More than a third of patients referred to the UK’s first gaming addiction centre are still waiting for treatment after referrals doubled in the past year, following unprecedented demand during the pandemic.
The National Centre for Gaming Disorders, which opened in 2019 and is run by the Central and North West London NHS Foundation, has been overwhelmed by referrals from schools, GPs and parents.
Around 70 per cent of those treated since it opened were aged 18 or under and nearly 90 per cent were male, according to data shared by the centre, which was launched months after the World Health Organization classified “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition.
Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the centre, warned that it needed to triple its workforce to treat the more than 100 patients on its waiting list and to meet future demand, which is expected to increase in 2022. The centre can currently treat 50 patients a year.
“Quite a few children were reporting suicidal thoughts and self-harm,” Bowden-Jones said.
Patients receive a series of sessions of therapy, which parents sometimes join. Bowden-Jones said the addictions can often reveal a deeper disruption in family dynamics.
Treatments avoid banning devices, instead they impose a limit of two hours a day and reward positive behaviour, such as completing homework or exercising, with gaming.
“It has become impossible to [stop them playing games], they just wouldn’t engage in the treatment, for a lot of them it is their only social interaction,” Bowden-Jones said.
Around half of UK players said gaming made them feel happier, with 39 per cent reporting it helped with isolation, according to a survey by Ipsos Mori.
A woman whose 13-year-old daughter was treated at the centre said her child’s gaming increased when the first lockdown began and schools closed. She said her daughter would play games “all hours of the day”, only leaving herself time to eat or use the bathroom.
The disorder was compounded by her daughter’s teenage adolescence, autism and isolation from peers, the mother added.
“She found friends in gaming when she couldn’t gain that in real life, especially during the lockdown,” the mother said. “It was an opportunity to withdraw into her own world.”
Since receiving therapy from the centre, her daughter had reduced her gaming hours by 80 per cent, the woman said.
Gaming had been a tool for connection and escapism in the pandemic, said Louise Shorthouse, senior games analyst at Ampere Analysis. “In the face of new potential restrictions, this will surely continue,” she said.
Bowden-Jones said an “enormous amount” of shooting games, including Fortnite and Call of Duty, were identified by patients as titles they regularly played.
The two games are some of the most popular in the industry, with Fortnite generating more than $1.2bn in player spending in 2020 as well as 31m downloads, according to data from app research firm Sensor Tower. It has an age rating of 12 and over, whereas most Call of Duty titles are rated as being for 16-year-olds or 18-year-olds. Activision Blizzard, which makes Call of Duty, declined to comment.
However, one study by the Oxford Internet Institute of about 1,000 British 14 and 15-year-olds found no link between playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, although researchers said games could provoke angry feelings or reactions.
Ukie, the UK’s games industry body, responded on behalf of Fortnite developer Epic Games, which is one of its members. It said games had kept “tens of millions happy and connected through the pandemic” and advised against excessive gaming.