After an addiction to gaming brought on depression, family problems and a wish to end his life, Cam Adair finally broke free.
Toronto Star, by March 5, 2017
Cam Adair loved video games. Fantasy games full of monsters and dwarves like World of Warcraft. The terrorists, bombs and rifle fire of Counter-Strike 1.6. He was bullied in middle school, and the games gave him the feeling of being in charge.
Alone, he would sit for hours in his bedroom at home in Calgary, immersed in fictional worlds and making online friends who treated him like a king.
And when he played he tuned out everything and everyone around him, including his family.
When Cam was in elementary school, his parents wanted to test how long Cam would game if unchecked, sitting at his desktop computer in the basement. He didn’t eat, he didn’t get up — except to use the bathroom.
It was hard for a parent to do without saying something, his mom recalls. Finally she told Cam to log out. He’d been gaming for 15 hours straight.
Even more astonishing was Cam’s reaction.
Oblivious, he protested: “I just got on.”
Cam Adair is one of a growing number of young people in North America and beyond, particularly boys, who are addicted to video games.
The proportion of Ontario students with symptoms of a video gaming problem in 2015 was 13 per cent, compared to 9 per cent in 2007, according to a health survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. (It defined symptoms as “preoccupation, tolerance, loss of control, withdrawal, escape, disregard for consequences, disruption to family/school.”)
And boys are four times more likely than females to exhibit problem gaming, CAMH says.
Concerns over excessive gaming have been around for decades — remember how addictive Tetris and hand-held Game Boys were in the 1980s?
But today, video games are more immersive, with worlds that feature eye-popping graphics and rapid action, and they can be played with others in real time.And many of these games have no endings. Add to that the affordability and accessibility of desktops and cellphones, and that means young gamers never have to leave that world.
Cam Adair’s family — Carrie, who was mostly a stay-at-home mom, dad Kevin, then an oil company executive, younger brother David and older sister Alyssa — lived a financially comfortable life in a three-storey home that backed onto a ravine. Each of the kids had a computer — assembled by their dad from used hardware — in their bedrooms. The desktops were for homework and research, and occasional video games in their free time.
David and Alyssa logged out whenever their parents asked. Not Cam.
Cam was a bubbly kid, says Carrie. Nicknamed Smiley, he could talk to anyone and was always go, go, go. But he hated school from Grade 1, when he had trouble focusing. He was at times bullied and humiliated: in Grade 8, Grade 9 boys would chase him at lunch and try to dump him in a garbage can.
His mother can’t remember a specific point when his gaming spun out of control. But Cam grew furious whenever his parents asked him to step away from his computer.
Cam remembers his addiction started at age 11. His older cousin was visiting at Christmas. They sipped eggnog and played Starcraft, a futuristic strategy game. Cam loved being immersed in the game, and for months he wanted to play constantly.
Cam, who was also a skilled hockey player — a defenceman on the highest level minor hockey teams — found parallels in gaming: “It was a similar kind of feeling where you’re on the ice during the game, and that’s the only thing you’re thinking about. Gaming was very similar to me in that aspect, and the competitive nature. I got to win, and I really liked that part of it.”
His addiction grew. “Just all of a sudden, it seemed to be a real problem,” says his mom.
Cam never wanted to go out. Alyssa gently tried, and failed, to prod him out of the house, saying, “What’s the big deal? Mom and Dad just want to take us out for pizza.”
His parents’ attempt at setting time limits didn’t succeed, so in Grade 6, they took away his electronics.
Two years later, after not spotting any red flags, they caved. Cam’s computer was returned to his room.
What amount of video game playing is problematic, or “pathological?”
A 2009 study, by Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University, concluded that “pathological gaming can be measured reliably.”
The study explored results from a survey of 1,178 Americans age 8 to 18 and found about 8.5 per cent of players exhibited pathological gamingpatterns. As a comparison, the study used criteria for pathological gambling from professional reference guide Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM), including irritability when cut off, persistent thoughts about the activity, repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop, lying about the amount of use, and loss of job or schooling.
The Canadian Pediatric Society discourages “screen-based activities” — TV, Internet, video games and gaming devices — for children under 2, and suggests a limit of one to two hours a day for older children.
Lisa Pont, a Toronto social worker and therapist with expertise in video game addiction, says she’s not sure how realistic that limit is, and adds it’s not just about how long young people are gaming but when, and its impact.
Pont’s clients are generally male, 16 to 25, and often a parent is first to raise the alarm.
She describes a typical situation. “Usually it’s Mom who is very worried about the amount of time her kid is gaming. She has seen it increase over time. It impacts the child’s sleep, because they’re gaming well into the night. They’re having trouble getting up in the morning, they’re late or missing school, their grades are declining, they’ve failed courses or they’re dropping out.
“There’s also a disengagement from family life. Kids won’t come for dinner, won’t do anything, and they’re not interested in anything. There’s a constant power struggle to get them off technology, so the parents are in conflict with their kids about it — and worried.
