Just One More Level: A Look at Video Game Addiction

By Bobby Miller

According to the U.S. News & World Report, video games have become so ingrained in our culture that 92 percent of children under the age of 18 play video games regularly. Whether the games are on a console, computer, or smartphone, they can provide a quick splash of entertainment for a few minutes or give us a chance to game for hours on end. However, with as appealing as video games have become, some people have become addicted to the point that they’re sacrificing their relationships and their careers to get more game time.

Though the vast majority of gamers treat their play as a fun diversion, there is growing concern over those who have turned gaming into their lives. In recent years, a number of experts have researched which video games are the most addictive, who’s most likely to become addicted and how addicted individuals can find help.

Identifying Video Game Addiction: Social Withdrawal and Loss of Control

Currently, addiction to gaming is not formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, according to Fox News. This does not mean psychologists are denying its existence, rather, it’s rare for behavioral addictions to receive their own label in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For instance, no one denies that addiction to pornography and shopping are real, but they are not singled out in the manual. This does, however, make it difficult to define video game addiction.

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According to experts Marko M. Skoric, Linda Lay Ching Teo and Rachel Lijie Neo, “scholars concur that addiction of any kind is usually associated with an uncontrollable urge, often accompanied by a loss of control, a preoccupation with use and a desire to continue with the activity even though it creates problems.”

For instance, someone who is addicted to gambling might feel an uncontrollable desire to gamble even if it’s running up their debt. Likewise, an addicted gamer might be unable to stop playing games even if it’s jeopardizing their relationships and career.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, the Stanford University School of Medicine has shown that “areas of the brain responsible for generating feelings of addiction and reward are activated during game play.” For this reason, it is fair to compare gaming addicts to drug addicts. In fact, as the magazine also reports, some centers put video game addicts in group therapy with people troubled by eating disorders or drug abuse.

It is important to note that there is much more to video game addiction than simply the amount of time spent playing. As Skoric, Teo and Neo assert, “people who devote a lot of time to video game play may not necessarily suffer the negative ramifications of gaming addiction.” If a person enjoys video games a lot, that’s fine—as long as they also devote a substantial proportion of their time to their responsibilities. It only becomes an addiction once it is interfering with life in general.

Since there is no fine line for determining when video game use is becoming problematic, the estimated number of people who show video game dependency fluctuates with each study performed. Florian Rehbein and his team note that the prevalence of video game addiction ranges between 1.5 and 9.3 percent in a given sample size because each study uses different criteria to determine the severity of addiction. There are, however, plenty of warning signs that suggest a person is becoming addicted.

As Guy Porter and his team of researchers state in their study, you’re clearly becoming addicted to video games if you know you shouldn’t be playing them but do it anyway. If you feel the need to lie about how much time you spend playing, that’s also a clear warning sign. It’s also common for addicts to stay up late and drink lots of caffeine.

Kimberly Young of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery adds that social withdrawal and loss of interest in other activities suggest addiction. Other warning signs include fantasizing about games even when you’re not playing them or showing withdrawal symptoms such as headache or irritability when not playing.

The Most Common Addicts

Young and other experts believe that teenagers are most at risk for developing video game addiction. Rehbein found in his study that males were 10 times more likely than females to become video game addicts. Besides age and gender, perhaps the greatest predictor of video game addiction is the life situation of the person in question. The most common addicts are social outcasts or people who are going through stressful life situations. Much like a drug user trying to escape from life through a heroin injection, a video game addict is trying to escape their problems by living in a fantasy world.

Trying to escape from the problem rather than confront it might help in the short term, but rarely does it benefit them in the long term. “We studied [3,000] children for three years, and we found that the kids who became addicted, their depression got worse, their social phobias got worse, their anxiety got worse, and their grades got worse,” associate professor Doug Gentile of Iowa State University’s Media Research Laboratory said. “If however, they stopped being addicted, all of those things got better.”

The Most Addictive Games are Played Online

Among people who have studied video game addiction, there’s a general consensus that the most addictive games are those played online, particularly first-person shooters like “Call of Duty” and massively multiplayer, online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, like “World of Warcraft.” There are a number of reasons behind this.

As mentioned earlier, social outcasts are most likely to become addicted to video games. It is possible that, by playing online with other gamers, the addict feels as though they are making up for their lack of friends in real life. Of course, online games can provide a strong sense of camaraderie among regular players, but this is hardly an adequate replacement for interaction in the real world.

