FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
For some people, online games can lead to addiction and huge losses. Liz Woolley knows all about that. She founded the group Online Gamers Anonymous. It's a path she took because of a devastating experience in her own life. Liz, thanks for being here.
Ms. LIZ WOOLLEY (Founder, Online Gamers Anonymous): Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Let's talk about your son Shawn. How did he get into gaming and how deep was his love of gaming?
Ms. WOOLLEY: Well, he'd been playing games for 10 years. My own career is in computer technology, so we were the first on the block to get a computer. And so, he had, you know, lots of access to it in all types. But he did not have any problems with them until he started playing that game "Everquest."
CHIDEYA: "Everquest" is an online game where you actually can play with other people, correct?
Ms. WOOLLEY: Yes, it is.
CHIDEYA: So, what happened once he started playing this game - that's not just a video game, it's also one where you're interacting in real time with other people playing the same game - what happened to him?
Ms. WOOLLEY: Correct. It was one of the first ones to come out like that, and so I had no idea it was different from any other game. I just thought it was another game. And he, within three months of playing it, he started - it started affecting his real life negatively. He lost his job. He got evicted from his apartment. By the way, he was 20 years old when he started playing this, so he was an adult. But very quickly it showed negative effects. His personality changed. He started becoming a different person. He became withdrawn, antisocial, depressed. His focus became gaming, and he no longer was concerned about his real life or his future.
CHIDEYA: When you think about your son, do you think that there were other underlying issues, whether it was depression or some other condition, that caused him to be susceptible to this? I mean, how do you balance that thought out?
Ms. WOOLLEY: I agree with that 100 percent. He had ADD, and from my experience, since 2002, probably 99 percent of the gamers that we've talked to who have problems with gaming have ADD. It seems to make them more susceptible.
CHIDEYA: Attention deficit.
Ms. WOOLLEY: Yes. It seems to make them more susceptible to these games, to getting pulled in and keeping them there.
CHIDEYA: So, your son, tell us what happened in the conclusion of his addiction.
Ms. WOOLLEY: Well, he wasn't at home. He had his own apartment. He had been seeing professionals for his depression and his personality disorder, which he got after he started playing this game. But they were not treating him for the gaming. They were treating those effects. And he was doing better. He ended up getting his own apartment again. And they also helped him to get a computer and that was in August of 2001. And the week he got that computer, he stopped all contact with them, which I did not know about because they could not tell me because of the privacy laws.
And several months later, he admitted to me that he had stopped taking his medication, which I became concerned with and called his case worker, and she said, oh, by the way, yeah, he hasn't seen us for a couple months now. And I could see that he was just going downhill, and I told her, you know, she needed to get in touch with him again. And a week before Thanksgiving he quit his job. And when I found that out, I went over to his apartment and he didn't want to let me in, so I actually had the landlord open the door. And he came to the door and there was a chain across it. And, you know, by this time, he already had the gun, and I think he already had a plan. He would not let me in his apartment.
And I was talking to him about Thanksgiving, you know, and it's like, how come he quit his job, because he no longer had a phone. He had cut that off so that he could use his money on the cable Internet connection so he could play his game. He wouldn't let anybody in his apartment. My children had gone over to see him, and he wouldn't let the other - you know, his brothers and sisters come in to see him either. He had also stopped all contact with his friends by this time.
And so anyway, I was talking to him, you know, and he said, well, he just got a different job. That's why he quit that job. And when I found out that he didn't have a different job, I went back over there on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and he wasn't there or he didn't answer the door. He was there, because the chain was across the door. And you know, I just let him go. I said, OK, I'm coming back tomorrow, because it's Thanksgiving and you're going to come with me to my sister's. And so the next day I got there, and again, he didn't answer the door. And I was, you know, I was going to leave, and I thought, I'm just going to try the knob. And I tried the knob and here it was open. And then I got really scared.
CHIDEYA: You know what?
Ms. WOOLLEY: And...
