“I started playing video games when I was about 5 years old, with gadgets like Game Boys.
My dad was getting good money, so he could buy me whatever I liked ― but he couldn’t spend time with me. So, when he did see me, he wanted me to be happy and he’d buy me the new games ― any game I wanted. We had all the systems ― Xbox, Playstation ― and so on. I would even bring the Game Boy to school. Once, it got stolen. But then I would just get a new one, an even better one.
When it started
Eventually, it got to around 16 hours. If it wasn’t a game, it was the Internet ― YouTube, Facebook and so on. If I was bored with one thing, I would go on to the next thing and the next.
The best feeling I got, out of any game, was when I played Counter-Strike. It’s a five versus five multi-player game online. And when you’re the only player left and there’re five other players trying to beat you, but you are able to beat them ― that’s the biggest rush ever. Especially if you do it in a tournament and there’s money on the line. It’s like a sport.
Most people didn’t understand why I was playing it. When I was at school, I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t athletic, the girls didn’t think I was very interesting. I was very underweight. But when I played video games, I felt like a king.
You could see your progress on a graph, the number of people you were defeating. It’s all about status. So, you pour in a lot of hours, people start to respect you because of your skills, because of what you’ve achieved in the game.
“When I was at school, I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t athletic, the girls didn’t think I was very interesting. I was very underweight. But when I played video games, I felt like a king.”
You feel high when you’re running away with a big payload or something, like you’ve hit the jackpot. I guess you could compare it to gambling, like, if you hit the lottery ― it’s a super-high rush.
I had a domestic helper in our home for many years ― around 20. She would always say, ‘You’re addicted. You can’t stop’. But I was 10 years old. I didn’t know what that meant. I just wanted her to leave me alone, so I could play.
When I was a teenager, I would never do my homework. So, I had issues in school, because I didn’t care about school. I wasn’t interested. Teachers would chase me on the homework, but they never went to the source of the problem. Even my doctor ― I went to the same doctor for years ― knew I was skipping school, like, once a week. He never figured out why I was always skipping school.
Fitting in with his peers
I didn’t fit in with everyone, but I had my group of people. And then past the age of 12, or 13, those friends became gamers ― then, I was a lot better than a lot of my friends at the games. When I did play with them, they got a bit tired of it as I was beating them in humiliating ways.
So, I mixed with the older kids. When I was 11, I was friends with the 15- and 16-year-olds. Some of them were playing tournaments, they were competitive in what they were doing. I played with them and they mentored me a bit.
About six or seven of us, all we ever did was just spend time online. We used to meet each other at first. But as we moved away to different countries, then we just connected online.
At that time, I just wanted to be a professional Dota 2 player [multiplayer online battle arena video game] ― these professional gamers make millions of dollars. There was a $33 million tournament this year. My goal was always this kind of tournament. So, I left school and I committed myself to doing this.
My parents gave a bit of money, and I moved away to Europe to live with a family friend. The rent there was fairly cheap, so I pursued this goal for 18 months.
That’s when it really got bad.
I started losing a lot of weight. I wasn’t eating, and if I cooked a nice meal, I’d just bring it back to my room and I’d forget to eat it or I’d eat it half of it and forget to eat the rest. And then during winter months, I’d lose even more weight because it was cold.
To be honest, I never thought about stopping gaming. It was the only thing that made me happy. People are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling ― why do they keep doing it? It’s because they are so miserable they feel there’s only one thing that makes them happy and it just hijacks their life.
“I’d play for hours on end because I could ignore my problems. I could ignore university... I could just live in this better world with my friends, achieving status and other things in the games.”
I never thought about stopping, even when it was the worst time. I always thought, I would just take a break then go back to it later when I was healthier. I couldn’t see from the outside what it actually looked like.
As my health got worse, I just got made fun of. That just drove me to isolate myself even more. Kids I didn’t even know in the neighbourhood would say, you’re really skinny. I was extremely underweight with an anorexic BMI of around 16.
Dropping out of university
After 18 months of this not working out, I thought, okay maybe I need to go to university, to get some balance in my life, do something positive. That’s when I got a panic attack at the first lecture at my university. It was totally miserable.
