other ongoing life that quite honestly can become much more interesting than a regular life,” Gallant says. “Everything in the addict’s life becomes secondary. And most damaged, usually, is their relationships.”
Mary Flasch knew her boyfriend was a “gamer” when they moved into an Ahwatukee condo together in 2001.
Early in the relationship, Mary recalls hanging out at his house, reading a book, while he played the latest fighting game on Nintendo 64.
“It didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” says Flasch, now 27. “It was just a game.”
Things quickly changed when he landed a computer job at Intel and was introduced to the fantasy world of EverQuest, a popular game with his new co-workers.
“Eventually, he started getting deeper and deeper into it and forming friendships with other players,” says Flasch. “He started talking about the ‘guild quests,’ and after awhile that was the only thing he would talk about.”
Soon he was playing more than six hours a day and sleeping only an hour or two a night. He was ultimately laid off from his job.
“We were racking up debt; we had to pay the mortgage on the credit card. He didn’t care,” she says. “Nothing mattered but the game.”
Flasch recalls thinking at the time that it just didn’t seem possible that her relationship was falling apart over a video game, but after talking to her friends about the problem, she heard some alarmingly similar stories.
Five friends from Intel were dealing with a partner who they felt was addicted to EverQuest, including one man whose wife got so consumed with it, she left her husband for someone she met online while playing the game.
“I thought, ‘If this is happening to them, then everything that was happening with my ex is making sense,’” she says. “It really woke me up that this isn’t some stupid game.”
The final straw for Flasch came when he turned down a new job because he “didn’t want to spend that much time away from the game.”
She decided it was time to log off of their four-and-a-half-year relationship for good. Before kicking him out, she cancelled the EverQuest subscription and donated their computer to Goodwill.
Flasch and others in her situation have begun referring to themselves as “game widows”— believing they’ve suffered a sort of digital death as their loved ones became consumed with game play.
“I literally felt like a widow. I felt like I lost my husband. I felt like I was in it by myself,” says Sherry Myrow, of Toronto, Canada.
Shortly after the couple was married, Myrow’s husband became obsessed with playing World of Warcraft. At the height of her husband’s game play, Myrow was sleeping and eating meals by herself, reminiscing about the “good times” they had had together.
In June of 2005, angry and frustrated with her husband’s game obsession, she created the Web site GamerWidows.com as a way of venting her frustration. Today, the site has more than 2,000 members with similar stories.
For Myrow, the Web site helped her husband to see how destructive addictive game play can be, prompting him to eventually quit playing altogether. She hopes the site will have the same effect for others living with a gaming junkie.
“There are a lot of people out there with that same problem. Most people feel like they’re in this alone,” she says. “But the world’s finally taking notice.”
The video-game industry is currently the fastest growing entertainment sector in the United States, outpacing both movies and music in terms of growth. In 2007, annual video-game sales increased more than 28 percent to more than $18 billion.
And as the popularity of video games has continued to rise, well-publicized tragedies linked to game obsession have become more common.
In South Korea, Lee Seung Seop, a 28-year-old industrial boiler repairman, died after playing the game Star Craft for 50 consecutive hours at an Internet café.
His death on August 3, 2005, was attributed to exhaustion and dehydration from the marathon session, which doctors said ultimately led to heart failure.
On July 15, 2007, 13-year-old Jahmir Ricks stabbed his 16-year-old brother, Antwan, to death with a steak knife after he refused to turn over a video game controller.
The brawl, which began over a sports game, ended with puncture wounds to the heart and lung of the older brother. Ricks, who lives outside of Philadelphia, was prosecuted as an adult and charged with first-degree murder.
In Phoenix, Eric Natzel was recently convicted of two counts of child abuse after his two-year-old daughter Abigail Minor was found stuffed into a toy box where she suffocated to death. Natzel admitted to leaving her there while he played a video game.
Natzel told police his daughter disturbed him at about 4:30 p.m. on August 26, 2005, while he was immersed in the video game Metroids. He said he had sent Abigail to her room only to discover her 30 minutes later face down inside of the toy box with its domed lid shut.
