As I See It: Game On
August 10, 2015 Victor Rozek
His days are spent in a small room, eyes fixated straight ahead. His appearance is neglectful, and he often forgets to take sustenance. An observant visitor might notice a peculiar thickness around his slender waist. He wears a diaper. He endures this indignity not because he is elderly or disabled, but because he cannot bear to tear himself away from the screen on which endless battles rage.
Chinese authorities estimate there are another 24 million like him, a generation of gamers addicted to the action-life depicted in violent virtual worlds. Marathon sessions are common. Serious gamers routinely play for 20, 30, even 40 hours at one sitting. Month-long binge playing, interrupted only by short naps, is less common but not unheard of. At any hour of the day or night, millions of addicts battle each other in cyberspace, fighting their way through castle mazes and cities reduced to rubble. They stay high on heroics, while risking nothing more immediately threatening than their parents’ disapproval.
Parents, however, report being helpless against the siren call of gaming software. And in a culture dominated by government dictates, authorities have fashioned a tough-love, we’ll-show-’em-whose-in-charge solution. Across China more than 400 Boot-Camp-style centers have been established to treat Internet addiction. It is an attempt to reclaim what the Chinese fear has the potential of becoming a lost generation.
China is the first country to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. Officially, it is considered the number one health threat to the nation’s youth. According to the New York Times, as early as 2007 the Chinese government was “taking steps to stem Internet addictions by banning new Internet cafÃ©s and mulling restrictions on violent computer games.” Since then, the camps have grown to be the most popular and “effective” form of direct intervention.
As with all addictions, however, the first challenge is for the addict to admit there’s a problem. Teenagers, of course, are resistant to that proposition, often violently so. The Telegraph reports that 58 percent of the teens in treatment have attacked their parents for attempting to limit their access to computers.
Lacking cooperation from their children, parents often trick their kids into treatment. Family “vacations” turn into a three-to-six month internment. The teen enters a cold-turkey world void of electronic devices or contact with the outside. It is a world run by ex-military officers (the stick) and psychologists (the carrot) who alternate dosing the kids with discipline and sympathy. Some 90 percent of the “patients” are reported to be suffering from severe depression, although whether the source of that depression is gaming or forced incarceration is not clear. “They are very arrogant when they arrive but in bad physical shape,” explains a former soldier described by The Telegraph as a behavior instructor. “They fall apart when they have to run or do push-ups. This puts them in their place.”
Indeed, breaking the kids down in order to build them up seems to be central to the therapeutic strategy. But the slender, stoop-shouldered, myopic children who spend their days inhabiting muscle-free worlds don’t take well to calisthenics. A PBS documentary reports that after several weeks of forced physical activity (dressed in quasi-military camo gear), one enterprising young man led an escape. Seven boys scaled the wall and disappeared. They were found six hours later in an Internet cafe. Incredibly, the punishment for the leader was 10 days in solitary. After his ordeal he was interviewed by a psychologist who asked him what he had learned. The kid refused to blink. “I learned how to escape.” he said.
The physical training is augmented by political and social indoctrination. The kids are made to sing patriotic songs and repeat bromides about the importance of education and scholastic success. The emphasis on returning to compliant citizenship is problematic since, as one administrator admitted, “The main cause of Internet addiction is that parents’ expectations for their children are too high.”
Teens who may not excel scholastically escape from the pressure and find renewed self-worth on the Internet. “My grades are so-so, but I can play games better than others,” one young man proudly admitted. “At home I feel I don’t exist. Neither of [my parents] care about me. On the Internet I have friends who care about me.”
Indeed, for many, the Internet becomes their best friend. It’s the only place they experience achievement, belonging, and heroism in daily life. For kids, the Internet is not the problem, it’s the solution. As one young man responded when admonished for his break with reality: “Reality is too fake.”
The lines between reality and fiction have blurred to such a degree that in 2005 one gamer stabbed and killed another for stealing his cyber sword. “Some addicts drop out of school, some mug people for money, steal and sell their families’ things to keep playing games. Some end up killing themselves because they feel life has no point,” explains the center’s director.
Since the problem is systemic, psychologists work with entire families in an attempt to resolve conflicts and ease tensions at home. But, if the PBS documentary is any indication, there is no skills transfer. Other than taking an enforced break from technology, and participating in encounter-group style sessions, with the exception of discipline, no one is provided the skills necessary for re-entry.
Which may be why the center’s threshold for success is set exceedingly low: six hours or less of Internet activity per day. More than one-third of an average person’s waking hours. If a porn addict spent six hours per day getting his Internet jollies, he would hardly be pronounced “cured.” Nonetheless, the center claims a 75 percent success rate.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the 5 million-member Electronic Sports League, which organizes team game competitions and awards prize money, is concerned that its “cyber athletes” (a self-cancelling phrase if ever there was one), are doping. It recently announced that it will begin random testing for performance-enhancing drugs, particularly Adderall, a psychostimulant used to treat ADHD. Apparently battling virtual villains requires medicated focus.
The U.S. market for gaming is huge–reportedly over $22 billion annually. According to an industry group, about 155 million people of all ages play video games. Inpatient Internet addiction facilities are not uncommon in the U.S. but they tend to be more humane and less militarized than their Chinese counterparts. Here, the problem is viewed more as an impulse control issue than a clinical disorder leading to mental illness.
Regardless, there is no shortage of irony in the fact that the same parents who send their children to computer camp may feel desperate enough just a few years later to ship them off to Internet addiction camp. . . which, paradoxically, they will be compelled to research on the Internet.