Joy of gaming morphed into troubling fixation for former video game addict

At his worst, Francis Labbé admits lying, stealing, and breaking the lock on his parents' safe to feed gaming addiction.

Montrealers share personal stories as WHO on verge of recognizing gaming disorder as a disease

Former video game addict Francis Labbé shared his story on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, saying his problems began when he started playing video games as more of a need than a fun activity. (Annie Deir/CBC)

Francis Labbé was seven years old when he first played a video game.

His father was playing on the computer when he placed Labbé on his lap and asked him if he wanted to try. The game was World of Warcraft, and although he didn't really understand how it worked at the time, he was immediately drawn in.

 "It was very, very wonderful for me."

But by the time he was eight or nine years old, Labbé said that the joy he got from video games had quickly morphed into something worse: an addiction.

"I always needed to find a way to run away from my problems," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak. "So I started to run away by playing video games: entering a world, being immersed, being a hero somewhere."

"I didn't do it because it's fun. I really did it because it was a need — I needed to do it."

Labbé, now 19, is not alone. The World Health Organisation is on the verge of recognizing gaming disorder as a disease. In the revised International Classification of Diseases, it is listed as "a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour," including impaired control over how much you play and the precedence gaming takes in your life.

It's a welcome move for Labbé, who said he didn't realize he could even be addicted to video games until it was too late.

Reading the signs

Labbé didn't recognize the signs of his addiction at the time. After all, his parents had set strict times for when he was allowed to play, and his friends would clock in more hours in than he did.

At his worst, he was addicted to an online game called League of Legends, which has hour-long online battles. If you lose, your rank goes down — so you don't want to stop if you're on a losing streak, explained Labbé. That lead to him playing another match, and then another. He would play for hours like this, every day.

At the same time, he started lying to his parents about how much he played, and stole money from them in order to fund his addiction. His parents would take away his gaming time when he was caught playing outside the designated hours, but Labbé said he would find a way to log in anyway.

"Even though I didn't feel like playing a game, I would."

A screen grab from the popular video game World of Warcraft, the first game that Francis Labbé played spawning his addiction. (Blizzard Entertainment)

At one point, his parents bought a safe in order to lock away his video game console. Labbé said that after a few days of trying to force it open, he managed to wear down the lock and break it.

"When you need it enough — you find a way," he said. His parents were forced to replace the safe.

When both family and friends suggested he might have a problem, Labbé sought help from Le Virage, an addiction centre focused on alcohol and gambling. Although gaming disorder wasn't the centre's main focus, Labbé said that they treated his dependence like any other.

"Any addiction is still an addiction," he said.

"Whatever the source of it is."

Parents concerned

For Amanda Durocher, her concerns began when her 12-year-old son Jonathan got an iPad to do his schoolwork.

His siblings told her he would sneak downstairs at five in the morning just to play the games in secret, and would immediately play it upon coming home. Her older son also played video games, but never fixated on them like Jonathan seemed to.

"Everything else took second place," she told Daybreak.

"This wasn't the Jonathan that we recognized."

Addiction to games is not limited to video game consoles. One Montreal mom got concerned after her 12-year-old son became fixated with playing games on his iPad. (CBC)

The realization struck when she read an article on drug and alcohol addiction. It described the way drugs could affect the brain, and there was a single line noting that video games were known to sometimes cause the same effect.

"I started analyzing Jonathan's behaviour and went: 'Oh. My. Goodness.'"

Durocher had a frank discussion with her children about addiction — emphasizing that video games can also be a cause. Then she got her son involved in a running club, and said that seemed to help distance him from video games.

It was a strategy that Labbé said worked for him, too.

"I began to sing, I began to draw more, pass more time with my friends. And video games took second place," he said.

Now he can play video games moderately, and will even go weeks without the urge to pick up a controller.

For parents whose children are grappling with gaming disorder, he offers some advice.

"Stay strong. It's really not easy. I know I wasn't an easy case. It took a long, long time but my parents helped me all the way," he said.

"Back then I didn't think I was bad. Now … in retrospect — it's pretty horrible. But I learned a lot."