Keith Bakker: Compulsive Gaming Is Not Addiction

By John Walker on November 26th, 2008 at 1:07 pm.

The debate over whether games are addictive has taken another interesting turn. Yesterday, Keith Bakker, founder of the Smith & Jones Centre in Holland, told the BBC that he had changed his mind regarding the addictive nature of gaming. The S&J Centre has always been at the middle of this discussion, grabbing the headlines by being the first clinic to take in-patients for gaming addiction treatment, and ever-ready with a press-friendly quote. Now, in a dramatic change of mind, Bakker is saying he sees compulsive gaming as a social rather than psychological problem.

I interviewed Bakker last year for a piece about gaming addiction, and spoke to a man with no doubt in his mind. “Ready for this?” he asked. “I believe gaming is currently the greatest threat to our society.” He seemed to enjoy the knowledge that this quote would inevitably appear at the beginning of any article I’d write. There’s no question that Bakker’s a man who cares deeply about treating addicts, but he also like a headline. However, his apparent turnaround likely isn’t quite the one-eighty some are suggesting.

Bakker seemed to maintain (I say “seemed” as there was ambiguity) he saw unregulated gaming as an affliction of those pre-disposed to addiction, and the chemical dependency on dopamine. Rather than believing alcohol, sex or gaming are capable of creating addiction in an individual, many addictionologists believe that those genetically, or via abuse, pre-disposed to be addicts will latch onto these activities. Bakker appeared to align himself with this thinking. Last year Bakker put it to me like this.

“I’m an alcoholic, you might not be. We could agree to go to a bar for a couple of drinks until 9pm. Come 9pm, you’d go home. I’d go to Mexico”

What he seems to be saying now is that he doesn’t believe the majority of the young people his clinic treats are such addicts. 90% of them, in fact. Instead, he’s recognising the social reasons why someone might retreat to gaming and play with a compulsion that might mimic addiction. He explained to the BBC,

“If I continue to call gaming an addiction it takes away the element of choice these people have. It’s a complete shift in my thinking and also a shift in the thinking of my clinic and the way it treats these people.”

Bakker’s impressively honest change of mind brings him into line with the thinking of other major researchers into the subject. He now says incorrectly labelling excessive gaming for the 90% he believes not to have addictive natures is inhibiting appropriate social measures. According to the BBC report, he now believes that parental/adult intervention is the key to addressing the issue, which is the same conclusion reached by last year’s enormous study, Project Massive. They concluded that “addiction” was not a helpful word to use when discussing compulsive gaming, preferring the term, “problematic use”. Ph.D. researcher A Fleming Seay explained to me,

“I am often asked for advice by frustrated parents in regard to children who are ‘only interested in games’ and ’spend hours playing like a zombie’. When asked what they should do I always give them the same answer, ‘Pick up the controller.’ When a parent plays video games with a child, three important things happen; the activity suddenly becomes a social one, the parent is able to model self-regulating behavior for the child, and finally, the parent is able to monitor the content of the game. All this for the low cost of spending some time with your kid doing something they are interested in.”

The consensus now really points toward gaming not being inherently addictive. Last year the American Medical Association said they did not believe that excessive gaming could be labelled an addiction.

Of course, “problematic use” remains problematic. Bakker believes his clinic could be closed down if parents and relevant adults took on the responsibility for regulating their children’s use of gaming. However, he’s still busy.

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30 Comments »

  1. I don't understand this comment system says:

    When asked what they should do I always give them the same answer, ‘Pick up the controller.’

    PC Gamers are doomed! DOOMED!

  2. James T says:

    Hey, PCs can have controllers.

  3. Rosti says:

    Very interesting, this stuff. Now, I have to kill some more zombies whilst I should be working, but it’s a social activity so it’s OK, right? Right?

  4. Malagate says:

    How many PC games support split screen? Although a lot of the simpler ones do support controlling two or more player characters on the same screen, but they’re usually simple enough to be played with one keyboard between everyone (even if it’s quite awkward). Squelch comes to mind in this regard.

    It is nice when the ‘rents do end up in the game too, but that’s never happened with the PC’s and only on the Wii. I think many multiplayer PC games are a little too inaccessible for those who have never used a PC for gaming before. Sure there are plenty of single player games that are accessible like World of Goo and a whole slew of casual games, but going from spider solitaire and free cell to Counter Strike and World of Warcraft can be too daunting for some.

