Senior Charles Whitehead said he is not sure exactly when he became addicted to video games. He is certain, however, that by the time he was a teenager, his habit was fully formed, and he often played games up to 10 hours a day.
A 2009 Iowa State University study found that 8.5 percent of gamers ages eight to 18 exhibited “pathological use” of video games, and Whitehead said he was on the low end of that age range when his struggles began.
“Honestly, it was probably a problem from as young as nine,” Whitehead said. “But the effects didn’t surface until I had responsibilities, which would have been around 12. I think by then I knew it was happening, but at that point I couldn’t see a better path than the one I was on.”
Whitehead said he became dependent on video games because he lacked a conventional social life, and gaming offered an appealing alternative.
“I didn’t have a ton of friends in grade school and junior high, so video games sort of became my friends,” Whitehead said. “It became an escape. If you felt you weren’t dealt the best hand in life, MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) let you be whoever you wanted to be, in a world that was totally different from yours.”
Research published in the January 2011 issue of the American Pediatrics Association journal suggests Whitehead is not alone. Iowa State psychology professor Dr. Douglas Gentile and five researchers from Singapore and Hong Kong conducted a two year study including over 3,000 children in primary or secondary school. They found that patterns of increased gaming and lower social comfort were among the primary risk factors for developing a pathological gaming habit.
Those who did exhibit pathological gaming behavior were more susceptible to depression, social anxiety, lower performance in school, and missing out on sleep.
Gladys Smith, a counselor on Webster’s Student Counseling and Life Development staff, said she has seen an increasing number of cases like Whitehead’s in recent years. Smith, a master addictions counselor under the National Board for Certified Counselors, said from the outside, it can be difficult to identify a gaming addiction without proper training.
“Sometimes they might not be addicted, but it’s just a case of over-interest combined with poor sleeping habits,” Smith said. “And in those cases, if we can improve their sleep schedule and help incorporate some other things in their life, it makes all the difference. Other times that’s not the case, and we have to treat it as an addiction. It’s hard to distinguish sometimes for people, and that’s why it’s really important to get a good assessment from a professional.”
Whitehead never got such an assessment during the height of his dependency, and he said embarrassment was part of the reason he did not.
“Nobody wants to admit that it’s an addiction, especially when it’s something like video games,” Whitehead said. “The resources are growing, and I wish I would have known what would have helped me growing up.”
What did help him, he said, was meeting a group of fellow gamers who helped him understand the need for balance. Whitehead said that when he joined the Super Smash Bros. scene in St. Louis, he was surprised to learn that the people eliminating him from tournaments led full lives outside the game.
“They were great students at Wash. U., and I think one of them was near the top of their class,” Whitehead said, “And they still managed to be some of the best players in the Midwest. I looked at them and thought ‘What are they doing differently from me?’ Not only did that motivate me to start sleeping more and take better care of myself, but spending time around them trying to learn from them also filled my life with positive social interactions. That was validating on a level I hadn’t always experienced before.”
When he began to practice healthier habits, Whitehead said he experienced improvements in all aspects of his life, including his studies and athletics. Whitehead spent four years as a member of Webster’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, and his name now makes several appearances in the school’s record book. Whitehead said he credits much of that success to his more balanced lifestyle.
“I’d been playing sports my entire life,” Whitehead said. “I understood the theory, but I didn’t know how badly I’d been handicapping myself before. It’s amazing how much better you run when you’re taking care of yourself; It felt like training with a weighted vest on and then taking the weights off.”
Smith said outcomes like Whitehead’s story are exactly what she hopes to accomplish when presented with a similar case.
“Different people can arrive at the same solution in many different ways,” Smith said. “What matters is that you find the right approach, and what he did was perfect. He set parameters for himself, he shifted his gaming into a social context and surrounded himself with people who led engaging lives. They say ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.’ He had a goal, and he took the necessary steps to change. That’s beautiful.”
However, Smith said she would encourage people with similar issues not to face them alone, but instead to see professionals equipped to help them, and not delay in doing so. “One of the most harmful myths we hear all the time with regard to addiction is that you have to hit bottom in order to get better,” Smith said.
“That leads to a mentality where not having hit bottom becomes a rationalization to keep living the same way. We try to communicate that it’s never too soon to make a change for the better.”
Whitehead said he agrees, and that he wants to help others susceptible to problems like his find opportunities to enjoy gaming in a social context. He said that desire is part of what led him to become president of Webster’s Video Game Club for the 2015-2016 school year, and to help in founding the Webster Fighting Game Community.
He said that now, equipped with a healthier relationship with gaming, as well as an understanding of what lead him into trouble, he hopes he can be an example showing that gamers can lead fulfilling lives in part because of gaming, rather than in spite of it.
“I only recently began looking at gaming as a way to help further my professional career,” Whitehead said. “And as it turns out, there are a lot of opportunities for video production in that field. It’s liberating to be able to enjoy something I love in a way that enriches my life as a self-sufficient adult. If I can do that for a living every day, that will be a dream come true.”