Is Video Game Addiction Really an Addiction?

Man playing video game in living room

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Ask some parents whether video game addiction is real and they will say yes. They watch their child retreat into a virtual world for hours on end, neglecting their friends and family and losing interest in everything but their monitor or screen.

But what do the experts say? Is this just one more vice (or device) that, like with alcohol or drug addiction, can completely take over and negatively impact one's world? Can you really be addicted to video games?

The Latest Word on Video Game Addiction

Video game addiction is not included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the DSM-5. This is the manual used to diagnose mental health disorders, which includes addictions.

What the DSM-5 does include in its section on conditions for further study, though, is Internet gaming disorder. The criteria used to diagnose Internet gaming disorder include experiencing at least five of these symptoms within the past year:

  • Gaming preoccupation
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming cannot occur
  • Increased time spent gaming to "satisfy the urge"
  • Not being able to eliminate or reduce the amount of play
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Gaming even when it creates negative consequences
  • Not being honest about the amount of time spent on games
  • Using gaming as a way to feel better
  • Jeopardized or lost a relationship, job, or other opportunity because of gaming

Though video games aren't always online, the World Health Organization also recognizes gaming disorder (without the "Internet" designation) in its most current International Classification of Diseases, the ICD-11.

Some game manufacturers even boast about the "addictive" experience of their games in their advertising. Proper recognition of the risk of video game overuse or addiction provides a rationale for setting guidance standards regarding appropriate limits.

Recognition of video game addiction as an official diagnosis would allow support services to be integrated into addiction recovery programs, and specific training to be provided to staff. It may also open up more treatment avenues covered by insurance. While some organizations provide free addiction recovery programs, connecting with no-cost resources aimed at video games isn't always possible.

Video Game Addiction: A Worldwide Issue

Some Asian countries, such as China and South Korea, have identified video game addiction as an urgent public health matter. Reasons for this classification include the connection between this addiction and other mental health issues.

Yet, spending a lot of time playing video games can present another issue. Studies have connected extreme gaming—and the hours of sitting that go along with it—with increases in blood clots, for instance, even in adolescent players.

In the United States, the prevalence of video game addiction is more difficult to estimate, with most computers used at home rather than in shared public places. However, case studies show similar characteristics of gaming addiction across cultures, indicating that they are the same phenomenon.

Possible Causes

Video game addiction has rapidly grown out of an industry geared specifically at children. Halfway between toys and TV, video games are targeted at naïve youngsters unable to set their own limits or make intentional decisions about how to spend their time.

What makes video games so appealing? When free from the constraints of school, many kids simply want to be entertained as easily as possible. And many parents want this for their kids, too.

Giving their child the latest video game can potentially serve two purposes. One, it may help alleviate some parental guilt about not spending enough time with the child. Two, it can keep the child happily occupied. Both can lead to lengthy periods playing video games.

Research shows that certain risk factors for video game addiction often begins to show by the time a child is 10. Additionally, risk factors associated with this addiction include living in a single-parent household, being male, and not being well integrated socially at school.

Gaming addiction may also develop as a coping mechanism for other disorders. Research has found that 92% of people with Internet gaming disorder also have anxiety. Approximately 89% have coexisting depression, 85% have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and 75% have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A 2015 study also found that some people choose to play video games as a way to compensate for difficulty associating with others. Put another way, they prefer playing games to interacting face-to-face.

Video Games Aren't All Bad

While playing video games for hours on end could be problematic, these virtual forms of entertainment also have several advantages. For example, achieving video game mastery can increase the self-esteem of the player.

These games can also improve hand-eye coordination. Some even offer educational features. More sophisticated games can help players develop other skills, and some games include aspects of physical exercise, providing even more benefits.

The reality of popular culture is that we are more and more dependent on technology. Video games allow people to have positive experiences with computers that can provide transferable skills when using these devices for other purposes.

Dangers of the "Addiction" Label

To label the activity a video game addiction without established and agreed upon guidelines could unfairly deter many children and their parents from the potentially positive aspects of some video games.

Certain video games as a medium have potential to develop positive social skills, or to provide benign forms of entertainment, although these may not be as easily marketable to kids.

As with other addictions, there is a risk that a label like "video game addiction" could be used too liberally, without paying attention to other concurrent or underlying conditions. Treating these conditions might more effectively help the excessive game player.

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