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In high school I was a pinball wizard … OK, junkie. Then came Pac-Man, Centipede and Galaxian. Many a quarter vanished into their maws as I sought a game fix. My first PC introduced me to computer solitaire, and I quickly came to rue the day I placed a red queen on a black king.

So I understand how young Kyle Bruner became hooked on his GameCube games. As his parents explained during our interview, certain people are wired to become addicted to the unique stimuli provided by video games. Their book, Playstation Nation, provides a checklist of traits parents should watch for. Does your child …

• Play almost every day?
• Play for extended periods (more than three or four hours at a time)?
• Play for excitement?
• Get restless and irritable if he or she can't play?
• Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play?
• Play instead of doing homework?
• Try in vain to limit playing time?
• Seem to be losing interest in real-life activities?

My particular "poison" these days is computer Scrabble. I play a game or two every day upon getting home from work. If for some reason I can't, I feel a bit agitated. In a previous generation I'd have been the dad who poured himself a stiff drink after a long day. Fortunately, a quest for the ultimate triple-word score won't impair my judgment or destroy my liver. But this raises an important point: Parents may think the only potential problem with video gaming is explicit content, though even "safe" games can become an unhealthy obsession.

And it's not just kids. I've read stories about several Gen Xers whose marriages are in trouble because one partner—almost always the husband—has cleaved more to his games than to his wife. Some of those scorned women set up an online message board called EverQuest Widows. It's a forum where spouses describe how that multiplayer online role-playing title became a home-wrecker.

Ivan Spielberg, a contributor to The Psychology of Combating Stress, Depression and Addiction, explained, "Like any compulsive behavior, playing video games provides an escape from a reality that is often too painful to deal with. It is these issues that must be addressed in anyone who is suffering from an addiction."

In other words, what begins as a harmless pastime can become an escape. That escape becomes an emotional coping mechanism that, in turn, evolves into a full-blown addiction. So, what should parents do? Here are a few suggestions:

Discourage children from retreating into games when they are stressed or upset. Don't let a gamepad become that emotional coping mechanism. Talk honestly about challenges and work through them together.

Encourage moderation. Set an egg timer. When it goes off, so does the computer, TV or game console.

Limit temptations. Move electronic gaming hardware out of your teen's bedroom and into a common area.

Spend time playing together. Take turns, ask questions and keep interaction going so that teens won't disappear into the game environment.

Capitalize on your child's fascination with games to channel energy in a more productive direction. One gamer was challenged by his parents to figure out how his favorite games worked, technologically. Today, he's a computer wiz who recalls, "I think my first meaningful C++ app came just from trying to get a graphic display of all of the internal components and their capabilities." I have no clue what any of that means, but I'll bet he's making more money than I am.

More severe cases of video game addiction may warrant a visit to Online Gamers Anonymous (www.olganon.org) or an appointment with a Christian professional skilled in treating addictive behaviors. Of course, getting young people to admit they have a problem may be the biggest challenge.

As for me and my electronic Scrabble habit, I can quit anytime I want to.

Really.

Published August 2006



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