• Hazelden Renewal Center

Video Gaming: The Next 12-Step Frontier

first person testimony

She’s anxious at work because she worries that her boss will catch her playing solitaire again.

He’s up at 2 a.m. completing a task in the epic multiplayer game while his wife sleeps.

She’s distracted watching her kids at the pool because it’s hard to put down the phone.

He’s obsessed with rank and makes appointments for “raids” at family dinner time, causing constant stress.

These are just a few ways in which compulsive multi-player and other computer and cell phone gaming are making people’s lives unmanageable. Is it possible to be powerless over technology in the way that many people find themselves powerless over drugs and alcohol? Our family would answer with a resounding, “yes.”

My spouse and I were a case of “boy meets girl on AA campus.” Like a lot of people in recovery in our generation, we met in the rooms, fell in love, and I’m happy to report that 30 years later we’re still going strong. With 37 and 35 years of recovery respectively, our journey as partners and parents has been grounded in the principles of the program.

I admit that I always worried that the genetic odds might be stacked against our kids. While they didn’t face the violence and dysfunction of my childhood, there is no battling whatever physiological odds they face, and some part of me was, and is, prepared that they may encounter substance abuse problems. But I never thought it would come in the form of technology.

I was really interested in enrichment for my children. Toddler music class, play dates, and many other activities were part of our routine. As a young mom, I was excited by the computer. I had started my career in what was then called the “information industry,” and software and hardware were in a constant state of innovation and change. I remember when I first encountered “Living Books,” a Broderbund software product that turned childhood classics by authors like Marc Brown, Kevin Henke, and the Berenstains into fun, interactive learning experiences for preschoolers and kindergartners. I was amazed how quickly the kids learned how to use a mouse, and for the limited times they played these wonderful classic book-based games.

As the kids got older, and I think of their generation as the tech guinea pig generation, more complex, and more violent, games emerged. We would not allow a gaming system in the house; we had incredible limits on computer use and no screens in the bedroom. Handhelds were restricted to trips. My husband and I listened to what experts said about the downside of too much screen time, and there was no TV on school nights – Sunday through Thursday. What at first seemed like such a great thing needed a great deal of management.

You would think with all these rules and controls, we would have triumphed. However, one of our children was particularly tech savvy and also became tech obsessed. From the time he was an adolescent, our son found solace in the computer. Caught in a world made of pixels in which he could become a master, he dove deeper into the unreality of the games, a place where people didn’t pick on him and where he was in total control of his narrative. When he was playing games like Age of Empires, which were solo, things seemed controllable. But when the massively multi-player online role playing games (MMORPGs) emerged, things got much worse.

Friendships fell by the wayside. Other interests, like music, scouting, and more, were far less desirable. The solitude of the gaming world, and the status he was able to achieve gave him a sense of belonging and triumph. But in fact, the more he excelled at the games, the smaller his life got.

The more he obsessed with gaming, the more we tried to control everything. Every imaginable restriction was used, including confiscating power cords. The conflict escalated, as did the lying and belligerence. With trepidation, we sent him off to college. We were already hearing through the grapevine about youth who went down the rabbit hole of obsessive gaming once parental restrictions were gone.

And that’s what happened to our son. He was out of college by sophomore year. He moved home, and seemed paralyzed in moving forward in his life. His hygiene and self-care deteriorated. He misused his ADD meds to become more acute when he gamed. As my worry escalated and I felt more out of control, I became more shrewish and pleading.

Thank God for Al-Anon. During the worst of the gaming, friends would comment about how wonderful and smart our son was; how come he didn’t just stop? As he lied to family, his aunt and grandmother expressed their frustration; what’s wrong with him?

My husband and I had no question about what was wrong. Our son was as obsessed and powerless as any other addict. His substance was different, but it was clear that he was completely addicted to these games, that he was powerless, and his life was totally unmanageable. I know, we aren’t supposed to take another person’s inventory; just consider that observation my humble but deadly accurate opinion.

It was awful. There were no resources. There was no program, except for online meetings of a small group of folks around the country. The one treatment facility I could find, reStart, had a waiting list and was way beyond our reach financially. People would say, “at least he’s not a drug addict,” and I would secretly think, “But if he were, at least I would know what to do to help him.”

I joined the parent’s boards on Olganon.com (Online Gamer’s Anonymous). I told a therapist in our area who was trying to work on this issue that I was available to support parents, and I kept going to Al-Anon. We took our son to a therapist, but he was not willing to talk, and not much ground was gained. He was hospitalized for depression. It seemed like nothing would move him forward.

Someone once said to me that coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous. Just as our son was on the brink of homelessness, I got a call from a guy who wanted to start a face-to-face OLGA meeting. Would I be willing to start the Olganon meeting? My husband and I were an instant yes. We hoped our son would be too, but we knew that we were willing to do our part.

Just as our son was hitting a bottom, I was able to find a group focused on anxiety and depression that was intensive outpatient. Both are by-products of the brain syndrome that the rush of gaming produced. We started meeting, and because there is no 12-Step literature as yet, we used the modified literature available from the olganon.com website.

There are two books we have read and reflected on at our meeting that have helped us over the past months to better understand gaming. One is Hooked on Games by Andrew Doan, and the other is Cyber Junkie by Kevin Roberts. Both explain the complexities of the brain chemistry that gaming, particularly MMPORGs, generate. The gamers in our group have found an opening to identifying with each other as they’ve read about the dopamine surges, the irritability, isolation and more that make this addiction so difficult. The loved ones of the gamers have grown in compassion. While the DSM-V does not include “Internet Gaming Disorder” as yet, we believe it will, and once that happens, perhaps there will be more treatment and safe places to go through withdrawal (yes, I saw it) and learn how to remain abstinent in a technology soaked world.

A few more people have found us. Some stayed, some popped in once. Some parents have come by, hugely relieved that they are not the only ones dealing with the devastation of excessive gaming. We’re all doing it one-day-at a time, facing the challenge of recovery together, finally, no longer alone.

*There is currently one OLGA and one OLGAnon meeting in MN. It is on Monday at 6:30 at the Cavalier Club in Edina. The groups start together and then split for their individual discussions. More on gaming disorder can be found at olganon.com.


Sheila Hayes is the author’s pen name. Some of the links on this post are affiliate links and we may earn a commission on purchases made through these links – at no cost to you.

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