I thought, ‘Oh no, my first lecture, and I freaked out. I’m such an embarrassment to my family. I can’t even do one day in university, what am I going to do now?’
I returned to my room and started gaming again. I quit university after two months and started having more panic attacks. One of them, I genuinely thought was going to kill me.
I went to the hospital for help. At the hospital, someone asked me, how many hours do you spend on the computer a day? I lied to him. I said 12 hours on the computer. The truth was like, 16 hours. I lived like an 80-year-old man. All I did was wake up, get on the computer, maybe go to the store, then come back with food which I probably wasn’t going to eat.
Did I feel trapped in the addiction? No, because that’s how I would escape. I’d play for hours on end because I could ignore my problems. I could ignore university and put it off for two years. I could just live in this better world with my friends, achieving status and other things in the games. We could see our lives weren’t working out but when you’re playing, you get to forget about all that. We didn’t care.
This whole time, the two roommates I was living with and their parents were like, ‘You need to change your life. You look like a ghost.’ So, I was finally desperate enough to do something.
I asked my friend’s parents for help to ask my parents for help, and finally came back to Singapore. Back home, I kind of sat around in the house for a bit. I still played games at home but at least I would get some meals.
My mum introduced me to The Cabin, an addiction treatment centre... I don't know how she knew of this place ― through a friend or something, but it was what I needed at the time. I finally sought treatment at The Cabin. The whole time, I still doubted I had a problem with gaming. I thought I had depression. I thought I had an eating disorder. I thought I was going to take a 30-day break, be healthy again, then be able to manage my gaming.
When I went into the rehab office I was still terribly skinny, walking around extremely self-conscious. I remember telling the counsellor that I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do, other than play video games. I said, ‘What do I do without the internet?’ And he told me, that’s not important for now, we just need you to get your health back. So, I did a lot of sports and outdoor activities. I ate a lot more. Then in the rehab itself, I could finally be educated on what was happening to me.
“The most important thing I did was leaving those online friends behind. That was really hard for me as they were my friends for years. But it would be very difficult and tempting if I were to go back and talk to them about gaming.”
I met people who were the same as me. They might have been abusing drugs, alcohol, or gambling, and I could see how it completely wrecked their life. I learnt the science behind it and I was like, wow, this explains everything. I realised that I was not a bad person. For years I thought, I must be really lazy, really stupid. I now knew that I was addicted to the stuff, and I could finally accept that this was me, this is why my life is so hard.
I was in the rehab for six weeks. No Internet, no phones, no computers. Just therapy during the day, and maybe going to the cinema during the weekend, or getting a meal outside. Then I went through the outpatient programme, where they have follow-up aftercare.
The way ahead
One instance, about seven months ago, I thought, surely I can get away with online chess. Chess is supposed to make you smart, it’s supposed to be good for you ― but I got addicted to it. I was playing online chess for like, seven to eight hours a day. It was really the same thing, where you could climb and beat other people. So, after three days, I thought, I shouldn’t even play online chess. Now, I don’t do any online games at all.
I still have issues with YouTube, with Reddit. When I’m bored, I spend too much time browsing the Internet. You could say that for most people but I would say that it’s just not normal for me. I got stressed so easily, I would want to quit very easily and I had no willpower. I would continue to submit assignments late, sometimes, so late I would fail the module. And that was all because I would spend too much time browsing.
The hardest part about all this, was really just asking somebody to help me. I’d been trying to do it on my own for so long, just sitting in my room and not being able to figure out what’s wrong. I never realised there was support for these kind of issues. The most important thing I did was leaving those online friends behind. That was really hard for me as they were my friends for years. But it would be very difficult and tempting if I were to go back and talk to them about gaming.
It’s a work in progress. My counsellor says there’s no quick fix for this. It requires long-term care and long-term support. I’m still learning how to do it but it’s way better than I was doing three years ago.”
Daniel, 24, is getting treatment for his gaming addiction at The Cabin, an addiction treatment centre.
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