The question is easily framed yet very difficult to answer: am I or a loved one playing too many video games? Since their inception, video games have become more and more a part of American entertainment and culture. Data released earlier this year from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) showed that the video game industry collected over $36 billion in revenue in 2017 alone. Chances are, you or someone close to you enjoy playing video games regularly whether it be on your computer, gaming system, or smartphone. But at what point does this enjoyable pastime become a compulsion or even an addiction?
The research and professional community is clear on this topic: video game addiction is absolutely real and constitutes a clinical impulse control disorder in the same vein as a gambling addiction. Without getting too wonky, this impulsive behavior has been linked to an imbalance in the gamer’s brain chemistry. The brain has a reward center which releases chemicals that make us feel good when we do something perceived as beneficial such as eating or reproducing. However, this reward center can be overstimulated by detrimental behaviors as well such as drug use, excessive sex, gambling, or gaming. An overactive reward center has been linked to an increased release of dopamine, a neurochemical that helps control behavior and pleasure centers in the brain. A recent study has shown that the reward centers of frequent gamers closely resembled those of addicts. People suffering from these addictions have a chemical imbalance in the brain which drives them to seek pleasure and robs them of the ability to delay gratification to achieve a future goal.
While brain chemistry is an important aspect of an addiction to video games, it is very important to remember the psychological factors at play as well. Video games have become adept at rewarding players and encouraging more and more play. Online RPGs (or role-playing games) can be particularly addictive. These games have perfected the system of hooking players into a never-ending quest for newer and better items to improve their character’s performance. As their ability to succeed in the game improves, their confidence grows. This escape and validation that video games can provide becomes extremely attractive, especially to players who may lack self-esteem or otherwise are struggling in their real lives. It becomes a vicious cycle: the gamer spends more and more time improving their online personas while their real life suffers, causing them to want to spend even more time gaming to avoid the problems the gaming itself has caused. This puts the addicted gamer in a downward spiral that is very difficult to break out of without help.
The good news is that there is hope. The psychological community has generally agreed upon a measure to diagnose or recognize a problem with gaming. While getting into the minutia and evidence-based research for this measure would be getting a little too wonky, it is helpful to review some of the major markers that can indicate a gaming problem. Ask yourself or a loved one the following questions, using the last 12 months as reference:
- Have you often played video games longer or more frequently than you intended to?
- Have you made any attempts to either cut down, control, or stop your video game play? Were you successful?
- Would you say you have been preoccupied with video games?
- When you were not playing video games did you often experience irritability, restlessness, or strong cravings for it?
- Has your involvement in video games caused serious problems in your relationship with your spouse/partner or important friends or family?
- Has your involvement in video games caused you to repeatedly neglect your children, family, or other loved ones?
- Has your involvement in video games resulted in significant health problems or injury for you or someone close to you?
- Has your involvement in video games caused significant work or school problems for you or someone close to you?
- Has your involvement in video games caused you to miss a significant amount of time off work or school?
It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list of risk assessment questions and answering yes to one of these does not imply that you or your loved one’s gaming is compulsive or unhealthy. However, if the answer to any of these question was yes, it may be useful to take a critical look at the role gaming is playing in your or a loved one’s life. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if you feel it is necessary. Too many people have made the mistake of underestimating behavioral addictions. There is hope and great help is available.