Video Game Addiction, Part One: What is Addiction?

Babochka, my level 51 night elf hunter

My best friend recently convinced me to start playing World of Warcraft (WoW) through a referral from my boyfriend, which was ironic because I used to joke that people who play it don’t ever get laid because they’re too busy with it. When I started playing it, I actually got a little concerned with how much I’d been playing. Even without the triple experience you get from Recruit a Friend (RaF) (because my boyfriend was rarely online when I am due to time zone differences), I had leveled up my character to level thirty in only a few days and was level fifty shortly thereafter, surprising both my boyfriend and my friend. I found myself doing quest after quest after quest, and wondered if I was getting addicted, and if so, what was making the game so addictive to me. It was then I decided to do a little research into the area of video game addiction and to share what I’ve found. Because I’ve found quite a bit of information on the subject, I’ve split this piece into three parts. Part One will cover what video game addiction is, Part Two will cover qualities of many popularly addictive games, and Part Three will cover ways to help avoid becoming addicted.


The Problem

Addiction has historically been linked to alcohol and drugs, but now we are starting to realize that people can be addicted to just about anything: gambling, coffee, sex, exercise, fast food, and recently, even video games. Addiction to video games (especially online games) has been specifically targeted in recent years: for example, the Thai government imposed a curfew on online games in 2003, and in 2006, Europe opened its first video-game addiction clinic in Amsterdam. And let’s face it: we’ve all heard the stories. In 2005, one man died after a Starcraft marathon and a couple lost a 4-year-old child to suffocation when they went to play WoW for a few hours at an internet cafe. That same year a father left twin infants in a bathtub so he could smoke and play video games. In 2008, a child ran away from home after his parents took away his Xbox because he played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare too much and was found dead. In 2010 a couple essentially starved their real child while raising a virtual one, and just this past June a woman was convicted for starving her child to death while she played WoW. It’s hard to say whether the games themselves were the addiction or whether these deaths can be attributed to the fact that people like doing anything pleasurable, and video games are easier to do for long periods of time because they don’t require another person (e.g. drugs require someone to get you drugs who may not always be there or have what you want, sex generally requires another person and even then the body gets tired, etc.).

Truth be told, it’s kind of hard to define addiction; not even the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a definition of it in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is because generally it’s hard to tell the difference between someone really enjoying a thing and thus spending a lot of time partaking in it, sometimes to the detriment of other aspects of his/her life, and someone having a dependency that interferes with daily life. Some cases, like the ones I’ve listed above, are blatantly obvious–there was a problem in each of these people’s lives and it should never have gone that far. In these cases, their addictions led to either their own death or the death of someone who depended on them for survival, specifically children. There are more stories where this came from, too, stories of kids murdering their parents because they took away their games or of people torturing people because they failed to return a gaming system. These are obvious cases where there are problems. But it’s not always this easy, is it? Most of the time it becomes difficult to tell the difference between someone who just enjoys playing a particular video game and doesn’t really care about going out with friends and someone who is on a downward spiral, because, quite frankly, most people don’t starve themselves to death while playing video games.

It’s also difficult to define and therefore diagnose addiction because colloquially we tend to use the word “addictive” to describe something we enjoy doing and spend a lot of time doing, and to emphasize how good something is. When someone says s/he is addicted to a television show, it usually doesn’t mean that s/he requires treatment to wean him-/herself off of the show. It usually means that it’s a compelling show and s/he tunes into it every week and can’t wait for the next episode (and that s/he has a problem with exaggerating). Likewise I’ve never met a person who is actually addicted to the Phoenix Wright games, yet I’ve heard the game be described as addictive. It just means it’s fun to play and you can find yourself playing it more than you’d perhaps expected.

