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By John Shmuel

A plate with pizza crust, old pop cans and a bag of Bits & Bites lie scattered around two computer monitors. Each one is running World of Warcraft, a popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (commonly abbreviated as MMORPG or MMO).

The computer’s case is open to allow for better ventilation because it’s been running for days.

“I let programs I bought online play for me when I’m at class or work. It can get you banned, but it’s worth the risk,” says Ryan, who doesn’t want his last name used. Ryan is in second-year computer science at Ryerson — and one of many people who counts himself as a hardcore MMO player. He plays upwards of 40 hours a week.

“The game doesn’t really end,” he says. “There’s always a chance you get, you know, better armour, or a faster mount. You need to invest time to have all that.”

Ryan admits the game has him hooked.

“I always joke and call it Warcrack. It’s hard to get away from. I’ve missed a lot of classes because I played all night and then slept in the next morning. I tried quitting a few times, but it always sucks me back in.”

A few weeks before 15-year-old Brandon Crisp disappeared in the woods near Barrie, a pilot program to treat Internet and gaming addiction quietly opened in Toronto. While rescue teams searched for Crisp, who had run away after his parents took away his Xbox, patients started receiving treatment at the new clinic dubbed ACES (Adolescent Clinical Education Service).

The program, set up by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), is the first of its kind in Ontario.

The launch shed light on an issue that’s usually seen as belonging in poorly-lit basements rather than medical journals: gaming addiction.

On university campuses, where students want to get away from heavy workloads and demanding schedules, MMOs can provide the perfect escape.

* * *

When it comes to addictions, most psy- chiatrists don’t usually equate video games with alcohol or drugs. Video games get lumped into process addictions, which are non-chemical dependencies like being addicted to the Internet or gambling.

The launch of ACES by CAMH in September was meant to deal with those types of addictions. The clinic is currently open to patients between 16 and 24. It won’t go public until next month, according to Michael Torres, a spokesperson for CAMH.

“We’re still trying to get it staffed properly with doctors. But we’re already treating a few patients.”

The clinic may be the first of its kind in Ontario, but it follows a common trend happening around the world: more and more people, especially parents, are claiming someone they know is addicted to video games.

In the Netherlands, a detox centre for gamers was launched in 2005. Considered the first of its kind in the world, the centre is operated by Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants.

Doctors at the clinic witnessed some patients sweat and shake during the first few days they were taken away from their games, clear signs they were experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

China took a more rigid approach to gamer addicts by opening boot camps last year that follow strict meal plans and daily exercise requirements. The government set up the camps after a number of high profile gamer deaths occurred in the country. In one case, a man collapsed and died in September 2007 after he had gamed for 36 hours straight playing an MMO.

“I think it’s an issue that’s been neglected,” says Charl Els, addiction psychiatrist and medical review officer for the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA). “We know extremely little about these addictions.”

Els said there’s currently no diagnostic criteria that exists for gaming addiction.

“Until we reach almost an epidemic where the issue is so much in our face, and we can’t ignore it any longer, and that’s usually, when, unfortunately, the research starts.”

He says that many psychiatrists have heard enough anecdotes to acknowledge that a problem does exist.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is currently examining whether video game addiction will be added to the revised diagnostic manual to be released in 2012. Els says he’s not aware of similar work in Canada, though he supports research into the topic.

* * *

Yousif Yassi, a former student, dropped out of Ryerson last year. During his time at the school, he was playing World of Warcraft (commonly abbreviated as WoW).

He spent a lot of his time in the game socializing with friends, some of whom he knew in real life. Eventually, the time spent online cut into his schoolwork. After missing assignments and getting bad grades because of excessive gaming, he finally left Ryerson.

“There were a few other factors, but the time I spent in WoW was a big reason for it,” Yassi says, who recently quit the game and is currently enrolled at Seneca College.

“I went from being a D or even an F student when I played, to being a B student currently,” he says. “The game definitely interfered with my school work. And I normally consider myself a pretty responsible person.”

MMOs are increasingly being targeted for their addictive qualities. Unlike most video games, they require a monthly subscription to play, and usually require hundreds of hours in time investment to attain significant achievements in the game.

“The company wants you to keep paying them every month, so it has to have some addictive qualities,” says Yassi.

However, he doesn’t quite equate them with alcohol or drug addiction. “You can always turn a game off.”

* * *

There’s no doubt some Ryerson students are seeing their grades plummet at the hands of video games, particularly MMOs. Health and finances factor into that equation as well. Ryan used to spend about $100 a month buying in-game items for his characters, including in-game currency.

“I kind of got to the point where I looked at my credit card bill and said this has got to stop. So I called the bank and cancelled it.”

So far he’s dropped one course this semester. He’s considering withdrawing because his marks have slipped.

“I’m trying to catch up, but it’s kind of a ‘too little, too late’ situation.”

Ryan says that one of the reasons the games are so appealing is they offer all the allure of a social networking site, but with added benefit of interacting without having to travel to actually see other people.

“Online games were doing what Facebook is doing now ten years ago,” he says. “You get into these games and you want to have the best armour, or the highest score, just like you want to be respected in real life,” he explains.

“Some of these game accounts run for $800 on eBay. So those people who don’t take gaming addiction seriously, well, they should consider it — there are people who’d rather have Brutal Gladiator Battlegear than a new car. They’d rather be popular in the game than in the real world because the game’s sucked them in and it’s all they care about.”

Last week, Ryan decided to go cold turkey and quit the games he was playing.

“I destroyed the discs. I’ve had friends that have done the same. Some of them have gone back. But we’ll see.”

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