With the emergence of highly profitable and immensely entertaining video games such as Fortnite in recent years, the phenomenal rise in video game addiction has also become a force to be reckoned with. Players today aren’t engaged in simple or primitive games like those popular in gaming’s early days. Today, it’s not uncommon for players to be glued to a video game for 10 hours or more, going without sleep during periods where they’re advancing to the next level or are training to become a contestant in a regional, national or international video game challenge. Such obsessive devotion and disconnection with reality are indicative of a process addiction, much like compulsive gambling, where all you care about is winning and achieving the euphoric rush that accompanies achieving that goal.
Besides the rich and intricate fabric of stories in video games now, there are multiple characters, interwoven storylines that rival the most elaborate soap opera or action-adventure film, the opportunity to assume a character possessing extraordinary powers and talents, cloaked by an avatar that hides your identity from the world, and various tokens or rewards players can earn along the way. Video gaming is also highly lucrative for sponsors and game promoters, bringing in millions of dollars per event.
The Crossover Effect: From Entertaining Gaming to an Addiction
How can playing a video game be harmful? After all, it’s just a game and not a physical activity to the extent that you’re putting yourself in potential physical danger from opponents. Going beyond the question of whether video gaming can be harmful, how can the activity be considered addictive? Research is divided on both questions, although studies continue to explore the behavior.
For many parents, educators, video game advocates, and fans, the fact that their child, friend or peer plays such video games is a positive development, since the activity helps sharpen focus and cognitive ability and promotes working in a collaborative manner with others. What they may not recognize for some time, however, is when their son or daughter, classmate, co-worker, neighbor or friend spends time gaming instead of taking care of homework, sports, participating in social get-togethers, family events, or getting much-needed physical exercise. At that point, the positives associated with video game playing start to wane, replaced or outweighed by a number of negatives.
What may start as exciting play, a venture into unfamiliar territory as an opportunity to relate to and with more experienced peers, may eventually turn into a driving obsession, one where you or your child are unwilling and unable to wrench yourself away from the video game. As to whether there’s any comparison of video gaming as an addiction to known and diagnosable addictions, such as alcoholism, illicit or prescription drug abuse, polydrug abuse, or gambling, that’s another gray area over which there’s some controversy.
In a key rebuttal to a direct comparison of video gaming to gambling addiction, an article in Psychology Today says that the premise is flawed for the simple fact that video games do not involve losses of a material nature or financial wagers or stakes. The major contention here is that playing a video game is more dependent on utilizing sharp reflexes and innate cognitive ability, while gambling is more luck-related.
By the Numbers: Statistics on Video Game Addiction
With the rapidly changing landscape and popularity of video gaming, keeping pace with accurate statistics proves an ongoing challenge. As reported in a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, estimates of the prevalence of video game addiction range from 3.1 percent to 6.0 percent.
That study included results from the National Population Registry of Norway, which found the prevalence of gamers in the following categories: 1.4 percent addicted, 7.3 percent problem, 3.9 percent engaged, and 87.4 percent normal. Among addicted, problem and engaged gamers, more were male than female, while being of younger age was also more positively associated with the three gamer types.
How Video Gaming is Currently Recognized
In the United States, the official guide to addictive disorders, in terms of classification of psychiatric illness, is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, known as DSM-5. This definitive guide does not, as yet, recognize video game addiction as an official addictive disorder. Instead, the DSM-5 lists it as an internet gaming disorder (IGD). That may change over time, and as more study provides definitive results pointing to validating video gaming as an addictive disorder.
The World Health Organization, however, did add gaming disorder to its International Classification of Diseases in 2018. Like pathological gambling, gaming disorder is a type of impulse control disorder, one that does not involve the use of a substance of intoxication, such as drugs or alcohol.
There is also the issue of video gaming as maladaptive coping behavior, which does, in the view of researchers, fit within the framework of addiction. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions posited that gamers with computer game addiction do experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not able to participate or continue engaging in video gaming. However, the study did not take the belief that addicted gamers play video games to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
The study’s researchers called for collaboration among educators, other researchers, gaming developers, media and medical practitioners to create a comprehensive and realistic understanding of gaming as an enjoyable, normal, social and cultural activity that is often beneficial. Yet, the consensus should also acknowledge that some individuals who excessively play video games may experience symptoms related to addiction potentially requiring professional counseling and support.
What Happens During Video Gaming
Just as there’s no indisputable source for many process addictions, or a single cause that can be identified that results in addiction, more remains to be understood about what causes addiction to computer games or video game addiction problems. What we do know, however, is that playing video games is such an immersive experience that it may trigger massive dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical and neurotransmitter responsible for mood elevation. Dopamine also produces an energy rush, not unlike the bursts of energy and euphoric state created during substance abuse involving drugs or alcohol.
