Clinic offers gamers path back to reality
(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-07-14 06:14

Addiction expert Keith Bakker hopes the serenity of a 16th century townhouse on one of Amsterdam's canals will coax those snared in the fantasy world of online games back to reality.

The property, where sunlight warms the honey-coloured wood of the centuries-old floors, houses Europe's first clinic for people hooked on playing online games.

It is run by addiction consultants Smith & Jones, who felt there was a need for treatment even though experts are still debating whether excessive game playing is an addiction.

"We started seeing it about two years ago, people started coming in with gaming as sort of a secondary problem," Smith & Jones director Bakker, 45, said.

"Then, we got one kid in who was gaming 18 hours a day and I wanted to send him somewhere and we looked around and there was nothing, so we started looking into it," said Bakker, who struggled himself with drugs and alcohol in the past.

Smith & Jones began offering day programmes to help gamers, both those playing online and those hooked on video games.

"There are groups, however, that don't easily change or those that come in for a day programme and will tell you all the wonderful things you want to hear and go home and are online again," Bakker said.

Smith & Jones now offers in-patient programmes for a dozen people at a time, lasting four to six weeks.

Those checking in have often put their lives school, work, friends, personal hygiene on hold to keep playing, using anything from Red Bull to cocaine to stay alert.

Tim, 21, who has not played for a month since doing the day programme, said he hardly left his room for five years, gaining weight and using drugs.

Like many others he started out with a handheld GameBoy aged 12 but progressed to multiplayer online games that offer open-ended stories set in virtual universes that can support tens of thousands of players.

"I couldn't go to the toilet because then I would have to leave ... I would take an empty bottle and pee in it."

Keeping children quiet

Sometimes, parents are partly to blame for their children's behaviour, said Bakker, who was born in the United States.

"Often there are parents who are happy that the kid is on a game, at least it is quiet and off the streets," Bakker said.

"Or, they'll say 'why don't you go play, while mum and dad talk'."

The pull of games such as World of Warcraft, the sword and sorcery game EverQuest, racing game Gran Turismo or the 2006 FIFA World Cup game translates into a billion dollar industry.

The worldwide online games market is expected to grow to US$13 billion by 2011 from US$3.4 billion in 2005, according to market research firm DCF Intelligence.

Some 114 million people are expected to be playing online games by the end of 2006, the firm predicts.

Research suggests online game playing may trigger the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. A study done in London's Hammersmith Hospital showed that increased levels of dopamine were roughly the equivalent of a dose of speed, an amphetamine that can be addictive.

The treatment offered by Bakker's firm is similar to that used to fight gambling or alcoholism. However, with gaming, the tricky part is the computer, which can hardly be avoided.

Treatment for excessive game playing is not covered by health care insurance, so patients have to cover the cost themselves 500 euros (US$640) a day.

(China Daily 07/14/2006 page6)