Video Game Addiction – Fact or Fiction?

In 2018, video game addiction was classified by the World Health Organisation as a mental health condition. Cases of problematic gaming have become more visible in recent years and tales of total absorption have sparked a moral panic. Parents are terrified of their children getting hooked on Fortnite and the media continue to report on the dangers of gaming addiction. However, in 2017 24 researchers argued that to categorise problematic gaming as an addiction was premature and dangerous, stating that this may lead to misdiagnoses and prevent real understanding of the behaviour. With stories of Korean gamers dying in front of their consoles, it is hard not to view gaming addiction as a very real concern. In order to fully understand the issue, it is important to examine the mechanics of addiction.

Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a substance, even though it is damaging. Addiction leads to dependence and compulsion to continue consuming. Common addictions such as alcoholism and drug dependencies are easily classifiable as they are substance based, and notable physical withdrawal symptoms appear when the addict tries to stop using. Gaming addiction on the other hand, is “behaviour based” and harder to assess. Studies have shown that the reward pathways in the brains of gamers and drug addicts light up to the same extent, elevating dopamine levels. However a subsequent study by Mark Griffiths, of the International Gaming Research Unit in the UK, examined the gaming behaviours of two “problematic” gamers – both averaging 14 hours a day on their consoles. One gamer was single and filled his free time with gaming. The other was employed, married and had three children. His excess gaming was having a negative impact on his life. Over the course of the study, the first participant found work and began a relationship with someone he had met online. His gaming hours drastically reduced which showed that his behaviour was not that of an addict but purely circumstantial. The second participant damaged his relationships and work performance, a key signifier of addictive behaviour. The causes of problematic gaming are multi-faceted and some professionals suggest that people may turn to excessive gaming to mask underlying problems as a mode of distraction.

Professionals cannot reach a consensus on what constitutes gaming addiction, or if it is even possible to become addicted to video games. The video game industry refuted the classification of video game disorder stating that evidence was lacking. Concerned parents have fuelled a lot of negative chatter as children spend longer hours gaming. This technological generation gap may prompt parents to cry addiction, when in fact a child is in fact engaging with a complex and challenging game, testing their reflexes, creativity and reasoning skills. As long as children are maintaining an active social life and keeping up to date with their school work, addiction is not an issue for them.

The positive aspects of gaming as less visible in the media. As more advanced games are released, users can expect a more social approach where massive online communities work together to solve complex issues. In 2011, a group of gamers were able to solve a problem which had stumped scientists. Researchers looking to work out the structure of a retrovirus enzyme created an online game, Foldit to see if gamers could help to figure out the intricate details of the protein molecules. Through collaboration and competition, gamers successfully worked it out in 3 weeks. The research team reported that this “indicates the power of online computer games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems.”

Self Determination Theory can tell us more about what motivates people to dedicate such time and focus to games. Brought forward by Deci and Ryan in the 70’s, the theory breaks down the three key facets of motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose and these three aspects of motivation intersect strongly in a gaming environment. The autonomy gamers have to pursue their goals, actively improving and mastering new levels and features alongside a feeling of community and involvement all create a strong motivation for play. Entire communities have built up around gaming which show the power of purpose and social connection it can provide. These needs can be met more easily and in a shorter space of time in a virtual world and it stands to reason that gamers are absorbed. Where is the line between being motivated to play and being addicted? It is entirely possible that users are engrossed in the challenge and enjoying the process of game mastery.

An estimated 2.7 billion people will be active members of the gaming community by 2021. Research suggests that between 0.3 – 1% of the population are vulnerable to video game addiction. Plans for an internet addiction centre in the UK are underway which will focus specifically on gaming addiction. There are a myriad of options available to those seeking treatment, including counselling, CBT and group therapies. Abstinence is a difficult prescription in a connected world and encouraging more controlled gaming may be a more appropriate approach. Addressing underlying psychological issues and focusing on generating community, and opportunities for mastery in the outside world may be necessary.

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