In the age of information, the answers to seemingly every question are available online. We rely on the Internet to help us find places to eat, visit, shop and live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, convenience on that scale leads to a wide array of compulsive behaviors. You see it when your friends check Yelp before entering a new restaurant, when they take Instagram pictures of their food before eating it and when they use Google Maps to take them places they already know how to find. Still, we’re still only talking about using the Internet as a conduit, a way to enhance our life in the real world. Using the digital world as an escape from reality can be even more insidious.
Nobody knows that better than Cam Adair, founder ofand one of the world’s leading experts on video game addiction. In case the idea of video game addiction raises your eyebrows, the announced in June of 2018 that gaming disorders were a “diagnosable condition,” and that between three to four percent of gamers worldwide may qualify for it (as a conservative estimate). That figure takes on new dimensions considering that there are worldwide—in the United States alone there are 150 million, yielding approximately 4.5 to 6 million potential problem gamers.
Adair is in recovery from gaming addiction himself and his experiences have inspired him to add his voice to the discussion. “In the broad conversation, you have two components,” Adair says. “In the debate about gaming addiction itself, you have people on one side saying gaming is not an addiction. Generally, on that side you have people saying that to recognize gaming addiction, you have to say all gaming is bad. And that’s not the case at all.”
Those who do accept it as a valid medical condition still might have some trouble squaring it with traditionally accepted models of addiction. Still, there are actually fewer differences than it may seem. “The component that’s similar to drugs in my opinion is the level of stimulation,” Adair says. “Gaming is hyper-stimulating. It’s a fully immersive experience. Research shows that it works in a similar way to porn where if you watch porn a lot, it can actually shift the way your brain experiences the world.” Similarly, the frenetic action of games like Fortnite or Call of Duty: WWII can, in some cases, gradually trump the comparatively mundane stimulation that reality provides.
For the most part, porn, sex and gambling addiction are all recognized and accepted as process addictions, compulsive behavioral processes which“resemble substance addictions in many domains, including natural history, phenomenology, tolerance, comorbidity” and other factors. In other words: there’s clear science to support Adair’s claims. Still, the field remains nascent and he favors a more pragmatic approach. “Personally, I try to stay as far away from equating gaming and heroin as possible,” he says by way of example. “I don’t think it’s an effective argument and I don’t think it’s necessary to equate the two. Ultimately, addiction comes down to: ‘What’s the negative impact on your life?’”
Adair’s organization exists to serve that exact purpose. Founded in 2014, Game Quitters exists as a free educational and informational resource for anyone looking to quit playing video games for any reason. The site itself includes a diagnostic quiz readers can use to determine if they have a problem, articles detailing personal experiences with gaming addiction, links to outside resources for parents and children and much more. The organization also has its own YouTube channel, with videos covering topics as direct as “How to Quit Playing Video Games in 60 Seconds” to more tangential concerns like “Should You Study Pick-Up and Become a PUA?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, video game addiction seems primarily to affect young men. “It’s important to say that gaming itself is about 50-50 for men and women now,” Adair says. “It’s not like only boys play video games but [gaming addiction] is 90% male.”
Beyond gender, sweeping changes in the gaming industry may also be leading us to problems in the near future. “Gaming and gambling are intersecting very quickly,” Adair says. “The business models of games are completely changing with in-app purchases, micro-transactions and now loot boxes.” For those who don’t know, a loot box is a virtual item containing additional content and add-ons that players can use to customize their gaming avatars. Though the items are virtual, loot boxes cost real money to buy. “Research finds that loot boxes are psychologically the same as gambling and we’re seeing a lot of kids exposed to [them] at very early ages,” he says. “Their perception of whether or not they’re gambling is warped even though if we were going to evaluate it with research, it’s gambling.”
Though gaming addiction is positioned to become more serious in the future, Adair is encouraged and inspired by the success he’s seen through Game Quitters. But it also helps that he brings his own experiences to the field. “I think initially my biggest struggle was I didn’t have anything else I wanted to do,” Adair says. “You’re going from gaming, your biggest passion in life, to expecting to have that same level of passion in the first activity you do on the first day. It’s just not realistic.”
In that sense, recovery from digital addiction is spiritual in the same sense that 12-steppers often invoke. For Adair personally, his journey found him honing his social skills to discovering the self-improvement movement to eating healthy, exercising and being in nature. Connected to the world again, he uncovered some of his old passions, one of which was learning how to be a DJ. “The first week it [DJ-ing] was so hard that I almost quit,” he says. “I tried playing different music instead of what I was playing and recorded my mixes even though they were horrible, but I listened to them in the car and it helped me see how I could improve them.” Eventually, his process lead to him switching from house to trance music. “The beat was more consistent and that was a huge breakthrough for me.”
As with his DJ-ing, Adair’s mission is to be present and engaged with the process in his own recovery—and with others. “I’ve always been inspired by how many people have been able to turn their lives around by sharing simple things,” Adair says. “Like, ‘Here’s a list of other activities you could do,’ or ‘You’re going to lose a lot of your friends, here’s how to make new ones.’” No matter how theoretical the addiction debates get, Adair wants to keep things simple. “This isn’t rocket science,” he says. “Just be helpful.”