Ask Dr Mark

Kicking The Habit


Dear Dr Mark,

I know for a fact that I am addicted to videogames. I enjoy the escape they provide, the same way I enjoy escaping into a good novel. The problem, I think, is that videogaming never ends. I spend so much time playing that both my grades and social life have been negatively impacted. I was hoping you knew of something I could try to lessen my need for gaming. I know that quitting cold turkey is an option, but I’m honestly terrified of what my life would be like without gaming.

Thanks for your question. I’ve addressed videogame addiction in other columns, but never from the point of view of the gamer. If you think you have a gaming addiction, what can you do about it? It is very difficult to give up a reliable way to escape, even if you see the self-destructive aspects. I’m going to describe some of the ways I have seen people overcome this problem. I’d like to get beyond the controversy about whether self-destructive videogaming is really an addiction, some form of OCD, or simply a bad habit. I’ll assume you are gaming too much, it is hurting you in the ways you describe, and you want to stop.

You have already taken the first step in dealing with the problem by recognizing it as such. Some people spend years ignoring the adverse impacts of their behavior in order to rationalize continuing. It takes courage to confront the discomfort that will come with change, but you deserve a more satisfying life and it will be worth it to overcome your habit.

At some point, you may be able to game in a more balanced way, but for now, it probably makes sense to take a hiatus. When you try to do this, you may feel intense urges to go back. It can be helpful to make an inventory of other options for these times. Such a list might include: reading, watching TV, exercising, calling a friend, taking a bath, playing a non-video game, just about anything that will distract and occupy you until the urge passes.

Consider keeping a journal to record when you get the urge to play, what seemed to stimulate it (a TV commercial, feeling bored or lonely, a desire to avoid homework, irritation at your parents, or just missing the buzz of gaming), and what you did to manage the feeling without actually playing. Over time, you may find it easier to resist the urge, because you will be able to predict when it happens and you will know what works for you to hold it off.

Don’t beat yourself up if you have setbacks. This is a natural part of the process. You want to gradually break the connection between whatever stimulates the desire to play and the relief or gratification of playing. Should this prove exceptionally difficult, consider seeking professional help. A trained professional can support your efforts while also helping you deal with underlying issues or problems that have led you to seek escape through gaming.

It can help to have a good pep talk to give yourself. When I stopped playing WoW, I found it helpful to recall how the game had colonized my mind and was interfering with my freedom of thought and imagination. I didn’t want my brain populated with someone else’s images and ideas. I developed a reactionary mentality: I was not going to be Blizzard’s bitch — I wouldn’t pay them for the privilege of having my mind abducted. I know that sounds a bit extreme and maybe even paranoid, but it helped motivate me to resist.

Social support is often a key factor in giving up an addiction. If all your friends are gamers, and you are constantly around gaming, it will be even harder to let go. You may have to take a break from this community and cultivate other relationships. This may take you out of your comfort zone, but it will be worth it — it’s nice to have a range of connections — people you can do other things with. Some gamer friends may be sympathetic and willing to take gaming breaks in order to spend time with you. You’ll need to identify a core group of people who understand what you’re trying to do and will help in any way they can because they care about you. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever be able to hang out with gamer pals. When you are stronger in your “recovery” you will be able to tolerate discussions of gaming and even actual play.

Take notice of changes in your functioning that result from giving up gaming. These might include getting more sleep, having more energy, being more pleasant and less moody, tuning in more in school, better grades, and a more positive outlook. If you can really see how you are doing better without gaming, it will feel even more worthwhile to have given it up.

It may take a few weeks or months, but I think you will find this habit is easier to beat than many others. Once you get to the point where you feel confident in this adjustment, you can re-assess. Are there certain games you could imagine playing without getting addicted? Is there a way to engage in the hobby in a more controlled way? You may be tempted to do some experiments — even if they fail, you will have already proved you can kick the habit so you’ll know you can do so again. If you find you can game without losing yourself in the hobby, even better. Today’s videogames are truly amazing and it would be great to be able to play without getting addicted.

Dr. Mark Kline is addicted to wasabi soy nuts. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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