COVID-19, Video Games and Gaming Addiction

Graph of concurrent Steam (a popular gaming platform) users by statista.com

Online gaming during the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a massive boom in play and popularity. The video game industry is likely ecstatic about the 9.3% increase in revenue from last year. Esports, which is practically ready-made for many disappointed sports fans, is on track to surpass every professional sports league besides the NFL in viewership by 2021. The streaming website, Twitch, has also seen a massive increase in viewership, reaching a new record average of about 2.5 million concurrent viewers in April, an increase of 85% over their 2019 high. 

However, there is an outstanding question: is this actually good for gamers? Are games bringing people closer during the pandemic, or sinking them further into isolation and addiction?

What Does an Expert Think?

Alok Kanojia is a psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School who specializes in addiction, especially video game addiction. Kanojia’s interest in this specific field is personal as he himself struggled with addiction to video games when he was in college. Although he is a practicing private psychiatrist, Kanojia spends much of his time these days streaming on Twitch and training “Healthy Gamer” coaches to provide peer-to-peer support for gamers. Both of these programs are part of a process he calls “AOE healing” (in reference to “area of effect” abilities in many video games). 

“Right now I think games are doing what they’ve always done, it’s just more extreme. Both the positive and negative,” Kanojia said. “I’m not against video games at all, I think they’re fantastic, but just like anything else you need to take time for other things.” 

Alok Kanojia, Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School

When it comes to treating addiction, Kanojia believes strongly in the integration of Eastern in Western medicine as he was trained in both extensively. He holds the Hindu/yogic concept of dharma in high regard because  he’s seen it help gamers take steps to overcome their addiction instead of simply coping with them. Kanojia states that, “you need to find a competing interest, something that is more important to you than your immediate comfort. That’s how you make lasting progress towards becoming the person you want to be.”  

In several of his videos, Kanojia uses the metaphor: “If someone points a gun at me, I’m going to try to get out of the way. But if someone’s pointing a gun at my kid I’m going to jump in front of it because I care more about my kid than I do my own pleasure or pain. Protecting my kid is my dharma.” Although most of his examples are not quite so dramatic, Kanojia frequently highlights how important it is to allow oneself to be uncomfortable when overcoming something like addiction or trauma.

“Gamers often have this mindset that they are worthless or the only thing they can succeed at is gaming, but it’s never true.” 

Alok Kanojia, Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist

Another piece of advice Kanojia often gives gamers and the perpetually online is to take time to step away from constantly critiquing and consuming media to be creative. “Just write anything down. If you can’t think of anything, write down one thing you think is wrong with the world and why,” he once told his stream. “Gamers often have this mindset that they are worthless or the only thing they can succeed at is gaming, but it’s never true,” Kanojia said.

Although Kanojia has expressed concerns about what effect the pandemic might have on gamers, he remains optimistic even in the face of rising depression and suicide rates. “The thing about gamers is that a lot of them are really smart,” Kanojia said. “All they need is the right encouragement and support. And it’s my dharma to make sure they get it.”

Who is Suffering?

Joa Yi is currently a student at Tompkins County Community College (TC3) studying music production. She’s also someone struggling with video game usage and depression whose life got utterly turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Basically the second I turned 18 my mom kicked me out of the house” Yi recounts, “and though I didn’t really want to go back to school, what else was I going to do?” Unable to find a job to pay for her housing and student loans, Yi feels almost as if she’s living on borrowed time. 

Yi takes solace in video games, something she’s used to cope with trauma for as long as she can remember. “It’s the only thing I enjoy,” Yi repeated multiple times during the interview. “Everything else I have liked just takes too much energy, energy I just don’t have.”

And it’s not hard to see why Yi is exhausted. Anxiety about her future has given her a bad case of insomnia. A heavy course load and a need to play video games just to calm her nerves has done nothing to help. “My sleep schedule is basically destroyed,” she relates. “I wake up and go to sleep at a different time everyday and nothing helps. Not even melatonin.” 

“The only time I feel okay is when I’m gaming. But I’m not good enough to go pro or stream, so I just feel stuck.” 

Joa Yi, Tompkins Community College Student

For Yi, video games are like a double edged sword. On the one hand they keep her from both her studies and from sleep. On the other, they are one of the only ways she can interact safely with her friends and also the only time she feels like she has even an ounce of control. The only time she can allow herself to feel anything. “When I get a kill or score or beat a boss, I get this rush and I can actually feel my heart beating. It’s the only thing that makes me realize I’m alive.”

Photos by Ezra Baptist

As Yi plays Overwatch, one of her favorite games, she was focused, and emotionally engaged, very different from her stoic position just minutes earlier. When she finished her game she said, “The thing I want you to understand is I wish I liked doing other things. But games are all I have. Without them, I don’t think I’d still be here.”

Ezra Baptist

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