Cam Adair is addicted to video games, in the way one is addicted to gambling, to pornography, to sex, to overeating.
If that sounds strange, well … yeah, it sounds strange. I mean, video game addiction? I probably played 100,000 hours of Pac-Man as a kid, and I walked away unscathed. My son sits before the TV Saturday mornings and dominates Madden. Is he an addict? Of course not.
Unless … he is. Because, as Cam rightly notes, video game addiction is a worldwide problem. A huge worldwide problem. The numbers are staggering; the impact tremendous. At his lowest, Cam was sitting before a television 16 hours per day—jobless, listless, indifferent. He would lie to his family and friends, all in the name of mastering a meaningless game.
Now, however, Cam is fighting back. He is the founder of Game Quitters, an outfit devoted to helping people in need break the chain of video game addiction. He’s also a prominent (and dynamic) public speaker, as well as a lover of San Diego, Cam Neely and his Seahawks-loving uncle.
Cam Adair, rise up! You’re the 282nd Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Cam, so to be totally honest, I was unaware of the issue of video game addiction until I randomly came upon your Twitter feed. I obviously know of drug addiction, alcohol addiction, porn addiction, food addiction. How big of a problem in the world is video game addiction, and how is it different from other addictions?
CAM ADAIR: It’s bigger than we think. Today over 1.2B people play video games worldwide, including between 70 percent to 90 percent (or more) of American youth, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down with projected growth by as much as 5 percent annually through 2020. When it comes to video game addiction, research varies between 1-11 percent of gamers, so in my estimation, we’re looking at between 10-50 million people right now who struggle with this problem. To share one example of a consequence of this, Erik Hurst, a macroeconomist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Busines,s has found that employment rates among young (early twenties) non-college educated men have dropped sharply—more than any other group. So what are they doing with their time? He found they are playing video games! Not only speaking to the health of the individual, but what about supply for the labor market? These young men are part of our future, and yet they are living with their parents or relatives playing video games, and they are content with it.
I believe there are similarities between all addictions, but one of the ways video game addiction is unique is that people start playing at a very early age—as young as 2-to – years old. So by the time they are coming out of high school and entering university, it has been the central force in their life, and because of it, they likely have not developed other hobbies or the intangible skills (independence, spontaneity, social skills, amongst others) that you develop when you’re forced to go outside and play.
Many of the people who join our Game Quitters community don’t only struggle with a video game addiction though, but also an addiction to the Internet and porn, of which I have dubbed the “three-headed dragon” of addictions. Only half kidding.
J.P.: According to your bio, you were addicted to video games for more than 10 years. You played more than 16 hours per day, dropped out of high school, never graduated, never went to college. But how did this happen? What I mean is, what causes someone to go from, “This game is fun!” to “I can’t stop!”? How did it happen to you?
C.A.: It’s different for everyone, but in my case, after I dropped out of high school I was at home all day with nothing to do. At the time I was depressed and completely apathetic about life, so I had no desire to do anything other than whatever could help me escape from this reality. Gaming made that really easy. Eventually my parents told me that if I wasn’t going to school I had to get a job, so I started to pretend to have one. Every morning my dad would drop me off at a restaurant where I was a “prep cook,” and as soon as he drove off I’d hop on a bus back home and sneak in through my window. My parents were at work during the day so they had no idea. Of course after a few weeks they would expect a paycheck so I would make up a story about getting fired and then find a “new” job. I repeated this cycle a few times before they finally just gave up. Personally, at that point I was against anything that took me away from gaming. I loved “living” in that world.
One of the factors that can lead to you becoming addicted to video games is when you have extended exposure to the difference in stimulation that gaming provides. There’s a brain chemistry side to this, which if anyone is interested I would encourage you to watch this TEDx talk by Gary Wilson, but environmentally, when the contrast for me between video games (being awesome) and real life (not so awesome) became apparent, I saw no reason to do anything other than continue gaming, and would go to great lengths (deception, etc) to fulfill that.
J.P.: You grew up in Canada, and you write of being mercilessly bullied. Specifically, you talk of lying down on the back of a bus in a fetal position, being spit on. With as much detail as possible, what the hell happened? And how did you feel?