If we use these casual criteria, we generally end up with some pretty stupid addictions. I enjoy breathing a lot, and I spend most of my time doing it (sometimes to the detriment of other things I’m trying to achieve, like exercise), so I must be addicted to it. I must have been addicted to college because I spent some sixty hours a week for four years working on it, much to the detriment of my social life and sleep patterns. Suddenly I’m not addicted though, now that I’ve gotten my degree! Maybe in the fall, when I start my next degree, I’ll be addicted again. Or hey, maybe women are addicted to talking–after all, according to this study, apparently, “the simple act of talking triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.”* See how ridiculous addictions sound when you put them in this light? But addictions–real addictions–are life damaging. They’re not something to joke about or to treat lightly.

There have been studies that point to similarities between drugs and video games, however. One such study, conducted by Cherité University Medicine Berlin, used a “drug memory” test (among others) to explore this idea. A drug memory test is used to examine how images (for example, from a game, if you’re testing video game addiction) trigger desires. The study found that when viewing images from their favorite video games, participants experienced cravings and feelings of desperation to play the games, just like drug addicts would feel cravings and feelings of desperation to use drugs when viewing images of places they got high at or friends they would get high with. There have even been reports that game developers often hire psychologists to help to make their games harder to stop playing. It’s very possible that gaming can be a type of drug, but the main problem starts from trying to figure out where having fun playing something a lot stops and addiction starts.

*If getting high is as boring as talking is…


What is an Addiction?

Robert West, a professor of Health Psychology at the University of London, offers up the following, more serious definition for addiction: “Addiction is a social construct, not an object that can be uniquely defined. […] [A]ddiction can be usefully viewed as a chronic condition to the “motivational system” in which reward-seeking behaviour has become ‘out of control.'” Richard J. J. Tyrer of the University of Salsford has a similar definition: “A subjective loss of control caused from repeated exposure to an object, person, or behaviour, where the person involved is using the addiction to cater for psychological deficiencies such as lack of social interaction, stress, or cultural pressure, and that the dependency is so strong it dominates the person’s life to the detriment of anything else in their lives including friends, family, work, education and health.” Basically both West and Tyrer acknowledge that addiction is difficult to define, that we as a society define it, and that it’s a condition where we lose control over our ability to stop participating in a behavior that rewards us.

How can someone become addicted to video games? Contrary to what is apparently popular belief, not everyone who plays video games (or becomes addicted to them) hates him-/herself or his/her life. Not everyone who plays a lot of video games is upset with him-/herself about the amount s/he plays. In fact, not everyone who plays a lot of video games is addicted, another common misconception that leads us to really get confused about the whole process of defining video game addiction. So how do you know if you’re addicted to something? That’s a tough question, because honestly it’s largely subjective. There are a couple of signs that someone might be addicted. I’ll go through them, note important distinctions between enjoying something and actually being addicted, and explain why they can be tricky to determine addiction to video games. I had to look through a lot of stuff to get these examples, but in case anyone is curious, some of the sites I’ve gotten these suggestions from are the following: Video Game Addiction, The Daedalus Project, and WebMD. Obviously there are many more where those came from. I’ve done the best I can to round up the suggestions for addiction criteria and make them easier to digest.

You’re only happy when you play the game. This is a tricky one, because it requires a lot of context. Video games, like many forms of media, generally tend to offer up some kind of fantasy world to inhabit, which is a haven for those who don’t particularly like their lives (hence the stereotype). But who doesn’t like to escape sometimes? A lot of people like video games because it takes them away from the everyday drone of their lives, or because it gives them the opportunity to be themselves since, frankly, in the offline world we do a lot of posturing (not that the online world is free of it either). Video games, like books and movies and music, allow us to see the world as what it could be instead of what it is. This criteria needs to be seen in context with the other criteria below, and also in context of happiness levels in the past, before the video games. Still, even if addiction isn’t the problem, if you’re only happy while playing a video game, there may be other issues in your life you need to address.

You consistently end up playing the game far longer than you planned on doing so. If you’re truly becoming addicted, this should become more and more of a problem over time. Granted, some people are just terrible with time management. My boyfriend will play WoW until 3am some days; that doesn’t mean he’s addicted, though, because if it wasn’t WoW it’d probably be something on the internet or reading a book or maybe even talking to me, if I’m having trouble sleeping. The same can be said for me. We both just have problems with insomnia. But if you find that you’re consistently late for school or work, or you’re honestly surprised at how long you’ve been playing, there is probably at least a time management problem. The main thing to keep in mind here is why you’re playing the game longer than you intended: is it because you weren’t paying attention to the time or because you couldn’t tear yourself away from the game? If it’s the latter, there may be an addiction problem.

