Is there such thing as “Video-Game Addiction?”

I grew up playing the original Nintendo…  Tetras, Duck Hunt, and Super Mario Brothers were the extent of my video game exposure.  I had to ‘fight’ my younger brother for game time and since his skills surpassed mine at day one, I just never caught the ‘game bug.’  Since that first exposure to these games in the early 90s, I’ve witnessed friends and family get caught in the game webs of everything from World of Warcraft, to phone games like Angry Birds, Words with Friends, and Candy Crush.  For many, it’s been a nice form of entertainment, for others a way to pass time, but for some, it’s become what I’ve called an addiction.  I’ve experienced the decline of relationships due to the lure of alternative realities some games offer.  I’ve seen adult men habitually neglect their families, work, and sleep for the sake of playing a ‘game.’

What is Video Game Addiction?

Unfortunately, my experience with this is not unique.  While the disorder is not yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO), officially addressed this addiction for the first time, acknowledging it as a Gaming Disorder listed under “Disorders due to addictive behaviors.”  They recognize it as ” a clinically recognizable and clinically significant syndrome, when the pattern of gaming behavior is of such a nature and intensity that it results in marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational or occupational functioning.”  In short, excessive gaming really can take over your life.

Who’s at Risk for Gaming Disorder?

According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, statistics show that men and boys are more likely to become addicted to video games versus women and girls.  Recent research has found that nearly one in 10 youth gamers (ages 8-18) can be classified as pathological gamers or addicted to video-gaming.

Similar to other addictions, individuals suffering from video game addiction use the virtual fantasy world to connect with real people through the Internet, as a substitution for real-life human connection, which they are unable to achieve normally.  Some suffering from video game addiction may develop an emotional attachment to on-line friends and activities they create on their computer screens. Those suffering from video game addiction may enjoy aspects of the on-line games that allow them to meet, socialize, and exchange ideas through games.  Because some games requires a large number of players to log on simultaneously, for long durations of time, to accomplish a game’s task, players may feel an obligation and loyalty to other players. This may further the individual’s justification of his/her use and sense of relationship with other players, that are otherwise strangers.

When does it become an addiction?

Essentially, a person’s gaming habits may have morphed into a gaming disorder at the point that the ‘game’ is taking priority and precedence over your daily life and activities.

Some warning signs include:

  • Preoccupation with the Game.  You can’t stop thinking about previous game activity or anticipation of the next Game.
  • Use of the Game in increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction.
  • Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Game use.
  • Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down use of the Game.
  • Gaming longer than originally intended (over and over…)
  • Jeopardized or risked loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of Game use.
  • Lies to family members, friends, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Game.
  • Use of the Game is a way to escape from problems or to relieve a dysphoric mood.  (e.g. feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.)

Additional warning signs for children include:

  • Fatigue, tendency to fall asleep during school
  • Not completing homework or assignments on time
  • Declining grades, or failing classes
  • Dropping out of school activities, clubs, sports, etc.
  • Isolating from family and friends to play video games

Other Effects

Like other addictions, Gaming Disorder negatively affects your relationships with the people you physically interact with at home and work.  Some suffering from video game addiction spend more time in solitary seclusion, spend less time with real people in their lives, and can even be viewed as socially awkward.

Arguments may result due to the volume of time spent playing.  They may attempt to conceal the amount of time spent playing, which results in distrust and the disturbance of quality in once stable relationships.

Additionally, gaming can get expensive.  Consider the equipment needed to play video games, monthly subscription fees, keeping up with the technology and upgrades, and so forth.

There can even be physical discomfort or medical problems such as: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, dry eyes, backaches, severe headaches, eating irregularities, such as skipping meals, failure to attend to personal hygiene, and missing sleep.  There’s also the lack of movement and being sedentary for long periods of time. Those quitting their excessive gaming may experience withdrawal including: anger, depression, relief, fantasies about the game, mood swings, anxiety, fear, irritability, sadness, loneliness, boredom, restlessness, procrastination, and upset stomach.

What’s Really Going On?

I witnessed a loved one create several ‘avatars’… These are on-line personas where he was able to alter his identity and pretend to be someone other than himself.  Some research suggest that those at highest risk for creation of a ‘secret life’ are those who suffer from low-self esteem feelings of inadequacy, and fear of disapproval.  Such negative self-concepts lead to clinical problems of depression and anxiety.  This is fitting for the family member I saw struggle.  It ultimately contributed to the breakdown of his marriage.

So What Can We Do?

The first step is to determine if there is a problem. While there isn’t an official diagnostic tool for Gaming Disorder (yet), In an article for EveryDay HealthBruce Y. Lee, MD, suggests relying on some of the existing indications of addiction and try to translate some of those things over to gaming.  He uses the following CAGE questions, which are usually applied to alcohol use. They’re not 100 percent accurate, but they are a good way of identifying if someone may need help.

  • Do you feel like you need to cut (C) down?
  • Are you annoyed (A) by people criticizing your gaming?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty (G) about your gaming?
  • Are video games usually the first thing you think about in the morning when you wake up — your eye (E) opener?

“These are general signs to look for in addiction, but there are other things as well. Have you had a change in your mood in a negative direction ever since you started picking up this habit? Are you finding yourself having decreased social connections — losing touch with friends, losing touch with family? Is your performance at school or work beginning to suffer without any other explanation?”

For Lee, if a person is truly experiencing gaming disorder, the key question is why? “We have to be careful about what the video game is potentially masking. Sometimes its masking another issue. You might say, ‘Well if this person is addicted to a game, if we can separate them from the game, they will be okay.’ But if they have another issue that they are covering up, it’s not such a clear solution. Maybe they don’t have friends, or have trouble making friends, or they can’t perform in school. Gaming addiction can be a warning sign for something else. When treating what you think is a problem, don’t always just look at the problem. Look at the root cause, because if you shift the problem, it may manifest in other ways.”

Get Help and Prevention

Just like any other addiction, it’s important to seek professional help.  Therapy can help get to that root cause of the problem.  Has gaming become a coping mechanism for anxiety or depression?

We know technology isn’t going anywhere.  Game manufacturers will continue to develop the ‘next thing’ to draw us into the game and keep us playing.  Recognizing the risks and setting boundaries for ourselves and our children can go a long way in preventing gaming from becoming a problem.

Other Resources:

What to Do to Better Cope with Video Game Addiction

Video Game Addiction Symptoms and Treatment

video-game controller

Written by Heather Hunley, Coordinator and Editor for LookUp

Sources: Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, EveryDay HealthWorld Health Organization

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