By Andres Torres
For Joshua Lopez, playing video games was a harmless escape. But it soon became more than a hobby. It became an addiction that took control over his mind and body.
Lopez was an avid gamer who thought video games expanded his universe and introduced him to new friends online. He had no idea that gaming could damage his real-life relationships and endanger his physical and mental health.
“I just thought, at most, my eyes would be a little bit ruined, but I didn’t think it would lead to all the sh*t that happened, you know?” Lopez said. “Like, it’s gaming, bro. How bad could gaming be?
During the peak of his addiction, Lopez was spending more than 80 hours a week gaming, about 8 hours on workdays and more than 12 hours a day on weekends and days off.
But according to research, the amount of gaming time does not signify addiction. Experts identify playing video games as an addiction when the player feels like they have no control over what they’re doing, when gaming habits take control and negatively impact day-to-day functions.
The American Medical Association recognizes gaming addiction as a disorder than can lead to short-term issues including disturbances in their sleeping habits, fatigue, insomnia and headaches. Longer-term impacts include skipping meals, poor nutrition, loss of friends and family, decreased social skills, and depression.
“Anything that is done to the extreme and impacts daily living like school, work, and relationships, even if it is something healthy, can become an addiction,” said Shannell Alleva, an addiction counselor.
In the throes of addiction, people start to act against their own best interests. It can seem mysterious to others but Alleva said gaming is similar to other addictions.
“Video games release dopamine just like drugs do, which could make it difficult to stop playing or maybe even recognize that it has become a problem,” she said.
Plus, players are in control in a video game, she said, and that can be appealing when life seems to be out of control. Many cases of gaming addiction start when a player experiences depression and attempts to escape it by playing.
Lopez said before slipping into his addition, he was demoted at work and broke up with his girlfriend. It’s possible those contributed to his retreat from real life.
Lost in his games, Lopez started to ignore his family, in particular his sister, Melissa. The two are roommates who used to do everything together and are very close.
She said it seemed like all he did was work and play video games. Lopez knew her brother needed his own space and she wanted to respect that but she started to worry when he didn’t wanna go to parties, go shopping with her or even visit their mom.
“This f**ker didn’t even want to go to our grandma’s house for Thanksgiving,” she said, gently teasing him. “I had to pretty much force his a** out of his room to go.”
As his addiction deepened, he stopped cooking so that he would have more time to play games with fewer distractions. Soon he was spending more than $200 a week on having food delivered from Mcdonalds, Chick-fil-A and Sonic.
The change had a noticeable impact: During the peak of his addiction, he gained more 30 pounds in less than a month.
Lopez describes himself as a big guy and before he got consumed by gaming he had started watching his calories. “It just sucked cuz I was trying, man, like I was trying to lose weight,” he recalled.
He said he’s glad his sister tried to help and forced him out of the house. Shocked by his weight gain and nudged by Melissa, he managed to kick his addiction after a rough couple of months.
Lopez is far from alone. More than 60 million gamers suffer from gaming addiction. That means that about 4% of people who play video games are identified as addicted.
Here in New Mexico, a recent UNM study suggested that 6% to 15% of all gamers exhibit signs that could categorize them with an addiction.
Today, Lopez is carefully managing his gaming time, but the experience left him with some lingering anxiety. Lopez said he told his family that if he did it again, they had permission to force him into addiction treatment.
And he apologized to his sister.
“I just feel like an a**hole for making you beg me to go to family things,” he told her. “Looking back, it was stupid, but I didn’t know it would hurt you.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing any kind of emotional crisis, mental health or substance use concern, you can find help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line (855-466-7100) or the Peer- to-Peer Warmline (855-507-5509).