When one of World of Warcraft’s top ten guilds recruited Cam as their chief hunter, his suicidal thoughts surged. To earn the enviable invitation, Cam had spent 16 hours a day grinding on WoW, to the detriment of everything else. He told his father he’d scored a job at a local restaurant, but every day after his dad dropped him off at the McDonald’s across the street, Cam would hop the first bus home and log back on. There was no job. There would be no paycheck. Cam’s only obligation was to his night elf hunter, and it was an all-consuming commitment.
What if I just ended it? Shortly after transferring WoW servers, Cam wrote a final note to his parents. On a phone call with Kotaku, Cam recalled how his mother had made Swiss chard soup that night. Upstairs, sobbing over a warm bowl, he strategized a suicide plan. Mid-thought, his phone buzzed: Cam’s only friend invited him to see the movie Superbad. Fuck it. In his buddy’s car before the movie, they smoked enough weed to cloud the windows grey with smoke. Superbad was hilarious. Wave after wave of laughter came over Cam. After the movie, he realized that he was a danger to himself.
Today, Cam has been sober from gaming for seven and a half years. For him, it was a problem that insinuated itself into every corner of his life over the course of his adolescence. “Gaming fulfills all of my needs in one thing,” Cam explained. He earned rewards consistently. Benchmarks for success were clear, tangible. He got his social interaction. Structure. It helped him forget about how he had dropped out of high school, lost friends, got too out of shape for hockey. Or his bullies, his deteriorating family life, his pretend jobs. He had an identity. Unambiguously to him, the word “addiction” explains his relationship to games: obsession, withdrawal, compulsion, lying, a total shift of values.
argued, were fuzzier. Nicotine is addictive at its core: Smoke too much, and you’ll risk craving cigarettes, feeling volatile without a smoke, struggling to stop, even while knowing the health repercussions. But when the vast majority of players can enjoy Fortnite long-term without suffering a major blow to their quality of life, is “gaming addiction” a legitimate problem?
In the 1980s, poker fiends in chronic debt—whose lives suffered because they couldn’t stop—became diagnosable. They had a gambling compulsion, an impulse-control issue. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders reclassified gambling addiction as “gambling disorder” in its new behavioral addictions category. It was the first non-substance-based addiction disorder officially recognized by the DSM. “Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking,” magazine shortly afterwards. “Just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue ever riskier ventures. Likewise, both drug addicts and problem gamblers endure symptoms of withdrawal when separated from the chemical or thrill they desire.”
The recognition of gambling disorder paved the way for the World Health Organization’s contentious new “gaming disorder.” Announced late last year and confirmed last month, the classification of gaming disorder instantly piqued the interest of overbearing parents whose children’s after-school Fortnite hobby often wins out over homework. Among lots of gamers, it’s piqued the ire of enthusiasts who say their hobby is already stigmatized enough. While “gaming disorder” might be a real problem for a small subset of gamers and therefore worthy of recognition, nobody wants their parents sending them to a psychiatrist just because they put 100 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 2, either.
Gaming disorder is flypaper for ideologues on all sides of the conversation. It doesn’t help that the definition has been vague. At one point, researchers diagnosed gaming disorder using 18 different methods, producing prevalence rates between 0% and 45%. Now, according to the WHO, gaming disorder is “characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” The WHO adds that, to fit the bill, a gamer’s habits have to impact their social, educational, and occupational lives for about a year. In practice, that can look like a lot of things. And since most AAA games these days are designed to be seductive time-sinks, gamers, non-gamers and psychologists alike are debating whether gaming disorder is even worth recognizing.
Experts on the psychology of gaming have themselves warned of a “moral panic” around gaming addiction, in one paper arguing that it “continues to risk pathologizing normal behaviors,” adding, “video game addiction might be a real thing, but it is not the epidemic that some have made it out to be.” (A recent metaanalysis including 19,000 subjects concluded that less than only about 3% of game-players are at risk.)
Gaming disorder’s medical approval has fed valuable fodder to the parental thinkpiece economy. A cursory Google search dredges up dozens upon dozens of worried parents’ published missives in the , the , the , or . Kids who play more than a couple hours of Fortnite, the hottest game du jour, are squirming under new parental scrutiny. Does 20 hours of gaming a week constitute an addiction, as the BBC seemed to claim, or at least heavily imply, last month?
) and subreddits and forums, there’s immense skepticism in the gaming community around gaming disorder, and even a certain strain of defensiveness. Cam, who now runs GameQuitters, the largest online support group for video game addiction, told me that’s probably because of a lasting stigma from the violent-games moral panic of the 1990s, when parents and governments were concerned that playing GoldenEye would turn kids into killers.
“Whenever there’s a conversation around gaming there’s a natural defensiveness that’s extremely high,” Cam told me. Some people don’t like hearing the idea that others might want to stop gaming. Every couple of weeks, Cam receives hate mail, harassment or death threats because he runs GameQuitters. Six months ago, someone told him he should walk off a pier with cement tied to his shoes. Sometimes, he says, when the public conversation around gaming addiction resurfaces, the subreddit he moderates, /r/StopGaming, is raided by mobs of trolls.
“All the threads were people screaming at and harassing us. I can handle that. It doesn’t get to me. I understand it,” said Cam. However, he said, it can impact people on /r/StopGaming whose entire lives and identities have been tied to gaming for as far back as they remember; it can further alienate them, make them feel guilty for seeking help. “The 13 or 14-year-old in the Reddit community who feels vulnerable, just quit gaming, he’s feeling like he’s no longer part of his community and all these people come and say they’re embarrassing and their addiction is not real—people read that and feel ostracized,” he said.
none had ever diagnosed his gaming addiction. He’d never heard of that himself. One source, Jacob, said that when he sought help for his gaming addiction, a professional addictions counselor told him that the real issue was that he was forgoing social connection. Offline games were the issue, said the counselor. He should game online. So Jacob binged on Starcraft 2. The problem got worse. Without proper guidelines, professionals didn’t take him seriously. They might today.
Online, Benjamin and Jacob began attending text and voice meetings with other recovering gaming addicts. Now, they help lead Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, a grassroots 12-step group for gaming addicts. “I’m just trying to let people who have a problem know they they can get help,” he said. CGAA’s recovery program sets boundaries for hundreds of problematic gamers. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, its members teach gamers that games aren’t the sole problem; their mental health is. However, abstinence is the only way for gaming addicts to uncover the roots of their self-destructive behavior. It’s a philosophy widely shared among the recovered gaming addicts I interviewed.
Cam’s new hobby is surfing, which, he said with a laugh, he simply can’t do for 15 hours a day. Progress isn’t as measurable as in WoW. Rewards, like catching a good wave, aren’t consistent. “Yesterday, when I went surfing, I caught a wave. I was fully immersed in that moment. I wasn’t able to focus on anything else,” he said. But the crucial thing, he added, is that when he surfs, he always has to come back.
*Asterisks indicate names changed to protect anonymity.
Update, 12:52 PM: An earlier version of this story said Cam’s human hunter in World of Warcraft was level 70. That is incorrect and we have updated the article. Additionally, a portion of this story that discussed suicide has been slightly edited since its original publication. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).