    I do sometimes toy with the idea of getting more people into a lan game, especially for all those times those same people have coerced the group into playing a board game for hours of tedium.

  5. Gap Gen says:

    I have this image of youths hanging round street corners with DVD cases in brown paper bags hidden under staircases, shouting “Five-O!” and scattering.

  6. MacBeth says:

    I am often asked for advice by frustrated parents in regard to children who … ’spend hours playing like a zombie’.”

    Force them switch to Survivor for a change?

  7. Tom Lawrence says:

    iven the sage advice of that final quote, it is rather a shame that more PC games these days don’t offer “multiple players on one PC” options – split-screen, hotseat, whatever.

    Not that this prevents “looking over the shoulder” style social gaming, of course, which is a great parent-child bonding activity.

  8. Ben Abraham says:

    Wow, your google adwords are having a field day with this post! =D

    I hope this guy doesn’t now get overlooked by the media now, just because he’s not an “out there kook” with an extreme view… that would be a real shame.

  9. Pags says:

    Gap-Gen: The Wire would’ve been even better (difficult task) if it had been about games instead of drugs.

  10. M_the_C says:

    For a long time now, I’ve thought that the biggest problem relating to child gamers is to do with the parents.

    They think they’re like films, switch it on and plonk your kid down in front of it. Peace for 2 hours.

    Interacting with young gamers is the solution to many problems people see. That last quote has it right, try playing the games with your kids for a bit. But even if you can’t do that, take an interest. Your child is playing HL2? Firstly it’s rated 15, pay attention please. Secondly, read the plot summery on wikipedia, ask your child what part they are at, what has been the most challenging section. Talk to other parents or older gamers that can explain the story a bit.

    If parents would just pay attention to their children we’d be one step closer to a perfect society. Just climate change, world peace, homelessness, poverty, equality, crime, healthcare, education and exploitation to deal with…

  11. Gap Gen says:

    Pags: I now want to go into a voice-enabled FPS server and start shouting “Omar comin!” repeatedly.

  12. Pags says:

    “Where’s Wallace? Where’s Wallace, String? Oh wait he’s on a different server, nevermind”

  13. dhex says:

    it’s nice to see something sensible going on.

    on the other hand, maybe the compulsive gaming market wasn’t too lucrative? maybe it was cutting into their regular sidelines?

    a bit cynical perhaps but the target warrants it.

  14. Urael says:

    And once again Gaming refuses to sit happily in any prebuilt notion or pidgeon-hole. *chuckle* I reckon we’ll have a new vocabulary to perfectly describe all the colours and falvours of Gaming when English undergoes another fundamental rule-shift in, say, 2109?

    If Gaming isn’t inherently addictive, Mr CleverMan, then what the heck is it? Why have I spent entire weekends in front of a screen ignoring all but the most fundamental of bodily concerns? What is it about gaming that refuses to let my mind go even when I’ve left the PC and am trying to be busy at work?

    And why is heavy gaming so ‘problematic’? Is there actually anything wrong with being out of social contact for extended periods? When left to our own devices (pun intended) Gamers don’t harm anyone but themselves – any harm inflicted is entirely debatable – and some would say that’s their choice whether or not they wish to socialise. It seems like it’s only people who have these rose-tinted views of kids all playing together in playgrounds that frown on activities where the opposite occurs, and seek to dress it in worrying psychological terms like ‘addiction’.

  15. Skurmedel says:

    I think he means problematic as in “played for 15 hours straight till I collapse”

  16. dhex says:

    or played games instead of dealing with life issues, etc.

  17. Erlam says:

    “I am often asked for advice by frustrated parents in regard to children who are ‘only interested in games’ and ’spend hours playing like a zombie’. When asked what they should do I always give them the same answer, ‘Pick up the controller.’ When a parent plays video games with a child, three important things happen; the activity suddenly becomes a social one, the parent is able to model self-regulating behavior for the child, and finally, the parent is able to monitor the content of the game. All this for the low cost of spending some time with your kid doing something they are interested in.”