CHIDEYA: I hate to do this to you, Liz, but we have to take a break right now. But we're going to continue with your story right after the break. And I appreciate you telling me so much about your son and his struggle. So, stay with us, OK?
Ms. WOOLLEY: OK.
CHIDEYA: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. We are back talking with Liz Woolley about online gaming addictions. She's the founder of Online Gamers Anonymous. And Liz, you were just telling us about your son, Shawn, and how you had such a hard time being in contact with him while he was living a very isolated life and devoting his time to online gaming. You had gotten us to a point where you walked up to his door after he had been isolated from you for quite some time. Tell us what happened.
Ms. WOOLLEY: Well, when I tried the door and I realized that the - that it was unlocked, I got very concerned. And then I smelled something, and the landlord had told me to break that chain because it wasn't supposed to be on there. So, I went home and broke in, got my equipment, came back and broke in to his apartment and found him sitting on the chair in front of the computer with the "Everquest" game on it. And he had a rifle and he had shot himself. And I saw the game, and I just said, this has something to do with that game, and collapsed. That was - that was the beginning of this.
He - his boss, who knew what he was like before he started gaming, playing "Everquest," had a friend who was a newspaper reporter. And eventually, I talked to him, and that's kind of how this got going, because I found out that there were millions of other - not millions - thousands of other people at that time who were having the same problems that we did. And I decided that I should take my knowledge and do something with it instead of hiding it under a rock.
CHIDEYA: Do you believe that the gaming really killed your son, or rather, caused him to kill himself?
Ms. WOOLLEY: Yes, because it affected his mind so that he no longer wanted to be in this life. I mean, he - after he started playing that game, looking to the future, working on his life, was gone. All he was interested in was being on the game. And he actually told me at one time that I should support him the rest of his life and just let him play that game. And he was serious.
CHIDEYA: Well, you've gone on to start an organization, Online Gamers Anonymous. What exactly does the group do? And you know, obviously it comes from the pain that you've transformed into action, but what do you do?
Ms. WOOLLEY: We have a place for people to go who are suffering from effects of gaming, and it can be the gamer or the family member. And the biggest thing we offer them is a community to go to where they know that they're not the only one this is happening to and that we will not laugh or belittle them, because we've all been through it ourselves. And we know how devastating it can be to relationships, to people, you know, and just have true compassion for them. And that's the biggest thing that we are.
And then we offer other tools like online meetings. We have our message boards. We're starting face-to-face meetings, giving people a place to go to help each other get through this. At this time, we're really finding the professionals are really falling down on this issue, and until they get more research done and have it documented, you know, we're kind of on our own right now.
CHIDEYA: It sounds like you don't think that there's a lot of respect for this, recognizing this as a form of addiction.
Ms. WOOLLEY: That's true. And people who are addicted to it are too scared to death to tell anybody, because they're going like, yeah, if I tell somebody I'm addicted to a computer game, I'm going to get laughed out on the street, you know, because so many people haven't seen it or experience it, or they themselves are addicted, so they don't even want to believe that there's such a thing, because they might have to look at their own issue.
CHIDEYA: Just one quick piece of advice. If you're - you obviously tried to stay in contact with your son. He made it difficult for you, and he's dead. Whether or not some people would argue that it's not the gaming's fault, you think it is. One very small piece of advice for families who are trying to help someone.
Ms. WOOLLEY: I really need to talk to parents and tell them that these games are not glorified babysitters. And I see so many parents so excited because they're teaching their two year old to play games, and by five, they're addicted. You know, it's just heartbreaking to me, because it's like giving their child the drug, and they don't even know what they're doing. They're helping ruin their child's life, because it does affect their brain. It rewires their brain, and it affects how they function in society.
CHIDEYA: Well, Liz, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Ms. WOOLLEY: Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Liz Woolley is the founder of Online Gamers Anonymous, and she joined us from the studios of WPLN in Nashville, Tennessee.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.