Video Game Addiction: An Interview With Cam Adair

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Cam Adair, who founded a program to help people overcome video game addictions.  It’s not an issue that is talked about much, but it certainly exists.  In fact, a researcher from Iowa State University found that 8.5% of children in the United States who play video games have developed an addiction to them.  Cam’s work lives on his website, Game Quitters, which is geared towards people looking for resources to combat their addiction to gaming.   In his TEDx Talk, he describes his own struggle with overcoming video game addiction, and why it happens.  Cam and I talked more about gaming addiction in general, his work, and ways to spread awareness.

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Brianna Fae:  So since you founded Game Quitters in January 2015, what impact has it had on your life?

Cam Adair:  Game Quitters has given me an immense amount of purpose. Let me give you an example. About a year ago I went through a difficult breakup, and traditionally breakups have led to the lowest points in my life – months of depression, and moments where I’ve seriously contemplated suicide. So naturally last year when this breakup happened I was fairly concerned. Was this going to lead to the same place once again? Was I going to have to stop my work with Game Quitters until I got better? Was I about to experience months of agony and self-torture? But I didn’t, and I owe credit to Game Quitters, not only the work I do but the community itself for keeping my head up. The work is so important and gives me so much purpose I had to keep going. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t taking care of myself, or pretending I wasn’t hurting, but I found a way to keep moving forward amongst those feelings, and for that I’m very thankful.

BF:  That’s awesome! If it was able to help you get through such a difficult time, your work has probably helped so many others too. Around how many people has Game Quitters reached so far, that you know of?

CA:  It’s really difficult to say for sure, but we’re reaching around 20,000 people monthly, and we’ve had a few important milestones this year. The first is that just yesterday we crossed 15,000 journal entries on the Game Quitters Forum,  which is where our members interact and share about their experience. Going from 0 entries in May 2015 to 15,000+ of them now is very exciting. That number continues to grow at a faster rate month-by-month as well. This year, we have also reached members in 70 countries around the world. Last year at Christmas time, we had members in 17 countries. Gaming addiction is a global problem! Finally, the original TEDx video I shared on this subject has received 143,603 views to date, so there are a few indications out there that we are reaching a large number of people all around the world, people who are actively seeking help with this problem. But, we have so much more work to do! In my estimation, there are 10-50M people worldwide right now struggling with a video game addiction.

BF:  Wow, congrats! That 10-50M would be a scary reality. I saw that a psychologist at Iowa State (Douglas Gentile) found that roughly 8.5% of American children who play video games are addicted to them. It’s a real issue that so many people face, so why do you think we don’t hear a lot of conversations about it?

CA:  Thank you. 🙂 I’m a big believer in narrative, and its ability to influence behavior. So over the past few years, the conversation around video game addiction has focused on whether it’s a real addiction or not, whether games make you violent, and/or whether games are good or bad for you… all of which I believe miss the point generally, by not actually talking about the people who are struggling. Because video game addiction isn’t officially recognized in the DSM (“the bible of addictions”), people get stuck debating it on a technical level. Honestly, I care a lot less about that and a lot more about how to help someone who is seeking help with this issue. I understand the implications of it being recognized (insurance coverage for example) and do my part in supporting that, but people waste so much time debating about it, instead of actually helping people who want help. So that’s what I’ve done instead. I don’t care if it’s a “real” addiction or not. I don’t care if games are “good” for you or “bad” for you. I just care about how to help someone who wants it.

And now we can start sharing the stories of those who have had their life improve by removing gaming. Like Joe, a father with a newborn daughter who found himself annoyed every time she was crying because he had to pause his game to take care of her. He’s now a year game-free and he shares about how the relationship with his daughter has improved immensely, and that brings him more joy than gaming ever did. Or Alex , who’s finally finishing his PHD after procrastinating on it for years, or Hobedaga, who got his first job and is becoming independent. Together we can change the conversation around video game addiction, and thankfully, I’ve seen a shift in the way the media has been reporting it as well. So it’s just a matter of time now, but I feel a sense of urgency to get this message out there to those who struggle in silence. So thank you for helping us! It really does mean a lot.

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BF:  Of course! Since so much of the conversation so far has just been about whether or not gaming addiction is “real,” and it’s not recognized in the DSM yet, do you ever have trouble with people not taking the struggles of gaming addiction seriously?

CA:  I don’t experience that side of it too much anymore. Two years ago that was more common, but I believe enough people today know at least someone who probably games too much (most likely every person reading this right now knows someone), so empathy is a bit easier to come by. That said, I believe it’s been a mistake to try and convince people that video game addiction is the same or worse than being addicted to drugs like heroin. Not to say people do not experience struggles on similar level, but just from a communication standpoint, if you gave me a choice, become addicted to video games or heroin, I would chose video games every time. And so would every sane person in the world. So when I see the industry talk about video games as “digital heroin” and in terms like that, in my opinion, it’s a mistake that only makes it more difficult for people to relate with our cause and take it seriously. Just because video games are not heroin, does not take away from the difficulty and consequence of the addiction. For instance, that employment rates among non-college educated young men in their early twenties have dropped sharply, more than any other group, due to video games.

Video games may not be heroin, but their impact on the labor supply market, one could argue, is more significant. I try as much as possible to avoid the “this vs. that” argument. For instance, by recognizing that some people struggle to quit playing video games does not mean everyone does. It’s not, video games are “good” or “bad”. Both can co-exist. We can help those who want it, and allow the rest to game in peace.

