The Idaho Court of Appeals this week upheld a Kootenai County First District Court judge's decision to sever the parental rights of a woman who said she spent six to eight hours a day playing the online role-playing game "World of Warcraft."
An opinion written by Judge Karen Lansing states that police responded to the home of "Jane Doe" and her three children on Dec. 19, 2010, to resolve a noise complaint and "found a home in disarray."
"There was insufficient food in the home and an unsecured butcher knife was found on the floor next to a children's toy," the ruling says. "In addition to observing conditions which the police believed endangered the children, police heard from Doe's children that she was playing video games rather than caring for them."
The youngest child, who was 4 at the time of the incident, had lice. One of the other two had "severe" tooth decay. Doe - the woman isn't otherwise identified - admitted to police that she had been spending her time playing the online game in a way that did not enable her to take breaks to check on the three children.
"Rather, she chose to play with groups of other players who depended upon her maintaining a sufficient level of attention to the game in order to meet group objectives," the ruling states.
Officers removed the children from the home. After further investigation, it was revealed that they had been taken from her custody on three other occasions - some based on facts similar to the most recent removal.
After a trial, the Kootenai District Court ruled to terminate Doe's parental rights, a ruling that was appealed by Doe due largely to her belief that the court did not take an alleged disability into account.
Judge Lansing writes in her opinion on the appeal that Doe did not give any particulars regarding her alleged disability but stated that she "has a mental disability." At certain points in the appeal trial, Doe implied that her disability is an addiction to "World of Warcraft."
In order to analyze how any addiction impacts an individual, psychologists start by looking at the brain.
"An addiction is something from the outside coming in and completely hijacking a system of the brain," said Kristina Klassen, a psychology instructor at North Idaho College. "It impacts the balance of these systems and in order to maintain balance, the brain begins to rely on that external thing."
Similar to a gambling addiction, Klassen said a video game addiction impacts the dopamine centers of the brain, which create feelings of pleasure. When someone becomes addicted to an activity that actively stimulates the dopamine centers, such as winning or achieving a goal in a game, she or he become reliant on that activity to provide them with happiness.
"You might feel 'egged on' to get back into the game to trigger those feelings," Klassen said. "But that doesn't mean you can't get over it (a video game addiction) because nothing in your brain is actually chemically changed. You can go through a detox period, so to speak, and you still might be tempted but it wouldn't be debilitating."
Prior to the initial district court decision to take her children, the Department of Health and Welfare made efforts to treat and support Doe in dealing with her alleged mental disability - beginning with what Judge Lansing calls "the most obvious issue" of Doe's choice to play World of Warcraft rather than provide for her children.
"The case plan required that she 'meet with a specialist in video game addiction and complete an evaluation to determine service needs' and 'complete a psychological evaluation and follow all recommendations,'" the ruling states.
Initially Doe was compliant with her case plan, but she eventually refused additional treatment and instead chose to seek counseling from a faith-based counselor at her church. According to the ruling, this counseling was not "consistent with the recommendations of the psychological evaluation."