With much of the U.S. and Europe in lockdown, video-game use has exploded.
It’s become a way for millions of quarantined people to pass the time and stay connected to others without spreading coronavirus — and health officials have applauded the idea. But for some percentage of users, the binge comes with a dark side: internet and gaming addiction.
Like problem gamblers, video-game addicts are under a number of pressures, including stress, isolation and unemployment. And they’re being encouraged to engage in the very behavior they struggle with.
“Every risk factor for gambling addition is spiking right now, and the same is true for internet and gaming addiction,” said Keith Whyte, executive director at the National Council on Problem Gambling. “There could be a wave of addiction, quite a big wave.”
Already, hotline calls to some of the council’s 27 centers have increased, Whyte said. Psychiatrists are seeing a spike in video-game-addicted patients, and support groups are seeing members relapsing globally.
Between 0.8% and 25% of all gamers — depending on how you count them — may have issues with addiction, according to Daria Kuss, associate professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University.
It’s created a conundrum for health officials, but tackling Covid-19 is the priority. And that means getting people to stay home.
That’s why the World Health Organization and tech companies are promoting gaming as a health measure.
Ubisoft Entertainment SA released free games and discounts, encouraging people to “play your part, play at home.” Activision Blizzard Inc., Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube and Zynga Inc. also said they will offer rewards to promote hand washing and efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“Having these entertainment options is helping people to stay home and not feel like they have to go out and meet people,” Ray Chambers, the WHO’s ambassador for global strategy, said in a phone interview.
But some gamers may struggle to get their lives back on track after the pandemic is over.
Cam Adair, who is 31 and now runs the support website GameQuitters.com, used to play games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and StarCraft for 16 hours a day. That made it difficult to hold down a job.
In 2011, he quit cold turkey, then relapsed, then quit again. He still craves gaming regularly. He is now in coronavirus lockdown with his girlfriend in an apartment in Thailand, and distracting himself with work and playing music on his DJ equipment.
“I’ve seen a lot of reports from members saying that they are relapsing,” said Adair, whose website serves 75,000 users a month.
At normal times, “one in 100 people really struggle,” said James Sherer, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s chief psychiatry resident, who is treating patients with gaming addiction. “I would not be surprised if that doubles.”
One of Sherer’s patients, a veteran, recently spent more than $10,000 on in-game items for the Black Desert Online multiplayer game.
Because so many people are home alone, social standing has changed, he said. People want to impress their friends online — rather than in real life — and that often involves gaming.
Activity on online game platform Steam surged in March, with more than 24 million people playing at peak time. Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox and Mixer services are seeing record numbers. On Verizon Communications Inc.’s network, gaming usage during peak hours was up 75%.
For people prone to game addiction, the present time is “the perfect storm,” said Sherer, who is a gamer himself.
Typically, it’s the immersive games like World of Warcraft — with no structured end — that can suck people in, Kuss said.
“The longer this is going on, the more likely some people will develop problems,” Kuss said.
The WHO isn’t a stranger to the problem: It recently recognized game addition as an official mental-health disorder. But it’s also trying to save lives.
“It’s not our priority to reduce gaming-related problems — it’s to reduce the exposure to the pandemic,” Kuss said. “So encouraging gaming on a general basis is probably the right thing to do.”