Video games are becoming a bigger part of everyday life. Not only are more people playing games each day, but they are playing for longer periods of time. Games can be immersive, like an MMORPG, or they can be casual and social like Words With Friends or Facebook games. But does playing a lot of video games as a culture mean that we have a problem with video game addiction?
ExpressVPN’s study found that nearly 30% of gamers admitted to thinking about games much of the day, even when not playing. But is it a real thing to be addicted to video games? And if so, is video game addiction really that big of a deal? Let’s dive into those questions!
Is Video Game Addiction a Real Thing?
This is an easy question to answer – YES. Here is a quote from the American Psychiatric Association website:
“Addiction to gaming is described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders. In the DSM-5-TR, the condition is referred to as Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD)(1). IGD is included in the section recommending conditions for further research, along with caffeine use disorder and other conditions.
The DSM-5-TR includes substance-related addictive disorders, such as alcohol, tobacco, stimulants, marijuana and opioids. Gambling disorder is the only behavioral addiction (as opposed to chemical substance use disorders) identified in DSM-5-TR.”
In other words, the APA considers Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) to be in the same class as substance addiction. It is so strong that it is the only addictive disorder to be included in this list that doesn’t involve substance abuse. Multiple studies have been done over the past decade to understand this form of addiction, whom it impacts, and how it impacts the lives of those who are addicted.
So, this is a well-documented and widely accepted form of addiction. It should not be dismissed as inconsequential or seen as something that can be controlled, any more than you would expect an alcoholic to be able to turn their drinking on and off at will.
What Impacts Can Video Game Addiction Have?
We know that substance abuse can lead to terrible lifestyle consequences, but is IGD as bad as substance addiction? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly different in many ways, but there are still severely negative consequences that can be seen. In some of these consequences, it may not even be necessary to be clinically addicted to gaming. Simply spending too much time gaming can bring on certain negative consequences.
Social and Relational Impacts
Alexithymia is related to the ability to recognize and express emotions properly. This obviously impacts every relationship a person has. A study was conducted in 2018 by Bonnaire and Baptista to determine if certain mental disorders or negative mental states were able to be connected to IGD. The study accounted for differences in male and female gamers, as well as their mental states over time, not just when gaming. Here is one of their conclusions:
“In the whole sample, being alexithymic, depression scores, and anxiety scores were associated with IGD.”
Overall, males were more susceptible to these negative impacts than females, but all participants showed a link between IGD and these social and emotional problems. However, even without official studies, the negative effect of video game addiction on social interactions and relationships is pretty clear.
Even beyond the anti-social feelings and the reduced ability to recognize and express emotions, many gamers are getting their social interactions through their games. Online games give the illusion of relationships with other online gamers, but this type of human interaction is stunted when compared to a real, in-person relationship. Just as we see negative effects from social media when it comes to how people interact with one another, this same danger applies to online gaming.
Mental Health Impacts
As with the study mentioned above, mental health and good social relationships tend to go hand in hand. The study we referenced also looked at how IGD was closely related to depression and anxiety. Another interesting study explored how the devices people use can impact their propensity to become addicted, as well as have other negative mental health consequences. Paik et al., published this study in 2017, and the findings are quite interesting:
“Combined users, especially those who played computer and smartphone games evenly, had higher prevalence of IGD, depression, anxiety disorder, and substance use disorder. These subjects were more prone to develop IGD than reference group (computer only gamers) (B = 0.457, odds ratio = 1.579). Smartphone only gamers had the lowest prevalence of IGD, spent the least time and money on gaming, and showed lowest scores of Internet and smartphone addiction. Our findings suggest that gaming device usage patterns may be associated with the occurrence, course, and prognosis of IGD.”
Somehow, the means by which we game – and therefore the types of games played – can have a significant impact on our propensity to become addicted. But beyond becoming addicted, Paik and his colleagues linked gamers who played on both PCs and mobile devices to higher instances of significant mental problems like depression and anxiety. They even found a link to substance abuse, which could indicate that video game addiction could lead to other addictions.
