Video Game Addiction, Part Three: Avoiding Problems

You can find part one, on what addiction is, here, and part two, over what makes video games appealing (if not addictive), here.

There’s been a lot of talk about what addiction is and how it happens, but given the confusion that surrounds both of those topics, we understand that the treatment recommendations involved would still be preliminary at best. So far, the recommended treatments for video game addiction are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychopharmacology (prescribing meds), the use of 12-step support groups (which I personally have a problem with; more on that later), and treatments that have been successful for other addictions. Debates still occur on whether addiction can actually be prevented, but there are ways to help prevent video gaming habits from becoming problematic, or ways to help curb problematic behavior if it’s already started. I’ve gathered a lot of this from previous addiction treatment recommendations as well as actual discussions with regular World of Warcraft players. Please do not take this as professional advice; as always, if you feel you have a problem, please find a trusted, knowledgeable individual and/or professional and seek counsel from them.



Common stressors for children include (but aren't limited to): family issues, being bullied, having trouble fitting in at school, not having enough support. Common stressors for adolescents and adults include (but aren't limited to): job stress, romantic relationships, family problems, being harassed, trouble finding friends with similar interests.

Find out if there’s an underlying problem. I’ve already mentioned that problematic gaming behavior doesn’t always stem from the video game itself — that is, the gaming is a means to an end. For example, one of my guild members on my blood elf mage account (yes, I have more than one character) relayed the following story to me: He used to play World of Warcraft a lot when he was younger. He used it as an escape from his family life (he mentioned that the childrearing practices of the culture his parents came from is very stressful on children). Once he got a girlfriend who was able to provide him with the support he wasn’t getting from his parents, and once he grew up and his family life calmed down, he stopped needing to play the game as much. While he used to play the game nonstop — to the point where he missed school — now he only really plays when he has time.

If you’re playing video games in order to escape from your problems, it’s probably a lot healthier for you to attempt to address those problems rather than cause more by ignoring offline responsibilities. Obviously, there’s not enough space to go over the immense pool of potential problems someone may be avoiding, but it’s safe to say that regardless if video game playing habits don’t change, it’s much better to have less on your plate. Find a way to deal with your problems, whether that’s by figuring it out yourself or by talking to a trusted friend, family member, or professional. You’ll be all the better for it.

Set boundaries and stick to them. Some people will immediately jump to arbitrary rules like, “Don’t play video games for more than an hour a day.” These kinds of rules can’t be one-size-fits-all because no one is the same as anyone else. You have to work with your comfort level. If you’re a stay-at-home father of three children, you probably can’t afford to play video games for six hours a day; but if you’re an unemployed college student on summer break, you probably can. You have to work with your schedule. Make a list of your priorities and how you’re going to accomplish those goals. Figure out how much time you’re going to need to dedicate to that, and work from there. (Be sure to factor in social activities that are fun but aren’t related to video games.) For example, another one of my guild members said that her “real life” has to take precedence, which is what keeps her in check. She has a job and has bills to pay, and that’s enough to keep her from playing 15 hours a day to get an in-game item. Another player mentioned that she makes sure that she spends a few hours a day doing other things, like hanging out with friends or doing housework. To these players it seemed like common sense, but it is a rule that most of us forget sometimes: Figure out what is important to you and put those things first.

The important part is the second half of the statement in bold: Stick to them. An acquaintance of mine recently discussed the idea of “going to Barter Hill,” Barter Hill being a metaphor for that point in your day when you start bartering with yourself. Many people do it while working out: You start off thinking, Okay, I’m going to bike ten miles today, but halfway through you think, Well, my calves hurt. Maybe I can bike six miles and then finish up my workout walking. Or stretching. Or maybe I should just stop here. I’m really tired.

