Video game addiction not only for boys anymore

By Jessica Fashant |

The sunlight could barely reach beyond the heavy curtains Lauren Hinkley pulled closed in the living room. It was a beautiful day, but she wouldn’t be going outside anytime soon, or even looking out the window. Rarely did she even have anything to say. She sat on the couch in long black pajama pants with a black oversized Cookie Monster t-shirt.

When I joined her at 8 a.m. on a Saturday in March, she had already completed levels in Dragon Age, Bioshock and Fallout, the three video games she plays most often.

Lauren has an addiction. I spent the weekend with someone who is obsessed with something I can’t understand. A number of studies have estimated that 10 to 15 percent of gamers exhibit signs that meet the World Health Organization’s criteria for addiction.

No lights were turned on in the living room, but I could see that Lauren’s red hair hadn’t been washed in days and if she had brushed it, she didn’t do it well. Neglecting to bathe or sleep is one of the many symptoms of video game addiction.

Lauren’s cell phone rang occasionally, but she only glanced at the numbers that lit up the screen before going back to the games. I watched as the living room coffee table slowly filled up with bowls and cans throughout the day. Lauren had four doughnuts and three bowls of cereal for breakfast and lunch and at least five cans of Coke before 1 p.m. When 4 o’clock rolled around, Lauren panicked and asked me to help her clean up because her sister would be home from classes soon. The tower of empty Coke cans on the side table had to be disassembled and thrown away while the dirty bowls and spoons had to be washed.

Lauren lives with her younger sister, Kristen Hinkley, in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Augustine. Kristen is a sophomore at the University of North Florida, and Lauren took classes at Valencia College in Orlando last year, but nearly failed out because she either wasn’t showing up to her classes or didn’t do the homework. At one point she had dreams of going to the University of Central Florida in Orlando for English literature, but she says college wasn’t for her. The truth is she plays video games nearly nine hours a day and it has replaced her previous passion, reading.

Lauren’s mother, Diana Hinkley, convinced Lauren to move back to the area, and she said she would pay for an apartment for her and Kristen. Diana hoped that having Lauren close to friends and family would ease her addiction but nothing has changed. The gaming started two years ago when Lauren received a Playstation 3 for Christmas. This was also when she started having problems with some of her friends. Two years ago, Lauren played video games for only a few hours a day. For the past year or so it’s become a lot worse.

High school was only the beginning. “Marina [Thomas] and I were friends for over four years. For a while she was my best friend, but I realized that it was a toxic friendship and she was just using me. She was manipulative and I didn’t know how to remove myself from the whole situation. High school in general was miserable. I was constantly picked on,” Lauren said. She meets with a therapist once a week for her depression, while also taking medication for it. Also, Lauren has always struggled with weight and self-confidence. She says she is at her heaviest, and can’t bring herself to exercise. Three years ago Lauren was diagnosed with anhidrosis, which means that she has no sweat glands in her body. When she works out or goes outside in hot weather, her body overheats.

“I feel like I’ve lost my best friend,” Ebony Ginn said. She and Lauren have been friends for over six years, and she feels helpless. “Every time I call her she doesn’t answer. Sometimes I stop by and knock on the door and she doesn’t answer, even when I know she’s home.” Ginn said Lauren has been neglecting her friends for such a long time that she’s about to give up. “I’ve made plans with her to get her out of the house and away from the TV, but she always ends up blowing me off and not answering my calls. Nothing seems to be working,” Ginn said.

Every job Lauren has had she has lost. Diana had to fire her daughter because she was constantly late or not showing up at all at a lingerie store she manages. Lauren doesn’t look for work because her mother pays everything for her. When Diana makes any attempt to help her, Lauren is defensive and says nothing is wrong. “Video games are just my outlet,” she said.

Kristen sees Lauren’s addiction at its worst. “I’ve come downstairs on my way to class and she’s sitting on the couch playing video games. Sometimes it looks like she hasn’t even bathed or slept yet. Then she lies to me about how long she’s been sitting on the couch playing games,” Kristen said. Lying about video game usage is another of the many symptoms of this addiction.

