Getting the kids to turn off the video games and do their homework. Asking your partner to please tear him- or herself away from the hundredth game of Candy Crush and please help with preparing dinner — and take a break from that gaming addiction.
Do any of these sound familiar? Heck, maybe you’ve even gotten involved in an intense game of Words with Friends against a friend and can’t help but check in every few seconds to see if it’s your turn yet. You’ve probably laughed to yourself, “I am so addicted to this game!”
But like smartphone addiction, can you actually be addicted to video and Internet games, or is this just a sign of something else? And what can you do if you or a loved one is spending an unhealthy amount of time playing video games, feeding a gaming addiction?
Is Video Game Addiction Real?
For some of us who struggle to understand how to play video and Internet games or lose interest in a game after a few minutes, it can be difficult to understand how someone’s need to play can eclipse everything else in his or her life. And yet, it seems that gaming addiction might be real.
In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of disorders, “Internet Gaming Disorder” made its first appearance. (1) While yet to be classified as a disorder, it’s been listed as a condition in the hopes that more research will be done.
Are you ready for some scary stats? About 183 million people in the U.S. play video games on their consoles, computers, smartphones or tablets, including 99 percent (!) of boys under 18 and 94 percent of girls under 18. Across the planet, 3 billion hours a week are spent playing. (2)
In fact, according to research done at the University of New Mexico, recent studies suggest that 6 percent to 15 percent of all gamers exhibit signs that could be characterized as addiction. (3)
Worse, in a national study from Iowa State University of 1,178 American youths, psychologists found nearly one in 10 of the gamers (8.5 percent) to be “pathological players,” according to standards established for pathological gambling. (4) These players inevitably cause problems with their family, social or school environments because of their gaming addiction.
Pathological gamers spent double the time playing as nonpathological gamers and didn’t fare as well in school. In addition, pathological gaming coincided with attention problems.
Signs of a Gaming Addiction
Because so many people, especially those under the age of 18, play video games, it’s a challenge to diagnose gaming addiction. And put next to painkiller addiction or alcoholism, it’s often not taken seriously. If anything, this looming addiction is stoked by parents who buy their children the latest Xbox game or iPhone app and see it as a normal childhood activity.
Meanwhile, adult gamers view it like the Kevin Spacey character in “House of Cards”: just using it as a stress reliever.
But when does the casual game playing become more dangerous and even turn into a gaming addiction?
1. Too Much Time ‘Gaming’ and Less Time Living Life
Compulsive “gamers” play to the exclusion of other interests or activities like school and work. Their lives outside Internet gaming or video games are jeopardized because of how many hours they spend playing. According to the DSM, this kind of recurrent activity leads to “clinically significant impairment or distress.”
Sometimes, even meals are skipped and lack of sleep is common because the gaming addiction has taken root. Meanwhile, even when supposedly engaging in other activities like socializing, doing homework or chores, the addict’s mind is still fixated on getting back to video games.
2. Dishonesty and Unruly Behavior
A major sign of addiction is when the addict has his or her “thing” taken away, especially unexpectedly. If the reaction is swift and filled with anger, then that’s usually a sign something is amiss. Some addicts even steal to support their habit, including buying new video games.
Also, if the person is caught frequently lying about when he or she plays games, that’s another indication of addiction.
3. Exhibiting Physical Symptoms of Gaming Addiction
- Feeling restless and irritable when not able to play
- Suffering from fatigue from excessive playing
- Dealing with migraines or eye strain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome from controller, mouse or trackpad overuse
- Stops caring about persona hygiene (5)
All of this might sound slightly odd. After all, can’t someone just exit the game or put down a controller? Unfortunately, for these game-addicted people, it’s just not that simple.
What Happens When You’re Addicted to Video Games?
So how can you actually become addicted to video games? Part of it seems to be that playing video games triggers our brains’ reward systems. When you kill a bad guy in a game, you earn points. When you collect enough weapons, you earn special points or reach an exclusive level.
Our brains begin to associate a particular activity with a certain type of reward and, later on, begin to expect it. We’re taught this behavior from early on — we’re scolded if we do something bad but rewarded when we do what we’re told.