The nature of games makes them very hard to give up, Pont says.
“The worlds in these games are so real, the graphics so amazing. The pace of the games is usually quite fast,” she adds. “And the social and competitive component creates a level of immersion that is quite compelling,” so much so that it’s easy to lose track of time and sleep.
By Grade 8, Cam was back gaming and soon fixated on Counter-Strike 1.6. The online game involves multiple players who are “first-person shooters.” Players, who may be in different countries, use headsets to communicate in real time.
Cam played all through his middle and high school years, studying game film and practising for hours with teammates. The social side was huge, and he felt a connection with his online friends who were usually a lot older.
They rarely met face to face. Sometimes they exchanged photos, but Cam usually preferred not to know what they looked like.
By grades 11 and 12 he had hockey practice every morning before school. At lunch there was physical training, and after school he went home to game — from about 4:30 or 5 p.m. until midnight.
“I can’t remember a time I did my homework, ever,” he says. His grades were in the 50s and 60s and he dropped out a few times.
In summer, with no school or hockey, he would binge on video games. He always had to get to the next level of the game, his mom recalls; stopping in the middle meant letting down his online friends.
“A lot of fights happened with my family around housework because my dad would say he needed help with chores, but there was absolutely no way I was doing that and breaking away from the game,” Cam says.
When his parents threatened to or actually did take away his games, Cam would get back at them with “a vengeance,” as he describes it.
“There was so much anger in the house,” Carrie says.
During one of his many horrible tirades, Cam told his parents he’d made plans with an older “friend” he met online who was coming that night to pick him up at the house. The arrangement was for Cam to go to the man’s home, to game endlessly, free from parents.
“Where is this friend from?” Cam’s parents asked him, worried about online predators.
Cam told them it was someone he often gamed with. Carrie can’t recall Cam’s exact age — but young enough that she and Kevin were terrified.
Cam’s father sat on the floor outside his son’s bedroom that entire night, afraid Cam was going to sneak out.
“That was one of our scariest moments as parents,” Carrie says.
No one showed up that night.
Amid the turmoil, Cam continued to do well in hockey. He got into an elite hockey academy in Penticton, B.C., for 18 months until the spring of Grade 12, when he retired, largely due to injuries. He quit school the same year. Now there was no structure to his life.
Cam lived away from home briefly but returned after a bad breakup with a girlfriend. Depressed over the split, he played World of Warcraft non-stop.
His parents told him to find a job. He worked at Walmart a few days, then quit. Two weeks at Booster Juice.
He devised a ruse: he’d pretend to have a job, freeing him to game while his parents worked. He applied to a restaurant as a prep cook, got the job and an apron, but never showed up.
He gamed all night, then showered and dressed when it was time for his dad to drive him to “work” for 6 a.m. His father dropped him at a McDonald’s across the street from the job. When his dad drove away, Cam ate a fast-food breakfast and caught a bus home. He snuck in through his window — “my mom might still be home getting ready for work” — and crawled into bed.
When his mom returned around 3 p.m., Cam woke up. He would say he came home for a nap after his morning shift. All went well until his parents asked where his paycheque was — at which point he told them he quit.
He again faked a job, at an Internet café. When he told his parents he quit there, they were at a loss.
Cam’s video addiction intensified. His father recalls a vicious circle: the more sedentary he remained, the worse his moods. Out of school, out of hockey, and with no girlfriend, Cam’s outlook darkened.
One evening in September 2007 he hit rock bottom. Depressed and gaming non-stop, the 19-year-old sat at his computer and typed a suicide note to his parents, brother and sister, and a few friends. One thing he mentioned was wanting his father to stop being so angry about video games.
Unaware, his mom was upstairs in the kitchen making her much-loved Swiss chard soup for dinner. Cam brought the bowl to his room, sat down, stared at his unsent note on the screen, and sobbed.
Researchers have debated the impact excessive video gaming has on the brain, and whether addiction to gaming is an official psychiatric disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association says experts disagree on the neurological impact of video games. As a result, the DSM calls “Internet gaming disorder” a condition requiring further clinical research before it can be included as a formal disorder in the manual.
A number of studies have consistently shown that individuals addicted to gaming show a “comorbidity” — one or more additional conditions — such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and MDD (major depression).
A 2015 study published in Addiction Biology, which had input from psychiatric experts in South Korea and experts from the Brain Institute at the University of Utah, suggests gaming addicts’ brainsmay indicate a higher likelihood of serious mental health problems.
The report, “Brain connectivity and psychiatric comorbidity in adolescents with Internet gaming disorder,” studied 180 male South Koreans age 10 to 19 — including 106 patients seeking treatment for Internet gaming disorder —and a comparison group with no addiction.
They were interviewed by a child psychiatrist and filled out questionnaires. MRIs were done on the brains of 78 of the gaming addicts and 73 non-addicts.
