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They had a gaming addiction. Then the pandemic happened

Until the moment he relapsed, things were going well for Joe. His vegetarian food stall business was really starting to take off. Despite lockdown, November 2020 had been even busier than the previous year. More importantly, it had been two years and eight months since he last played a video game.

Then, in December 2020, things started to unravel. One of Joe’s colleagues tested positive for Covid-19, shuttering the food stall and sending Joe into self-isolation. At home, worrying about the future of his business, Joe’s mind drifted towards video games. He downloaded Steam, opened up Medieval II: Total War and got as far as the loading screen. At each step he told himself that – as long as he didn’t start playing – he hadn’t relapsed.

“I was powerless over that,” says Joe, who is 35. “I ended up relapsing for two weeks.” Within two days he was playing video games almost constantly, pausing only to sleep for a few hours each day. He stopped eating proper meals and washed only once every three or four days. On phone calls to his girlfriend he would lie about how much he was gaming and try and hurry the conversation along, telling her he was about to go to sleep when he really was playing games until six or seven in the morning. Although he’d been in recovery from drug addiction since he was 31, he stopped attending his Narcotics Anonymous meetings altogether to spend more time bingeing on video games.

Joe’s relapse recalled some of the worst days of his video game addiction. A couple of months after his mother died, he fell into a three-week-long cycle of compulsive gaming. Some days he didn’t eat at all, on others he’d eat a slice or two of a takeaway pizza he’d hastily collect from a delivery driver before running back upstairs. When someone knocked at the front door, he’d worry that his gaming was about to be interrupted. “I was petrified because I didn’t want anyone to come in and ruin my using my computer games,” he says.

As the pandemic has raged out of control, the pressures of social isolation and lockdown are weighing heavily on our mental health. For people who already suffer from problematic gaming, the effects of the pandemic are potentially even worse. “What we have seen is that young people are reporting that they are spending more time gaming,” says Sophia Seltzer-Eade, a clinical psychologist at the National Centre for Gaming Disorders (NCGD), the only NHS clinic that offers support for people with problematic gaming. “Because there is less structure in their day they aren’t going to school, they can’t engage with other activities.”

Since the start of the first lockdown, the NCDG has received 99 referrals for problem gaming – usually from the parents of young people, or from other professionals in health or social care. At Yes We Can Youth Clinics – a specialised treatment clinic in the Netherlands – the percentage of young people reporting problems with gaming or screen time rose from a third just before the pandemic, to almost 50 per cent by November 2020.

These figures only hint at how the pandemic may be affecting people with problematic gaming. Gaming disorder was only added to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in mid-2018 – a decision that was disputed by some researchers who claim it is based on insufficient evidence. The illness is still so poorly documented that we don’t have a good idea of how many people suffer from gaming disorders, although in South Korea the death of several gamers after long binges has focused the government’s attention on treating excessive gaming. In the UK, the NCDG opened its doors in October 2019.

Stuart, aged 33, hasn’t played a video game in three years, but the isolation and boredom of the first lockdown left him searching for ways to “fix [his] feelings”. Living in student accommodation in Belfast, he started watching people livestream games on Twitch until eight or nine in the morning. “I couldn’t put it down. I lost the off switch, I zoned out into it,” he says. Although he didn’t pick up a video game, Stuart could feel the same pull of the addictive cycle that had haunted him for years.“Lockdown is a perfect time to go on a gaming bender. It’s like battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to pass,” Stuart says. “That’s basically what gaming addiction is.”

Stuart managed to break out of his streaming binge, and moved into a new house where he could make a fresh start. “I don’t want to be that guy who is awake all night,” he says. But, while he waits for the world to restart, Stuart has to remind himself why he no longer plays video games. “It’s a subtle addiction because in many ways it would be socially acceptable and mainstream. It’s hard to come out of that psychology that [gaming] is an okay thing and to accept that I have a serious addiction that was killing me.”

For the vast majority of people, playing video games never becomes problematic. Gaming is often a healthy way to combat boredom and social isolation, Seltzer-Eade says. But for a small percentage, the compulsion to game becomes so strong that it begins to interfere with the rest of their lives in a significant way. According to its ICD definition, gaming starts to become a disorder when it has a significant and long-term negative impact on someone’s ability to function in the rest of their life. Their personal relationships collapse, their studies are ignored or they are unable to focus at work.

Joe’s problems with gaming started when he was a teenager. He was bullied at school, but exaggerated the problem so he could spend more time playing video games. One night, he was so exhausted from gaming that he fell asleep on the bathroom floor. “My stepdad had to break the door down because I was unresponsive,” he says. “He thought I was using drugs, which I wasn’t. Well, I was, it was computers.”

When his parents tried to restrict his gaming by taking away his controllers, Joe stole money from his mother to buy a backup. Another time he broke in through the window of his own home to recover gaming equipment. In his twenties, addiction to drugs took over from gaming. Then, when he tried to limit his drug usage, gaming would fill the gap it left behind. Strategy and role-playing games were his favourites. “I couldn’t control everything going on in the real world around me,” Joe says – but, in these games, he could. Read from source….