“Real life” begins to suffer. I hate using the term “real life” when referring to playing video games, because it’s not like the process of playing the video game is fake (and, if you’re playing online, the people you’re interacting with (other than Non-Playable Characters, or NPCs) are real people, ones who deserve the respect you should give a real person). That general pet peeve aside, this is a pretty straightforward criteria… for the most part. If someone goes from being a straight-A student who takes the time to study for tests to someone failing all of his/her classes, then there’s a problem. But what if you weren’t that strong of a student before? This is another one of those criteria that definitely require context. Whatever part of “real life” begins to suffer, whether that’s interpersonal relationships, school, work, or any other activities you used to be involved in, if you would otherwise continue to do those things if it weren’t for video games, there may be a problem. (And again, all this is assuming you don’t play the games with friends or family, though just because you do doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.)

Your body starts to suffer. This one is pretty cut-and-dry, and not that controversial. If you’re playing video games so much that you aren’t sleeping, eating, or taking proper care of your hygiene, there’s a problem. If you’re having to use stimulants to stay up long enough to play, or you play so long you don’t eat or shower for a few days, you need to see someone. I guess it’s possible that someone could have those issues prior to playing video games, but either way, there’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed.

I was so proud of myself.

You think about the game when you aren’t playing it. Another key aspect is withdrawal; that is, when someone isn’t around whatever s/he is addicted to, s/he starts feeling uncomfortable. This can manifest physically (tremors, insomnia, aches, etc.) or psychologically (changes in moods, obsessive thoughts, etc.). Video game addiction is more psychological than physical in nature; I’ve never heard of anyone having tremors because s/he couldn’t play video games (although I suppose it’s possible if the psychological symptoms present that way). Anyway, if for some reason you have to be separated from your game (getting grounded, having to go on a business trip, going on vacation, etc.) and you find that you are more irritable, have trouble sleeping, etc. because of that, there may be an addiction problem.

Note that this is different than enjoying discussions about the game. When I was in 4th grade, I discovered Pokemon. I spent hours tracing Pikachu (I can’t draw well at all) until my muscle memory picked up and I could draw it without the picture. Then, during art on one of those days when we could draw whatever we wanted, I drew Pikachu and effectively introduced Pokemon to my school when my classmates asked me what that was. (And then Kevin had to go and draw a better one, that ass.*) Soon we were all talking about Pokemon, playing the games, getting the cards, watching the show, and acting the Pokemon world out (I was usually a water Pokemon). None of this ever rose concern out of my parents or teachers, and it didn’t affect my schoolwork or other activities. In other words, I may have been enthusiastic, but I wasn’t obsessive. I had control over my thoughts. And if I missed an episode of Pokemon? I was probably a bit upset, but I didn’t throw a tantrum or get angry for days. I realized there was a such thing as reruns.

*Just kidding, Kevin was a great kid. But seriously, way to steal my thunder.

Your playing makes you and/or other people uncomfortable. If you feel like you have to lie about how much you’ve been playing, there may be a problem. Of course, it could be that your friends and/or family don’t really like video games and think you’re a dweeb for playing them. If that isn’t the case, or if you feel like maybe you should start cutting down on how much you’ve been playing, that is a warning sign. If your girlfriend or boyfriend has been complaining that they never get to see you, your friends are off doing things without you because you never come anyway, or your family is bringing up your play time because they’re concerned, there’s likely a problem.

You often feel like you can’t stop playing. If you’ve lost control over your attachment to video games, you can probably more easily be diagnosed as being addicted. This is especially troublesome if you know it’s screwing up your life, or if you realized that you stopped enjoying the game a long time ago but you still play it. When I noticed how much I wasn’t enjoying FarmVille anymore (that and the entire company–Zynga–sucks), I stopped. Others that I know fully admit that the game is mind-numbing and boring (seriously, how I even got into that game in the first place is beyond me) and yet they don’t stop. A lot of them feel like they can’t stop. That’s a definite warning sign.

