SALT LAKE CITY — Parents across Utah are worried their children could be hooked — Not on drugs or alcohol, but on video games.
A Utah gamer's addiction
"I had no idea that it would happen to my kids," said Jeff Davis, a father to 11-year-old triplets.
All of Davis' sons play video games. But for one of them, Keenan, the virtual world has stirred up some real life trouble.
"We'd get reports from his teacher: 'He's falling asleep every day in class,'" Jeff Davis said. "(We) found out he was going downstairs to play the Wii games."
"We'd catch him in the middle of the night in his closet, with a blanket, playing games," said Shana Davis, Keenan's mom. "When he caught on that we were getting suspicious, he'd get down on the floor and hide and play."
Then Shana Davis looked at her bank statement and discovered dozens of charges from Nintendo, none which had been authorized by her.
"When Nintendo told me the dollar amount of the games that were downloaded ... I was shocked," she said.
Turns out, Keenan had taken his mom's debit card and purchased more than $500 worth of video games. Then he took his brother's gift cards and zeroed them out.
Keenan, himself, admitted it what he did was wrong. "Reflecting on it, it's sad but true," he said. "Sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about this in public."
The thefts were all just too easy to do and too easy to justify, he said.
"I'm like, ‘I shouldn't do this. I shouldn't do this,'" Keenan said. "And then the other part of my body was like, ‘Yeah, but even if you didn't, she'd probably say no anyway to getting the game.'"
Keenan tried to stop himself, even deleted the card data from the virtual store, but every time a new game would come out he would punch the numbers in again.
"It just kept going and going," he said.
Defining and treating the gaming problem
Keenan is not alone. Several teachers wrote to KSL News saying they've noticed other students with the same problems:
- staying up late to game,
- falling asleep in class,
- and talking about nothing but video games.
"It kind of sabotages their life," said Ian Feinauer, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Feinauer treats teens for all sorts of addictions, including video games. In his 12 years of practice, he said he's met only a handful of people who were truly hooked.
One of Feinauer's patients played video games for 16 hours a day. Another preferred the virtual world to the real world, and even introduced herself by her "World of Warcraft" screen name.
"That was her identity," Feinauer said. "All of her accomplishments at that point in her life had been through this other character, and it took her a while to separate that."
According to a comprehensive study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics, nine percent of children pathologically game. For them, the side effects include depression, anxiety and social phobias.
One father, who asked to remain anonymous, described just how bad those phobias can get. He said his 18-year-old son games so often he can hardly interact people in real life.
"He doesn't know how to deal with reality (that's my opinion)," he wrote in a letter to KSL. "He's not even interested in getting his driver's license. I can barely get him to go grocery shopping with me."
The father said every time he tries to take the games away, his son "throws fits" and claims he's bored with everything else.
Utah gamers weigh in
Hardcore gamers say they feel the same — that nothing can keep their attention as long as a video game. Most can't imagine going longer that a few days without playing.
According research firm Frank N. Magid and Associates Inc., 60 percent of male gamers between the ages of 12 and 24 say they cannot live without their gaming console.
"Gratification occurs very rapidly in a video game," said Roger Altizer, director of game design and production for the University of Utah's Entertainment, Arts and Engineering program.
Altizer teaches students how to design video games that people want to play. He said developers use specific tactics to make gamers want to level up; the biggest is the reward.
Motion capture technology — or "MoCap" — allows developers to create realistic characters that move like humans. Generally it's reserved for people creating games or movies, but there's one place in Salt Lake City where anyone can try it out.
The Motion Capture Stage at The Leonardo museum's Render exhibit turns patrons into preset characters without using a full-body motion tracking suit. Instead, 14 cameras record an actor's body and limb movements by tracking the silhouette. The data is fed to a computer that maps the movement into a 3-D space, and then the animated model like Leonaro da Vinci, a knight in shining armor, or a skeleton.
Once the character is synced up with the actor, the movement is quite fluid. Mike Headrick tested it out and had a pretty good time (see extra video clip above).
The Leonardo is open seven days a week. Admission costs $9 for adults and $8 for kids.
"The reward mechanism in video games is huge," Altizer said. "If you're doing something well, you get points or health or coins — whatever the motivation is — immediately."
If players do well, they unlock higher levels. Each level gets a little harder, which makes each win a little sweeter.
"It's like for sports teams winning a major championship or winning the NCAA or Superbowl. That's how it is for us," said K.T. Nguyen, an avid gamer. "But it's not just like once every year, it's every time we do this."
Altizer said the perfect moment in a game occurs when difficulty and skill increase at the same rate, giving players a sense of timelessness.
"It's easy to get sucked into the game," said Connor Taylor, also an avid gamer. "I've had times where I've been playing the game and four hours have slipped by without me noticing."
By some measures, casual gamers log about eight hours a week, moderate gamers average 18 hours, and hardcore gamers play even more.
"I played 12 hours a day for six days a week," Taylor said
"I'll wake up and play video games until I go to sleep — 12, 16 hours," Nguyen said, claiming the longest he ever played was three days straight without sleep.
"(I would) jump from my console to my computer, and then I got out and went over to the arcade for a tournament there," Nguyen said. "(I) went from the tournament, came back, took a couple energy shots, (then) back to gaming. And then I finally just kind of passed out on my computer."
Nguyen and others admit gaming benders like that are excessive, but argue it's like any other hobby — no different than reading books or watching sports.
"It's been socially acceptable for years for the guy to sit on the couch and watch Sports Center all day. Nobody's ever had a problem with it," said Michael Winger, owner of the Gamerz Funk internet café in Taylorsville.
For now, the jury's out on whether gaming addiction is real. There is still no official diagnosis, but hundreds of therapists are treating people for it.
Altizer worries some doctors could use questionable or ineffective methods of treatment because no official guidelines exist.
"Somebody could give you shock treatment for video game addiction.Somebody could prescribe medication for video game addiction," he said. "There are all sorts of things that somebody could do to you in the name of video game addiction that isn't governed by any regulatory board."
Feinauer said he treats patients with the one thing that works for many addictions: abstinence.
"If someone really is addicted to video games, then they can't go back," Feinauer said. "If they're really addicted it's going to supersede anything else."
If someone really is addicted to video games, then they can't go back (to playing them). If they're really addicted it's going to supersede anything else.
–Ian Feinauer, family therapist
He tells parents to remove gaming systems from the home completely if their child can't stop. Gamers who've been through it before with their own parents recommended taking it slowly.
"If you completely tell them to stop straight out, they'll of course go behind your back or not even listen to you," Nguyen said
He said gamers often throw fits or fists when parents try to power players down. That's because they're really into the games they love, he said, and would rather their parents take an interest.
"Just like you would go to your child's soccer games, you can go to your child's matches in a video game," Altizer said
Above all else, experts say parents need to intervene early and set up rules for how much game time is acceptable.
"I should have just been more aware," Shana Davis said. "I had my head in the sand, and I wasn't paying attention like I should."
While she still lets Keenan game, she now keeps a close eye on how much time he plays.
Keenan said he's cutting back, not downloading anymore games and says he feels like a changed person.
"I've now figured out that I, like, don't need it," he said. "I can live without it. I can do other things."
Contributing: Mike Headrick