Stop Playing Around

Imagine yourself transported to a new world. There are no boring lectures, tedious roommates, or assigned readings. There is only peril. You can gain worldwide renown for performing feats with just the movement of your fingers. Time invested provides direct and measurable rewards. And then, your alarm goes off, shattering the fantasy world that you have lived and played for the past night. It’s time for that brutal morning lecture. You now face an important decision: Spend the next few hours in utter misery, or skip class and continue with the life you have come to love, and indeed, now need?

There is a serious, clinical addiction on the rise, which because of its recent development, has not received nearly enough attention: video game addiction. Research suggests video game addiction shares similarities with gambling addiction and other impulse control disorders, and with the rate at which video game technology is evolving, there exists a race against time that researchers are losing.

Here at Harvard there undoubtedly is a culture of gamers. With college’s vast amounts of unregulated time and a free high speed Internet, temptation to play a game of Halo or Wii Tennis can easily become abuse. Whatever checks may have existed at home are now long gone.

Just last weekend, there was a gaming convention held in Lamont Library, attended by students from across Boston. This event, titled “Multiplay” and hosted by the Harvard Interactive Media Group (HIMG), had noble intentions: to turn the potentially isolating activity of gaming into a thriving social community. But for the more than 100 gamers who attended the event (myself included), lasting bonds of friendship that would drag gamers away from their computers were nowhere to be found. Instead, the surprisingly large number of gamers was merely indicative of the lure that gaming has over so many college students, most of who have likely been active gamers for many years.

Gaming addiction starts early, usually in elementary school. A recent study of third, fourth, fifth graders, and their parents uncovered a few statistics that immediately leap out as worrisome. For example, one in ten of the kids admitted that their playing video games interferes with their homework, despite their light workloads. Furthermore, this study illuminated an extremely large disconnect between the parents and the children: When asked if their family had rules regarding how much kids could play, 62 percent of parents said yes, while only 36 percent of kids agreed. Also, when asked if there were rules for when children could play, 68 percent of parents said yes and again only 36 percent of kids agreed.

If Asia is any indication, gaming addiction can extend far beyond childhood, and will soon require our direct attention. The South Korean government has had to fund more than 40 treatment programs that aim to deal with the huge problem of gaming and Internet addiction gripping its country. China too has been forced to deal with what it sees as an economic problem as well as a serious addiction. The government has decided to forcibly limit the playing hours of its more than 20 million daily gamers through a system of punishments within the virtual worlds themselves. Under a totalitarian regime, this form of restriction might be achievable, but it is unrealistic for a free society such as the one we live in, whether that is America in general or in the unregulated confines of our dorm rooms. Is Harvard prepared to meet the challenges that seem to be coming?

A study released in 2002 claims that in a population of 1500 teenagers, 25 percent were compulsive video gamers. Another stated that of 10,000 college students, about 960 of them could be described as addicts. According to the recently released, 2006 spring report from the American College Health Association, 15.4 percent of college students report that the internet and computer games having adversely effected their academics which is an increase of almost 3.5 percent from the 2005 fall report. To put these numbers in perspective, drug and alcohol use combined impacted the academics of only 9.6 percent of respondents.

Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University Health Services (UHS), confirmed over the phone that Harvard’s statistics in this area are representative of the national figures. Moreover, he said that “it is a growing problem” and that the University, and the medical community as a whole, is asking more questions about this epidemic. Dr. Kadison also acknowledged that there are no specific programs aimed at this issue within UHS, but individual counseling is available.

Gaming is a major issue and needs to be treated as such. While perfectly harmless in reasonable quantities, harmful abuse and addiction to gaming is on the rise, which can be certainly destructive to gamers’ lives. It is time that Harvard started publicizing and treating this disease. With all the programs aimed at attacking drug and alcohol abuse, it seems foolish to have none that specifically confront the abuse of video games. Eventually, this will have to be confronted; the choice is ours whether planning occurs now or waits until a crisis reaches our campus.

Nathaniel C. Donoghue ’10, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.