Video games provide a reprieve from our day-to-day life. We can escape into a fantastical, post-apocalyptic landscape in the Fallout series, or slay dragons and romance warriors in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. After all, what’s wrong with a little make-believe?
Psychology researchers are trying to find out.
Research on Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction may sound like a fake “boogie-man” dreamed up by parents in the ’90s, but there is some scientific evidence to back up video game addiction as a potential mental health risk — although not all research finds a consensus.
Psychology professors and researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson found that video games double the amount of dopamine in your brain…just like eating a slice of pizza. Delving deep into a virtual world seems to make you happy in the short-term.
But can the happiness sparked by binging seemingly endless, massively multiplayer online role playing (MMORPG) games like World of Warcraft lead to an addiction?
In the New York Times, Markey and Ferguson argue no: the anxiety around the possibilities of “video game addiction” is nothing more than the fear of the new.
“Our children are ‘addicted’ to new technologies because, for the most part, they improve our lives or are simply pleasurable,” they write, concluding, “Evidence for addiction to video games is virtually nonexistent.”
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) tentatively backs up their assessment. In 2016, they undertook an extensive study designed to determine if “internet gaming disorder” qualified as a potential psychiatric diagnosis.
While the disorder is mentioned in the DSM-5 (the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it’s listed as a “Condition for Further Study” — meaning this study may help determine if and how mental health providers treat internet gaming disorder.
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.
- The person has tried to stop or curb playing internet games, but has failed to do so.
- The person has had a loss of interest in other life activities, such as hobbies.
- A person has had continued overuse of Internet games even with the knowledge of how much they impact a person’s life.
- The person lied to others about his or her Internet game usage.
- The person uses internet games to relieve anxiety or guilt — it’s a way to escape.
- The person has lost or put at risk an opportunity or relationship because of Internet games.
The 2016 study found that two out of three gamers reported no symptoms. In fact, less than 1% of participants might qualify for a potential acute diagnosis.
“Comparison to gambling disorder revealed that internet-based games may be significantly less addictive than gambling and similarly dysregulating as electronic games more generally,” the study concluded.
Potential Positives to Video Game Enjoyment
Some studies even indicate that video gaming might bulk up your brain. A study by neuroscientist Marc Palaus found that video gaming boosts the volume of your right hippocampus and entorhinal cortex — both of which help spatial memory and navigation.
In fact, video games may even be therapeutic: gamer communities provide peer support, and players with mental health concerns may find support and connectedness, which translates into real-world mental health.
Increasing Concerns About Video Game Addiction
But despite all these promising studies, there is some concern that video game addiction could become a serious problem. The World Health Organization labels gaming addiction a mental health disorder, estimating 2–3% of gamers are officially “addicted.” A 2010 study found gaming addiction significantly more prevalent in Taiwan and other Asian countries than in the U.S.
Tae Kyung Lee is a Korean psychiatrist who runs a government-funded gamer treatment clinic. He finds that players can’t control how long they spend in the game — and when they stop playing, they experience virtual artifacts, like sounds and vision, in the real world. If you’ve played Tetris for more than an hour straight, you’ve probably experienced the same thing.
If You Feel Like Your Gaming is Out of Control, Seek Help
Is gaming addiction “real”? The answer depends on who you ask — but the research indicates most gamers don’t need to worry about a possible dependency. There’s nothing wrong with a weekend-long binge of new AAA blockbuster Red Dead Redemption 2, as long as you’re fitting in your other needs, too.
But if your inability to put the controller down concerns you, reach out for help. A qualified mental health professional can help you establish clear boundaries between you and the game.