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Keith Bakker: Compulsive Gaming Is Not Addiction

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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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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