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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.
For Lauren, aged 21, gaming started as a way to cope with the emotional turmoil she experienced as a teenager. In her mid-teens, she was coming to terms with her gender identity and sexuality, and games offered an escape from the bigotry she faced from some family members. “When I was gaming everything didn’t matter. I could speak to friends online, I could be whoever I wanted online. Everything was what I made it,” she says.
By the time she turned 18, Lauren was gaming all the time. “There was no point in the day that I wasn’t gaming if it wasn’t absolutely necessary,” she says. Soon she had dropped out of school, stopped leaving her home and the only in-person social connections she had were with her father and stepmother. Around the same time gaming stopped being fun. “More and more I just felt bored and exhausted with gaming, but then it was the only thing that I could do and the only thing that I had,” she says. Over this time Lauren estimates she spent between £3,000 and £5,000 on League of Legends alone.
During lockdown, Lauren started changing her relationship with gaming. She met a friend through an online game and they introduced her to Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous (CGAA), a mostly-online support group where volunteer members help each other recover from compulsive gaming. When she went to her first CGAA meeting on Zoom, chaired by someone in recovery from video game addiction, she could relate to most of what the other members were describing. After attending a few group Zoom meetings, Lauren acknowledged that she had a problem with gaming. A few sessions later she committed to reducing her gaming sessions to three hours a day. “And then I did something completely wild. I just didn’t game in general. Full stop. I haven’t gamed since then,” she says.
Lauren hasn’t touched a video game since early January. Instead, she’s introduced some routine into her life. She attends daily CGAA meetings and goes for a walk afterwards. She’s started going downstairs and cooking meals with her family, rather than spending most of her time in her room. She is also thinking about volunteering at an animal charity. “Since I’ve stopped gaming I’ve had so much more clarity as a person,” she says. “I’ve been able to see how bad gaming was.”
Lauren isn’t sure whether she will leave video games behind altogether. “I would perhaps like to have a future with gaming, but ultimately that doesn’t really matter right now because my recovery is infinitely important,” she says. At the National Clinic for Gaming Disorders (NCGD), too, the aim isn’t necessarily to get people to stop gaming altogether, but to help them manage their gaming so it no longer rules their lives. For Seltzer-Eade and the other psychologists at the NCGD, lockdown has had another unintended consequence: it’s made it easier for people to access their help. The clinic is based in west London, but since the start of the pandemic all of its sessions have been run online. “Being more accessible means that someone that couldn’t have come to the clinic in January last year can now just hop on Zoom,” says Georgi Luck, an assistant psychologist at the clinic.
Joe pulled himself out of his gaming binge on New Year’s Day. He deleted his Championship Manager save file and got on the phone to another CGAA member. Because of lockdown, he hadn’t been very active in the group, but now he’s having daily calls. Eventually, he hopes to sponsor another member of the group and help them work through their addiction.
If not for his relapse, next month would have marked three years since Joe last played a video game, but he doesn’t see this as a failure in his recovery. “That doesn’t matter. I’d rather be more steadfast in my recovery than have three years of a lesser recovery,” he says. “I think I’m stronger now than I was previously.” It’s also helped him reflect on why he felt a compulsion to play video games in the first place. “The reason I used it was fear. Fear of this, fear of that. Fear of not being enough, fear of what other people would think.”
Now Joe is looking forward to the future. Although compulsive gaming has derailed his life at points, he knows it doesn’t have to control his future. When lockdown lifts, he’s thinking about easing up on the long days he spends working on the food stall. “Everything has changed,” he says. “I’m now excited about life.”
Some names have been changed
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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