Natzel, who was dubbed the “toy-box killer” by some of the local media, faces up to 17 years in prison.
Considering that an estimated 40 percent of U.S. households own a video-game console, extreme cases like these are unarguably rare. Most players play responsibly, says Vince Desi, CEO of Running with Scissors, a game-development company based in Tucson responsible for creating the violent and popular gaming series Postal.
“I think that video games, like anything, could be addictive depending on the individual. Some people can excel academically in school because they are addicted to homework,” he says. “Are games addictive, in and of themselves? No, because a video game by itself, on its own, isn’t demanding of any physical or chemical dependence.”
HOBBY OR OBSESSION?
Phoenix resident R.J. Anderson is a 21-year-old college student who works a part-time job at a Scottsdale health club. But in the fantasy realm of World of Warcraft, he fights sorcerers and demons as a level-60, blood elf paladin.
A gamer since he was a child, Anderson plays World of Warcraft for about two hours each night and has spent the equivalent of approximately 1,200 hours, or the equivalent of 50 days, developing one particular character over the course of the year-and-a-half he’s been playing.
But that’s nothing in the World of Warcraft universe.
“I’ve seen people with like 150 days played,” he says, “which means they’ve basically played World of Warcraft for a half a year, just on one character. They might have more.”
Anderson does not consider his game play an addiction, choosing instead to consider it prep work for his aspiration to become a game designer in a future career.
“Some people might read or watch their favorite TV show. I play a video game,” he says. “Some people take it very seriously. I have other priorities like school that I have to worry about.”
Like any addiction, however, video-game addicts typically start out playing for fun, but over time become consumed with playing and preoccupied with the next session, says Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-founder of Internet/Computer Addiction Services.
Gaming crosses the line from hobby to addiction, she says, when negative consequences result, including a loss of a job, flunking out of school or ignoring friends and family.
“The consequences are identical to those of being an alcoholic or a drug addict,” she says. “There really isn’t that much of a difference except you’re not destroying your body in quite the same way.”
Over time, obsessive behavior can actually cause a change in the brain’s chemistry, she says, adding that typically this condition is most likely to affect people who are struggling with other problems, like depression and anxiety.
“And then kids who are bored, lonely and not really connected to family and friends or not having an interesting life,” she says. “That very much predisposes kids to turn to video games.”
VIDEO GAMERS ANONYMOUS
After her son killed himself in 2001, Liz Woolley was devastated, and left with more questions than answers.
There was no suicide note found in Shawn Woolley’s apartment, but next to the computer on a pad of paper were a few scribbled names and terms relating to the game EverQuest.
To learn what could have happened in the game prior to Shawn’s suicide, Woolley contacted Sony Online Entertainment, the EverQuest manufacturer, and was given access to Shawn’s online history.
The computer log showed he played the game almost constantly from Nov. 11 until Nov. 20, the day police believe he shot himself.
Among the computer history was evidence of an online relationship which ended in late October, around the time police records indicate he had purchased the gun.
It was one of a handful of clues leading Woolley to the theory that Shawn may have been spurned by an online love.
“I believe something happened in the game where he decided to kill himself,” Woolley says. “I found a character he had made that very last day he was on the game, and it was called ‘ILUVYOU.’ It was really sad. He had made it in the image of himself.”
A year after Shawn’s death, Liz founded the organization she calls Online Gamers Anonymous along with a Web site designed to help others addicted to online gaming. Her hope is to bring some purpose to her son’s death while helping others who may be battling game addiction.
Since establishing the site, she says she has been overwhelmed by the number of people facing game addiction and how closely their stories parallel Shawn’s.
“A lot of people have been very affected by these games. It can be very devastating, and I think letting them know they are not alone has helped them in their struggle,” she says. “These games are nothing but a bunch of little pixels on a computer screen. They are supposed to be for entertainment. But they are a whole lot more.”
Online Gamers Anonymous: www.olganonboard.org
Gallant and Associates Interventions: www.paulgallant.com
Internet/Computer Addiction Services: www.icaservices.com