Video games are among the most profitable and widespread forms of entertainment worldwide. Most games offer an escape from reality and allow players to experience new and impossible experiences.
Newer games offer online interaction, and newer video games are a far cry from the games of the 1980s. Now games are richer through the talents of programmers, graphic designers, special effects professionals, and even their own musical scores. All of these additions could make gaming a very tempting escape from normal life.
If you only picture teenage boys when you think of gaming, think again. Video gaming is a common part of modern life. Recent statistics show:
- Approximately 64% of all U.S. households own a video game device that is separate from a computer or phone that also provides games.
- An estimated 55% of gamers are men, while up to 45% of gamers are women.
- Gaming impacts people of all ages. The average age of male video game players is 32, while the average female game player is 36. These average ages are calculated on a wide age range.
- In 2017, people in the United States spend over $36 billion dollars on video games.1
With numbers like these, it is easy to see why gaming addiction is on the rise. Video game addiction is a relatively new problem that has traditionally been overlooked by modern medicine, but may be as dangerous as other addictions.
What Is Gaming Addiction?
Simply playing a video game once in a while does not constitute a gaming addiction. Rather, a gaming addiction involves either an obsession with playing video games coupled with great difficulty abstaining from playing, or a compulsive desire to continue gaming, despite the negative effects that gaming holds.
Gaming addiction can begin at a young age, and usually progresses with time. These elaborate games often take hours or days to complete. Addiction occurs when the video game playing is used as an escape or a way to deal with difficult emotions or thoughts. This all becomes a problem when it begins to impact happiness, relationships, or productivity.
Abuse of video games is associated with a decrease in work or school output, disruptions in personal relationships, and the need to play games in order to feel good.
The Allure of Video Games
Video games can place the player’s imagination in a variety of different locations, settings, and worlds. Newer advanced games draw the player into the “world of the game.” Gamers are able to relate to well-rounded protagonists that give the player the illusion of acting within the game.
People who use video games and online games in unhealthy ways often begin to relate that experience to a powerful sense of control associated with the speed, realism, and sometimes questionable morals found within the fantasy gaming world.
In some cases, especially in long or continuing games, players use their character as a replacement persona. They see the character as an extension of themselves. The longer the game is played, the more the game replaces reality. Successes in the game replace successes in work or school. It can be a difficult habit to break, especially if gaming is used to avoid emotions like anxiety, depression, or loneliness.
What Does Gaming Addiction Look Like?
Some people may not believe that a gaming addiction is similar to other addictions, such as illicit drug addiction. However, gaming addicts share characteristics with people addicted to drugs and alcohol.
- Powerful indulgence and shame. Gaming addicts feel like they experience more pleasure from playing games than from almost anything else in life. These pleasant sensations are not all happy, though. This feeling, over time, is less about being happy, and more about experiencing relief. It’s more accurate to say that compulsive gamers feel some relief when they play video games. They may even experience a sense of pleasure and elation, similar to a drug “high,” while playing games. Unfortunately, like other addicted people, gaming addicts suffer from shame or guilt due to the amount of time they spend playing while other responsibilities are left unattended.
- Rage and melancholy. An addiction to gaming causes the gamer to feel alone or depressed when not playing video games. People who are addicted to gaming often become irritable and openly angry when something interrupts their gaming time.
- Obsession. Most addicted people obsess over their drug of choice, and people who game obsessively experience a similar compulsion. When not playing, they may constantly think about gaming and will want to play the game for longer periods of time.
- Dishonesty. People who have become dependent on gaming may lie about, overlook, or deny their addiction. They will often lie about the time or money they have spent on gaming. Compulsive lies are how addicted people protecting the activity that grants them so much relief.
- Personal neglect. Severe gaming addiction forces the addicted person to ignore studies, hygiene, sleep, and social relationships. Instead of attending to personal priorities, gaming addicts will continue to play video games.
- Dependency. Compulsive gamers are often unable to control their addiction. For example, a gaming addict, after deciding to play for only an hour, will actually play for two or more hours and may even play all night. They do this because they experience a high while playing and a low when not playing. The only “cure” for the low is to play more video games. This vicious cycle is similar to those found in many other addictions.
How Compulsive Gaming Impacts the Brain
One of the most common misconceptions about gaming addiction is that it does not cause any physical changes to the brain, like other drugs do. Narcotics and other abused substances cause a change in brain response, which makes them highly addictive. Most commonly, these drugs affect serotonin or dopamine receptors. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that regulate the brain’s pleasure center and, in this case, reinforce the use of a drug or behavior.
Computer and video game addiction causes morphological changes in the brain similar to the changes seen in long-term drug addicts. More specifically, gaming addicts see measurable changes in their dopamine-2 or D2 receptors. Normally, these receptors help modulate the pleasure center, but their function was changed by chronic gaming. Ecstasy users experience similar changes when taking their drug of choice.2
Gamer addicts reach a point in which they only experience normal dopamine levels when playing video games.
Once gaming addiction has taken over, non-gaming activities may not cause an elevation in dopamine levels and are become less pleasurable. This is why most addicted people continue to play video games despite the obvious adverse effects excessive gaming causes.
Signs and Symptoms of Gaming Addiction
A gaming addiction is often difficult to diagnose. Some gaming addicts are able to function despite their addiction. They still suffer from some psychological changes but are able to cover up their addiction. In time, however, all gaming addicts will begin to show signs of their addiction. A thorough evaluation that looks for specific signs may help in the diagnosis of gaming addiction.
People who are addicted to gaming often develop a noticeable change in attitude. They will show a lack of interest in attending class or work. They may become nervous and anxious when not playing. They might become angry and belligerent when they are unable to play as long as they would like. Addicted people will lie and become increasingly uncomfortable when asked about their gaming habits.
As the addicted person becomes obsessed with a video game, he or she may begin to ignore personal hygiene and even forget to bathe or brush their teeth. They may forget to sleep. People who play video games for hours on end also often sit in bad positions for extended periods, which can hurt their backs, and they may experience carpal tunnel syndrome due to extensive manipulation of the gaming controls.
Gaming addiction often leads to a decrease in academic or workplace performance. Addicted people may often show up late or completely miss class or work. They may miss deadlines or submit incomplete assignments. They may often sleep in class or on the job. Guilt or embarrassment may cause that person to argue with teachers or managers. These problems may lead to long-term income loss.
Intervention for Gaming Addiction
People who compulsively play video games are often reluctant to acknowledge the problem or label it as a true addiction. In addition, society sometimes does not truly understand gaming addiction as a real problem. However, research shows that gaming addiction is a disease that adversely affects both gamers and their families.
An addiction to a behavior is known as a “process addiction.” Process addictions are very real problems and the require treatment similar to treatment for drug abuse. However, in the case of gaming addiction, the focus is not on detoxification, but rather on instituting behavioral changes. This requires professional therapy and guidance.
Most gamers will not want to seek treatment until they understand the scope of the problem. A loving, supportive intervention may be used to help them face their addiction. Friends, relatives and respected associates can come together to share any adverse effects they believe gaming is having on the addicted person.
You May Want to Know:
1 The Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. 2018.
2 Weinstein, A. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. Computer and video game addiction-a comparison between game users and non-game users. Sept 2010.