Is Video Game Addiction Real?

Published on: 16 Nov 2018
A man sits in the dark playing video games

Updated on 4/28/21

Video games can provide a reprieve from our stressful day-to-day life. They allow us to escape into a fantastical, post-apocalyptic landscape in the Fallout series, or slay dragons and romance warriors in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. We can play with our peers or even make new friendships in massive multiplayer online games like Fortnite and Among Us. 

Video games offer a variety of virtual experiences, all designed to glue us to the screen in awe and admiration. As the gaming industry continues to grow, we should ask ourselves about the psychological implications of gaming; what’s wrong with a little make-believe? Psychology researchers are trying to find out. 

What is Video Game Addiction?

The question that researchers face is whether the anxiety around the possibilities of “video game addiction” is anything more than a fear of new technology. To qualify as an addiction, gamers play compulsively despite harmful consequences they’re experiencing. But are there any harmful consequences to video gaming? Experts are torn on the topic. 

Professors and researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson rejected the idea of video game addiction in a NYT opinion piece. Their argument is grounded in the fact that dopamine derived from video gaming is not higher than that derived from watching a funny video or eating a slice of pizza, which is not the case for drugs that are addictive. Playing a game in a virtual world is a pleasurable activity, so it’s natural that we want to play more. 

The question then stands, can a seemingly endless binge of multiplayer games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty: Warzone be classified as an addiction?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) includes internet gaming disorder in the DSM-5 section of disorders requiring further research. In 2016, a large study designed to determine if internet gaming disorder qualifies as a potential psychiatric diagnosis found little evidence of any harmful effects resulting from prolonged gaming. In fact, it was found that only up to 1% of the gaming population “might” qualify for a potential acute diagnosis of Internet gaming disorder, meaning that even that little fraction might not qualify for a potential psychiatric diagnosis. Still, for the vast majority of the studied population negative impacts were hardly discovered. 

What are the signs of video game addiction?

Currently, the DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria requires meeting five of the following criteria within one year:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with Internet games.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not playing Internet games.
  • A build-up of tolerance — more time needs to be spent playing the games.
  • Failure to uphold a decision to stop or curb gaming. 
  • Loss of interest in other life activities, such as hobbies.
  • Continued overuse of Internet games knowing their negative impact on self. 
  • Lying to others about one’s internet game usage.
  • Use of internet games to relieve anxiety or guilt, a way to escape and detach. 
  • Lost or endangered an opportunity or relationship because of internet games.

In the study, about three times as many gamers reported increasing their play time than games who reported that gaming put their social relationships at risk. In contrast with gambiling, the only behavioral addiction in DSM-5, the acute prevalence rate of online gaming is significantly lower. Online gaming, then, is significantly less addictive than a comparable behavioral addiction. 

Do video games cause an addiction?

While there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that video gaming can lead to behavioral addiction, the data isn’t sufficient to completely reject the claim either. To older generations, the universal dependency on screens might be associated with an addiction, but Markey and Ferguson argue that screens and the technology they display are used generally simply because they make our lives better. By extension, it can be argued that we play video games simply because they are pleasurable, and since the dopamine derived from playing them isn’t disproportionate to released by other activities that derive us joy, we want to play more and end up spending more time playing.

Potential benefits to video gaming

Research suggests video gaming has a positive effect on our brains. In fact, by playing certain video games we might be exercising our brain’s capabilities. Neuroscientist Marc Palaus found that extensive video gaming boosts the volume of our right hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, which are responsible for visual spatial memory and memory and navigation, respectively. This means that video gaming could potentially improve our brain’s abilities. The study showed that games involving visual acuity activate parts of the brain that are responsible for acuity and attention. So too, games involving spatial memory activate parts of the brain involved in spatial memory and navigation. Moreover, another study concluded that video games can provide a form of therapy to players; gamer communities provide peer support, so players with mental health concerns may find support and connectedness in their gaming community, which translates into real-world mental health. The study also suggested internet gameplay could have a role in preventive and therapeutic medicine.

Increasing Concerns About Video Game Addiction

Still, as the gaming community expands, concerns around video game addiction intensifies. New games are launching faster than ever, and our global networks enable them to go viral quickly. The World Health Organization labels video game addiction as a behavioral disorder in the International Classification of Diseases, although it provides a slightly different definition than the APA. Gaming disorder here is defined by a pattern of gaming behavior that’s characterized by impaired control over gaming, assigning increased priority to gaming to the point where it takes precedence over other daily activities, and continuous escalation of playtime despite negative consequences. 

Still, the prevalence of clinical video game addiction remains low and below 1%, although studies attribute a slightly higher percentage to ‘problematic gamers’. Video game use is comparable to extensive internet use, which we see across the board and mainly with younger populations. Even if extensive/compulsive video game use does not qualify as an addiction, research shows that extended playtime can lead to some serious side effects.

What happens when you get addicted to video games?

Tae Kyung, a Korean psychiatrist who oversees a government-funded gamer treatment clinic for adolescents, discovered that gamers can’t control how long they spend in the game, suggesting a disrupted sense of time while in the virtual world of the game. Not only do video games create a virtual time lap, gamers have also reported experiencing virtual artifacts in the real world. This phenomenon is known as Game Transfer Phenomenon, and it refers to elements of the virtual world exuding into our real world. The idea was developed by Angelica Ortiz de Gortari, a graduate student researching internet addiction who for the sake of research picked up gaming herself, until one day she found herself trying to call up a rifle scope while in the supermarket to see further down the aisle. In her study, gamers reported a wide variety of examples of virtual artifacts penetrating into real life; experiences vary from floating health bars above your peers’ heads to feeling your bodies mimicking moves as if controlled by a joystick. 

In a 2015 study of 2,362 gamers, Ortiz de Gortari found that 97% of the gamers reported having experienced game transfer phenomenon. Then in a later study she concluded that gamers experiencing severe symptoms of game transfer phenomena are more likely to have problematic or addictive gaming habits

Research also suggests that video games can shape our behavior. A study in 2010 concluded that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. Children and adolescents are more likely to play video games for extended periods of time, simply because they don’t share in general adult responsibilities, and therefore they are at a higher risk of developing bad patterns of behavior from the games they play, in addition to developing compulsive gaming habits. 

Video Game Addiction Treatment

So, is gaming addiction real? The answer largely depends on who you ask. The research indicates most gamers don’t need to worry about a possible dependency. However, whether or not gaming can lead to or be classified as an addiction, what we know for certain is that video games can quickly eat up your time. 

You can start by taking action yourself. Change your gaming lifestyle by scheduling specific gaming time, taking breaks, plugging out your console when your gaming time runs out, and spending time exercising and being active away from the screen. If your gaming habits keep you awake into the night, consider setting a strict bedtime to ensure that you get quality rest.  

If you feel like your video gaming habits are becoming compulsive, as if you are unable to put the controller down, consider reaching out for help. A common technique mental health professionals use to treat unwanted behavioral patterns is cognitive behavioral therapy. You can start treatment today with a Talkspace licensed therapist online to help establish clear boundaries between you and the game. 

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