C.A.: Yeah, that was fucked up. I was on an elite level hockey team for my age, I was 14 or 15 at the time. It was the beginning of grade 10 and our team was playing a game in Red Deer, Alberta, which is two hours from our city of Calgary. For the past few weeks I had become the person who was being picked on, teased, all that stuff. You know how teenagers can be when they identify someone they can take advantage of. So after the game we got back on the team bus to head home, and I was just laying in the backseat minding my own business, listening to Good Charlotte or something hilarious like that, when one of the sons of an assistant coach started to come and kind of taunt me. He was just poking fun at me or something. I remember taking a headphone out to hear him and after a few minutes, I just put it back in and tried to ignore him. At this point in my life, having been bullied consistently for the past two years, I was just over it. As he realized he wasn’t getting a reaction out of me (his intention), he started trying to taunt me further—being louder, poking me, that sort of thing. I just continued to ignore him hoping he would go away. He didn’t, and things escalated to the point where he literally started to spit on me. I think I just went into a complete state of shock. I froze. I had a picture of a girl I had a crush on at the time in my hand and I just held onto it hoping it would give me the strength to get through this. This went on for about 45 minutes before we finally got back to our city and he had to stop.
I remember it was around 1 in the morning and my father was picking me up from the arena. We were driving a teammate of mine home, and I was still just kind of frozen in the moment, quiet, not saying much. The second my teammate got out of our car, I started crying hysterically. My dad was asking me what was wrong and I wouldn’t say anything. The next day I refused to go to practice and told my parents I was quitting the team. Thinking about this right now, the first time they heard about this was when I shared about it on stage at TEDx. They ended up convincing me to stay with the team and things calmed down for the most part after that, but it’s definitely a night I’ll never forget.
Looking back, I wish I would have just smacked that kid so fucking hard in the face, and I’m sure doing something of this nature would have stopped this behavior toward me for good, but I was a teenager who didn’t know better. And I mean, I was listening to Good Charlotte, so I probably deserved it.
Do I need to add a disclaimer that I don’t condone violence? smh.
J.P.: You wrote a suicide note. Why? When? How close were you to acting on the note? And why didn’t you?
C.A.: Around the time I was depressed, living in my parents basement pretending to have jobs and gaming 16 hours a day. As much as gaming allowed me to escape and avoid dealing with my depression, it didn’t fix it and my depression continued to get worse and worse. I had suicidal thoughts many times but never got too serious about it, but that too continued to spiral further and further until I did start planning for it. For me it was really simple. My life was fucking shit, I hated the world, and I wanted the pain I was feeling to end. I stopped seeing any value in continuing to live, and hated myself for feeling like a fucking coward to not follow through with it. What is more pathetic than torturing yourself with the idea of suicide and not being serious about it? So I started committing to the idea and planning it out. I know, this sounds really fucking dumb. Anyways, I planned to drive my car really fast into a big truck that was parked a few blocks from my place. That or off a cliff. On the night I planned to do it, I wrote a suicide note on my computer, individually addressing the various people in my life and what the final thing is I’d like to say to them. To my father I wanted him to stop hating video games so much. Ironic, isn’t it?
An hour or two later a friend called and asked if I wanted to go see the movie Superbad with a few friends. I said yes, we smoked a bunch of pot, and I laughed my ass off during the movie. Laughing and having a good time snapped me out of my depressed state for long enough for me to realize that I was actually pretty close to ending my life. I no longer felt safe with myself. I no longer felt like I could trust myself to make decisions in the best interest of my health and well-being, and I needed to ask for help. So when I got home I asked my father to come speak with me, and I told him I needed to get professional help, and asked if he would help me find a counselor. He did, and that’s when things started to turn around for me.
J.P.: Should my kids not be playing video games? I know you get asked this all the time—but, really, should they not? Would you let your kids?
C.A.: I’m not against gaming, but I do think we need to have more honest conversations about it. What I recommend is this: If they are gaming, then allowing them to play less time in one sitting, less often is best. The longer they play at a time, the more exposure they have to the level of stimulation in gaming (see the TEDx talk I referenced above.) This goes with the more consistent they play as well, so less time, less often.
I also think it’s incredibly important for them to have other activities they do and not just gaming. For many parents they focus on sports and gaming, but I would say having at least one or two other activities they do at home when they’re tired and bored is crucial. I also believe your kids going outside to play is important. Giving them the opportunity where they have no choice but to engage in the environment around them, to come up with games to play, to be social, to be creative, and to be spontaneous … those are just a few of the intangible skills they need to develop that we withhold from them by using an iPad as a babysitter.
I will let my kids play, but probably a lot less than most. That extends to TV as well. I mean, that’s the best we can do with all of the options our world offers us? In my opinion, kids who are gaming or watching TV also have parents who come home from work and just sit around watching TV themselves. I have greater ambitions in my life than that. I just came back from a three-week trip to Tanzania where I spent time in a rural village where they do not even have electricity. The energy of the kids was amazing! I don’t even think they knew what the concept of boredom even was. It was inspiring.
