From "Problem Gambling and Video Gaming" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 11
I was addicted to playing video games for over 10 years. Choosing to set gaming aside and move on to other things has taught me more about living a meaningful life than anything I’ve done before.
Growing up, I was a fairly normal Canadian kid. I went to school, I played hockey, and then I would go home and play video games. I was happy, I felt smart, and I had friends. That all changed in Grade 8, when I began to experience intense bullying, both at school and on my hockey team. The less frequently I went to school and hockey practice, the more I played video games.
Video games became my escape, a place where I had more control over my experience. When I was in Grade 11, my parents sent me from our Calgary home to Penticton, BC, to play hockey for the Okanagan Hockey Academy. The ploy was simple: if I wanted to play hockey, I had to go to school. And it worked. Although I still gamed a lot, I passed Grade 11. Unfortunately, when hockey ended midway through Grade 12, I dropped out of school. I moved back home, and for the next year and a half, I was depressed, living in my parents’ basement. I played video games for up to 16 hours a day.
My parents told me that if I wasn’t going to school, I had to get a job, so I got a job as a prep cook in a restaurant. Every morning for the first few weeks, my dad would drop me off at work. But as soon as he drove off, I would walk across the street and catch the bus back home. I would sneak in through my window and go back to bed—because I had been up all night playing video games. When my parents wondered where my pay cheque was, I made up some excuse. I would get another job and the pattern would resume. I would pretend to work a few weeks, and then I would tell my parents that I had “quit” or “got fired.” I was always making excuses.
Gaming only made things worse. One night, I was so depressed that I wrote a suicide note. After I wrote the note, my phone buzzed with a text message from a friend, inviting me to go see a movie—and luckily, I said yes. During the movie, I found myself laughing and smiling and having a great time. This shift in my mood made me realize that my mental health was in serious trouble, and I needed professional support. I came home that night and asked my father if he would help me find a counsellor. The counsellor made me a deal: I had to either get (and keep) a job, or I had to go on antidepressants. I got another job—but this time, I was committed to keeping it.
The new job—in retail—gave me structure and stability. I had a schedule to follow, and accountability. Most of all, I had a second chance. Up until this point, my life had been a mess. I was withdrawn and unhappy, and I gamed to escape. Now I had the opportunity to turn things around. In order to do this, I knew I would have to quit gaming.
For two years I didn’t play at all. I took the 16 hours a day I used to spend gaming and invested them in my goals and dreams instead. I learned social skills and made new friends. I read personal development books, attended workshops and started a business helping others.
My life was improving, but I also faced many challenges. The stress of having my own business was overwhelming at times. I experienced conflict with business partners and friends, and although my state of mind had improved significantly, I still struggled with anxiety and depression.
Then I relapsed. In the summer of 2009, the challenges became overwhelming and I just wanted to escape. Traditionally, I would use gaming for this, but since I had quit gaming, I figured maybe a change of scenery would help. I decided to move to Victoria. I found a place to live and moved in with two new roommates whom I met through an acquaintance.
One of my new roommates happened to be a professional poker player. That first night at the house, Ben and I started talking about our past gaming histories, and we realized that we used to play the same game: Starcraft. Ben immediately announced he was going to buy a copy of the game that night so we could play together. I told him I didn’t play anymore—that I really didn’t want to start gaming again—but he just laughed it off. “Just one game,” he said.
He returned with the game, and over the next 30 minutes he proceeded to absolutely destroy me.
Humiliated by my defeat, I decided to improve my game so Ben could never beat me at Starcraft again. For the next five months, I fell back into my old habits and played for 16 hours a day, every day. I stopped working and lived off the small amount of savings I had from my business. I barely left the house other than to drive to Tim Hortons to get coffee and a bit of food.
My other roommate, James, would invite me to go to the gym, or go hiking or surfing, and I would always say no. I only wanted to game. Eventually, I realized my gaming was out of control and I needed to quit. Again.
This time, I took time to reflect on why I had been so drawn back to gaming. I realized that, for me, games fulfilled four main needs.
Temporary escape. Games provided me with an escape. Whenever I was feeling stressed out or needed a break from the day, gaming enabled me to temporarily forget my situation.
Social connection. Gaming provided me with a community. The online gaming world was where I felt welcome, safe and accepted. I think a lot of gamers feel a sense of social connection when they game, despite the stigmatizing stereotype of gamers as nerds, loners and losers.
Constant measurable growth. Games provided me with a positive feedback loop, where I could immediately see my improvement and my progress. I experienced a sense of instant gratification.
Challenge and certainty. Games gave me a structured sense of purpose, a mission and a goal to work towards. Games are specifically designed that way. I had to beat a boss, gain a weapon, acquire a new skill, complete a level. I always knew what the goal was and what I had to do to accomplish it. “Real life” isn’t that simple.
I realized that I didn’t game just because I love video games—or even because I think video games are fun. My drive to game—and the drive that many gamers experience—comes from a desire to fulfill certain needs. When gamers stop playing video games, they need to meet these needs with alternative activities—or they will continue to be drawn back to games, just like I was.
I also realized that if I was struggling to quit, surely there were many others out there who were struggling as well. When I decided to quit gaming that second time—in 2010—I went online to research how to quit playing video games.
To my surprise, there was not much useful practical advice out there. Instead, there were banalities—“Study more” and “Hang out with your friends”—which are not very useful things to tell an addicted gamer who might be using gaming to avoid attempting challenging tasks or making in-person social connections. I felt it was important to share my experiences as a hardcore gamer who struggled to find useful support, and to share what helped me recover from my addiction.
In May of 2011, I published my story on a personal development blog. It went viral, and I started hearing from tens of thousands of people who were seeking help for the same issue. This led me to found the online community Game Quitters, launched in 2015. Today, Game Quitters is the world’s largest support community—online or otherwise—for people struggling to overcome video game addiction, with members in 92 countries.
Game Quitters has 200 free videos on YouTube, addressing the most common concerns, such as how to deal with cravings, how to avoid replacing one addiction with another and how to overcome boredom. We also have a free community forum where people can connect with others, and online programs that walk gamers and parents through the quitting process step-by-step, including finding new activities, adding structure to the gamer’s day, overcoming withdrawal symptoms and connecting with like-minded people.
I haven’t played a video game for seven years, and my life has never been better. I spend my days travelling around the globe speaking to students, parents and mental health professionals about the challenges and rewards of quitting. I love to surf and to DJ. I have a great group of friends, and my family has never been closer. Most of all, I’m happy, and although I still experience challenges every day, I do my best to face them.
My dream is to ensure that anyone who is struggling with a video game addiction, or anyone who simply wants to stop playing for any reason whatsoever, has the best support possible. That’s why I created Game Quitters, and that’s why I wake up every day looking forward to doing the work I do.
About the author
An international speaker in the field of video game addiction, Cam was named one of the “150 Leading Canadians in Mental Health” by the Ontario-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). He is the founder of Game Quitters (gamequitters.com), the world’s largest support community for video game addiction, serving members in 92 countries