Addicted to games? That isn't just trouble for your social life — it could be bad news for your health, too.
Kids playing games (Getty Images)The sad story of gamer Chris Staniforth, who collapsed and died earlier this year shortly after concluding a lengthy Xbox session, has thrust the issue of game addiction back into the spotlight.
An autopsy found a blood clot had formed in his leg and moved to his lungs, causing a fatal pulmonary embolism. The condition -- known as "deep vein thrombosis" -- is more commonly associated with long-haul flights. According to the Office of the Surgeon General, at least 100,000 Americans die every year from conditions linked to deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
So just how much of a risk does compulsive gaming pose?
As it turns out, a pretty substantial one. While video game sales are in a bit of a slump, there's no evidence gamers are actually playing them less. Electronic games are a fixture in two-thirds of American homes, and research indicates as many as 8% of American kids are so addicted to their electronic entertainment that it's causing real-world problems for their personal development. Still, convincing health professionals to take it seriously can be hard -- and finding resources for sufferers and their loved ones can often be harder still.
Tempting though it is to view these problems as new, they're almost as old as online games themselves. Way back in 1994, when internet use was confined to a handful of geeks and academics, Wired magazine reported on a college student ditching class to play a MUD -- one of the text-based, community-run online worlds that were precursors to today's vast, sprawling, massively-multiplayer hits.
It's one of those that's most often associated with stories of gaming gone too far: Blizzard's World of Warcraft, easily the most successful such game of all time. Once played by over 12 million regulars worldwide, Warcraft's subscriber numbers have dipped of late, but it's still well into eight digits. And an increasing number of the game's chronic players are searching for ways to curb their addiction.
Gathering on sites like wowaholics.org to share their stories, many Warcraft addicts have tales that make alarming reading. Broken marriages, foreclosed homes, destroyed careers, dramatic weight gain (and dangerous weight loss), even suicides; it could be enough to put you off video games for life.
"I've always done well at school, been very close to family, had a good social life, worked on the weekends for my parents' business and enjoyed many activities," writes Wowaholics contributor Erika. "However, during my addiction, I hated, truly hated, going out with family during my 'WoW time.' I never organised anything with my friends, I sulked about having to work during the weekends, I dropped all my interests... just because of WoW. I became withdrawn, irritable and lifeless."
But is this level of compulsive gaming really a clinical disorder, in the same way as compulsive gambling or chemical addictions? Not according to the American Medical Association, which in 2007 declined to include the condition in its upcoming revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the biblical volume used by medical professionals to categorize, diagnose, and treat psychiatric problems. While expressing concern about the problem, the AMA said it required more research before gaming could be classified as a formal addiction.
That's not going to come as much comfort to sufferers -- and it hasn't stopped a rash of practitioners from setting up clinics dedicated to treating compulsive gamers. Centers have opened in China, South Korea, Amsterdam and even the U.S. Based in Fall City, Washington, the reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program offers a 45-day residential rehab and therapy package aimed at game addicts. Boasting a reported price-tag of around $15,000, the program is hardly cheap, but it might be worthwhile for the seriously afflicted.
It's bound to be a growth industry. Sure, Warcraft's popularity is finally on the wane, but creator Blizzard is unlikely to be worried. The company's hard at work finishing up Diablo III, the long-awaited sequel to the fast-paced role-playing game that had a serious reputation for addictiveness in its day.
Meanwhile, Blizzard's next project, another online RPG bearing the codename "Titan," is rumored to be even more approachable and friendly for the casual gamer than Warcraft ever was. That bodes well for the company, but could spell trouble for those already struggling with addiction.
Concerned your game playing habits could be affecting your health? Try these tips:
-- Get up and move around. Just a few minutes spent walking can stimulate blood flow to the legs, reducing the chances of a clot forming, and you don't even need to put down the controller.
-- Take breaks. Most game and console makers recommend taking a 10-15 minute break every hour, which'll reduce your risk of developing repetitive strain injuries, eye problems, fatigue, and skin irritation.
-- Hydrate. Drink plenty of water, but avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol. Dehydration raises your risk of blood clots.
-- Feet up. Try sitting with your legs elevated, propped on a footstool or similar support. This may help increase blood circulation to your lower extremities.
-- Pay attention. If you notice extreme soreness in your hands, arms, wrists, or eyes during or after playing, stop playing and seek medical attention.
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