Once he left college, he had to make a choice: either find somewhere else to live and play the game, at his expense, or quit the game, start working, and go back to school part time. He chose the latter and is now finishing up an associate's degree. "We determined there would be no computer games allowed in our house when we saw how destructive they could be," says his mother. The family even locked up the computers. "The longer he spends away from this, the more he'll realize how destructive and what a fantasy world it was," she says. "But I don't know what will happen when he goes out on his own."
Therapy wasn't an option, since the young man was an adult and refused to go. But even when age or willingness isn't an issue, finding effective professional help can be a challenge. For now, game addiction is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, which means that there are no national guidelines for what therapy should entail. Whether this will change in 2012, the date a new apa handbook on mental disorders is scheduled to come out, is still up for discussion. Pathological video and computer game play would now be considered one of a broad group of "behavioral addictions" that also includes compulsive shopping and addiction to online pornography, for example. The only behavioral addiction now specifically listed in the handbook is pathological gambling. To treat these disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to identify the thought processes that lead to the compulsion and to change the destructive thinking. Families seeking help may need to pay out of their own pockets, because insurance typically doesn't cover addictions that don't officially exist. That said, many young gamers are diagnosed with other conditions such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Elsewhere in the world, the problem is recognized as huge. Governments in China and South Korea have helped fund treatment centers and hotlines for electronic game addicts. Keith Bakker, director of the Smith and Jones Center in Amsterdam, a residential detox center that treats video game addicts from around the world, compares their poison to crack cocaine. But "it's easier to treat a coke addict than it is a gamer," he says. "The gamer's denial is so great, and it's compounded by family and community," he says. "Who in the world thinks gaming is a problem?" At first, the center kept gamers physically apart from other addicts, but results were much better when the kids took group therapy with residents troubled by eating disorders, marijuana, or cocaine. "They began to see the similarities between themselves," Bakker says. After they stop denying they have an addiction and the damage it's causing, he notes, many young people never pick up a game again.
Outside help. In this country, some families are turning to wilderness therapy. The Aspen Education Group, a California-based organization that treats underachievers from around the country, provides young people ages 11 to 18 with a back-to-nature approach to ending their gaming obsessions. "At home when they have frustrations, they go to their video games," says therapist Aaron Shaw. "Here they have cold weather, hiking." By being away from their screens for seven to nine weeks, he says, "they learn some healthier coping mechanisms." Shaw first tries to discover kids' reasons for playing; often, he finds, it's to find freedom and fun and out of a need for greater acceptance from their parents. (If Mom is always nagging that games are a waste of time, notes Shaw, "they say: 'Screw you, my friends online love me, and I'll hang out with them.'")
To that point, Young advises parents who want to head off serious trouble to find ways to limit play without blaming or criticizing. Better to set—and enforce—time restrictions, as the Morellis do, put electronics in a well-trafficked area, and make it easy for a child to choose clubs or sports. Games should never be a child's main focus, cautions Woolley. Her wisdom is hard won. Several years ago, Woolley's son committed suicide in front of his computer with his favorite game on the screen.