    Haven’t we been saying this for years? My girlfriend and I have four kids, one of whom is seven. What we always, always do is play games with him. And when it’s a game we can’t have them play (I.e. TF2) and he sees me playing, I explain what it’s about, what one does to play, and the why’s and how’s of why he can’t play it.

    A lot of parents claim they don’t have time, but we simply multi-task — if I’m writing a report or whatever, I’ll write it, and turn over and comment on what he’s doing.

    I also think another big thing is that parents of our generation don’t ‘walk [kids] through’ games — when we were young, we had no parental help, no internet showing us what to do. Playing games is about overcoming challenges and having fun. Doing that with our kids is not hard, not overwhelming, not a chore. It should be fun for all involved.

  18. Tei says:

    Videogames has help me quit TV addiction.

  19. Rend Cackhand says:

    And on that note, they helped me ‘quit’ a life of heroin fuelled crime (or crime fuelled heroin addiction, who knows). I say helped, but it’s just transferred the addiction over. A bit like using methadone. Which doesn’t really help the argument much, so I’ll shut up.

  20. Vivi says:

    No, Rend, what you’re saying is very important!
    Being addicted to video games is not as serious and bad than being addicted to heroin. Not at all.
    Did anyone ever die doing a video game overdose??
    It’s a great progress.
    Hold on!

  21. ilurker says:

    You can probably apply the idea of “just picking up the controller” and participating to other disorders prevalent amongst youth.

    I would bet that a lot of chronic masturbators would abandon their hobby if their folks just sat down and joined in sometimes.

  22. mda says:

    “Did anyone ever die doing a video game overdose?”

    As far as I hear, yes, people have died from sitting at a PC playing games too long. If I remember correctly, dehydration had something to do with it. But LESS people have died from PC than drugs, so let’s celebrate.

    I have been very addicted to EverQuest 2 before, and I agree that it can be a social/circumstantial problem that leads into heavy addiction to something that gives you whatever small sense of worth it can, as the circumstances surrounding it were exactly as Bobsy describes in post 4 of this thread in the forums. I think his points made there are very insightful and accurate. Thanks, Bobsy.

  23. mda says:

    I don’t know if addiction was the right term, I know at the time I wouldn’t have seen it that way. It was just something I liked doing. I had no self worth, no job, no qualifications, etc. Maybe it was problematic compulsive behaviour, not “addiction”. =P

  24. noom says:

    That whole playing “like a zombie” thing has always bugged the hell out of me. I always like to point out that I rock the exact same facial expression when watching films, reading or listening to people who are engaging in fasicinating discourse.

  25. Noc says:

    I think the “Like a zombie” thing has to do more with the fact that you end up sitting rather still in the same position for hours on end, mesmerized by the flickering screen a half-meter in front of your face.

    You wear the same facial expression when you’re paying attention to anything, but it’s really only video games that are consistently engaging enough that you end up sticking that way for lengthly and indeterminable periods of time. So, you know, even though you’re being constantly engaged and challenged and interacted with, to someone not party to that you’re sitting stock still staring at a screen in exactly the same way you have been for the past X hours.

    Which is the other thing that parents getting involved with their kids’ games will help with. They’ll derive a better understanding of what’s going on, and what the kid’s responding to, instead of having to rely on the external signs.

  26. Klaus says:

    And why is heavy gaming so ‘problematic’? Is there actually anything wrong with being out of social contact for extended periods?

    Yes, because other people, regular people, have to deal with you when you finally decide to interact with them. My experience in this is meeting Japanophiles and real life (hard core) furries, whose contact with people are just others of their kind, on the internet.

  27. sinister agent says:

    I thought Dead Rising was great (though full of monumentally awful design choices). It wasn’t until I watched my family try to play it, though, that I realised it was goddamned spectacular.

    And watching my mum try to get to grips with the Great Great Giana Sisters and jump directly into the same monster six times after panicking and squealing and cackling, where I would simply have jumped over it and moved on, is still a cherished memory. Seriously, parents today have no excuse.

  28. Krupo says:

    I dunno, I often laugh uproariously at my computer monitor.

    I call that working 9 to 5 though.

  29. Michael Vitelli says:

    Ouch, we now have to change our whole theme in Coldplays new video we did…darn.