video game addiction

They’re Gamers, But Are They Addicts?

Video games are big business, with some taking them way too seriously. But is the idea of video game addiction scientifically sound?


Video games may very well be to the twenty first century what film was to the twentieth – a disruptive entertainment medium. In fact, the video game industry now rakes in more than Hollywood: by the end of 2017, games are expected to take in $108 billion USD, while movies lag behind at $41 billion.

Statistics Canada reported in 2010 that the average amount of time spent playing video games has risen from 1 hour 48 minutes in 1998 to 2 hours 20 minutes in 2010. Fifty-two percent of Canadians are gamers, with a near equal gender split and an average age of 36 years.

But amid potential health concerns, the questions remains, can we become addicted to gaming like we can to gambling or smoking? Experts in the field suggest that the answer is no – at least not in a practical or scientific sense.

Digital Detox
Less militant and stringent than their Chinese counterparts, but popular nonetheless: an American digital detox camp

Cause and effect: the role of games is debatable

The vast majority of Millennials grew up with different forms of Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox, and we all know that one kid who was/still is a factor more hardcore than the rest.

Grungy clothes, trashy diets showered in Mountain Dew, and isolation in dark rooms for hours on end form the stereotypical image of such a gamer, but it can be far worse. Extreme cases involving players’ deaths have been reported worldwide, and in China, Japan, and South Korea, it’s not unheard of for adults to wear diapers during marathon sessions. China recognizes gaming as a legitimate addiction and offers digital detox camps for those who struggle to switch off.

At first glance, the word addiction seems all too easy to apply to such obsessive behaviour, but according to a new study, which followed thousands of online gamers over six months, this assessment doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. The authors believe that the heart of the problem lies in dissatisfaction with other areas of a person’s life – issues with relationships, work, family and friends, or school.

These problems might also underlie chemical addiction, but consider the difference between someone using heroin and a teenager with social anxiety who only feels comfortable connecting with others online. Drugs are a direct issue; excessive gaming is likely only symptomatic of another problem. The games help to alleviate the negative feelings by offering an escape from whatever is troubling these individuals, and the amount of time spent on them can easily lead a mother or father to interpret the games themselves as the problem.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), there are some pretty strict criteria for identifying an addiction. The DSM-V requires subjects to meet at least five out of nine criteria to satisfy an addiction diagnosis including lying about the amount of time spent playing, using video games as relief from negative thoughts, and whether game play inflicts serious damage on careers, relationships, or education. Currently, the DSM-V recognizes Internet Gaming Addiction only as a “condition of further study”.

Dr. Netta Weinstein, a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, Wales, and her colleagues used US census data to identify some 2,316 regular internet gamers. Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire detailing their health, lifestyle, and other factors over a six-month period. At the start of the study, only nine people met five of the nine criteria in relation to addiction, but none maintained this by the end of the six months.

“We didn’t see a large number of people with clinical problems,” said Weinstein while speaking to New Scientist earlier this month. “The study’s results suggest that it’s not clear how many resources should go to gaming addiction, compared to other addictions like drugs.”

Novel territory for addiction diagnostics or pseudoscience?

Yet the issue doesn’t just stop there – concerns over excessive gaming go all the way back to the days of Space Invaders and Super Mario on the SNES. Tabloids have long exploited parents’ fears by sensationalizing the issue, but where do we draw the line and acknowledge that there are valid grounds for concern?

Kevin Barry is a registered clinical counsellor and social worker in BC who has worked with clients facing more conventional addictions as well as those checking in because of gaming. In his opinion, comparing the two is just apples and oranges.

“When comparing addictions from a harm reduction stance, video game addiction (VGA) is not comparable to the other addictions out there,” he says. “If you were to go to a clinic now and ask 100 people would they rather be addicted to heroin or games, they would obviously trade what they have for a game addiction.

“(Excessive gamers) are still able to hold down a job; they’re not homeless, and I don’t know of people going into debt to support their habit.”

With gambling, a behavioural addiction, there is a high that is so addictive that people enter ruinous debt just to feel the rush. Video games thrill, excite, and indulge, but don’t have a pathological counterpart on par with gambling addiction.

Recognizing the wording of this issue is crucial. Barry believes our liberal labelling of ‘addiction’ is not only excessive and unscientific, but dangerous: “Where does it stop with labelling addiction? Is it an addiction or a problem? Spending lots of resources on VGA compared to opioids doesn’t make sense. That crisis is so bad that it’s almost becoming normal to stumble across a person who has OD’d on the street.”

A clinical counsellor’s view on how to treat VGA

Whether or not we label it as addiction, excessive gaming is clearly still a problem in some cases. Often, this may have more to do with an underlying mental disorder that is driving these gamers toward virtual escapism. Depression and anxiety (both generalized and social) are commonly found in Barry’s clients when he digs beneath the surface.

“I don’t want there to be this misconception – there’s a lot of positives from games. It’s only when clients are neglecting other areas of their life that we need to intervene. Maybe there’s some depression going on – we should try to address that first.”

Online gaming can work wonders for those who struggle to connect with people in conventional social settings. These environments have created countless global communities and friendships which assist in developing social skills.

“It’s the moms reaching out to me about their teenage boys,” says Barry. “I find that they use gaming to connect with others; they don’t always fit in at school. It’s about finding a healthy balance, is there a way we can shorten that six-hour session down to four and focus on something else?”

If VGA does become a recognized disorder, Barry is worried about the rush to the clinic.

“I get worried about [excessive addiction labelling] because whenever you have another supposed addiction come along, there are people who want to profit off it, i.e. ‘Come to my treatment facility and pay $10,000 to cure your teenage son.’ There’s going to be a lot of parents trying to squeeze their kids into clinics and onto meds.”

So if you know someone who seems to prefer the screen to anything else, don’t panic.

“There may be a small percentage who are genuinely addicted, but most will outgrow it when they find that balance.”

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.