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Plugged In

The fine line between game enthusiast and addict

Plugged In

Fishville

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Addictive?

David Webb is a core gamer - an enthusiast who has a passion for story-driven role-playing games. He's also a person who knows how completely those games can take over his life. He lost a girlfriend, in part, to excessive playing of World of Warcraft (Buy | Search) and when a compelling single-player game is released, he goes on self-described "bender" sessions - lasting 12 hours or more.

"My solution has been abstinence, to a large degree," says Webb (not his
real name). "I don't generally grant myself a single-player game unless
it's reported to have a short playtime - and multiplayer games have to
be jump-in, jump-out, like a first person shooter. On rare occasion I'll
buy an role-playing game, but then it's pizza boxes and soda bottles
until I finish. I genuinely feel like an alcoholic with it."

For some video game enthusiasts, finding a way to keep their hobbies from
overtaking other aspects of their lives isn't an easy thing to
accomplish. And the reasons, according to one doctor, have nothing to do
with a lack of impulse control.

"There's a neurochemistry - whether you're gambling, gaming or taking drugs -
that is all the same," says Dr. Hilarie Cash, partner and executive
director of the reSTART Internet Addiction Recover Program. "It has to
do with the elevation of dopamine and other neural chemicals that your
body makes. When it overproduces that for too long, the body makes
adjustments - which we call tolerance. ... And when you're not engaged in
that stimulating behavior or ingestion of those chemicals, the body goes
into withdrawal."

The best way to avoid full-blown addiction of any sort is by limiting your
exposure to those neurochemicals. For video games, that means limiting
playtime to 2-4 hours a day is best - and avoid playing seven days a
week.

If you're unsure about whether you're taking things too far, a good
barometer is to look at how balanced your life is. Adequate sleep,
nutrition and exercise are regularly ignored when gaming becomes more
than a fun diversion.

Social interactions are also a key barometer. Are you meeting all of your
school or work responsibilities? Are you maintaining your real-world
friendships and relationships? Or are you letting one or both slide as
you work to level up?

There is, importantly, a difference between real world social circles and online ones, notes Cash.

"We're social animals - and for our physiological, as well as psychological,
well being, we require something called limbic resonance," she says.
"This is the stimulation of the limbic part of the brain when two people
have a relationship. ... The trouble is limbic resonance only seems to
happen effectively when we're face to face - when we can see and hear
and touch each other. ... When people go online to try to meet their
social needs, it's analogous to being a hungry person who eats sugar.
They will, in the end, starve."

For family members who feel a loved one is spending too much time with a
game, it's a difficult situation to be in. Unless the player recognizes
or suspects he or she might be escaping too much into the fantasy world,
broaching the topic may not be well received.

Determining the line between enthusiasm and addiction can be difficult, but if
you're convinced your loved one is addicted - and refuses to acknowledge
it - Cash says that may force you to take some difficult actions.

"You start by speaking the truth," she says. "But sometimes with an
addiction, you have to have a tough love approach and be willing to do
that. It can take something like [physically breaking the game or
kicking the player out of the house] to break through the denial
system."

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