HACKENSACK, N.J.-- --James Robinson often played video games for five hours a day this summer, sometimes even more.
He boasts 60 games in his room and three consoles -- GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo 64. When his family drags him out of the house, he pockets his portable Nintendo DS, plus his cell phone for playing Tetris.
James happily calls himself a "video-game addict." He's joking, sort of, but some psychologists warn that video-game addiction can be a serious problem.
"I'd rather be addicted to them than drugs or alcohol," insists the 15-year-old from Saddle Brook, N.J. "But video games do interfere with my schoolwork. ... Instead of doing homework, I might be tempted to play."
His mother, Angela, plans to ban video games on weekdays when school starts. She already took away his Final Fantasy game so he'd tackle his summer reading assignment, The Catcher in the Rye, even though he gets mad when she makes him stop playing. "If I tell him to get off, it's a personality change," she says. "I have a whole different child."
Many parents vow to pull the plug on kids who have been pounding away on video games through the hazy days of vacation. That might not be so easy -- especially since so many games these days come in hand-held, concealable versions that run on batteries.
Some parents don't even realize how much time kids devote to them.
Pat Nash, a guidance counselor at the Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, N.J., points to one bright student last year so fixated on gaming that he flunked two courses and had to go to summer school. "His mother literally doesn't know how much he was on the games because he'd do it when everybody else had gone to bed," she says.
It is unclear how many people suffer from such an obsession, and experts debate whether it actually can be labeled an addiction. Some addiction specialists believe that term is thrown around too loosely and should apply only to a compulsive need to use a habit-forming, harmful substance such as drugs or alcohol.
The National Institute on Media and the Family is one of several organizations arguing that electronic addictions should be taken seriously. It warns that anyone who spends most of his waking hours gaming, surfing the Internet and visiting chat rooms is at risk.
For some people, "time spent on the computer or video game is out of balance and has displaced work, school, friends and even family," the group cautions. "Increasingly, to feel good, the addicted person spends more time playing video games or searching the Internet. Time away from the computer causes moodiness or withdrawal."
Therapists have sprung up to fight the problem. This year a clinic in Amsterdam opened Europe's first inpatient treatment center for patients who have played video games as much as 14 hours a day, sometimes taking drugs to help them play even longer.
Ironically, treatment is sold on the Web itself, through the Center for Online and Internet Addiction. Counseling at this "virtual clinic," either through telephone or chat room sessions, costs $95 per hour. The latter may sound like treating alcoholics in a bar, but its promoters say it can be hard to find specialists locally and that some clients are more honest writing about their problems from a distance than talking face to face.
Judith Gurfein, a psychologist at Gambling Counseling Services in Paramus, N.J., believes video games can be addictive but says she doesn't get many calls for treating it. "They don't call because it's not offending anybody," she says. "With Internet sex, the wife or girlfriend gets angry. With online gambling, they lose money. But video games are just an enormous waste of time."
Liz Woolley, a Harrisburg, Pa., mother, says the video-game obsession is more than just a useless pastime. She says it's dangerous and led her 21-year-old son, Shawn, to shut himself in his apartment, get depressed and, ultimately, fatally shoot himself. When she found him, EverQuest was on his screen. He'd been playing the game -- some call it EverCrack because of its addictive nature -- for a year and a half, paying its monthly fees all the while.
"When you get into these games your life is not balanced," Woolley says. "You're not eating right, sleeping, going outside, getting sunshine. Everything you need to survive is being taken away, and you get depressed from sitting in a room and pushing a button all the time."
Woolley says many games suck people in because they're virtual societies with no end, no final competition. She founded On-Line Gamers Anonymous (olganon.org) to help others resist their lures. Most addicts don't seek help because they're "ashamed," she says. "They don't understand the games were designed to get them addicted."
The Entertainment Software Association, which represents game makers, balks at such criticism.
"All those who play computer or video games -- and parents who supervise their children's play -- need to take personal responsibility to ensure they use games in a sensible and appropriate way, just as tens of millions of people do every day," its president, Douglas Lowenstein, says in a written statement. "Our industry has always encouraged consumers to enjoy games just as they do any other leisure activity: responsibly and in moderation as part of a well-rounded, well-adjusted lifestyle."
Many devotees say their games are just a harmless diversion, and they can quit whenever they want.
One 16-year-old in Rochelle Park, N.J., who asked to be identified by his gaming name, Cataract, says he has long used games as an escape from the trials of growing up -- boredom, his parents' divorce and bullies. "I could let out all my sadness, anger and other feelings in a nonexistent world," he says. "I believe video games are not a habit to be kicked," but an emotional balm.
Those concerned about gaming addiction, however, note that the online fantasy world can become more compelling than the real world.
Ari Deutsch, a 20-year-old in Upper Saddle River who soon will be a junior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, got counseling to conquer an online poker habit that helped him rack up a $1,000 debt.
Now he has switched to video gaming, especially Call of Duty 2. He often plays from 9 p.m. to midnight but says he has his hobby under control.
A dorm friend, on the other hand, routinely skipped classes and played "a good nine hours a day of video games. It was very intense. I've tried to get him to get up and go out and do something but he's not a very social person."
Deutsch weaned himself off his dependency with the help of a therapist. "As people mature," he says, "they start to realize that social life offers more than sitting in your room by yourself."