BF:  That makes sense- one doesn’t invalidate the other. We know that video game addiction is a reality, but we also know that not everyone who plays video games is an addict. How can someone tell if they’ve developed an addiction?

CA:   I’ll share a few things to pay attention to in a second, but first I just want to mention that regardless of whether you feel like you have an addiction or not, if you have a desire to quit gaming, permanently or just for a period of time, I still encourage you to do that. For instance, you could try a break for 90 days  and see how that feels. Just because you “can” game, doesn’t mean you have to. Especially if it’s having some degree of negative impact in your life.

Here are signs you want to look for in a potential addiction: preoccupation (games are on your mind throughout the day), withdrawal symptoms, a need to play more and more, failed attempts to quit or moderate, loss of interest in other hobbies or activities, continuing to play even with it having a negative impact on your life, using gaming to escape, and/or gaming being the cause of a significant loss in your life, something like losing a relationship, failing school/college and/or losing job or career opportunity. In my situation, I found myself thinking about games all day long, I pretended to have jobs and deceived my family to game more, I relapsed when I tried to quit, and I used gaming to escape from depression. One summer my family went to Italy on a vacation and to be honest, I was upset to be there. I would have preferred to just be at home gaming. If you want to read the full proposed criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder” – the technical term for video game addiction, click here.

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BF:  Sounds like the criteria for other kinds of addictions, too. You had mentioned in your story that at one point, you decided to seek counseling for your gaming addiction. I also saw that your Respawn program for people who are trying to quit gaming is pretty comprehensive, with varying perspectives. Are there elements of your Respawn program that are based on things you found helpful in counseling?

CA:  Seeking the support of a counselor was a turning point in my life. I finally had a space to talk about what I was feeling and going through without worrying about judgement, while also having accountability based on the various agreements we made during our sessions. I’m grateful for the support of my counselor many years ago, and encourage anyone reading this who is looking for an additional perspective in their life, or simply someone to talk to openly without judgement to seek the support of a counselor.

Respawn is the program I developed after having thousands of conversations with gamers all over the world who wanted to quit. I originally began writing about this subject in 2011, and it wasn’t until April 2015 that the first version of Respawn was released. During that 4 year period, I was emailing back and forth and testing ideas to see what would work best. The program has been a huge success. Although I don’t come from an official counseling background, I know many counselors who share the program with their clients, and have used it themselves to help them understand how to approach this issue. On the other hand, and I mean this with no shade to any professionals out there, but I believe part of my success has come from the fact that I am just a normal guy, who went through the issue himself, and who cares. Because of this, I’m able to speak to them in a way that resonates, and without formal models of how to view the problem, I’m able to listen a bit more closely to what’s really going on, including seeing patterns in the interactions I have with thousands of members over the course of many years.

BF:  It must be awesome to know that you’ve developed a program that counselors have given their seal of approval! How much has the amount of resources improved since you sought help? Do counselors seem more aware now than they used to be?

CA:  When it comes to video game addiction, there is still a huge need for more resources, including proper training for mental health professionals. For instance, I receive emails from people who take the courageous step to seek the support of a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist, only to have them laugh at them  when they say it’s about video games. To me, that is unacceptable, and it’s part of where my passion and sense of urgency comes from to spread more awareness about this issue.

The good news, is that if you’re someone who struggles with a video game addiction, or you simply want to quit playing video games, regardless of your economic status, we have many resources that can help you, including over 100 videos on YouTube  and a very active community on the forum who will support you every step of the way. As Mark shared, “I’ve always thought I was alone in this, and now I know I’m not. And that motivates me to finally move on from gaming and succeed in life instead.”

BF:  It’s great how despite the lack of full awareness in the mental health community, your work still makes it possible for people to get the help they need. Last question I have for you is: How can people help to bring awareness to video game addiction?

CA:  There are too many people being impacted by this issue to wait until other sectors catch up. I hope that my work acts as an example of the impact you can make when you take a stand for something you believe in.

The best way for people to help bring awareness to video game addiction is spread the message far and wide – and to do it in a way that you represent those who are struggling with the issue. We all have different platforms to do that with. By you reaching out to have a conversation with me, that helps a lot! Sharing the TEDx video, website, or YouTube videos on social media helps a lot. If you’re in high school or college, find the person in charge of bringing in guest speakers and ask them to bring someone on this topic. If anybody is interested in the latter, email me or reach out to CAMPUSPEAK. I’d love to talk to you more about that!

If you have a skill in filmmaking, you could make a short video or documentary on the subject. If you love photography, do a photo series on gaming addicts. If you love research, do research on the topic. We all have our unique gifts to share! When you hear of someone who is struggling with this issue, direct them to us. If you personally struggle, share your story online! Many of these may seem small on their own, but together they add up a lot over time, and that’s ultimately how we will reach all of the people who are currently struggling in silence. I’m always open to ideas as well, so if you’d like to contact me I’m on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Thank you again for helping us to spread awareness about this issue.

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The takeaway: When it comes to addictions, it’s not about what you’re addicted to; it’s about how it impacts your life.  The more we talk about addictions such as video game addiction, the more aware mental health professionals and our peers will become.  Be sure to check out Cam’s work, and if you have an idea for another issue that should be covered, please let me know!

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Brianna for interviewing me! I really enjoyed our conversation and your efforts will make a positive impact on those currently struggling in silence. If anyone has any questions, I’m here to answer them. 🙂

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