Or maybe you’ve done it while trying to stick to a study plan. You start out with, I’ll read this chapter, take a five minute break, and then go on to the next chapter, and so on and so forth until I’m done with this week’s work. 20 minutes into reading that first chapter, you’re thinking, I could really use a break. Maybe I’ll get on XBox Live after this chapter. Just for a half hour. Oh Jesus I’m only halfway through this chapter. Maybe I can take a bath now and come back to this later. Wow, I could really go for a sandwich. This goes on and on and on until you realize you’ve wasted more time bargaining with yourself than you have reading.

We do this all the time, and it’s important to be aware of when we’re doing it. If your goal is to only play video games once you’re done with your homework or after you’ve cleaned the apartment, then you need to stick to that. Write it down. Better yet…

Tell a trusted person your goals. There’s a reason people suggest the buddy system for everything from weight loss to studying — because it works, if you pick the right buddy. Studies have shown that utilizing the buddy system can be up to two times more effective than going at your goals alone. For example, in a study done by Robert West, Martin Edwards, and Peter Hajek, researchers found that the percentage of smokers not smoking four weeks after they quit was significantly higher if they had a buddy who was also trying to quit (27%) than if they went solo (12%).

While the buddy system doesn’t require the buddy try to achieve the same goal as you (or any goal for that matter), you’re still going to need someone who understands what you’re going through. The buddy needs to be a good listener and capable of giving honest feedback. It needs to be someone you respect and who respects you in turn. This may mean you need to rekindle some friendships, and if that’s so, honesty is the best policy. Explain why you’ve been out of touch. If the person is a good friend, s/he will understand and try to help. If not, then you probably don’t want to turn to him/her for help on this anyway. It sucks, but you’ll need to move on.

It doesn’t have to be just one person, either. There’s no shame in joining a group of friends for the goal of reducing play time or going to a support group. The important thing is that you’re getting together with people who are going to support you and motivate you to go forward, not people who are going to drive you deeper into your addiction. Your support group should not turn into a real-life WoW guild or a FarmVille party.

One suggestion I received from a good friend of mine (and fellow World of Warcraft player) is that if you want to start focusing on other things, try describing your day to someone else out loud. You’ll quickly realize how insignificant that epic gear you got sounds in comparison to the number of hours it took to get it. It may help push you toward filling your day with other activities.

Because it happens to everyone.

Don’t make a big deal out of failure. You’re probably going to fail at your goals at some point. When this happens, take the time to understand why everything happened, reevaluate your goals to make sure they aren’t too lofty, and get back on the horse. There is absolutely no reason to beat yourself up about it or to give up. Everyone falls at some point. The difference between people who are stuck in a rut and those who pull themselves out of it is that the latter don’t give up. They also don’t make it sound like the end of the world is happening because they screw up every once in a while.

Also, keep in mind that playing video games in moderation is not terrible. Just like how one beer is not as bad as one hundred beers, playing a few hours of video games on occasion isn’t going to kill you. Wallowing in self-pity and self-criticism because you turned on your XBox isn’t going to help you at all. Neither is wallowing in the belief that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict. That’s
setting yourself up for failure.

Break the reward cycle. According to the psychological school of thought known as behaviorism, many (if not all) of our behaviors are reinforced by rewards and punishments. Activities we are rewarded for, we will do more often. Activities we are punished for doing, we will do less often. (It actually gets a lot more complicated than this, but for all intents and purposes, that’s a decent summary.) Video games are addicting because they employ various reward schedules and in turn often become their own reward, which makes them crappy rewards for other behaviors when addiction starts to come into play because we will tend to spend more time playing video games than doing the thing we’re rewarding ourselves for. (Note: if addiction isn’t a problem, then video games aren’t a bad reward, so long as, again, it’s used in moderation.)

If it only took you 20 minutes to do your homework, it really shouldn’t be rewarded with two hours of video game playing. This doesn’t mean you can’t play video games once your homework is done, but rather make sure that you’re drawing the line between “I get to play video games because this is done,” and, “Oh, I have free time; I guess I’ll play video games for two hours.” If addiction is a problem then this is especially true, because if you’re so excited about playing video games that you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing when you’re busy with your homework, it will not help you in the long run.