J.P.: Random question—you’re a Canadian who now lives in San Diego, and our 45th president is Donald Trump. How do you view this from afar? What was the reaction among your friends? People you spoke with?
C.A.: I personally think the fear of Donald Trump is exaggerated (media driven) and he’ll probably be better than people think. I’ll also be the first person to admit I was wrong if I am (I doubt I’m wrong). I went to the Donald Trump rally in San Diego and met a ton of people who were very welcoming and kind. The protestors outside, not so much. As a Canadian, it’s bizarre to see anyone attacking police officers. I still can’t comprehend that one. But then again, Americans wear their shoes indoors and that’s pretty fucking weird too.
The majority of my friends were Hillary/Bernie supporters, so their reaction on the day after the election was quite amazing. I mean, honestly, has anyone ever seen people on Facebook hysterical like that? Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends, they are incredible people who have the best intentions in mind, but I feel little sympathy for people who spent no time trying to understand the other side. If you didn’t think Trump could be elected, you chose to stay in your bubble (is that called a safe space?) and refused to listen to the other side’s genuine concerns and issues. And then you pretend that you know exactly why it happened—RACISM! SEXISM! XENOPHOBIA! BUZZWORDS! Gimme a break.
Donald Trump has more support in Canada than people think, but Canada has also been treading in the dangerous waters of anti-free speech (see Canada’s Twitter Trial), political correctness, etc. Can we #MakeCanadaGreatAgain?
J.P.: What was your lowest moment, addiction-wise? I don’t mean the note. I mean, you’re playing a game, miserable, but unable to stop …
C.A.: At one point I moved to Victoria, B.C. looking for a fresh start. I had just spent two years not gaming (after the note), but I started to feel down in my life again and instead of escaping into games, I figured a change of scenery would do it. I moved in with two roommates and one of them, Ben, found out we both used to play Starcraft. He said we could play and I told him I didn’t really want to, because I quit. Later that night he came home with a big grin on his face and put the game in front of me. “Just one game.” I relented. He destroyed me. That night I committed to doing everything possible to make sure he would never be able to beat me like that again, and thus began a five-month binge of gaming 16 hours per day. I stopped working and barely left the house. Eat. Sleep. Game. The lowest moment for me was when my roommates left on a three-week trip, and to be honest, I was stoked. I no longer had anyone to notice how much I was playing. I no longer had anyone to invite me to get out of the house and make me feel guilty when I said no. Etc. That felt pretty shitty.
J.P.: I check my social media shit nonstop. All the time. Habitually. It’s an annoying distraction that’s hard to break. I need Twitter and Facebook to sell books, but I hate that need to look. Any advice?
C.A.: Fuck, I really don’t know. I’ve checked Facebook and Twitter 20 times just answering these questions. So far the only thing I’ve found that really works is this: Be somewhere where you don’t have your devices with you. So I go surfing, I put my phone on airplane mode, that sort of thing. Interestingly, when I don’t have access to being able to check, I have a lot less of an urge or craving to do it.
With that said, when you do have access to it, I try to embrace the habit by not resisting the temptation to open a new tab, but instead of opening the tab, hitting up Twitter and starting to browse the feed, I open the tab and then close it and get back to my work. Sounds kind of crazy but in my experience, my urge or habit is more to open the tab than it is to actually look at the content. It’s similar to when I have an article I “want to read.” I save it in Pocket and forget about it. But saving it to Pocket makes me feel like it’s still there, and available, but I don’t actually want to read it.
On a more serious note, a lot of the work I do around gaming and addiction comes down to identifying why you do what you do, and then finding replacements. Genius idea! For instance, if you’re browsing the Internet because you’re tired from the day, and you just want to relax at home, your desire to relax at home is genuine, but you don’t have to fulfill it using the Internet. It may just be that the internet is your “go-to”, your default. Finding alternatives such as reading, listening to podcasts, going to yoga, hanging out with a friend, learning a new language, and/or playing an instrument can fill the same need. Find why you do what you do, and then align alternatives with your goals and values.
If you want to read a great book that describes how social media sites keep you hooked, read Hooked by Nir Eyal.
J.P.: You’re bored in a mall. There’s a Pac-Man machine. You have a quarter in your pocket. Would you even consider giving it a go? Could you without trouble?
C.A.: Probably wouldn’t even notice the Pac-Man machine, but if I did, I’d have no problem playing—I just have little interest in it. If it’s a chessboard that’s a whole different story. Who wants to go?
J.P.: Are the video game manufacturers aware of this problem? Is there any thought that they might knowingly take advantage of addictive personalities? Or is it mere accidental byproduct?
