Addiction to online social gaming has grown into a serious problem among young people, with the numbers seeking medical treatment soaring.
Clinics have received calls for help from people saying, "I can't stop playing online games even though I try," and "I can't stop spending all my money on games." One clinic has even set up an outpatient division specialising in online game addiction.
A 19-year-old vocational school student recalled how one morning, he woke up at 6am on a sofa, still clutching his mobile phone.
"Damn it! I was probably asleep for two hours," he said. Then he leaped up from the sofa and began fiddling with the phone again.
Sometimes he was so preoccupied with the games that he forgot to sleep, he said.
It all began with games on his mobile phone during his first year of middle school. Initially he was killing time during his school commute, but then his lifestyle started to change.
Such online games are in theory free of charge, but extras priced from 100 yen to 1,000 yen enable players to increase the physical strength or offensive capabilities of their characters.
He said it made him feel good when "buddies" he knew through social gaming sites gave him praise such as, "You're so powerful."
After entering high school, he began pouring about 80,000 yen a month, including earnings from a part-time job, into games.
When he received 100,000 yen in New Year's gifts, he spent it all in just 10 days.
His parents discovered his addiction when a bill for 50,000 yen in arrears was mailed to their home. By then, he had already spent more than 1 million yen.
He was always late to school because he hadn't gotten enough sleep. His weight had dropped by several kilograms.
One winter, when he was a second-year high school student, his family took him to a private counseling centre.
Though he stopped playing games for a period, he became addicted again to other kinds of online games after enrolling in vocational school last spring.
His voice was uneasy: "I've reached the very end. What happens if I die like this?" Yet he has been unable to stop playing the new online game.
"I have no hopes for my future. But in the world of online games, my character is continually growing and developing, and I feel a sense of achievement that I never feel in the real world," he said.
Futoko Shien Centre, a Nagoya-based association offering counseling services for truants, said it had received 327 individual requests for consultation for online game addiction from the beginning of this year to July.
Zenkoku Web Counseling Kyogikai, a nationwide organisation providing counseling services for Internet-related issues, said it had received about 150 similar requests for counseling over the past three years.
The Consumer Affairs Agency began to regulate online social gaming this May.
A senior agency official said, "With the proliferation of smartphones, circumstances have changed to allow people to immerse themselves in online games around the clock, even while they are out or in bed."
The road to recovery
Best known for treating alcohol addiction, Kurihama Medical and Addiction Centre in Kanagawa Prefecture set up the nation's first outpatient division specializing in Internet-related addiction in July last year.
Since then, 85 patients have been treated. The centre said more than 70 per cent were middle and high school students, mostly males.
Some major online game site operators have introduced usage limits.
For example, in April, GREE Inc. and DeNA Co. began prohibiting users under 15 from accruing bills exceeding 5,000 yen a month.
However, they have not created any time-based usage limits.
The titles in question are online social games in which multiple users play simultaneously via the Internet. Users can exchange messages online to chat or to team up to fight enemies.
Those whose school or work lives have been devastated by addiction to online gaming are known as "netoge haijin" (online game wrecks).
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