The safest way to avoid this issue is this: Don’t reward yourself for doing things through playing video games if addiction is a potential problem. It’s about as effective as rewarding yourself for exercising by eating ice cream or an alcoholic rewarding him- or herself with alcohol. Protip: It’s not effective. At all.

Remember that you’re in charge. Here’s one of my problems with the 12-step program. Generally speaking, most 12-step programs have you admit first that you’re powerless over your addiction. That’s a bunch of crap. Video games aren’t some mythical mind-controlling creatures that force you to play them, and if you believe you’re powerless, you’re probably going to continue to see video games as ruling your life, and guess what? They will. If you live your life to avoid video games off the bat because you feel like there’s no way you’ll ever win otherwise, then video games are still controlling your life, just not in the way they were before. You should always remember that you are a human being who’s capable of making your own decisions, and you have to take responsibility for this. Saying you’re powerless is giving up before you’ve even started.

Thinking you’re powerless over your addiction can also set you up for more severe relapses, according to research on alcoholism. For example, take “Outpatient Treatment of Alcoholism” by Jeffrey Brandsma, Maxie Maultsby, and Richard Welsh, who studied the differences between three groups: clients following Alcoholics Anonymous, which espouses that you aren’t in charge, that you are and always will be sick, and that one drink means you’re a drunk; clients following Rational Behavior Therapy, which attempts to get people to figure out how they make themselves unhappy and how to avoid that; and a control group that did nothing. The researchers found that Alcoholics Anonymous clients binge drank five times more than alcoholics who weren’t getting any kind of treatment, and that those following Rational Behavior Therapy drank less than those who didn’t receive any form of treatment.

Of course alcoholism isn’t quite like video game addiction, but it is important to note that those who feel empowered are generally those who will succeed. If you are in a group where people are constantly criticizing you and bringing you down, you’re not going to have any motivation to fix your problems, are you?* People need supportive environments in order to grow. They also need to understand that they are responsible for their actions, and thus, have control over their actions. Put it this way: If you’re taught you’re always going to be sick, you’re probably not going to try to find a way to get better.

*Note that this doesn’t mean that everyone should be all lovey-dovey all the time and never tell you when you screw up. Being responsible for your actions does not translate into self-hate, but it does command a respect for yourself that you’re not going to get if you’re involved with people who don’t respect you.

Be aware that you may have to give up gaming completely. Unfortunately, some people just can’t limit themselves to a few hours a day or whatever their goals are no matter how they try, and in this case, it may just be healthier for them to give up gaming completely. One World of Warcraft player I found told me the following story: He, his brother, and a few of his friends all started playing World of Warcraft and he noticed that his brother got way too into playing than he should have. He would become aggressive towards others when he wasn’t playing and would race home from school in order to get on the computer, playing for hours. Eventually they had to shut down his account. And sometimes that’s really the only thing you can do.

So if nothing else works, it may be time to delete the account, uninstall the software, and sell or throw away the game disks, if there are any. Find something else to do to fill that void, preferably something that doesn’t involve anything with video games on it (e.g. gaming consoles, Internet, etc.). You may have to do this in phases; after all, cold turkey isn’t the most recommended way to get rid of an addiction due to intense withdrawal symptoms, which as you may remember from the first article in this feature, video game addicts can have. Either way, giving up gaming completely is an extreme measure, one that very few people will have to take, but it’s worth mentioning as a backup plan even if it’s a severe one.


Remember, just like most things, video gaming is fine in moderation. What moderation means depends entirely on your situation. There are a variety of ways to control your gaming habits, if it’s deemed that your gaming habits are indeed a problem. If you decide to go with a professional or official support group of any kind and they tell you that theirs is the only way to achieve success, run. These people do not have what’s best for you in mind, only what’s best for them — and that usually means your money.

Your mental health is important, and you have to take steps to work toward protecting it. If you take responsibility for your actions and work toward creating balance in your life, you’ll be much better off than blindly following any advice given, especially if it’s not scientifically backed.


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