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Tanya Byron's TV show: Is gaming as addictive as heroin?

Tanya Byron's TV show: Is gaming as addictive as heroin?
Tanya Byron narrates 'Am I Normal?:

“Most of us think of games as the preserve of the teenager; young people escaping into a virtual world of fantasy. It’s an attractive but artificial world where they can give themselves a new identity and a status and power unobtainable in reality.”

“Michelle Hart is not what you would imagine as a dedicated gamer. She’s an intelligent, 39-year old woman with a decent job and no history of psychological problems.”

“It might seem ludicrous to compare a childish computer fantasy game with hard drug addiction. But addiction counsellors offering treatment to gamers argue that there are key similarities in the way that the consumer gets hooked into coming back for more.”

“Of course, many would argue that the problem with labelling something like video games as an addiction is that it can... absolve the role of parents and friends in preventing these difficulties.

"However, if we combine the pleasurable aspects of gaming or gambling with an individual or has other psychological or emotional needs, it become more obvious how a behaviour can become addictive.”

Tanya Byron talks to World of Warcraft lover Michelle Hart, 39:


TB: “Other than work, Michelle rarely leaves the house. Her devotion to the online game World of Warcraft has come to dominate her life. Sometimes she plays for over 12 hours without a break.”

“Michelle’s behaviour goes to the heart of the debate over what is normal when it comes to addiction. When she isn’t working or sleeping, she has spent most of her time in front of a screen playing a fantasy game for hours on end.

“But is Michelle’s struggle to stop gaming suggest she is sliding into addiction. Could she become pathologically hooked, doing herself long-term harm? Or is this just an extremely narrow lifestyle choice? When does the game playing go from excessive to addicted?”

MH: “You can get into a real zone and just be completely focussed on the game… time disappears. People have said to me come out for drink or something and there’s always that questions: do I want to go out and drink or stay in and play?"

Tanya Byron talks to Stephen Noel-Hill, recovering gambling addict and owner of Smith & Jones recovery centre in Amsterdam – which treats gaming ‘addicts’.

S-NH: “I think it is the addiction for the 21st Century. And I think it’s going to have huge and devastating effects on people’s lives. In the UK, I’ve known of a young guy who put a computer flex around his neck to strangle himself rather than give up the game. I’ve seen so many unheard young kids who take craps in the corner of the room rather than leave their computer screen. These are all addictive behaviours…."

TB: "And all your functioning then starts to become impaired?"

S-NH: "Absolutely. And the game is very much involved. Task-involved games that have reward levels that produce dopamine levels."

TB: "In terms of a sort of rush as you’re playing?"

S-NH: "Absolutely. Certain elements of it have to do with other people. You can never get out of it. You get reminders from other people that you’re not around therefore we can’t play – so there’s a pressure on you to play.

"The time element and the negative consequences define when you’ve crossed that line. It’s the same with alcohol and drug use – some people have a higher threshold before they cross that line. But if you are crapping in the corner… you’re using six hours a day when you’ve got you A levels in two weeks… tell me you’re crossing a line."

TB: "Smith and Jones treat computer game addicts exactly as they treat cocaine addicts."

S-NH: "We’ve decided to put them in with our drug and alcohol people at the same time. And the light suddenly went on for these people. When they came and sat with our other addicts… they saw their behaviours were exactly the same as those who use alcohol, cocaine or marijuana."

TB: "Could it not be said that you, with your treatment centre, are just catching a young vulnerable population with frightened parents and making a heap of money, when most of them will probably grow out of it anyway?

S-NH: "When I hear of kids getting kicked out of school… When I hear of kids manipulating their way out of anything that’s productive, when I hear about parent attacking children because they can’t get them off the screen. When I hear of all these consequences, I have no fear about what we’re doing is ethical and good. Many may grow out of it."

Tanya Byron talks to 20-year old Rodrick Phillippe, who was addicted to World of Warcraft to the point he ‘never did his homework again’ and – in Byron’s words – “smashed the place up” whenever his parents took away his computer.

TB: "Is this really an addiction in the same way as taking heroin or snorting cocaine?"

RP: "The only difference is the substance."

Tanya Byron talks to Dr. Anne Lingford-Hughes, Reader in Biological Psychiatry and Addiction at the University of Bristol

TB: "Brain scans show dopamine – the chemical released in the brain by pleasurable activity and boosted by drug taking - is also increased in the brains of game players, and this is why they keep playing."

A-LH: “The more dopamine’s release by cocaine or amphetamine, the more high the individual feels. Similarly, a study done here showed this could be a video game player winning – that's enough to release dopamine. It's the same part of the brain. Somebody looking at foods they like... or it could be alcohol.”

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