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As AspenEducationGroup.com notes, video games of this sort also provide a strong sense of empowerment. By playing for long periods of time, the gamer can become higher ranked than the average player, making them feel like they’ve achieved superiority over someone else. The website even speculates that a skilled addict could become a bully in the virtual world to make up for their inferiorities in real life. By becoming so skilled at games, they can slaughter and make fun of all the newbies out there.

Antonius J. van Rooij and his team of researchers also note that online video games like MMORPGs can never be completed. There is no point when you save the princess from the castle and the game ends. “Due to the regular introduction of new content, it is practically impossible to finish all assignments,” the study states. “This places a considerable burden on the player’s time, as they are required to continue playing to ‘keep up’ with the game.”

Indeed, the world of an online video game doesn’t stop when the gamer logs off, so if they want to stay the best, they have to stay logged in for a long time. It’s no surprise, then, that video game addiction has been on the rise in the last few years, when online play has become far more common.

Getting Help for Video Game Addiction

Rooij and his team of experts have proposed that, in light of how addictive video games are, gaming companies should provide warnings on their boxes about the potentially addictive nature of their products. They should also give players referral services to help them should they call in and say that they have become addicted to the company’s game. However, as of now, it’s up to the players to seek help on their own. The most that online games like “World of Warcraft” do is post the occasional message reminding players to take gaming in moderation.

Since video game addiction is not formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, there are no national guidelines for what effective therapy looks like. As the U.S. News & World Report states, “families seeking help may need to pay out of their own pockets, because insurance typically doesn’t cover addictions that don’t officially exist.” However, since video game addiction is often linked to depression, social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is possible to get covered under treatment for those while addressing the addiction.

According to Video-Game-Addiction.org, “the best thing to do is talk to someone you trust.” Whether it’s a friend or a family member, “tell them you’re worried about being obsessed and you need their help.” It helps to have an accountability partner, especially if you’re addicted to a computer game. Although you can pack away video game consoles if necessary, computers are needed for work and the like, making them nearly impossible to avoid altogether.

MyAddiction.com notes that, as is the case with many addictions, the first step is acknowledging that a problem exists. Try to get yourself or the person in question to see the problems of excessive gaming. In some cases, you may need to seek out a licensed therapist. If this seems necessary, find one who suits your needs. If you’re a parent dealing with an addicted child, then find a counselor who helps parents. If you’re an addicted teenager, then find somebody who specializes in adolescent help. It is also important to address the underlying issues behind the addiction, not just the gaming itself.

For instance, if you’re gaming excessively because you feel lonely in real life, then you need someone to help you with your social anxiety to make long-term progress. According to expert Richard T. A. Wood, it can also help to develop effective time management skills. Set a certain amount of time that you’re allowed to play each day and leave it at that.

There are a number of sources available to help video game addicts. First, the website AspenEducationGroup.com provides a wilderness retreat where gamers are separated from electronics for long periods while spending time with others. This can help to increase social skills and the ability to stay away from video games when necessary. The site OLGAnonBoard.org provides assistance through a virtual 12-step program for video game addicts.

There is also a self-help book called “Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap,” written by Kevin Roberts, a recovering video game addict himself. According to him, recovering addicts can still play video games sometimes, as long as they learn effective time management skills. Roberts is still into old-school arcade games like “Dig Dug” and exercise games like “Wii Fit.”

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For parents struggling with an addicted child, there is help available in the form of the book “Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control,” written by Hilarie Cash. It covers how to deal with children of all age groups, from toddlers to adult children still living at home.

There is some general advice that parents can follow. According to Young, it helps to put the computer in an easy-to-see place so that parents can monitor how their children are using their time. Experts Shao-I Chiu, Jie-Zhi Lee and Der-Hsiang Huang also note that, to assist a child with social anxiety, it is important to help them develop a sense of identity and self-esteem. Also, bored children are the most likely to become video game addicts, so getting a child involved in numerous activities can curb the risk of video game addiction.

It’s also important to reward and punish the child according to a consistent set of rules about video game play. Plus, it’s essential that you do not enable your child to continue their addiction. For example, don’t make excuses for them when they try to skip school to game. Finally, according to experts Eui Jun Jeong and Doo Hwan Kim, an overall healthy relationship between parent and child can reduce the risk of addiction taking root.

While video games have evolved into one of the most entertaining media outlets today, it is essential to experience them in moderation. We cannot allow escapism to get in the way of real life relationships and social obligations.

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