x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The irresistible lure of online games

The more people experience the euphoria of playing computer games, the harder it becomes for them to stop, a psychiatrist says.

A scene from World of Warcraft, a popular online game with 12 million players worldwide.
A scene from World of Warcraft, a popular online game with 12 million players worldwide.

ABU DHABI // More than 12 million people worldwide are hooked on the online gaming sensation World of Warcraft. For many, online games are just fun, but for others their preoccupation with the role-playing is addictive, a local doctor said.

For some of schoolchildren and college students who play the games in the UAE, giving it up after the long summer break may not be easy, said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, the medical director of the American International Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi. He cautioned that the "euphoria" and "sense of victory" players get from these games could become addictive. "It's a different high," he said, and playing excessively can lead to losing "control over the drive to stop".

"It's very difficult to go back to structured life, and it can have a very big effect on a child or student going to college," Dr Abou Allaban said. One local student said he realised he needed to quit playing online games if he wanted to achieve his dream of going to college in Japan. Mazen Salem, 18, a Palestinian living in Sharjah, was playing three or four hours on school days and seven to nine hours a day at weekends, he said. His parents were upset because he spent so much time on his computer.

The game was "seductive" and consumed his free time. "Or after a while, what you think is your free time, when it's actually your work, school, life time," he said. When he realised his grades were suffering, Mr Salem said, "I stopped playing and started to look more after my studies." There is growing concern internationally about the amount of time people spend playing online games. In Washington, the first American centre to combat internet and video game addiction opened in August.

Similar centres have long existed in countries such as China and South Korea, where an online strategy game, Starcraft, has achieved the status of national pastime. The issue was cast into the spotlight in 2005, when a South Korean baby suffocated after the parents left the four-month-old child to sleep alone while they went to play at a nearby internet cafe. The immense popularity of World of Warcraft is attributed in part to its polish, graphics, humour and challenges. Many players say they love the "carrot" element - they keep playing for the promise of new rewards, or a bigger dragon to ride.

For others, the appeal lies in organised raiding, when groups of 10 or 25 players play together for hours to beat difficult in-game monsters. Dr Abou Allaban, a psychiatrist, said addiction to such games was usually a symptom of an underlying psychological condition, such as social anxiety. "They go online and interact with others without that embarrassment," he said. A 15-year-old student in Dubai said he had been particularly consumed with online games over the summer holidays.

"I used to get up by two in the afternoon and play till five the next morning," said the boy, who asked not to be named. The game playing had a big impact on his social life. "I used to not go to the club for football, and sometimes at parties I would actually take my laptop and play there," he said. College students can be even more susceptible to becoming addicted, because of a lack of parental supervision.

"The more I played the game, the harder it was to sign out," said Hoda Nagah, 21, who went to school in Dubai before returning to Egypt to finish college. "At first I'd miss a day of classes at college, then missing assignments would pile on. My attendance dangerously plummeted. "I would end up going to class at the most once a week or when there was a quiz. I had unlimited playing time because of no parent supervision during my college years, so it was easier to stay up the whole night and early morning online."

Others say that as they get older, they are able to manage their time online so they do not become addicted. Nagham Akileh, 24, an Australian business development manager, said she made a conscious decision to play World of Warcraft only on weekends, "so I don't get addicted". Paul Castle, 46, an American writer and proofreader who lives in the UAE, said he made spending time with his family a priority over playing the game, which prevented him from playing excessively. He did not think the game was anti-social, because of its co-operative aspects and the ability to chat and socialise with in-game friends.

One Dubai teacher said excessive gaming was simply a reflection of the times. "It's a consequence of urbanisation," said the teacher. He asked not to be named. "If there were more options activity-wise during the summer I'm sure they'd be doing something else instead." He said tight budgets meant parents could not afford to pay for summer camps and transport for their children, which meant kids were getting "stuck at home". Playing certain games might be a waste of time, but it was more important to strike a balance between gaming and other activities, he added.

"It's easy for parents to say, 'Oh, it's the video game,' but how many parents are spending time with their kids doing art, taking them out, playing sport?" newsdesk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Tim Brooks