Last fall, Tao coauthored a controversial diagnostic manual for "Internet Addiction Disorder," and he's now fighting to get the disorder accepted both by Chinese netizens and by health organizations at home and abroad.
Finding games and friends in the real world
Tao's center, which opened in 2004, has become the model for other such centers countrywide, which now number more than 300.
Here, in addition to military-style discipline, some 60-odd patients at his center undergo a three-month regimen of counseling, confidence-building activities, sex education, and in about 60 percent of the cases, medication. The treatment is designed to address underlying family and psychological problems, and boost their self-confidence.
There are a handful of young women here, going "cold turkey" from "Audition" and similar games, where players engage in dance battles, decorate virtual homes, and have virtual husbands and babies. (One female patient had amassed 68 "husbands," says Tao, with a sigh).
But most of the patients are young men, 15 to 21 years old, hooked on multiplayer online games – especially World of Warcraft and Counterstrike.
"They believe the virtual world is beautiful and fair," said Tao. "In the real world, they become depressed, upset, and restless – they are very unhappy."
Jia Chunyang, a teenager from the coastal city Qingdao, is a typical patient. Wearing a military-green jumpsuit and hip black-framed glasses, he explains that Counterstrike is his "drug" of choice. A couple years ago his gaming habit – which he indulged at least five or six hours a day – started to seriously affect his life.