Brain Structure and Function Impacts
In trying to understand addiction in general, and video game addiction specifically, some studies have focused on brain structure and function. One such study in 2016 by Wang et al., looked at brain structure. They concluded the following:
“Although there was no significant group difference in global topology metrics, the IGD subjects showed reduced regional centralities in the prefrontal cortex, left posterior cingulate cortex, right amygdala, and bilateral lingual gyrus, and increased functional connectivity in sensory-motor-related brain networks compared to the HC subjects. These results imply that people with IGD may be associated with functional network dysfunction, including impaired executive control and emotional management, but enhanced coordination among visual, sensorimotor, auditory and visuospatial systems.”
Skipping over all the technical brain structure terminology, the conclusion is that someone with IGD will have better hand-eye coordination at the brain structure level. But they will also have their brain impaired when it comes to emotional consciousness and control.
Physical Health Impacts
The main drive of poor health in gamers is sitting for too many hours per day. This is a well-known effect that has negative consequences for many people beyond gamers because our economy is filled with jobs that require a person to sit in an office all day. The impact of sitting for too much of the day is primarily on heart health, although other circulatory issues can arise.
The inability to focus or to take pleasure in things outside of gaming is another consequence that is widely recognized. Games are designed to deliver a balance of challenge and pleasure. They engage us by giving us something to achieve and then rewarding that achievement. Let’s face it, though, life isn’t always so neat and tidy when it comes to rewarding achievement. So games can become a false reality where we crave that kind of reward. In those cases, it can be hard to put energy into academic or professional work, because it just doesn’t give us the same fulfillment.
Last, but certainly not least, are the negative financial consequences. In years past, one could buy a game and be addicted to it, playing for hours each day, but still not spending any money other than the purchase price. Those days are long gone! Now games are designed to get you to spend money in-game for loot chests, skins, in-game currency, and so on. This has created a serious problem for those addicted to video games because it isn’t simply affecting their time and relationships. Now it is draining their bank accounts.
What Should We Do About This Problem?
There are a lot of things that can be done, depending on your perspective. If you are the one who is addicted, recognizing that fact and being honest with yourself about how gaming is impacting your life, is the first and hardest step. When someone else tells us we have a problem, we can get defensive. Instead, someone who is addicted needs to recognize that those people care for them. As with any addiction, getting outside help to work through the problem is critical. The changes that extensive gaming can make to the brain are not irreversible, so quitting or controlling your gaming is possible.
For those who have loved ones they think are addicted, or even for those who might be parents and want to keep their children from becoming addicted, there are methods to do that:
Understand How Games Are Designed
The reward system, as well as random loot drops or other rewards, create a potent combination of dopamine from achieving a goal and addiction like a gambler would feel. Most games also have events that are time-limited and give special rewards. By doing this, the game designers get more hours of participation and instill a sense of urgency into the players. This often leads players to spend money in order to get ahead in the event, because they will miss out on some event-themed rewards.
This means that pulling a gamer away from an event can be very difficult. Mobile games allow players to keep up with the games wherever they go. When you understand this, you can take steps to plan something else to keep their minds off the event and get them engaged with real people and real activities.
Make The Consequences Real
Total up the amount of money spent on in-game purchases over a month or two. Then put that into the context of what else that money could have been used for. Instead of using guilt about how much they spent, help them to see that they could have paid for lasting fulfillment or enjoyment with that money.
Track the number of hours spent gaming versus those spent with friends and family. Talk to them about how much they truly get out of a game in the long run as compared to having a healthy relationship with a community of people who can love and support them. If applicable, refer them to other consequences like falling grades or poor job performance.
Control the Time
If you are a parent, you have more power to pull your child away from devices and games that are causing them to display addiction symptoms. Give them time limits. Set up hours when your internet is active for their devices. This can be hard when dealing with smartphones where they can just use data to play. But if that is happening, then physical separation from their device might be necessary.
As a final note, we should always keep in mind that enjoying video games is not the same as addiction. Even if someone is playing games for hours each week, that might not be a problem for them. Everyone is different and will react differently to video games. Instead, we should look at ourselves or our friends to be sure that there are no negative impacts growing. Look out for social withdrawal, increases in anxiety, and problems dealing with emotions. If any of those issues are appearing, get some help and try some of the suggestions above.