Escaping virtual reality

'They are not escaping to nowhere, they are escaping to somewhere'

ADDICTION. Gamers can get lost in their own world.

 

MANILA, Philippines – It’s easy for one to get lost in a sea of game jargon when in the company of gamers. They speak as if they belong to a different world altogether – and who can blame them?

It’s the magic and allure of fantasy games: you enter into a world so ideal, it’s hard to leave.

For Ellen’s son Andrew, leaving was especially harder.
 
Andrew was the youngest of 4 children, the lone son Ellen had with her second husband after her first husband died. A government employee in her late 50s, Ellen had 3 older children from her first marriage.

The 3 had already graduated, the eldest among them, already married. The second child joined the military and is assigned in Jolo, Sulu, while the third is a fresh grad. They readily accepted Andrew into the family – but not their stepfather.
 
Andrew’s father was a very strict disciplinarian, Ellen says, recalling how small misdeeds would instantly merit punishments from him. Her 3 older children never hid their dislike for their stepfather, and unfortunately, it was 17-year-old Andrew who got caught in the middle.
 
“Andrew felt unwelcome in the family and unloved by his siblings,” Ellen says. “That was not true, but he still felt that way.”

From hobby to addiction

What started out as a child’s hobby evolved into something life-changing – and not in a good way.

Like most children his age, Andrew would watch Voltes V on TV and play the then-popular multi-player, online role-playing game, (MMORPG) Ragnarok Online.

It was his way of spending his free time, as his parents were often at work and his siblings were busy with their studies. Left alone, the computer and his fantasy world became a natural part of his everyday routine.

Everything started out mildly: after class, Andrew would go home, watch his television shows, play his games, help out with the chores, and do his schoolwork. Over time, however, he started cutting classes or going home late to drop by computer shops and get lost in the gaming realm.

The habit carried over to life back at home: he would save up all his money to buy expensive games, and he eventually started neglecting his schoolwork.

MODERATION. Anything in excess can be potentially harmful.

Over and over
 
Alarmed at her son’s worsening condition (he sometimes forgot to eat), Ellen tried several attempts to wean him off the addiction. By the time Andrew entered his first year in college, she had separated with her 2nd husband after constant arguments over the children.

Andrew’s performance in school worsened. By the first semester, he failed 3 subjects and then failed all his subjects in the second semester.

Although Andrew stayed with her, Ellen sometimes sent him to his father for company.
 
“His father worked at a construction company, so I thought that if he were around them, he’d be more sociable,” Ellen says. “But he kept doing the same things – playing his video games on his laptop.”
 
To keep an eye on him, she started coming home earlier and insisting that they sleep at the same time. But he would often give her the slip.

“Once he saw that I was asleep, he’d sneak downstairs and turn on his games again,” she says. “When I’d catch him playing, he’d promise that he’d only just save the game and go back to sleep, but he’d keep doing the same thing over and over.”
 
Professional help
 
Ellen sent her son to a psychiatrist from Makati Medical Hospital. The doctor’s diagnosis: Andrew had, in his self-imposed solitary confinement, befriended his computer so much that he had planted himself in a fantasy world where he was the hero, the one who calls the shots.
 
Ellen had to resort to hiding the laptop from her son, which often resulted in shouting matches and uncalled-for accusations. “He’d shout, ‘It’s because you love my older siblings more than me.’”

To calm him down, she’d offer him juice with sleeping pills; he could not seem to rest properly back in those days. “His brain was constantly working, his fingers were moving as if he were still handling the controller,” she says.
 
Things eventually became a little too much to handle. “I was getting tired from having to check up on him, see if he’s sleeping and eating well,” she says. “My other children said that it’s better to send him to professional care rather than risk myself getting sick over him.”
 
In October 2011, they took him up to Tagaytay initially just to inquire about the facilities and rates of rehabilitation centers. But Andrew was smart – he sensed immediately what his parents were up to.
 
“He figured out that we were looking to send him to rehab. He started shouting and went hysterical; he even attempted to drive the car himself. Three security guards came out and asked what was going on and helped restrain him. We didn’t plan for it to happen then, but he eventually went into a rehab center that very same day.”
 
A fresh start
 
Andrew’s entry into the rehabilitation center was a mixed bag for the family: on the one hand, it provided relief for a distressed family, and on the other, losing Andrew for 6 months took both a financial and emotional toll for Ellen.
 