This doesn’t include enthusiasm over a new game. It’s understandable that someone is going to be excited about a new game and spend a lot of time playing it. I played Animal Crossing a lot when I first got it. But now, months later, I don’t play it as much. That’s normal. I wasn’t addicted and suddenly not; that’s not how it works. This criteria refers specifically to feeling like you literally can’t stop playing the game, generally after you’ve been playing it for some time (I’m talking in terms of weeks or months here), as if it were a compulsion.


Other Considerations

A very important consideration regarding video game addiction is that people play video games for different reasons. Some people like the challenge; others like the social aspects. Because of that, there will be different criteria (including some that aren’t on this list) that will be useful in determining whether someone is addicted and how bad addiction is. Motivation is a key factor in addiction, so of course it would make sense that there will be different warning signs for different people.

It’s also essential to remember that someone can have a problem (or problems) and it not be video game addiction. In the research article “Problems with the Concept of Video Game ‘Addiction’: Some Case Study Examples” by Richard T.A. Wood, it is noted that a lot of the discussion of video game addiction has been fueled by media hysteria and the unscientific process of replacing the word “gambling” or “substance” (like alcohol or drugs) with “video games” in definitions regarding addiction, when there are some important differences between all of them. Wood argues that there are no studies that he knows of that address whether video games have something about them that makes “playing them problematic for people who aren’t having other difficulties coping with their lives” and that there’s no solid evidence that many gamers are “experiencing problems such that we should be concerned,” because it’s hard to figure out who had problems in the first place and because of false labeling (if you’ve ever heard someone say you’re angry when you aren’t angry, you know about false labeling). In other words, if someone has a problem with video games, it may be that there’s a different underlying cause. For example, if a child is using a video game to escape from being bullied, or if someone starts playing a video game because of a bad breakup, the bullying or the breakup is the problem, not the video game. The video game is a means to an end.

While I understand (and agree with) what Wood is saying, I also think that this doesn’t mean that video game addiction doesn’t exist. A lot of alcoholics start out as casual drinkers who went to alcohol when things went bad. The same could possibly go for drug users and gamblers too. Some people just do it because that’s what they’re used to doing and it spirals out of control. There are legitimate problems that come from doing anything too much, whether that’s exercising, eating, drinking alcohol, or playing video games. Even if the problem isn’t an addiction to a video game or gaming itself, there is a problem to be addressed if someone is playing video games so much that it’s affecting his or her life in a negative fashion. I think that, unless I’ve misunderstood him, this is Wood’s main point. Don’t send a kid to “video game addiction” camp if the larger problem is that he’s being harassed at school. Fix that first and see if things get better.

Sometimes people won’t notice or acknowledge their addiction. I’ve brought up that addiction is hard to define and diagnose, and I’ve given some examples of how some of criteria we can find online can be taken the wrong way, but generally speaking if you think there’s a problem, it’s probably a good idea to talk to someone about it. When in doubt, refer to a professional, preferably one that understands both gaming culture and addiction.

Video game addiction is a difficult issue to tackle because there seems to be a lot of evidence supporting the existence of it, but at the same time there seems to be a lot of confusion and too much media hype. There’s also a lot of context to consider, which is probably the most difficult part in diagnosing this particular addiction (it also doesn’t help that generally there are no physical symptoms like there are for other addictions). What we can be sure of is that a lot more research needs to go into this, and this research needs to take into account the nature of video games and gaming culture. It’s very difficult for someone on the outside to label someone addicted to something and have people on the inside take him/her seriously. In order to truly diagnose someone with an addiction to video games, we’re going to need clearer criteria. Otherwise we’re basically playing a dangerous dart game with people’s mental health.

Join me next time for what I’ve found on what qualities I’ve found help make games appealing, if not addictive.


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