Muay Thai and meditation, mindfulness and massage: the schedule at The Cabin addiction treatment centre could easily be mistaken for that of a wellness retreat or luxury hotel.
Tucked into a bend of the Ping river in northern Thailand, the facility hosts hundreds of people, including Britons and Australians, who come to battle their addictions – including gaming.
“Just like any drug you can never get enough,” says Olivia, a 50-year-old British author who describes the frightening experience of “living to play a game”. In the depths of her addiction, her physical and mental health were at a low and she accumulated over £30,000 (US$37,500) of debt from in-game micro-purchases.
In some cases, gamers can forget to eat or sleep, losing jobs and relationships in the process. In one incident in South Korea, a newborn starved to death while her parents gamed, and last year a 12-year-old Australian boy killed himself amid a gaming addiction.
In 2022, the World Health Organization added “internet gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases, defining the addiction, which affects between 2% and 3% of users, as a pattern of gaming behaviour that “takes precedence over other interests and daily activities”.
“This is an epidemic, but reaching people is incredibly difficult,” Olivia says.
The Cabin previously catered to people with substance and alcohol addictions – it counts musician Pete Doherty as well as professional athletes among its former clients. But in 2016 it launched a specialised programme for male gaming addicts aged 18 to 24. Nearly two-thirds of those admitted were westerners: a quarter were Australian, while 20% were British and 20% American.
The centre is about to relaunch its eight-week programme after a temporary hiatus during the pandemic. Patients will be encouraged to take part in a variety of physical activities alongside individual, group and art therapy, while family members complete an eight-week online programme that addresses the challenges addicts face at home.
The programme is needed more than ever as gaming addiction rates rise, particularly in Asia, says Lee Hawker, its clinical director, adding many clients were men based in places like Singapore and Hong Kong.
“The gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood and when you look at the money that’s invested in terms of behavioural hooks and the psychology of gaming, I don’t think this isn’t happening by accident,” Hawkes says.
In the UK, evidence shows help-related searches for gaming addiction are regularly 15% higher than for cocaine addiction. And help can be hard to find.
“In the UK I found it really difficult to get any sort of advice, particularly from local GPs … The only support we found was one particular psychologist who worked specifically with gaming addicts,” says Anne, a teacher from the north of England, who tried to find help for a family member’s addiction.
However she found that regular visits to the London-based specialist would have been too costly. “It would have been incredibly expensive and gone on for years.”
The Cabin charges about $15,000 a month, depending on the programme. The same length of time in a private UK facility could total $25,000.
Since Anne’s search, the NHS has opened a Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders in London which has supported 745 people.
For Olivia, joining Gaming Addicts Anonymous – a free and global fellowship that follows a model similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous – saved her life but she says many may feel the need for residential care because the withdrawals are so intense.
She describes “horrific nightmares, racing thoughts, agitation; the kind of physical responses that you’d have coming off a class A drug”.
For residential care, Anne was directed to The Cabin, which plans to take only eight gaming clients at a time, initially ban the use of technology, and combine cognitive behavioural therapy techniques with outdoor activities, such as triathlon training, run by ex-military personnel.
The Cabin’s new gaming programme, which will be situated at the foot of the Doi Suthep mountains, will retain the core elements of fitness and competition but has been updated to reflect the neuroscience of gaming addiction, says Hawkes.
Olivia, who has just passed 15 months free from electronic games, says that seeking some form of support is important for anyone who finds themselves in a similar position. She hopes that UK addiction facilities begin to expand the care they can provide, “recognising that this is an issue and a big one”.