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A former video game addict shares his story, and a way out

Matthew Spadaro hopes to form a support group. Matthew Spadaro hopes to form a support group. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Carly Gelsinger
Globe Correspondent / January 26, 2012
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QUINCY - Matthew Spadaro had nowhere to go. He had just been kicked out of his mother’s apartment that summer morning in 2010 and was lost in his hometown, his pale skin and brown eyes smarting from the sun. With throbbing temples, Spadaro wandered the streets of Quincy alone, in a blur, until he checked into Father Bill’s homeless shelter.

“I felt like a drug addict coming off his high,’’ Spadaro said.

It wasn’t drugs that he was coming off of, but video games. For 10 years, Spadaro immersed himself in a world where he lived in castles, conquered his enemies, and said he felt like a god. But stripped from that virtual world he was a broke 25-year-old, 30 pounds overweight, with no friends, little work experience, and nowhere to sleep but a room with 100 other men.

Spadaro’s story of video game addiction is not uncommon. Many children of the 1980s and 1990s who grew up playing video games are still playing today. The average age of a gamer is now 37 and rises with each year, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, the Washington-based trade association for the US video game industry.

For some adults, computer games are a hobby, a way to relax for a few hours after a challenging day at work, or something fun to do with friends on the weekend. But for Spadaro, computer games were more than a hobby; they became his life.

Spadaro began to play video games as a child, like most boys his age. Born with a heart condition and raised by a single working mother, he found games an entertaining way to pass time. But soon the pastime grew into something much larger, and by his junior year in high school, he said he often put off his homework to play computer games.

After barely graduating, Spadaro enrolled in a community college but said he dropped out halfway through his first semester because by then he was so consumed by the virtual world that the real world seemed boring and too arduous.

Game designers have spent years trying to understand and cater their products to customers’ emotional needs, said Andrew Doan, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Hooked on Games.’’

Doan said that video games, playing to people’s desire for accomplishment, socialization, and urges for control and power, are designed so that players will keep playing forever. In the years since the development of what the industry calls “massive multiplayer online role-playing games,’’ such as World of Warcraft, game companies have been able to derive revenue not only from game sales but also on the monthly payments players make to keep their gaming accounts active.

A 1998 London study found that video game use releases dopamine in the frontal cortex, a neurological pathway, creating an effect similar to that of cocaine use. Since then, Doan said, subsequent studies have found other neurological similarities between video game use and drug use.

“These game companies are designing virtual heroin, and no one is saying anything,’’ he said.

In the years following high school, Spadaro said, he played about 12 hours a day, rarely emerging from his bedroom at his mother’s apartment, and unable to stop playing until his vision went blurry.

He worked part time at places like Honey Dew Donuts, just to pay for upgrades in the game. During days when he was torn away from the game, such as on holidays with family, he said, his mind was consumed with thoughts of when he might get to play again.

Sometimes, in moments of shame, he would tell himself he was done with video games forever, but he said those were short-lived and overpowered by the pull the game had on him.

People in the gaming industry insist the games are meant to be fun, and nothing more. John Hopson, a former game researcher for Microsoft and current lead design researcher at Bungie, the company that created Halo 3, specializes in using behavioral psychology to design games with reward schedules to make sure players want to play forever, but doesn’t understand why people are so uncomfortable with that.

“Furniture companies design chairs that fit a person’s body, and you don’t see anyone getting upset with that,’’ he said over the phone. “What’s the difference of a video game company designing a game to form to a person’s mind?’’

A lot, some addiction psychologists say.

Hilarie Cash, a psychologist and licensed therapist, said that smart young men are initially drawn to a game for intellectual stimulation but are quickly hooked on the dopamine release the game gives during play.

After working with gaming addict clients for years, Cash decided to open the nation’s first computer addiction rehabilitation center in 2009. The facility in Fall City, Wash., known as ReSTART, is a 45-day-minimum program where patients have no access to technology.

But costly therapy and rehab programs are realistic options only for some. Other recovering gaming addicts join local 12-step programs for drugs and alcohol, seek out family, or build relationships with other ex-gamers.

For Spadaro, living at the homeless shelter was the cold, hard wake-up call he needed to face the first steps of his recovery. The first few days at the shelter, Spadaro said, he was angry with his mother for kicking him out, physically sick, and in a confused blur.

“I felt my old world was flipped upside down,’’ he said.

But in coming weeks, with little access to computers and the rigid rules of the shelter, Spadaro’s mind began to clear. He sketched often, and learned chess. He made friends with former drug addicts and sober alcoholics, all activities that helped him see what life could be like without computer games.

But it was through attending daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the shelter, where he first admitted he was powerless over his addiction, that his recovery truly began.

Spadaro’s dream is to start a program in the Boston area for gaming addicts that uses the same 12 steps as Alcoholics Anonymous, such as admitting to the addiction and surrendering to a higher power for strength to overcome temptation.

“AA was great for me,’’ he said. “But I also struggled to fit in there. I think computer addicts might be more likely to seek help if there was a group more tailored to our issues.’’

Spadaro, who now lives in his own apartment in Wollaston, said he hasn’t played a video game since the first day he checked into the homeless shelter, more than a year and a half ago. After nearly severing family relationships during his addiction, he has since reconciled with his mother and sister; his eyes lit up as he talked about the recent weekend he spent with his sister. While Spadaro said he has a long way to go to full recovery, he is proud of the progress he’s made so far.

“I hadn’t the slightest idea of what my life would be like without getting high and escaping reality,’’ he said, referring to the euphoria he experienced through computer games. “But I fought every day the best way I knew how.’’

Carly Gelsinger can be reached at cwheelehan@gmail.com.

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