Japan teen addicted to online games grabs knife when internet was cut off

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A high school student (foreground) talks about his loss of control playing online games, sitting next to his mother.

Video game addiction may be on the rise, as yet another toll taken by the novel coronavirus pandemic on mental health. While in moderation video games can provide a recreational outlet to pass the extra time at home, experts fear that the prolonged pandemic has also rekindled a serious affliction among gamers who become unable to log off from the virtual world, even as their lives in the real world crumble around them.

One day in September 2019, high school student “Satoshi” came barreling down the stairs of his family’s home in the Chubu region in a rage.

“How dare you cut off my internet!” he shrieked.

Satoshi (not his real name) had been playing video games for 15 hours a day, every day, for about six months. Deciding that enough was enough, his 48-year-old mother, Miyuki (also a pseudonym), had canceled their home internet contract.

Satoshi grabbed a kitchen knife from the kitchen. His mother feared that she was about to be stabbed by her own son. But Satoshi turned the knife toward his own neck. “Without games, I won’t live,” he said, trembling.

Shocked and saddened by the desperation on her son’s face, Miyuki realized that he wasn’t only playing games because they were fun, but also because he was addicted.

Vicious cycle

Satoshi was able to enter the prep school of his choice in April 2019. Not long after, he started playing online games after having been lured by a friend.

He soon became immersed in an online fighting game that enabled him to compete with players around the world.

Before long, he was playing the game until dawn, and sleeping through his classes. His grades dropped quickly and he fell behind on his schoolwork. His teachers repeatedly called him into their office for warnings.

As he slipped toward the bottom of his class, he rose through the game’s leaderboard standings, which provided a different sense of self-esteem.

Satoshi tried to kick the habit by deleting the game, but ended up reinstalling it soon after.

Miyuki set a parental lock, but Satoshi managed to restore access after searching for a workaround online.

He started to suspect that people had begun to write him off as a lost cause. To escape from these feelings of self-pity, he further immersed himself in the world of online games. It was a vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, Miyuki was struggling to deal with the fallout. She received emails from Satoshi’s school, who said the issue required greater parental guidance from her and her husband. But her husband said: “You’re his mother. You deal with this.”

Not matter how many times she tearfully begged Satoshi to stop playing games, he could not let go.

A physical dependence

According to Takayuki Harada, a professor at the University of Tsukuba and clinical psychology specialist, addiction is a brain disease, in which the neural functions are altered by the use of certain addictive substances or repeating certain behaviors, resulting in a loss of control.

“Beating addiction is not as simple as having sheer will-power alone,” Harada said.

“In addicts, seeking pleasure and avoiding discomfort take place simultaneously,” said Hideki Nakayama, the head of the psychiatry department at Asahiyama Clinics in Sapporo.

People play games to derive pleasure. But once they become addicted, this pleasure conversely opens the door to discomfort when they are not playing.

“People can resist seeking pleasure, but it’s hard to endure discomfort,” Nakayama said.

Sharing experiences with others

When Miyuki saw her son hold a knife to his own throat, she recognized how badly he was suffering from not being able to quit. She desperately looked for hospitals specializing in addiction.

At one hospital, she was told: “Perhaps you should stop trying to help him?”

She listened and tried giving him space, watching over him without casting blame.

The change in Miyuki’s attitude moved her son. “I have to change, too,” he thought.

Satoshi participated in a self-help meeting where people who suffer from addiction can talk about their experiences. Gathering his courage, he confessed his real feelings. For the first time, he was able to admit his video game addiction, and that he was suffering from the struggle for self-control.

He had not been able to talk about those things to anyone, as he was afraid of being seen as “a weak-willed loser.” But at the meeting, no one criticized him. On the contrary, he found a sympathetic, intent ear.

Satoshi said that he at last found a safe space where he could be “free to talk my true feelings honestly.”

After undergoing hospitalization and treatment, Satoshi has successfully distanced himself from games. He is back at school now, and it seems his daily life has returned to normal.

This spring, he saw an advertisement for a new game on his smartphone and unconsciously went to the registration screen, but managed to pulled himself back. “It’s dangerous to think that I have already recovered. I’m still in the process of recovering,” he said.

Every day, he renews his pledge to stay away from games. “I won’t do it, at least not today.” He has decided to live the rest of his life while repeating the resolution in his mind, taking the road to recovery one day at a time.