Alok “Doctor K” Kanojia is a Twitch star without any of the typical Twitch trimmings. He’s not part of an established esports team. He doesn’t have a string of corporate sponsors. His channel contains zero compilations of Fortnite kills or “rage moments” on Overwatch. And most of all, his videos are very lo-fi, relying on a bog-standard web mic and ceiling lighting.
Despite all of that, though, his Healthy Gamer Twitch channel — as well as his Discord and YouTube channels under the same banner — has become one of the few places gamers feel they can be openly vulnerable.
Along with his wife Kruti, the 38-year-old Harvard-trained psychiatrist set up his Twitch channel about a year ago. The mission was simple: “Helping gamers identify habits that they felt contributed to ‘addiction’ when it comes to playing video games,” something Kanojia believes that policy makers, the media and the medical community either know very little about or actively dismiss. “There are a lot of assumptions about gamers — that they’re stupid or lazy, even though there’s stacks of data showing the opposite is true,” he tells me.
These assumptions, coupled with relatively little research into “addictive behaviors on the internet, social media and gaming” inform his belief that young, particularly male gamers are left on their own to manage their mental health struggles. “I remember hearing stories about gamers who knew they had problems, they knew they had unhealthy relationships with video games,” Kanojia explains. “They’d go to their doctor, be diagnosed with depression and then be prescribed medication. They’d take the medication, and go back to playing video games for the same amount of time. Their mood might have improved, but they didn’t have any guidance on how to improve their lives in the way they wanted to.”
Kanojia’s own story is likely to be familiar to many gamers — a sharp, intelligent young man from a well-educated family of doctors whose obsession with video games knocks him off track and almost prevents him from getting through college. After graduation, however, he spent time at a Hindu ashram in India, where, detached from consoles and screens, he learned yoga and meditation, and in the process, became interested in how his brain and body “actually worked” and how spiritual practices could allow you to understand your emotions more effectively.
When he arrived back in the States and started training as a medical doctor, he still played video games, but his interest had shifted from playing to win to the mental and emotional states of gamers themselves. “I used to message [gamers] and ask them how much they were playing and how they were feeling about it,” Kanojia says. He was taken aback at how hard it was for many of them to express how they felt. “A lot of gamers are extremely smart, analytical thinkers, but they find it difficult to connect and understand themselves on an emotional level,” he continues.
On Healthy Gamer, then, they work through this together, as Kanojia will livestream his conversations with gamers that often go on for hours about how they feel disconnected from their parents and how video games provide their self-worth since they’re “an ideal place to perform and succeed at complicated tasks that require intellect.” In other sessions, he discusses the “impostor syndrome” that can result from feeling “out of place when you feel you don’t deserve success,” a common refrain among Twitch gamers who, at a young age, suddenly find themselves gaining attention on the platform.
Even more intensely, in a recent video with CoconutB, a well-known 21-year-old Twitch streamer, Kanojia has an in-depth discussion about childhood trauma and abuse. As he talked through CoconutB’s problems, thousands of Twitch observers commented in real time. “This is so heartbreaking, man,” one responded. “Was watching this to take a break, but [it’s] making me cry so much,” another wrote.
“He doesn’t dismiss video games or think they’re a waste of time,” says 21-year-old Peter, a pseudonymous member of the Healthy Gamer Discord group. Though Peter hasn’t had a one-on-one with Kanojia, he says that by watching the psychiatrist’s sessions, he recognizes familiar thoughts and patterns that inform his “unhealthy gaming habits.” “I was able to see why I was addicted to certain games over others, and why I preferred games where I could control my environment and surroundings — it was because I felt I didn’t have much control [over] my real life,” Peter continues continues. This stood in stark contrast to what he was told by high school counsellors and therapists, who he felt saw video games as a “distraction and something that could be easily replaced or fixed if I only threw my consoles away.”
Kanojia also offers video workshops (e.g., on how procrastination can be a consequence of overachievement and self-doubt), at the end of which he offers short, guided meditation and yoga. “It’s voluntary, but a lot of gamers who watch my stream participate because it’s the first time they’ve been given the space to find out what’s going on in their minds and bodies,” Kanojia explains. “[Meditation] isn’t a way to stop them playing video games, it’s about helping them understand themselves emotionally and helping them become gamers who live healthy and fulfilling lives.”
Naturally, much of this is controversial. Not the use of yoga or mindfulness, of course, but the idea that someone can be addicted to video games. Because while the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases back in 2018, many other medical professionals disagree, lumping it in with sex and internet addiction, which they say don’t impact the brain in the same way that drug or alcohol addiction does.
Kanojia, too, takes issue with the WHO’s designation, but more because he worries it means video game addiction could end up with the same type of 12-step treatments that are the hallmark of recovery programs for alcoholics and drug addicts. “All addictions, even the addictions we know and are familiar with, are different,” he tells me. “And when you think about rehab programs we’re familiar with, the end goal is always to get the person to quit the addiction. There’s very little in terms of support or advice about helping them live a better life. There’s no guidance on how to help them get a job, go back to school or build healthy relationships.”
That said, Kanojia emphasizes that Healthy Gamer shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for therapy or rehab. Rather, he sees his channels as a rare, much-needed dialogue until more formal psychological support (and buy-in) can be established. More importantly, he hopes that because his conversations are livestreamed to his tens of thousands of followers, they help remove the taboos around talking about mental health in gaming circles and encourage more gamers to seek therapy for their problems.
“Games give gamers a sense of accomplishment by the measured denial of a reward. That is, games are hard to win, and since they’re hard to win, they’re more satisfying,” Kanojia explains. “But if you build a life where you gain a sense of accomplishment through things besides gaming, then you can game in a healthier way.”
“The goal isn’t to stop gaming,” he adds. “It’s to build a life where you don’t need to game.”