As Christmas approaches, electronic game and console manufacturers are trying to persuade children and their parents to buy steeply discounted products to put under the tree.
But what may seem to be a good idea can in fact turn out to be a bitter pill for parents. According to Michael Rufer, deputy head of Zurich University’s psychiatric polyclinic, just like gambling or the internet, gaming can become an addiction.
swissinfo.ch: Should parents take particular care when purchasing computer or video games for their children?
Michael Rufer: I would say first that parents should not buy games that are too violent. When you give computer or video games to children, you should also be clear on how long they can play.
Children tend to spend too much time on this kind of entertainment and fail to spend time on other activities. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to offer games as a gift because children will come into contact with them through their friends.
swissinfo.ch: There is plenty of talk about internet addiction and even gaming addiction. Is there a way of knowing if a child or teenager is addicted to video games?
M.R.: It’s hard to define because it is difficult to say if ten hours of gaming or 20, 30 hours is too much. It has more to do with the after effects. When children stop meeting their friends, start getting bad marks at school, gaming can be considered a disturbance or as generating addictive behavior.
In this case, parents should seek out expert advice to deal with the problem. This type of addiction tends to have social and psychological effects.
Some experts say for example more than 35 hours per week is too much. Personally, I would say 20 hours is for most people the upper limit. But that doesn’t mean that every person spending more than 20 hours per week on gaming is an addict. The addiction is defined by its side effects.
swissinfo.ch: Is there a particular type of person who will be susceptible to gaming addictions?
M.R.: There is no clear scientific basis for this, but our experience has shown that youngsters that have this type of problem already have other problems, such as with social interaction. They are hesitant, have fears, low self-esteem and use the virtual world as a way of escaping their own reality.
Not all youngsters with this profile experience this kind of issue but those that do tend to see their problems compounded and miss important steps in their personal development. They don’t know how to interact with their peers, especially those of the opposite sex.
swissinfo.ch: For parents, setting limits can be difficult especially when their children become aggressive. Is this normal behavior?
M.R.: Youngsters often react aggressively when parents try to put an end to their activities. This doesn’t mean it is a sign of addiction. Children try to counter their parents by being aggressive and it is a real challenge.
But it is a problem that parents should try to solve themselves. But when they cannot, when the aggression goes too far, they should consider expert help. We have seen cases where youngsters have threatened their parents’ lives, for example with a knife. That is a situation has gone too far.
swissinfo.ch: When you encounter this type of problem, how do you go about treating it?
M.R.: To start with, most treatments begin with the entire family, because it is not a problem where you can deal just with a youngster. We need the parents and the parents need us to figure out how to deal with the situation because there is no single solution.
We try to work out the underlying problems rather the gaming addiction. That means rather than setting limits, we try to find why they are excessive gamers. These youngsters usually understand what we are trying to achieve and gaming becomes less important in their lives as they move on to other activities.
It does not always work though, and you have to prevent some youngsters from playing games such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, games where it is difficult to cut down on the time you spend on them because they are online and require a regular presence to progress.
swissinfo.ch: Many recently developed games are no longer just for youngsters, but are targeted at older age groups. Are these groups at risk for gaming addiction?
M.R.: Online games such as roulette or poker can be addictive for older people, especially those who are alone. But as a rule, younger people are much more at risk because they can’t control their behavior as well. This has a lot to do with maturity and most adults find it much easier to control themselves.
Scott Capper, swissinfo.ch
A life online
Massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG) is a genre of computer role-playing games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world. World of Warcraft is one of the most popular.
As in all role-playing games, players assume the role of a fictional character and take control over many of that character's actions.
MMORPGs are distinguished from single-player or small multi-player role playing games by the number of players, and by the game's persistent world, usually hosted by the game's publisher, which continues to exist and evolve while the player is away from the game.
Worldwide revenues for MMORPGs exceeded half a billion dollars in 2005, and Western revenues exceeded $1 billion (SFr1.02 billion) in 2006.
In 2008, Western consumer spending on subscription MMORPGs grew to $1.4 billion. World of Warcraft had over 11.5 million subscribers as of December, 2008.