Time to pull the plug on video gamers?

Photo: istockphoto.com/Scott Dunlap

Is your family life being hijacked by excessive video game playing?

The video-game industry is the fastest-growing entertainment industry in the world, with total revenues expected to hit $55 billion in the U.S. by 2009. In Canada, video game-related sales have been increasing steadily for the past five years and in the first six months of 2007 shot up 61 percent over the previous year.

Problem on the rise
According to the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 70-90 percent of American children play video games. In 2005 the average user was a 30 year old male who played between six to seven hours a day. Today those numbers include both male and female players from all ages. The ESA found that 75 percent of households are playing video games and 35 percent of those gamers are under 18. Overuse is most prevalent among those who play against others online in Internet-based "massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG)."

A January 2007 Harris poll of 1,200 children and teens concluded that 8.5 percent of gamers are "clinically addicted," while 23 percent felt addicted. The gamers who played the most (an average of 24.5 hours per week) were more likely to have game systems in their bedrooms, have lower grades in school and be diagnosed with some form of attention deficit disorder.

Other problems associated with excessive video gaming are carpal tunnel syndrome (even among the young), aches in the neck or back, problems with sleeping, dry eyes, poor nutrition, aggressive behaviour, low interest in family and friends and poor personal hygiene.

Is it time to pull the plug?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children's exposure to all "screentime" (TV, computers and video games) to a total of two hours per day. But with children starting to play video games at age three and others claiming to have become addicted by age 11, "screentime" is rapidly becoming "all the time" for far too many.

This startling increase lead the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health to recommend adding video gaming addiction to a list of formal disorders, such as compulsive gambling or drug addiction. The Council urged the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to include "Internet/video game addiction" in its next edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."

Although the AMA declined to officially label excessive gaming an addiction, AMA president Dr. Ronald Davis told the press, "While more study is needed on the addictive potential of video games, the AMA remains concerned about the behavioral, health and societal effects of video games and Internet overuse." The AMA determined gaming for more than two hours per day could be considered in excess.

Gamers Anonymous
Ironically, there are already several organization for people addicted to video games. On-Line Gamers Anonymous (OLGA) offers a 12-step program and some tests to determine the level of addiction. There is also a community message board where gamers and loved ones share stories about relationships, schoolwork, health and careers seriously affected by video game addiction.

The Center for Internet Addiction Recovery has several tests you can take to determine whether you or a loved one is addicted. The director, Dr. Kimberly Young, is also the author of Caught in the Net, which outlines the results of her three-year study on Internet abuse.

While the AMA is currently avoided using the A-word, it has recommended "a ratings system that better alerts parents to the content of the video game and recommended age of the player, so that they can decide whether or not their child should be playing it. "

There are some non-violent "green" video games available. Steer Madness from Veggie Games lets Bryce the Steer seek freedom from the slaughterhouse. Disaster Watch from Global Gang lets the player help Nicaraguan villagers survive floods, earthquakes and food shortages. Earth to Rosie lets kids play interactive games to find out about the environment and other cultures.

If these games sound like the broccoli in a steady diet of Resident Evil and World of Warcraft, at least they don't demand a roomful of bulky accessories and are teaching kids to get out and be part of the world.

Joyce Nelson is an environmental journalist based in Toronto.