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The most dangerous game?

With a less-than-spectacular summer upon us, some Berliners may be choosing to stay indoors. But some never intended to go out. For true gamers, the world outside is connected to the one on-screen. But is hardcore gaming a hobby or addiction?

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Photo by Jason Harrell

When does a hobby become an addiction? For video and computer gamers, the line isn’t so easy to draw.

“I would spend all night dungeon crawling,” says 28-year-old Berliner Jonas. “Sleep didn’t matter to me, only the game. When I was away from it, my temper tantrums would get so bad that once, I considered suicide, I was that unhappy. Yet if I was able to play, a mere five minutes later I would feel perfectly fine again.”

Even in their most elemental form – Pong, Donkey Kong, Super Mario – video games can get you hooked. But as technology has improved, what was once confined to arcade consoles now comprises entire fictional universes, complete with social networks and economies. It’s easy to spend hours, days or weeks getting lost in those worlds. But are the people who do so really equivalent to alcoholics or heroin users? Increasingly, specialists seem to think so.

Chantal Mörsen is the chair of a research group at Charité Hospital which focuses on behavioural addictions, gaming in particular. She states that her research has revealed that video game addictions can be as powerful as any. “The brain mechanisms of substance and behavioural addictions are actually the same,” she says. “The same neurological systems are activated and the reward system releases dopamine, giving you the drive to keep reaching your goal, a drive that can be nearly as strong as any substance addiction. Although the addict can’t experience strong physical withdrawal, behavioural withdrawal
 is very present, including symptoms such as nervousness, extreme irritation, impatience and depression.”

Aside from her research, Mörsen is presently counselling 20 Berliners who are addicted to gaming – primarily massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft. “MMORPGs are extremely addictive for three main reasons,” she says. “For one, your reward mechanisms are constantly triggered because these games offer a low-risk, high-reward environment to play in. The social aspect allows people to obtain a social factor that they are missing from their life, and these games also offer a highly immersive escape aspect that allows the player to avoid their reality.”

Fun and games

Walking into Meltdown, a bar in Neukölln solely devoted to eSports, it’s easy for even a gaming newbie to get drawn in. Over the sounds of beer glasses clinking, gamers sit at desktop computers situated off to the side, effortlessly tapping away at the keyboard, looking calm, almost hypnotised, as they battle opponents playing live from Meltdown London. They’re playing DotA (Defense of the Ancients), a spinoff of Warcraft in which players kill each other to earn points and gold. Others watch the competition on large television screens.

“You have to be pretty good to play here,” says Meltdown regular Alex. “It obviously requires a great deal of practice at home to get to this level, hundreds of hours of playing time.” All that playing can also lead to serious cash. While the stakes at Meltdown are fairly low – cash prizes for tournaments rarely exceed €50 – truly talented gamers can compete in international playoffs like the DotA competition held annually in Seattle, where the winning team receives $5 million.

But money isn’t gaming’s only important reward. “Gaming offers an accepting community of friends to anyone who is looking,” says Alex. “MMORPGs especially make it so that gamers can easily communicate and make new friends.”

Among the young men who make up the greater part of Berlin’s tech scene, gaming serves both as a social glue and a way to cope with job stress. Daniel*, a 27-year-old native Berliner, start-up entrepreneur and computer engineering student, has been a keen gamer since he received his first computer in 1993. Now, he plays between 20 and 50 hours a week, usually Minecraft, often starting off playing with his housemate but continuing after he has gone to bed.

 give you a feeling that can’t compare to anything else. You get this light feeling in your chest and good vibes that spread through your body.” Even after spending a 14-hour workday in front of the computer, he still plays. “I use the game to forget about my life and to de-stress before heading off to bed. For some reason working with my team members to beat the other team makes me feel better at the end of the day.” Daniel is an avid player, but is he an addict? Mörsen would say no. “Video game addictions are characterised by the inability to control the amount of time played, decreased interest in socialising and neglecting important obligations.”