Unrelenting exposure to such stimulation can result in structural brain changes. For example, you may find that you no longer feel pleasure doing everyday things, or that only gaming is exciting and every other activity is boring. Changes to the frontal cortex caused by excessive video gaming may erode your willpower.
Key Warning Signs of Video Game Addiction
While some video gamers are adept at cloaking their building compulsion, others, particularly younger players, become so enmeshed in the gaming experience that they spend countless hours trying to earn points, achieve the next level, beat formidable challengers, and become the best possible player. In the midst of fierce competition, though, even the most surreptitious player becomes oblivious to the need to mask his or her compulsive behavior. That’s when you or other adults know there may be a looming problem. Be on the lookout for these key warning signs of video or computer game addiction:
- Performance suffers at school, work, or tending to household obligations due to growing gaming obsession and preoccupation
- Personal grooming and hygiene deteriorate
- Friendships, hobbies and other pastimes become neglected
- Time spent gaming increases, with an ever-increasing inability to self-limit time spent gaming
- Gaming becomes an escape from stress and conflicts that may be present at school, work or in the home
- Playing video or computer games in secret to avoid detection by parents, family members, friends, co-workers or others
- Missing meals, shoving down food to get back to gaming and/or other eating irregularities
- Experiencing weight gain or loss due to eating unhealthy foods or failing to eat sufficient nutritious meals
- Physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms become apparent, such as decreased appetite, sleep problems, anger or emotional outbursts if gaming is taken away
- A compulsive need to spend more and more time playing video games or feeling compelled to up the intensity of playing to achieve the same excitement or enjoyment previously felt
- Becoming agitated, anxious, angry or irritable if told to walk away from the video game, even if it’s only for a short time, such as stopping for lunch or getting ready for school
With video gaming competitions broadcast live from packed arenas during streaming events, it’s not just children that are flocking to video gaming. Young adults, who often begin playing video games at an early age and continue through their adolescence and teens, are increasingly popping up as formidable competitors in such competitive events. Hence, the progression from casual play to video game addiction problems can ensue rather quickly.
In addition, parents playing video games with their children as a way to spend quality time doing what their child enjoys may become hooked themselves. When they begin playing non-stop, playing video games while at work and neglecting work-related responsibilities, shirk obligations at home, and/or shy away from physical interaction that involves being away from the video game experience, that’s a clear indication of a recreational pursuit that’s veered into the territory of addiction.
What You Believe About Video Games May Be Misguided
If you think that it’s impossible to get hooked on playing video games, or that you can develop video game addiction problems, you may be mistaken. While it is likely only a minority of those who excessively play video games will progress to the stage where they need video game addiction rehab, the fact is that this prospect does exist.
Video games can be good and video games can be bad. It’s possible to believe one or the other, or a combination of both. There’s evidence to support video games as a useful tool that promotes character and educational development, especially as it relates to their ability to engage in make-believe, to assume the personas and personalities of superheroes.
There’s also evidence of the deleterious effects of prolonged, excessive video gaming leading to violence, sexist behavior, and social isolation. The video games themselves, as well as the players involved, have characteristics that encompass both ends of the spectrum: positive and negative. In the end, what separates healthy from obsessive and addictive video gaming is the attitude the player has toward the games and their life overall.
You may believe that the reason people play video games has nothing to do with its addictive qualities, but that it’s more aligned with being so immersed in the activity that you lose track of time. Indeed, that’s the view expressed in a guide from Parenting Science, where they refer to the process as a flow, a psychological phenomenon. Getting so caught up in an enjoyable activity is not inherently bad or wrong, although when such behavior becomes compulsive and obsessive to the point where you cannot stop doing it and other aspects of your life suffer, that’s when it does pose a risk for further problems.
Mental and Physical Health Risks
What can happen to you if you engage in non-stop video game playing? According to experts, video game playing isn’t a totally benign activity and there are certain risks and well-founded cause for concern, both for adults and children. Video game addiction has been linked with the development of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation and other psychological issues.
Furthermore, the more you play, especially if you are a child with a still-developing mind and body, the more at risk you are to experience them. Among the many areas of concern are:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome, seizures: Research published in the British Medical Journal found that video game playing for hours on end engaged in repetitive motion with wrists and hands may lead to repetitive stress injury, the most common of which is carpal tunnel syndrome. In addition, noted researchers, for video game players who have been diagnosed with disorders involving seizures or epilepsy, the hyper-fast video games with their brilliant colors, flashing lights, and flickering graphics may trigger an attack of epilepsy or a seizure.
- Tendency toward increased violence and aggressiveness: Video games portray and promote a mindset (while playing the game) of highly aggressive, often violent behavior. After spending countless hours trying to decimate an opponent, fight mortal enemies, slaughter enemies or others intending to harm you, signs of increased violence or aggressiveness in your everyday behavior may become evident. That is, the signs will be more apparent than in individuals who don’t play the same type of video games, or don’t play at all. As parents, you should be aware that video games, like movies and films, have a rating system. Check out the guidelines, resources and ratings for popular video games posted by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
- Developing a lifestyle that’s sedentary: No one benefits from sitting inordinate amounts of time at a stretch. Yet, even though long-time sitting is bad for adults, it’s likely worse for children who are still in the process of physical development. Inactivity has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in adolescents and teens who are excessive video gamers, along with improper posture and gain in weight that may be significant.
