Cam Adair started playing video games at age 11. By age 21, the Canadian had given up hockey, dropped out of high school twice and fell into depression. His wake-up call was writing a suicide note.
"That's when I realized that I no longer had my own best interests in mind and I could no longer rely on myself to keep myself safe," he said.
He quit gaming and started Game Quitters in late 2014. Now Adair, 30, travels the world speaking about gaming addiction to audiences as far flung as Australia, Finland, Japan and Thailand.
He will speak at a town hall meeting hosted by the Kansas Coalition on Problem Gambling from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Grace Episcopal Church and a workshop for professionals from 8 a.m. to noon Wednesday. The event is free and registration is being taken online.
About 13 percent of teenagers report symptoms of video game problems, according to Game Quitters, and Adair shares his story, insight on the industry and tips for identifying and overcoming gaming addiction.
Adair, who experienced bullying as a child, doesn't blame video games for his struggles, but says quitting them has changed his life for the better.
Game Quitters is growing rapidly and reaches about 75,000 people a month in 95 countries, providing a forum where people can share their experiences and encourage one another. It also offers educational resources for gamers and their loved ones, including more than 60 hobby ideas, and information about treatment in partnership with The Edge in Thailand.
"A big part of the speaking I do is to mental health professionals, usually specifically gambling professionals," Adair said.
That's how Joyce Markham became familiar with him. Markham, president of the Kansas Coalition on Problem Gambling and a certified gambling counselor, saw Adair speak at the Midwest Conference on Problem Gambling last year and was overwhelmed by his presentation.
"He was the highlight of the conference for a lot of us," she said.
Markham realized that there was much she needed to learn about gaming addiction and the complicated issues families encounter.
"It's an issue that I think most of us are aware of, but have had no education on how to deal with this issue," Markham said. "As a therapist, I'm seeing more parents frustrated with their children not wanting to interact in life other than be on the games. They've withdrawn from social activities, lost interest in school or sports or any outside activities. All they want to do is play their game."
Teachers also have reported that some children struggle to stay awake in school after staying up playing video games. And the problems are emerging at younger and younger ages.
"It's new to us," Markham said. "We have to learn some new information, and his presentation is so powerful. You feel like now you've finally got something to work with."
Adair tailors his message to his audience.
"The main thing is not that we're against gaming or anything like that, but this is a real thing," he said. "This is a serious thing. We need to help people with it. It's not enough to continue to ignore it."
Last year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to the International Classification of Diseases. That distinction will encourage more research, education, funding and services related to the issue, Adair said.
But the gaming industry has pushed back. In a January statement, Stanley Pierre-Louis of the Entertainment Software Association touted "the positive impact video games have on the more than 2.6 billion players worldwide" and said "leading mental health experts have cautioned repeatedly that classifying ‘Gaming Disorder’ creates a risk of misdiagnosis for patients who most need help."
Adair urges parents to be aware of the seriousness of the issue but avoid confronting language when talking to their kids about gaming.
"Saying 'You're addicted to games' to a kid just causes conflict," he said.
Adair pointed out that most people who play video games don’t have a problem. He draws a distinction between a passion for gaming and an addiction, and highlights warning signs such as failed attempts to quit or limit time, poor grades and withdrawal from other activities and socialization.
Revenue for the video game industry reached a record $43.4 billion in 2018, according to the ESA, which called the industry "one of the nation’s fastest growing economic sectors" and said it employs more than 220,000 people in the U.S.
"I don't think what we're doing is a threat to that, but I'm guessing based on industry statements that they see it differently," Adair said. "Big gaming is like the new tobacco industry in the way that they're approaching this. They've been in complete denial."
Adair said he isn't opposed to gaming and even supports emerging avenues for pursuing gaming as a career. He said the emergence of esports, a form of competitive video gaming that has evolved to include college scholarships and professional leagues, offers an opportunity to raise awareness and support for people who have problems with gaming.
For those who may have a gaming addiction, Adair recommends committing to a period of time without gaming to create a contrast in their life. He also recommends finding replacement activities for the social outlet, sense of progress and advancement that gaming provides.
"It's like checking in to real life," he said.
Some people can reach a point where they play games in moderation. Others, like Adair, choose to quit altogether.
"I still feel nostalgic toward it. I still have cravings sometimes," Adair said.
One of the biggest misconceptions, Adair said, is the notion that the gaming itself isn't a problem, but rather an indication of an underlying mental health issue such as depression or anxiety.
"It's not as simple as just deal with anxiety and depression," he said. "They're all interlinked. Generally, what we find is if you're going to try to turn your life around, you're going to have to start with the gaming."
Another misconception, he said, is that people chalk it up to a failure in parenting.
"Most gaming addicts are young adults, 18 to 24, who develop the problem after they no longer have parental supervision," Adair noted. "Certainly, parents need to set boundaries and do all of that, but it's far more complex than just 'it's a parenting problem.' "
Adair expects the WHO will eventually recognize other addictions related to technology, such as smartphones and social media, which he says affect "basically everyone." And while he touches on those issues, he tries to stay focused on gaming.
"He's really changed our whole perspective on gaming," Markham said.