When the game plays you

What remains a relaxing if time-consuming passion for some can turn into an out-of-control habit for others. “For me, gaming started as an after-school activity to do with my brother when I was a teenager,” says Jonas, “It all changed when the first expansion set of World of Warcraft was released in 2007. It was a super big deal to the gaming community.” Adding new environments and characters to the original game, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade sold nearly 1.6 million copies in Europe in its first month of release alone.

“The world was undeniably addictive. It gave me a sense of exploration, a sense of accomplishment. All of my problems, all of my obligations, all of my responsibilities, they just faded away.” He had started his Abitur late, and the age difference between him and his peers meant he had few friends outside of the game. “It gave me a sense of community, where nothing in reality could compare.”

According to Mörsen, young men in “protected, safe” environments are most at risk for gaming addiction. During summer vacation, living at home with no job to go to, Jonas says, “I would wake up at 4pm and game until 5am. I barely went to see friends anymore. I started to feel incredibly guilty, like a failure.”

Stepping away from the game only led to more guilt. “These gaming societies are a major aspect of what holds you in. When I wasn’t in the game, I felt as if I was letting down hundreds of friends!” The personal responsibility to other gamers along with his feelings of worthlessness among his schoolmates kept Jonas gaming until 2010. After starting university at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, he made a conscious decision to kick the habit and truly focus on the life ahead of him.

Game over

I would wake up at 4pm and game until 5am. When I wasn’t in the game, I felt as if I was letting down hundreds of friends!

While Jonas was able to cut himself off from gaming on his own, others don’t find it so easy to stop. Jannis Wlachojiannis is the head project coordinator at the Lost 
in Space Rehab Center
in Kreuzberg. Originally
 established as a counsel
ling centre for gambling 
addicts, Lost in Space 
expanded to include computer and video games in
 2006; they now have nearly 
500 gaming clients, up 
from the original 40. Half 
of these are relatives of
 addicts who have come to 
receive advice on helping 
loved ones recognise and
 address their gaming problem.

“For some of my clients, the addiction is so strong that many experience withdrawal symptoms,” says Wlachojiannis. “I had one client in his mid-twenties who, whenever his mother would disconnect the internet, was subject to intense rage.” Another client, Wlachojiannis explains, went two years ‘sober’, entering into a steady relationship which helped to keep his mind off it all. “When he and his girlfriend broke up, though, he immediately relapsed.”

Wlachojiannis’ rehab programme uses what he calls a “traffic light” method. “The idea is to identify which situations or things are subject to influence addicts to start gaming – these things we put in a ‘red zone’. ‘Yellow zone’ items might trigger the need to play, so caution is necessary. ‘Green zone’ components would be something completely unrelated to gaming, like drinking a cup of tea in the sun. I encourage my clients to only partake in behaviours from the yellow and green zones. The best way to cut a video game addiction is to just stop cold turkey.”

His clients receive individual counselling sessions along with anonymous group meetings where they discuss their progress and later move onto something more social, such as playing Frisbee in the park. Yet, even with a well organised rehab program, Wlachojiannis admits that 60-70 percent of his clients are still likely to return. For her part, Mörsen admits to very high relapse rates in the beginning of her treatments, dropping to 25 percent after a full year of therapy.

While some of Mörsen’s Charité colleagues, such as Andreas Heinz remain sceptical that gaming (and other behavioural addictions) can be classed along with alcoholism and drug dependence, video and computer game addiction is being taken more and more seriously. “Although some studies are still lacking, it seems that the WHO will most likely give video game addiction a legitimate classification in the next year,” states Dr. Mörsen. Daniel, on the other hand, hopes that the public can come to a better understanding of video games before demonising them.

“Yes, video games are powerful, they are a substantial thing that negatively affect people at large. I hope society doesn’t take these people’s problems for granted. But I also hope they can understand that video games are a way for people to enjoy themselves, even if they do decide to play for 40 hours a week. As with everything in life, a healthy balance is all that is needed.”

Originally published in issue #138, May 2015.