“I came here because my mother really forced me, but in retrospect I can see that I have a problem with gaming and I really want to fix it.”
Matthew is 16, lives with his parents in Sydney, and plays computer games for 12 hours a day.
He dropped out of school a few years ago after struggling with anxiety and depression and had planned to do distance education — but games got in the way.
“When I started playing games it was more of a hobby but now it’s more like I have to do it,” he says.
“I feel like I’m urged to do it everyday. I feel like it’s a job, basically.”
His mother Clare is seriously concerned by how much her son is gaming.
“It is an addiction and it has taken over Matthew’s life,” she says.
So when Clare came across Game Aware, a course teaching ‘intelligent gaming’, she had no hesitation in signing him up.
Teaching intelligent gaming
They made the nine-hour drive to Melbourne, where Game Aware is based, and Matthew found himself in a computer room inside a community centre in the suburbs.
He and the four other participants were welcomed by Andrew Kinch, the course founder.
“We’re trying to make sure that gaming is the icing on the cake, but it’s not the actual cake,” Mr Kinch says.
For the past four years Andrew Kinch has been running his course aimed at tackling excessive gaming habits. (ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)
Mr Kinch describes himself as a teacher, a wellbeing coordinator, a father and — most importantly — a gamer.
“If I don’t put on my gamer hat I don’t expect them to listen to what I have to say,” he says.
“They would just look at me like another adult wagging their finger saying, ‘games are bad’.”
And he knows where the kids are coming from: he admits he tipped the balance when it came to gaming in his 20s.
“I played Counterstrike, I guess on average five hours a day, I played too much for sure,” he says.
‘There are thousands of families dealing with this problem’
Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially classified video game addiction as a disorder.
Child psychologist Philip Tam, who specialises in internet and computer-related disorders, says the critical question is: “are you in control or is your internet usage in control of you?”
What defines a gaming disorder?
- Impaired control over gaming
- Increased priority given to gaming over other activities
- Continuation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences
- Behavioural patterns evident for at least 12 months
“Although we don’t know exactly how prevalent it is, given the number of calls I’m getting every week from desperate families all over Australia, the problem is quite widespread,” he says.
“I often only see the severe end, but there’s no doubt there are thousands of families dealing with this problem even if it’s not at the extreme end — it’s still causing an impairment to their education capital.”
Mr Kinch says problem gaming can involve “gaming excessively” or a “burning desire to play”.
“The purpose of Game Aware is to educate all about video games and motivation and why we like to play and why sometimes games can compel us to play,” he says.
“We play because we’ve got these core needs that we’re trying to meet in real life. It’s a lot easier to try and do that in a game.”
For example, he says, “open world explorative games” can make the player feel autonomous; others feel empowered by mastering new skills.
It can also be about connection.
“A lot of the time people are playing because they want to play with their friends — or because they struggle to make friends in real life and then they make online friends,” Mr Kinch says.
Matthew is on the autism spectrum, and his mother believes this is a contributing factor to his excessive gaming.
“I believe a lot of children on the spectrum have these types of habitual things that they’re interested in,” Clare says.
“It doesn’t have to be gaming, it can be another area of interest — it’s just that gaming is what he’s fallen into.”
Dr Tam agrees.
“When I see primary school children with autism I warn the parents that they should encourage healthy digital diet practices from an early age because it is far better to intervene right from the beginning,” he says.
From habit to hobby
Before the course ends, the parents are invited into the room.
Together with their child, they draft a ‘gaming contract’, a mutual agreement that maps out an appropriate amount of gaming.
Mr Kinch doesn’t advocate banning games entirely.
“The tagline here is to go from habit to hobby,” he says.
“You can say, ‘you need to find balance in your real life with your gaming’ — but that’s not enough.
“You’ve got to talk about how meeting out your time properly and gaming intelligently improved not only the balance but it improved the gaming.
“The end goal is to help them become more self-regulating in the future and in the meantime it’s kind of like self-regulation with training wheels.”
Matthew says the two-day course helped him realise that “it’s an addiction” and helped him figure out some solutions.
“Many other people out there just don’t understand it and cannot give solutions, they can only give what is the problem, which I know,” he says.
Asked if he will play less in the future, Matthew replied: “Possibly, I hope I will, I will try to play less.”