- Stunted social engagement on a personal level: While interaction among players of video games would seem to promote social engagement, the opposite occurs in real-life, one-on-one interaction. Children best learn how to behave in social situations where they’re with other children only in person, as opposed to the artificial construct of a video game world. Too much time spent playing video games can stunt the child’s social engagement skills on a personal level.
- Developmental task avoidance: Childhood and adolescence are times of great discovery, of experimentation and a certain amount of rebellion and testing the limits. On one hand, video games provide a convenient outlet for children and teens to see how far they can go, to adopt new personalities and demonstrate acquired skills to show off their prowess, yet when children use such games to escape what’s happening around them, they’re avoiding developmental tasks and challenges they need to grow up.
- Diminished or impaired attention and concentration: Life, as it plays out in video games, is a frantic, rapidly evolving landscape, filled with increasingly more difficult scenarios to master and overcome. While this may seem to promote quickness and an ability to think on your feet, it doesn’t translate well to real life where you often need to be able to concentrate and direct your attention for longer periods of time. As an example, an obsessive video gamer may have no interest in working and solving a math or science problem, or reading books and writing a summary or review of the material.
Treatment and Help for Video Game Addiction Problems
If you, your child, or a loved one or family member has become ensnared in the compulsive gaming cycle, this can be the beginning of a downward destructive pattern. The good news is that there are treatments and therapies that have proven effective for gaming addiction.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
When someone seeks video game addiction rehab or is looking for how to treat video game addiction in adults, they may be helped by the use of one or more forms of behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the most common therapeutic modality used to help overcome video game addiction. CBT guides the obsessive gamer away from the irrational thoughts that lead to compulsive gaming— and, toward healthier thinking patterns. With the therapist’s direction, CBT helps the individual modify their unhealthy thoughts, behaviors and feelings, changing their perceptions and how they behave with respect to video games.
Many people who come in seeking help for compulsive video gaming or video game addiction also suffer from an underlying problem with depression or anxiety. CBT is also effective in helping them learn how to cope with these disorders.
The most significant adverse effect of video game addiction problems is undoubtedly the effect on the family. As with any other addiction, it’s not only the individual with the problem that suffers, but the whole family that feels the effects and has to learn how to cope with ongoing and recovering video game addiction. Family therapy, or marriage counseling therapy, as appropriate, provides education and support for loved ones, and can help them cultivate a home environment that is stable and more conducive to the recovering gamer.
Social isolation and an inability to communicate with others as a result of gaming addiction often can be mitigated and overcome by participation in group therapy. While in group, the individual has the opportunity to interact with others who’ve experienced the same kinds of issues, deriving moral support and encouragement that can be very motivating.
In the case of dual diagnosis—video game addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or other psychiatric conditions—the individual may need treatment with certain anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. In addition, the simultaneous presentation with diagnosable substance abuse likely will require supervised medical detox, followed by a personalized treatment program that addresses the specific drug of abuse.
Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment
In some cases, therapy and counseling for video game rehab can take place on an outpatient basis. The determining factor favoring outpatient over inpatient (where the gamer resides in an inpatient, or residential addiction treatment facility) depends on how severe the addiction is and whether or not there are co-occurring psychiatric or medical conditions. In that case, inpatient treatment involves a safe, heavily structured residential environment where the individual is supervised 24/7 and receives intensive group and individual therapies that address the roots of their addiction and/or co-occurring mental health condition.
Outpatient treatment, on the other hand, is often the preference of those who have neither the time or money to devote to residential treatment. Outpatient therapy, which also may include intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and programs that are partial hospitalization (PHPs), can more flexibly accommodate difficult schedules. It also may be preferred by those individuals who have a strong determination and motivation to recover and a good support system at home.
Online Gamers Anonymous is a 12-step program that has been instrumental in recovery for many people. Since video game addiction is relatively new, there aren’t many support groups available yet, although that will likely change with strong public demand for such assistance.
Where to Find Help for Game Addicts
While FHE Health does not treat video game addiction, there are numerous other resources and places where you can find out how to help a gaming addict. For example, there are qualified treatment facilities throughout the United States with treatment programs specifically tailored to provide help for game addicts. In addition, online community forums and peer support communities offer a valuable service for anyone struggling to overcome video game addiction and for the parents of adolescent gamers as well. It’s important to recognize that when an otherwise healthy and positive activity, such as video gaming, starts to take over your life, eroding relationships, causing problems, interfering with everyday life, health and happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.