C.A.: Are they aware that it’s a problem? Absolutely. Nobody involved in the gaming industry doesn’t know at least someone who has a serious problem with gaming. How many people who don’t even work in the gaming industry know someone with a problem? Probably at least 40 percent of the people reading this right now know someone. Now are they aware of the extent of the problem? I’m not sure. I met the CEO of a game development company from Canada recently and he was shocked that the games he loves to make could be causing harm to some of his users. I know his heart was in the right place. They are definitely aware of their intention to make games as “good” (engaging/addictive) as possible.
It’s important to note that with the introduction of mobile devices games have changed a lot. “Back in the day” games had a clear beginning and end. Today they continue on forever. And in mobile games you have new features of game design that were never there before, such as turn-based delays and in-app purchases.
Imagine if you sat down to watch a movie and after five minutes it stopped and said you either had to pay $5 now or wait 24 hours to watch the rest. You would think that was a total scam. But that’s exactly what’s happening in mobile games. They let you play for a bit and then they make you wait for 24 hours. But in the moment you’re engaged in the game, maybe you’re waiting at the bus station, or you’re trying to take your mind off something stressful. For $1 you can continue to play, do you do it? Of course you do. And that adds up to a lot over time.
I’ll end on a positive note. This year I went on a tour speaking at problem gambling conferences, and the hot topic was about virtual goods you could win in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). Long story short, a feature in the game allowed you to bet on matches and earn virtual goods, which you could turn around and sell on third-party sites for real money. Because the virtual goods had no real monetary value in the game, they were unregulated which allowed anyone of any age to bet and win them. A total gray area. I was receiving emails from kids as young as 13 saying they had placed their first bet and were concerned they would do more—all of their friends were doing it! Naturally the problem gambling industry was outraged over this. A few months ago STEAM (the owner of CS:GO) came out and said they were shutting down access to these third-party sites. Honestly, I was blown away. A corporation did the right thing for the health and well-being of their users. Who would’ve guessed!
Maybe there’s hope for our world after all …
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CAM ADAIR:
• Five shittiest video games ever?: Starcraft 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Cookie Cutter (the only game Elon Musk won’t let his kids play, because “You literally tap a f#@#ing cookie.”) I know that’s only three, but fuck.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Every time I fly! Let me explain. Shit this is rapid fire. Ok, I’ll be quick. My personality responds to anxiety with flight (no pun intended), and the most extreme version of flight is suicide ideation. So throughout my life when I’ve been suicidal, it’s actually been because I’ve felt anxious and I’ve wanted to escape from it, not because I’ve genuinely wanted to do it. What a breakthrough! So every time I fly I have a moment where I hope the plane crashes because then I won’t have to actually go and accomplish all the stuff I want to. It’s fucked up, but it’s true.
* If you ever feel like you’re serious about committing suicide, don’t fuck around and get some help, call or text the crisis hotline.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Salty beef, Q*bert, Sammy Hagar, elephants, Laguna Beach, Cam Neely, Cam Newton, arm wrestling, sleeping in the nude, cement trucks, sea horses, Lenny Kravitz: Cam Neely (great name!), Laguna Beach, sleeping in the nude, sea horses, elephants, cement trucks, arm wrestling, Salty beef, Q*bert, Sammy Hagar, Lenny Kravitz, Cam Newton (who complains about being hit in a sport with physical contact?).
• Three memories from your first-ever date: No idea when my first date was. I promise I’ve been on one though! I don’t even remember my first kiss. Is that weird?
• You live in San Diego. How and why did that happen?: It was a cold blizzard day in Calgary. -22C or something insane. Humans are not designed to live in such conditions. Anyway, I walked from my house to my car, and while shivering waiting for it to warm up, I said … I fucking hate this … Why do I do this?. .. And then I had what I describe as The Next Thought: I should move. So I did, and I’ve been retired from winter ever since.
• Would you rather lick Mike Tyson’s left armpit after a two-hour workout or eat Christina Aguilera’s sneeze residue?: That is disgusting. Christina Aguilera no doubt. Think she’d go out with me after? Can someone put in a good word?
• Five things you’re very bad at doing: Chores. Chores. Chores. Chores. Chores.
• What’s the maximum reasonable amount of money to spend on a T-shirt?: $150. But I think spending less and replacing them more often is a better strategy.
• One question you would ask Brian Bosworth were he here right now: Who are you and why do I feel like people are going to be pissed at me for not knowing who you are? (So I just googled him, and yep, my uncle is probably going to be pissed at me. He’s a huge Seahawks fan. Shoutout to my uncle! Go Hawks!)
• What’s the worst smell in the world?: Probably Mike Tyson’s armpit after a two-hour workout.