Video games take this up a notch because they employ what’s known as the partial reinforcement effect, or PRE. (6) When this happens, you’re given a reward only sometime — it’s what occurs in gambling, when someone keeps throwing down money in the hopes that the next big win is coming soon.
Researchers who surveyed more than 1,600 gamers on their motivations for playing expected that this reward system would be the main reason that these people kept coming back to playing games. (7)
Instead, they made some interesting discoveries. While being “rewarded” was indeed a motivator, many gamers touted the social responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with robust online gaming worlds.
At the same time that these people are withdrawing from their offline lives, they’re spending more time in their online gaming networks. Because many of these games require teamwork and complicated missions, gamers begin to feel like guilty if they aren’t online — they don’t want to let their gaming friends down.
It’s even worse for young folks, especially children with growing brains. In a study published in Translational Psychiatry, a connection was made between heavy video game playing and brain activity and structure. Fourteen-year-olds who played nine hours or more per week had brains that produced more dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) than those who played less.
But here’s where it gets even more interesting, or scary: When the players began losing, their brains produced even more dopamine compared to when they were winning. This resulted with them wanting to continue playing, like a compulsive gambler who always thinks better luck is around the corner.
Meanwhile, excessive gaming actually changes the brain. For those who play a lot, excessive video gaming can actually result in physical changes to the brain, as those who play a lot have a larger ventral striatum, the brain’s “reward center.”
Does Gaming Cause Depression, or Is It Vice Versa?
The journal Pediatrics featured a Singapore study of 3,000 students, who were in third, fourth, seventh and eight grades. The kids who were both more impulsive and less comfortable with other children spent more time gaming. Fast-forward two years, these kids were playing video games 31 hours a week on average, compared with 19 hours a week for other students (yes, still a very high number).
The result? These addictive gamers were more likely to be depressed, anxious and socially anxious. Also, their grades in school were worse, and they had more damaged relationships with their parents. (8)
The conclusions drawn from this study support a similar one from China, which tracked 1,000 teenagers aged 13 to 18. In this study published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, those kids who used the Web excessively (mostly for video games) were more than twice as likely to be depressed nine months later. (9)
Two years later, it didn’t get any better.
Two years later, they were more likely to suffer from depression, social phobias and anxiety than those who played video games less often. In the study, the few heavy gamers who stopped playing so much tended to show fewer symptoms of depression. (10)
But by and large, the main reason that people played video games was to escape the real world. Those who retreated to gaming to put off dealing with their real-world lives were also the likeliest to develop addiction-like symptoms, which is consistent with other research on gaming addiction and habits. (11)
It’s the chicken or the egg conundrum: It’s often people with depression, anxiety, ADHD or other disorders who are most likely to become avid video game players. (12) The Iowa State University study referenced above also found that pathological gamers were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with attention problems, such as attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Researchers believe gaming acts as a defense mechanism when these disorders go untreated. As they delve deeper into the gaming world, feelings of isolation and “I don’t belong” increase, deepening the disconnect between the gamer and the “real world.” So they turn back to games even more, and the cycle continues.
And because so many online games are played in real time, there is no pausing or coming back later. The game is always going, with players from around the world to game with — and there might always be a reward around the corner.
Natural Ways to Overcome Video Game Addiction
When treatment is sought, often many scripts are written for antidepressants to help with the symptoms. But this causes a raft of other risks and side effects, of course.
The idea that someone can become addicted to video games is certainly frightening. But it’s important to remember that this pathological playing is nearly always a symptom of something else.
If someone close to you is having trouble maintaining relationships or performing at school or work because of an obsession with video games, suggesting he or she seeks help is a great first step. Speaking with someone professionally, such as in cognitive behavioral therapy, can help that person work through the issues that might be prompting him or her to seek solace in video games.
In that therapy, the addict learns ways to see gaming as less important while developing better behaviors for the addictive ones.
Providing a listening ear can also be helpful. Telling someone he or she is lazy and needs to stop playing games is probably not going to cause that person to change his or her behavior. Instead, let him or her know that you’re available to lend an ear when he or she is ready to talk.
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