Edina's Online Gamers Anonymous combats a modern addiction
By Eden Teller firstname.lastname@example.org
May 14, 2019
OLGA and OLG-Anon meet weekly at the Cavalier Club on the border of Eden Prairie and Edina.
Eden Prairie News chose to identify the members of OLGA and OLG-Anon using their middle names or initials to provide anonymity, which is one of the pillars of the program.
The first time Taylor tried to stop playing so many video games, he was 17. His game of choice was “World of Warcraft,” and as he became more engrossed in the online multiplayer fantasy game, he noticed his attention to other activities slipping.
“I thought, ‘I want to crack that dang CD in half so I can focus on my studies,’ because I was working toward a scholarship,” said Taylor, 38. “I was really struggling and found I was unable to stop on my own.”
Later, a girlfriend would threaten to leave him over his gaming habits, he told Eden Prairie News. He turned to video games to cope with the stress of job searching and spent hours playing instead of sending out resumes. He would hear about the toll of other addictions and think, “These stories sound eerily similar to my life.”
“I had to have quit it nine times,” Taylor said, but it didn’t stick. “There’d be a feeling in my gut pulling me to the computer.”
After that moment in high school, it took 20 more years for Taylor to confront his addiction to video games. Now, he attends meetings of the newly-formed Online Gamers Anonymous (OLGA) that meets weekly near the border of Eden Prairie and Edina.
The group began in January 2019 and is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program that has existed since 1935, adapted to serve a modern addiction. OLGA meets every Monday at the Cavalier Club at 7179 Washington Ave. S., Edina, with its partner group OLG-Anon, which friends and family members of addicts can attend to share their experiences as their loved one struggles with addiction.
What is video game addiction?
The concept of video game addiction is new, but not unheard of. In June 2018, the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, defining the behavior as “impaired control over gaming” and prioritizing video games to the point that the person neglects or damages their personal, professional or educational life, according to WHO’s website.
Mat Meyers is a family therapist at Traverse Counseling in St. Louis Park who specializes in part in video game addiction. He met Taylor in late 2018 and connected him with another client who also struggled with video game addiction. Together, the pair helped start the local OLGA chapter.
One of the early warning signs of an unhealthy relationship with technology is a person’s absence from their regular routines as they spend more time online, Meyers said.
“People disappear,” he said. “They kind of become night walkers. They really disengage from the daylight.”
PJ can relate to that experience. He attends OLG-Anon with his wife, Anne, to find support as their son works through a video game addiction. As their children grew up, they kept the family computer in the dining room to help set limits on screen time, but when their son left for college, Anne and PJ had less control over his behavior.
“I remember when he was in high school, I looked at his back a lot,” PJ said. “He wouldn’t come to dinner.”
“It’s really, really hard as a parent to watch your teen or young adult struggling and be unable to name why they’re stopped in life,” Anne added.
College was difficult for their son, and he eventually left school and tried to “restart” his life in Portland, Oregon, Anne said, but that didn’t work either. Depression and anxiety compounded his struggles with video games and began taking a toll on his health, and staying up all night to play games led him to skip work and lie about it, PJ said. Eventually, he made his way back home to Minnesota and began seeing Meyers for counseling, who then introduced the family to Taylor and OLGA.
Both Anne and PJ are familiar with 12-step programs, having attended Alcoholics Anonymous for support with their addictions and later, Al-Anon, to find support as their son struggled with his own. (At the time, there were no support groups that dealt with their son’s addiction.) While their son’s addiction is different from their own, they recognized the toll it took on him and on their relationships.
“We’re in this age when addictions take all different forms,” Anne said.
While Meyers isn’t involved with the group, he appreciates the opportunities it brings for face-to-face connection, he said. Meeting others who can validate your own experience is a powerful tool in recovery, he said.
“Naming an addiction is naming that something has power over me,” Meyers said.
Video game addiction isn’t recognized by the American Medical Association or the Center for Disease Control, and there are few treatment centers in the United States. Even if a family or individual finds a treatment center, many insurers won’t cover the cost of treatment because it’s not recognized by the U.S. medical establishment, Anne said, so finding support at OLGA and OLG-Anon was an “enormous relief.”
Conversations at OLGA meetings usually begin with a reading or a discussion question. The three members discuss difficult moments or successes from their week, share what can trigger them to turn to a video game and talk about the path they’ve traveled so far. Hearing that others have struggled and overcome challenges is part of what makes recovery seem possible, Taylor said, and creates deep bonds between members. Most importantly, everyone who attends OLGA does so voluntarily and wants to conquer their addiction.
“They’ll become some of the best friends you’ll have in your life,” Taylor said.
“I know from my recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s nothing like helping someone,” PJ recalled. “You’re basically sharing to keep yourself sane, and you’re helping others.”
The Edina group is just five months old, and it’s the only OLGA group in Minnesota. The biggest hurdle the group faces is the lack of awareness around the issue. While Anne notices that she hears stories similar to what her family has experienced, few people think to label their relationship with video games as an addiction, she said. It’s difficult to spread the word when OLGA is an anonymous group, Taylor added. Even so, new faces keep cropping up, people far from the stereotypical “gamer,” Taylor said.
“I was blown away by this last person,” he said, but when the meeting begins, the common threads of their shared addiction come out.
When he helps families confront unhealthy relationships with technology, Meyers is quick to acknowledge the power that games can hold over their players. Many games are built to hijack the brain’s reward system, he said, and with thousands of creative adventures and few natural “end points,” players can be sucked into a world of their own making.
“That’s pretty powerful in and of itself, and then you add the feeling of power and being in control,” Meyers said, which can be in short supply in daily life.
Instead of targeting children or teens as problems to be solved, Meyer’s approach involves setting healthy boundaries for the whole family. Rather than going cold turkey on tech, he helps parents learn how to apply their values and priorities into a plan, similar to how families teach money management by setting allowances and helping their kids handle money responsibly.
“We take a real focus on empowering parents,” he said. “It’s not ‘the sky is falling’ with technology, but to take a conservative approach with what we do know isn’t a bad thing.”
Members of OLGA and OLG-Anon are realistic about their futures with computers.
“We’re in a technology-soaked world, you can’t really say ‘I’m never going to use a computer again,’” Anne said.
Still, they hope to find a balance in their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Taylor, Anne and PJ all expressed similar hopes: Anne hopes that those whose lives have been “derailed” by their addictions will find happiness, and Taylor hopes to avoid the regret of “a life unlived because you spent 10,000 or 20,000 hours on video games.”
For PJ, the group has helped him support his son’s recovery and avoid enabling behavior as the family rebuilds trust. And, he said, it’s helped his son return to the world of the living.
“He’s got some ground to make up in restoring trust with us,” PJ said, but “he’s there. He wasn’t there before.”
OLGA’s website is www.olganon.org.
Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.