“She thinks that we’re ganging up on her, but she really doesn’t see her problem. The only time she leaves the house is to see her therapist once a week, and sometimes I don’t even hear her talk for days” Kristen said.

Lauren’s addiction may seem like laziness. She is medically obese, and she has low self-esteem. She has few friends and instead finds comfort in the people that she plays online video games with under the name FalloutChic87.

Matthew Wysocki, an assistant professor of communication at Flagler College, teaches classes on video games and has presented research and lectures on them. “Video games aren’t just for men anymore, they’re becoming increasingly popular for females as well,” he said.

“When start to interfere with your life, school and work, then I would say you have a problem,” Wysocki said. He believes that Lauren may find comfort in her online friends. “When you play multi-player games online, sometimes you can feel like you have to show up and play every day because your teammates depend on you. This may be how she feels,” he said. The character Lauren created to resemble herself online is different from her real self. Her character is slender and tall with long red hair. In reality, she is 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighs over 200 pounds and has short hair.

As evidence mounts for the existence of video game addiction, researchers at the American Medical Association have tried to determine who is most at risk for it. So far, evidence suggests that young people who are socially awkward, perhaps considered outcasts at school and are unusually lonely are most susceptible to gaming addiction. Many of these young people feel they are in more control online than they are in real life. They can create characters and reinvent themselves. They are readily welcomed in the online gaming community, a sharp contrast to how they feel at home or at school.

Dominic Giannotta and Loren Cook, employees at GameStop in St. Augustine, also believe that more women and girls are becoming gamers. First-person shooters and role-playing fantasy games such as The Sims and Oblivion are popular with both sexes. They say that more than 60 percent of their customers are females. Most of these female players play games online with their Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, the two most popular gaming consoles. In 2005, the Entertainment Software Association found that approximately 35 percent of all gamers are under 18 years of age. Approximately 9 percent of all gamers play massively multiplayer online role-playing games, which is the segment most likely to become addicted.

“Female gamers are still the minority today, but there are far more playing today than say 10 years ago. It used to be most games were male-oriented with male lead characters or very male themes. I don’t think these really interested female gamers. However, in today’s age a lot of games cross the gender boundary and have story lines or objectives that appeal to male and female gamers alike,” James Arndt said. He is an environment artist for Firebrand Games, who builds the virtual worlds players run or drive around in on video games. He believes that video game addiction is becoming much more common with both males and females.

Jason Hosch is a licensed mental health counselor at Life Transitions Counseling Center in Jacksonville. He believes nearly all addictions are the same. Video game addiction is not necessarily well-known amongst the psychiatric community, but it is an addiction nonetheless. In early 2007, the American Medical Association gathered information from 1985 through 2007 on video games and their effects. It was discovered that the behaviors associated with video game overuse are similar to those of gambling addiction.

“It’s not really about the addiction,” Hosch said. “Some people do it through food or drugs, but video games may seem more acceptable. It becomes a self-medicating escape, something they feel like they need to make it through the day,” he said. He believes that because Lauren isn’t happy with herself, she neglects her friends and family because they don’t understand and instead focuses her attention on gaming.

Diana is at her wit’s end. “I feel like the only option left is an intervention, but in my mind that almost seems silly. She’s not a drug addict so I should be happy about that, but sometimes I don’t know which is worse. I still feel like I’ve lost my daughter,” she said. Diana thought anti-depressants would pull Lauren out of her depression, but video-games seem to only fuel it. She falls deeper into the world of video games and pushes everyone further away. “She never calls me, and I’ve learned to not even go over to the house to visit. It breaks my heart every time I see her, and as a mother I feel helpless,” Diana said.

Diana has begun a search to find a therapist who deals with video game addiction.

“I really don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal about this. I’m fine,” Lauren said.

Until someone is able to help her, Lauren’s living room won’t be seeing sunlight anytime soon.

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