The addicts’ MRIs showed increased connections between several pairs of regions in their brains, the study noted.
Some connections pointed to positive signs. An example is the connection between the brain’s “novelty detection network” — made up of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula — and regions responsible for rapid motor responses. That suggested a player’s ability to respond quickly to changes in a game.
In another region, increased connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (attention and memory) and temporoparietal junction (knowledge) may improve decision making. But the study says “over-connectivity” of these networks, as noted in the MRIs of the addicts, has been found in other studies of patients with autism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia.
Cam was in his room, contemplating the suicide note he’d written, when the phone rang. In what would be fateful timing, two friends invited him to a movie. The 2007 teen comedy Superbad had just come out, and Cam and his buddies laughed their heads off in the theatre.
Cam says the extreme shift in his mental state — from seriously contemplating suicide for the first time, to laughing hysterically — snapped him out his funk. He realized “holy crap, I’m not in a good state.”
When he got home he told his father about the note. He asked for help to find a counsellor for his gaming problem.
“It was pretty terrifying,” his father recalls.
Cam’s father got him in touch with a Calgary psychologist with whom Cam developed a rapport. “That seemed to be a turning point for Cam,” his father says.
The psychologist told Cam he should either find a job or go on anti-depressants. Avoiding the meds, Cam soon quit gaming, cold turkey.
Cam, who was always good with words, and with people, started a business as a relationship/dating coach and made money.
In September 2009 Cam moved to Victoria, renting a house with two friends, James Lester and Ben Martin. One evening Martin and Cam were talking about Starcraft and Martin suggested they play. Cam said no.
Later that night, Martin slammed the game in front of him.
“Just one game,” Martin said.
“I said ‘OK, fine,’ ” Cam recalls. “We played one game and (Martin) absolutely destroyed me.
“I committed that night to playing as much as possible to the point where he would never be able to do that again.”
The relapse began.
Part of the draw of video games, and what makes them hard to quit, are elements that are used to hook people on gambling games, says Dr. Bruce Ballon, a psychiatrist and expert on problem gaming at CAMH.
“Video games have in-app purchases where you can buy an object in . . . the game where you have a 1-in-1,000 chance of getting a really great superpower,” Ballon says. “But when you don’t get it you still win something, so you keep putting money in. I have many clients who have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on these games getting totally hooked. It’s the same dynamic as if you’re playing on a slot machine.”
Lisa Pont, the Toronto therapist, says some of the tools she uses to break addictions to video games are medications, exercise and cognitive-behavioural therapy, a form of psychotherapy that is structured, short-term, and helps patients develop skills and strategies to face mental health challenges.
Some gamers grow out of their addictions, or can disengage on their own, Pont adds.
Back in the throes of his addiction, Cam was gaming about 16 hours a day. He’d given up his life coach business, and rarely left his Victoria home other than for a bite at Tim Hortons.
His then-roommate James Lester, now 27 and the co-owner of a Vancouver distillery, remembers it was depressing to live with two obsessive gamers, who “enabled each other.”
“Cam and Ben played together on separate computers, and when they weren’t playing they were watching live streams of other people playing video games, which to you and I may sound really weird.
“It sucked for me. I remember on Fridays or Saturdays begging Cam to go out with me. I’d say ‘dude, I’ll buy you a beer, we’ll go downtown. Just get out of the house.’ ”
Ben Martin, 28, now a snowshoe guide in North Vancouver, says he’s not sure he had a gaming addiction, but “I wasn’t interested in anything else.”
Cam’s relapse lasted about five months. During that period, he moved back to Calgary in December 2009, and began to reflect deeply.
He came to see four main things video games provide: temporary escape; social connection; constant measurable growth (new levels, rewards and powers within games); and a challenge/sense of purpose.
He decided that to quit for good, he had to find healthier alternatives to fulfil what he calls the four pillars of needs. He began organizing cliff jumps, barbecues and parties with DJs. For a sense of purpose he bought gear and learned to DJ himself.
As he struggled to understand his addiction, he thought others must have it, too. He Googled “how to quit video games forever.”
Advice online was scarce: experts saying study more and hang out with friends. It seemed trite given that back in school Cam had gamed to avoid studying — and his main friends were online gamers.
So he wrote an article in May 2011. Its title: “How to quit video games forever.”
He wrote about being a hard-core gamer, how it had harmed his life, and he referenced the four pillars. And he urged quitting cold turkey.
“I’m not talking about making this decision like you make other decisions, which you aren’t really serious about. I mean, you seriously have to mean it,” he says in his article.
“If not, you will end up playing them again and again, wasting your days playing some stupid video game, justifying it in a thousand different ways.”
It went viral, and reader comments poured in.
He began a public speaking career, focusing on his experiences. He delivered a TEDx talk in Boulder, Colo., in September 2013 on escaping video game addiction.
Read the complete article at Toronto Star.