|Sunday, May 11, 2008|
Drawn into Cyberspace
Computer Addiction is a Devastating Game
BY JAY M. GROSSMAN
"You could command the entire Confederate force - you could command your troops into battle," Roberts said of Gettysburg, a computer war game that consumed his life, day and night, for nearly two years.
"I met people online every night to relive the glories of the Civil War. There were people from all over the world. There were people from Taiwan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Korea, China ... the Asian people were unusually good at that game."
Roberts, 38, is a confessed video game addict. It started during his college days at the University of Michigan and continued through his teaching career at Roeper School, where he juggled his time between foreign language lessons and playing marathon sessions of a real-time strategy game called the Age of Empires.
His addiction reached new heights with Gettysburg, an epic Civil War game that turns ordinary players into generals as they lead heroic cavalry charges up the hill. He might still find himself battling wits with Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant were it not for a chronic bout of back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.
"I could barely move my right wrist," Roberts said.
He now makes a living as a coach, counseling other gaming addicts who are desperate to put down the joy stick. Two nights a week he holds support group meetings at his home in Bloomfield Township.
"The only way I've ever seen excessive video gamers stay off of games is to find some meaningful pursuit that engages them," he said. "Find your kid an opportunity where that kid feels like they're giving back - just putting down the game isn't enough.
"These are people who want to go on a quest. They have wild imaginations, they're creative. They need something they find rewarding, that engages their senses."
He incorporates some of the 12 steps familiar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Members of his support group first need to admit they have a problem with video games and they're powerless to stop themselves.
His own problem started more than a decade ago. Growing up in Redford Township, Roberts attended Catholic Central High School before enrolling at U-M. Fluent in French, Spanish and German, he earned extra cash in Ann Arbor by teaching English to newly arriving foreign students.
One summer afternoon his roommates introduced him to a computer game called Civilization.
"Pretty soon I was skipping a lot of classes and hanging out in the computer lab. I developed back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome - I actually started wearing a wrist guard."
He kept on playing. After earning a bachelor's degree he took a job at The Roeper School, where he spent four years teaching foreign language and social studies. It was during his final year at Roeper, sometime in 1998, that he started playing the Age of Empires.
"It was my first experience with a real-time strategy game," he said. "The first time I started playing, I didn't stop for almost two days ... that was a game I struggled with for years."
PROFILE OF AN ADDICT
He fit the typical profile for a gaming addict, an intelligent young man who enjoyed delving into role-playing strategy games. He knew players from Korea and China better than his own neighbors down the street.
Ultimately, it took some real-time friends to finally convince Roberts that too much of time was spent conquering the universe.
"I had a friend who caught me in the middle of a binge," he said. "That friend, along with some other troops he mustered, eventually were able to get through to me and convince me that I had a problem."
He's now focused on helping others. His Web site for gaming addicts (www.videogamingaddicts.org) includes a quiz to help determine if a problem exists. A self-published book he wrote, "Video Game Junkie: Straight Talk from a Recovering Addict," is due out in July.
Roberts knows there are many people just like him.
"Video games are not all bad," he said. "There was actually a report out of North Carolina where a guy who was learning to become a medic from playing America's Army arrived at the scene of an accident, got out, gave first aid treatment and made triage decisions based on his experience from playing America's Army."
He also points out the therapeutic: Pam Omidyar, who is the wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, developed a computer game in 2006 called Remission to help young cancer patients navigate their way through chemotherapy and other treatments.
"There are a lot of positives," Roberts said. "In today's day and age you need to have computer access ... you just need to learn how to use it responsibly."
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