AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – An addiction center is opening Europe's first detox clinic for video game addicts, offering in-house treatment for people who can't leave their joysticks alone.
Video games may look innocent, but they can be as addictive as gambling or drugs — and just as hard to kick, says Keith Bakker, director of Amsterdam-based Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants.
Bakker already has treated 20 video game addicts, aged 13 to 30, since January. Some show withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking and sweating, when they look at a computer console.
His detox program begins in July. It will run four to eight weeks, and will include therapy sessions, wilderness excursions, healthy lifestyle workshops and possibly medication.
Research into video gaming is still in its infancy, and researchers haven't agreed on how to define addiction. But many experts say it's clear many of the young people who show dependency on video games are in trouble.
"We have kids who don't know how to communicate with people face-to-face because they've spent the last three years talking to somebody in Korea through a computer," Bakker said. "Their social network has completely disappeared."
It can start with a Game Boy, perhaps given by parents hoping to keep their children occupied but away from the television. From there, it can progress to multilevel games that aren't made to be won.
Bakker said he has seen signs of addiction in children as young as 8.
About a dozen clinics already exist in the United States and Canada, and even one in China, as excessive gaming increasingly is being recognized worldwide as an ailment requiring treatment.
Elizabeth Woolley, who founded the Safe Haven halfway house for addicted gamers in Harrisburg, Pa., welcomed the idea that treating addicts is spreading to the Netherlands.
"Thank God that somebody has finally recognized this is an issue," she said.
Jeroen Jansz, associate professor of communications research at the University of Amsterdam, estimates about 80 percent of boys aged 8 to 18 play some type of video game. Forty percent play at least 2½ hours a day.
In a 2005 study, Jansz said gamers are overwhelmingly males, especially in violent games where adolescents find "a safe private laboratory where they can experience different emotions."
Hyke van der Heijden, 28, a graduate of the Amsterdam program, started playing video games 20 years ago. By the time he was in college he was gaming about 14 hours a day and using drugs to play longer.
"For me, one joint would never be enough, or five minutes of gaming would never be enough," he said. "I would just keep going until I crashed out."
Van der Heijden first went to Smith & Jones for drug addiction in October 2005, but realized the gaming was the real problem. Since undergoing treatment, he has distanced himself from his smoking and gaming friends. He says he has been drug- and game-free for eight months.
Like other addicts, Bakker said, gamers are often trying to escape personal problems. When they play, their brains produce endorphins, giving them a high similar to that experienced by gamblers or drug addicts. Gamers' responses to questions even mirror those of alcoholics and gamblers when asked about use.
"Many of these kids believe that when they sit down, they're going to play two games and then do their homework," he said.
However, unlike other addicts, most gamers received their first game from their parents.
"Because it's so new, parents don't see that this is something that can be dangerous," Bakker said.
Tim, a gamer who is under treatment, agreed to discuss his addiction on condition that his last name not be used. He said he began playing video games three years ago at age 18.
Soon, he would not leave his room for dinner. Later, he began taking drugs to stay awake and play longer. Finally, he sought help and picked up other hobbies to occupy his time.
Richard Wood, a professor of psychology with the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in England, is skeptical about viewing heavy gamers as addicts.
Wood says that gaming may be a symptom of a problem, but should be seen as a problem itself "just because a person does the activity a lot."
Bakker, however, says symptoms of addiction are easy to spot. Parents should take notice if a child neglects usual activities, spends several hours at a time with the computer and has no social life.
Bakker said parents of game addicts frequently echo the words of partners of cocaine addicts: "'I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was.'"