HOOKED ON GAMING
Parents cope with children’s video game addictions
By Art Van Kraft
LOST IN PLAY - The adrenaline rush of playing online games is similar to that of hitting a jackpot at a slot machine, says child psychologist Patrick Madden. It's the promise of a random reward that keeps gamers playing for hours on end, creating an addiction to the game.
Everything seemed perfectly normal with Ami and Michael Marchlik’s four young sons. The boys were doing well in school, they enjoyed sports and had plenty of friends.
Then, one afternoon in February, Ami Marchlik noticed something different about Preston, her 9-year-old.
“He came out of his room after playing a video game with dilated eyes and hard breathing. It really freaked me out,” she said. “He didn’t act like himself.”
He had been playing for over four hours and it was the first sign their child might have an addiction to gaming.
Ami said her sons spent hours in their room in front of video screens, but so did lots of their friends. She figured it was just a passing phase.
But as the Marchliks examined the boys’ habits more closely, they were startled to discover a pattern of addictive behavior.
Preston had always liked working on his computer, but not for six hours a day, and their oldest, Aiden, 12, had been an ardent reader who suddenly stopped reading after playing the video game “Clash of Clans.”
It wasn’t long before the Camarillo couple was confronted with a much bigger surprise— Aiden had secretly spent thousands of dollars on video games.
“We got a bill from iTunes for $700,” Ami said. “He spent the money in a gaming spree over one weekend.”
Those charges prompted Ami’s husband, Michael, to take a closer look at his business account. He was surprised to find dozens of charges from iTunes over a three-month period.
The bill came to $5,000.
“ We realized Aiden had hacked into my husband’s business account and bought gaming currencies,” Ami said. “He admitted to figuring out the password.”
Aiden had racked up the bill by buying game tokens for “Clash of Clans.” The hit game was designed by Supercell, a company based in Finland.
Although “Clash of Clans” is free to play, additional game currency can be purchased with real money through the two largest smartphone operating systems: Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
With 8.5 million daily players, “Clash of Clans” grossed $1.8 billion in 2014, according to Forbes magazine.
Players can purchase gems— digital currency in the game—for about $2 to $35. The gems allow gamers to acquire larger and more powerful virtual weapons. More powerful weapons mean more success and more prestige in the gaming world.
The gems are incentives for the gamers to play for long, uninterrupted spans of time. It can become addictive.
“This is how the company makes their money. They get these kids hooked, and some kids will do anything to get to that next level,” Ami said.
The two brothers took “Clash of Clans” so seriously, they would come to blows over the online game. Ami would intervene in the fisticuffs and pull the video-game plug.
She began to tire of playing referee for the boys, but the final straw came late one night in March while Ami and Michael were asleep.
“My husband and I woke up to the sound of flesh on flesh and found the boys beating on each other,” she said. “They had been playing at night and got into a fight but tried to be quiet so they wouldn’t be caught.”
That was when the Marchliks knew they needed professional help and sought the advice of a psychologist.
Patrick Madden is a child psychologist in Thousand Oaks who treats patients in the relatively new field of Internet- and video-game addiction.
“Video-game addiction is now being examined by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association,” Madden said. “I’ve only recently started seeing patients with this type of addictive behavior.”
Although video games have been around for decades, the new generation of online games is designed to entice players to keep playing.
The psychologist likened the online games to the adrenaline rush of hitting a jackpot at a slot machine. He said it is the promise of a random reward that keeps gamers playing for hours on end.
“Once kids get locked into (playing), it is very difficult to get them unhooked,” Madden said. “It gives them a dopamine rush and they get a high.”
He met with the Marchlik family and developed a method of treatment that required a family contract, something that was new to Ami, who’d felt her authority as a parent would be sufficient to curtail the problem.
“I wanted to just throw them (the video games) all in the trash, but the counselor said that would not be a good idea,” Ami said.
An agreement, the counselor said, teaches kids how to self-regulate. Learning to selfregulate is important because children have to deal with other potential addictions as they get older.
Madden had the family set boundaries on game use and agree to reasonable time limits for video games. All four boys, including 10-year-old Mason and 6-year-old Griffin, signed the contract.
Madden said video games can be used in a positive way as long as unhealthy behavior doesn’t become an issue.
“This phenomenon is so new that our society has not figured out yet how to manage it,” he said.
The Marchliks made Aiden get a job to repay the $700 he spent in one weekend of gaming. The $5,000 he took from his father’s account was another matter.
“We figured if our funds were somehow available to a 12-yearold, that was our fault, but we did complain to Apple,” Ami said.
The gaming fees are charged on credit accounts set up on iTunes, which is owned by Apple.
To her surprise, Ami said, the Cupertino-based tech giant readily refunded the $5,000. The mother of four quickly found out why.
A group of California parents, unhappy with Apple over money they didn’t know their children were spending on games, won a class action lawsuit against the company in 2013.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled that “children were able to purchase ‘game currencies’ without their parents’ knowledge or authorization while playing game applications provided by Apple and advertised as free.”
The parents also claimed the games are designed to be “highly addictive,” with specific reference to “Smurf Village” and “World of Warcraft.”
Ami said “World of Warcraft” was one of the games she threw out of her house, right after “Clash of Clans.”
“Those games were too addictive to keep,” she said.
Apple was not available for comment but released a statement saying that some software had been changed to address the concerns in the suit.
Ami said she and her husband were at first reluctant to tell their story, but after she confided in a few close friends, she discovered the problem was widespread.
“I was so surprised to meet other mothers whose kids were really lost to gaming,” she said. “I think this story needs to be exposed.”