Professional care meant P30,000 to P35,000 a month. Prior to rehab, Ellen was spending P4,000 per hour for a consultation session with a psychiatrist.
 
Prior to entering the rehab center, Andrew’s mind was preoccupied with thoughts of gaming. When he entered the center, however, and in the 6 months he spent inside, anything related to video games was totally cut off from his daily activities.

He was made to participate in the communal disciplinary activities. He also underwent counseling, schooling, and training to create handicrafts such as needlework, among others.
 
Just last March 25, Andrew was finally allowed to see his family for lunch. “He was crying when he saw us,” Ellen says, tearing up a bit herself. “Sabi niya, miss na miss na niya kami.” (He said he missed us terribly.)
 
“He wanted to apologize for his behavior, everything. Sayang ang panahon at oras. Malayo na sana ang narating niya, nasayang pa niya. Nagsisisi siya,” she continues. “Sabi niya, ’pag lumabas ako dito, gusto ko mag-aral ulit, gusto ko maging businessman balang araw,” putting up a grocery and perhaps a bakery (Time was wasted. He could have gone far but missed the opportunity. He was repentant. He said, “When I get out of here, I want to go back to school and be a businessman someday.”)
 
Compared to the raging 17-year-old when he first entered the center, Andrew appeared smiling, happy, and thanking them for putting him in rehab. “He learned how to befriend other people,” she says. “He thanks us for his improvement.”
 
‘Last-minute save’

Ellen says that Andrew was a case of a last-minute save: he had been borderline psychotic, and if he had not gone into rehab, he might have been totally lost to his fantasy world.
 
There were times before that he would cover himself with a hood, talk to himself while in the dark, or tell his mother that he had supernatural powers. All of these, his psychiatrist attributes to the hold that his video games had on him.
 
From the psychiatric evaluations, what Andrew was looking for was love, a good support system, quality time, and a fix to the perceived sibling rivalry.
 
“I keep telling him that he is loved,” Ellen says. “We tell him, you probably don’t know how much your siblings love you because you detach yourself from them.”
 
Mahalaga ang buhay, intindihin mo ang magkaroon ng future. Kung may masamang nangyari sa family hindi mo kontrolado at wala kang magagawa roon. Problema nila yun; ang intindihin mo sarili mo, ipakita mo na may kakayahan kang ayusin ang buhay mo.” (Life is important, pay attention to having a good future. If anything bad happens to the family, you can’t control it and you can’t do anything about it. It’s their problem; pay attention to yourself, show them that you have the ability to put your life in order.)

As Ellen takes out photos of their first visit with Andrew, she is hopeful for her and her family as they expect Andrew to get discharged soon.

EVEN IN KOREA. Internet gaming is popular even among Korean youth. AFP photo

Dangers of gaming

Andrew is not by himself. In South Korea, a couple was so immersed in taking care of their virtual baby that they forgot their real-life infant who died due to starvation.

Parents are continually warned about the bad effects of gaming, which are thought to encourage violent behavior among children. One of the most tragic school shooting in the United States, the Columbine High School massacre, was allegedly caused by the killers’ constant exposure to violent imagery in video games – one among many identified probable causes for the incident.

Computer addicts continue to abound. Ellen says someone she knows, much older than her teenage son, would steal valuables just to be able to fund his addiction. But these, unlike Andrew, do not end up in rehab centers, deterred by the high cost in fixing a rampant but underrated problem.
 
Andrew’s story sheds light on the seriousness of what is commonly regarded as a mere hobby of kids. If uncontrolled and not taken seriously, fantasy world strategies of attack-and-defend can carry over to the real world.

In moderation

But new research led by scientists at the University of Essex, however, points out another side of gaming: instead of encouraging violent behavior, it can even encourage strategic thinking and self-building.
 
According to research by Dr Andy Przybylski, gaming is a platform for trying on different characteristics which gamers want to adopt as an ideal self.
 
“A game can be more fun when you get the chance to act and be like your ideal self,” explains Dr Przybylski. “The attraction to playing videogames and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.”
 
The study also found that there was greater enjoyment when there was least overlap between someone’s actual and his ideal self. After observing nearly a thousand dedicated gamers, the findings showed that games were not used to escape but rather to pursue ideals.
 
“They are not escaping to nowhere, they are escaping to somewhere,” Przybylski said. Instead of simply acting out violent tendencies, video games can be used as positive, esteem-building exercises. Provided these are always done in moderation. – Rappler.com


Names in the story have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.