With the advent of the coronavirus, we are all struggling to adjust to a “new normal.” Currently, we are witnessing restaurants and schools closing and the enforcement of social distancing throughout the country.  This pandemic is changing the way everyone spends their professional and recreational time.  As therapists, we are all meeting with individuals who are in the midst of great change.  We can feel the stress and pressures our clients are experiencing. My intention with this article is to discuss how this pandemic is impacting a subset of clients, gamblers and gamers

On March 17th, Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa made the decision to close casinos in order to attempt to flatten the curve of the virus.  This will remain in effect until at least March 31st.  As a result, the outlets for many gamblers was abruptly closed to the general public. The ability to bet on sports was still available to those who had the mobile app, but the major sporting events in the United States were either cancelled or postponed.  The NCAA’s March Madness tournament, which is the sporting event where the most money is wagered all year, has been cancelled.  This is both a major loss of revenue for the gaming industry and has the potential to have a substantial impact on those who gamble. 

Subsequently, many disordered gamblers, instead of abstaining, will search and find other activities to place bets on. A recent article interviewed several sports gamblers and discussed the different activities gamblers are betting on ranging from coronavirus prevalence rates to Eastern European sporting events. As they continue to gamble, many gamblers are also turning to Esports in order to get their, “fix.” For those who are unfamiliar, Esports are multiplayer video games which are played competitively in front of spectators.

These competitions have been wagered on for years and has been recently increasing in popularity, but it has grown exponentially in past several weeks due to the coronavirus.  What this means for disordered gamblers, is they are now wagering on events they have less knowledge of and yet they continue in order to remain in the action stage of gambling.  This also appears to indicate that Esports will continue to grow in popularity as gamblers become more familiar with the activity, furthering the already blurred line between gaming use disorder and gambling use disorder.

There is evidence this is already happening to some degree.  Recent statistics from the streaming service Twitch indicate individuals are streaming video games at unprecedented levels.  On the weekend of March 21st-22nd, 97.7 million hours of video game content was viewed during this time period. This would estimate into 2 million users per hour during that weekend alone. Gamequitters, a website dedicated to assisting addicted gamers reduce or discontinue gaming, reports gaming is up 75%..

This appears to indicate a correlation exists between the increased gambling activity on video games and the number of hours video games are being watched.  This does not, obviously, account for the entire surge in video game viewing. With the large number of children who are out of school attempting to entertain themselves by watching video games.  Many parents I work with report they are struggling to find the balance between getting their own work done and keeping their children entertained.  The difficulty with this is that it is increasing the frequency and amount of games children are exposed to.  As we know from substance use and gambling use disorders, the amount and frequency of use does increase the potential of dependence.  The current climate is definitely increasing our opportunity for risk to gaming and gambling use disorder.

So what are some solutions to these issues during this time of social distancing?  For those who have gambled, it requires us to be vigilant in looking for withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness or irritability.  This is challenging, due to the fact  many individuals are likely feeling restless or irritable as a result of fears around COVID, but  relevant as these are classic symptoms of withdrawal.  It is important to ask these questions for 2 reasons: 1) gamblers have a high rate of domestic violence in their relationships so a period of withdrawal may increase the risk of abuse in their relationships; 2) As gamblers begin to gamble on activities they are less familiar with they increase the risk of placing their families in more desperate financial situations. 

For gamers, and for parents who are concerned about their child’s use of gaming and streaming, some suggestions for parents is to find other activities for their children to become more involved in.  Many of the gamers I work with enjoy role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.  Gamers report enjoying the element of storytelling and control they receive from these types of games.  Reading is also a positive activity for gamers as it promotes delayed gratification which is important for individuals who are drawn towards video games to practice, as games are more apt to provide immediate gratification.  One of the reasons I am apt to encourage activities such as Dungeons and Dragons is that many gamers report feeling lonely and these types of games promote social interaction in areas they already feel competent in.  Other techniques that can be helpful during this time period are grounding or mindfulness.  We are looking to interrupt the, “flow state,” of both the gamer and gambler or the time period where the addict is escaping from boredom or stress. I typically recommend time limits and taking breaks from the game as well as this also separates the flow state. Finding alternative forms of entertainment will prove to be a challenge for some, but can also be a fun way to bond as a family.