Game over ... Michael Aspinall, whose addiction to computer games cost him his marriage and job, is receiving therapy.
Photo: Ken Irwin
Addiction to computer games is as serious as gambling and drug use, a psychologist has warned.
Computer game addicts spend so much time playing they can lose their jobs, break up their families and stunt their social development, says clinical psychologist Jo Lamble.
The co-author of a book on internet relationships, Ms Lamble is urging authorities to act.
"I have seen a steady increase in the number of computer game addicts," she said. "Mostly it's the partners or parents who come asking for help as the gamers don't even know they have a problem.
"Gamers report they feel much calmer when they are playing and feel euphoric when they win. Playing the games sets up a series of patterns, habits and routines that are addictive in the same way drugs are."
Overseas, the problem has become so great that clinics are opening. One in Amsterdam is swamped by calls for help. In the US, the Computer Addiction Study Centre in Massachusetts is treating dozens of addicts.
In South Korea, gaming is a national obsession and experts warn it is a bigger addiction concern than alcohol, gambling or drugs.
Computer games are booming in Australia. In the first six months of this year, $343 million worth of games were sold, up 8 per cent on 2005.
Games distributor Electronic Arts said 53 per cent of Australians played computer games regularly - 13 per cent more than Europeans.
Michael Aspinall, 34, of Melbourne, is in therapy after playing intensely for 10 years. He would play for eight hours a day and said if he didn't get his "fix", he'd be anxious and irritable.
"I used to take caffeine tablets to stay awake to play," he said. "Then I would smoke marijuana to come down off the high the game gave me."
Mr Aspinall said his marriage broke up over his addiction and he lost his job because he was always tired. When he was unemployed, he locked himself in his room and played 20 hours a day.
"In the games you can be somebody you're not . . . you live a life you would like to lead," he said.
Mr Aspinall spent tens of thousands of dollars upgrading hardware, internet speeds and buying games.
"It's not just the money you lose, but your life. You become out of touch with society altogether."