The ringing phone was breaking Kevin Roberts’ (’93) gaming concentration. It was a Saturday in December, 1997, and Roberts had told his family and friends he was headed up north for the weekend. But one friend and neighbor wasn’t fooled.
Roberts finally picked up the phone. “How long have you been playing?” the friend asked.
“I don’t know,” he hedged, his hand on the computer mouse launching another catapult to destroy a city wall.
“It’s noon right now,” the friend continued. “Have you been to bed yet?”
Roberts finally confessed. “Actually, I haven’t. I’ve been up for 22 hours straight, and most of that time has been spent on the computer.”
Roberts tells that story, in more detail, in the opening pages of Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap (Hazelden Publishing, 2010). He also spoke about cyber addiction at a U-M campus lecture this past September.
For 10 years, Roberts was addicted to video games. The addiction left him with carpal tunnel and persistent back pain. It cost him jobs, and it interfered with friendships and relationships. “I chose cyber pursuits over virtually everything and everyone close to me,” he says.
It all started the summer before his final semester at U-M. “I had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” Roberts recalls. In December 1993, he would graduate from LSA’s Residential College with a degree in political science, “but I was kind of depressed.”
So he headed to the Angell Hall computer lab and discovered the strategy game Civilization. There he’d sit, for 8-10 hours at a time, almost every single day. In the game, “you could alter the course of history by playing as Egyptians, Persians, Chinese,” Roberts says. The game appealed to his love of history and cultures, as well as his fascination with the military. And it had been loaded onto every computer in the lab. “All I had to do was take in my floppy disk, and I was ready to go.”
After graduation, Roberts continued to struggle with gaming binges, even as he taught French, Spanish, and social studies at a private school in a Detroit suburb. A few years later, he started a translation and interpretation business. “I’d stop playing games for a couple months, would start being productive,” he says. But then, “games would get in the way again.”
By the time he was in his early 30s, “I just got really disgusted,” he says. “I had all these ideas and all these dreams and didn’t really having anything to show for it.” Then when a friend his age died suddenly, “the sense that I was wasting my life took on urgency.”
Roberts finally got help. In 2003, he went to a therapist and started working through anxiety. He rid his computer of real-time strategy games, and relied on a support system of family and friends to keep him accountable for his time. Yet he explains that the loss of an addiction leaves a void that’s not always easy to fill—at least with something constructive. After giving up gaming, “for a time, I was obsessive about Myspace,” Roberts says. “Then, it was AOL instant messaging, where I’d chat with online friends from all over the world in other languages.”
It’s the constant stimuli of the cyber world that his brain craves, he says. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which leads to a one-and-a-half-times greater risk of developing substance abuse according to a study by Harvard researchers. “That can easily be transferred to behavioral addictions as well,” Roberts says.
It took two years before Roberts felt that he had control of his cyber addition. “I eventually found writing,” he says. “That allows me to stay away from that other stuff. Writing really engages me.”
Roberts writes poetry, articles, novels, and self-help books. This year, he completed a master’s degree in ADHD and motivational studies. His latest book, Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD (Hazelden, 2012) will be published in May.
Now, Roberts coaches and counsels people who struggle with ADHD, cyber addictions, or both. In an increasingly cyber-dependent world, he believes his number of clients will continue to increase. He’s also the director of curriculum for the EmpowerADD Project, a Michigan nonprofit support group for people with ADHD and ADD. In his spare time, he writes and performs stand-up comedy, a long-held dream that was delayed by his gaming habit. Another dream recently accomplished: a published book.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” he says. “Video games gave me a great topic for a book, but it took me a long time to get there.”
Help for Video Game Addicts
Kevin Roberts (’93) isn’t the only recovering video game addict. This problem is already out of control, he says, noting that a recent study shows nearly 1 in 10 young video gamers exhibit signs of addiction. Roberts offers the following tips for helping a friend or loved one overcome a gaming addiction.
1. Don’t just take away a game system or computer. Analyze what type of void the game is filling.
Roberts explains that gaming offers control, intensity, online buddies. “In the cyber world, we’re wanted,” he says. “There are people who depend on us. Giving up those social networks proves difficult. If young people don’t have something to replace it with, there’s an awfully big void.”
2. Entice gamers away from the screen with intense real-world activities.
Nagging won’t work. “You must invite them, intrigue them, empower them,” Roberts says. He tells parents to check out computer camps for teen gamers. Interest World of Warcraft gamers with roleplaying at Renaissance festivals. Fans of Halo or Call of Duty may enjoy paintball, laser tag, or geocaching—an outdoor treasure hunt using a GPS. Look for community service projects too, Roberts recommends.
3. Help the gamer identify his or her career skills.
Gamers have sophisticated eye-hand coordination and visual-spatial acuity. Roberts points out that the military used skilled gamers to control predator drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, businesses are using strategic games to teach leadership, and studies show that surgeons who play video games make fewer mistakes. Parents and friends can help gamers look for training programs that take advantage of these unique skills, Roberts advises.
For more information on cyber addiction, visit kevinjroberts.net.