Last week, I was flying home from Germany where I met with my research colleagues at the University of Duisburg-Essen. We held an entire symposium on Internet addiction including cybersex addiction, social media addiction, and Internet gaming addiction – an especially potent addiction in countries such as Korea, China, and Taiwan. Imagine my surprise when, while waiting at the airport to catch my plane, I saw a story on CNN about Robert Morris University in Aurora, Illinois becoming the first school to categorize playing video games as a varsity sport, even offering scholarship funds for the “athletes.” The team meets every weekday for practice between 4 and 9 p.m., with an hour break for dinner, and competitions are every Saturday, according to Kurt Melcher, the school’s associate athletic director.
That day, I was being interviewed by ABC News for a story on Candy Crush Saga, when I told the reporter about my deep concerns over video games being considered an athletic sport, she followed up with a story, What It’s Like to Be a Video Game Athlete on College Scholarship.
Given the research on Internet gaming, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association included Internet Gaming Addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a new condition for further study. Other studies have repeatedly documented that what begins as a recreational activity can easily turn into an addictive problem. For instance, in an effort to curb video game addiction among youth, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has implemented a sort of gaming “curfew” that will block underage users from accessing online computer games after midnight.
Studies have shown video games feed the brain’s reward centers in a similar way that drugs or alcohol produce an appealing “high.” Further studies have shown that gamers quickly lose themselves in these virtual worlds and their behavior has serious consequences. This summer I met Valerie Veatch, the producer and director of the HBO documentary “Love Child,” a film about a South Korean couple who had let their 3-month-old daughter starve to death while they spent up to 12 hours a day playing “Prius Online” at a local internet cafe. At a special preview of the documentary that we both attended, she said, “They were unable to distinguish the virtual world from the real world.”
These problems are not only seen in Korea, China was one of the first countries in the world to label overuse of the Internet a clinical condition and in response the Chinese government has created treatment facilities to detox and cure teenagers of their addictions to online life.
So, should American colleges view video games as an eSport? The problem of video game addiction isn’t as simple as playing too much or really enjoying video games. At the Center for Internet Addiction, a U.S. firm, we see addicted gamers who are more than twice as likely to have ADD/ADHD, get into more physical fights, and have health problems caused by long hours of game play (e.g., hand and wrist pain, poor hygiene, irregular eating habits). Many need treatment to improve their academic performance and return to normal functioning.
We find treatment for video game addicts to be very difficult because addicted gamers need to spend more time and money on video games to feel the same “high,” skipping out on responsibilities like household chores or homework to play games, excessive thinking about game play, trying to play less and failing, and stealing games or money to play. In their eyes, they don’t see this behavior as an addiction.
Although the U.S. is lagging behind countries like South Korea, which boasts more than 100 clinics to treat video game addiction, there should great concern about American colleges deeming video games as sport. It is important that we first understand the impact of these games on our youth. While video games can be fun and entertaining, I continue to hear from families who are struggling because of a child’s gaming habits. What may seem like a competitive sport could be masking a deeper problem.