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The debate over videogame "addiction"

Brandon Erickson's picture

World of Warcraft

The April issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction contains a fascinating series of articles on the topic of videogame addiction, and in particular, on the question of whether such a thing as videogame addiction even exists. The centerpiece is an article by Richard T. A. Wood entitled "Problems with the Concept of Video Game "Addiction": Some Case Study Examples." Wood's article is accompanied by three separate critical commentaries, all of which are then followed by another article from Wood responding to some of the issues raised by the commentators. These exchanges make for an interesting discourse on a highly controversial subject.

As Wood points out, the notion of videogame addiction has no official support from the medical or mental health establishment. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists criteria for two separate forms of what would commonly be termed "addiction": substance dependence and pathological gambling. The former usually involves physiological dependence, which is characterized by both tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. The latter, however, is defined primarily in behavioral terms, and as such is frequently used as a template for describing "videogame addiction." The authors agree that this is a flawed approach.

For one thing, problem gambling involves a particular cycle of behavior in which the gambler tries to win back his or her losses by making more bets (i.e., chasing losses). Almost inevitably, this leads to further losses and a continuation of the negative cycle. In addition, research has shown that many pathological gamblers experience a high similar to that which cocaine addicts experience. Of course, videogame playing has nothing to do with betting real money on games of chance. Moreover, there is no scientific proof that gamers experience the same sorts of highs associated with chemical dependence. Clearly, using the criteria for pathological gambling as a model for "videogame addiction" is inappropriate.

A major point of discussion among the authors is the question of whether videogames are inherently addictive. As Wood argues through several case studies, there is little evidence that videogames are inherently addictive or problematic per se; rather, unhealthily excessive videogame playing is often just a symptom of an underlying issue. Wood gives the example of a 10-year-old boy who spends most of his spare time playing World of Warcraft. His parents think the game is to blame for his decreased desire to go to school. As it turns out, however, he had recently been the victim of intense bullying and was actually using the game as a safe means of socializing. The game was the symptom, not the cause, of the problem.

Although the commentators mostly agree with Wood, they do criticize him on a couple key points. First, since pretty much everyone who suffers from substance dependence also has some underlying mental health disorder, Wood's reasoning could be used to argue that most drug addicts aren't actually addicted, which of course we know to be false. Second, Wood doesn't really supply any proof that videogame addiction doesn't exist; rather, he merely establishes that there isn't any solid proof of it yet. That being said, the authors generally agree that the media hype around videogame "addiction" has caused serious misperceptions around the meaning of the term addiction and led people to draw premature conclusions about the nature of videogames.

In my opinion, this discussion really gets back to how we choose to define "addiction." If we're working from the currently accepted clinical criteria for substance dependence and pathological gambling (the two main reference points), then the notion of videogame "addiction" becomes highly dubious. In fact, the idea of defining specific activities as inherently addictive (e.g., sex, gambling, videogame playing) is a big area of controversy right now in the mental health field. Just because an activity has the potential to be harmful does not necessarily mean it's addictive. That videogames are harmful is far from proven; that they are clinically addictive even less so.

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How much more

How much more is the obvious going to be discussed?

Some people have obsessive tendencies which will be triggered by certain games/alcohol/drugs.

Others have problems in 'real-life' in which online gaming, just like alcohol or drugs is at that moment an escape route to.

It. All. Depends. On. The. Person

Common-sense for the win. Ive never read so much bullshit as about addictions in general and online-games.

Ofcourse, everything that comes from psychologists/psychiatrists trying to mass-label is deemed to be laughable and can not be taken seriously at all.
There are exceptions.

Though unfortunately there are still those prehistoric MD's slamming open their DSM-IV handbooks and telling you within 5 minutes what disorder you are struggling with instead of treating the other as a human being.

It is real -- from an ex-videogame addict

I'd love to read the articles; however, I am unwilling to pay $32 dollars to read about something I have lived through myself.

I am currently 35 and have been a computer gaming addict for about 18 years, spanning 1987-2006, yet it didn't get "bad" until 1996-2003. The formative years were when I got my first C64, although I have been playing coin-op games since 1977. During my worst period (PC gaming), I would buy a new PC game every paycheck; sometimes two. I would load the game, play it for 5 minutes, marvel at how cool it was, and then promise to come back to it after I finished the one I was currently involved in. New hardware (mice, monitors, graphic cards, processors, etc) was purchased every 2-3 months; even the outlandish...I purchased a VFX virtual reality helmet at one point for playing Quake 1. I would spend roughly 31+ hours a week playing. When I wasn't playing video games, I was reading video game magazines, researching video game strategies and cheats and thinking about what I had to do next in the game. I tried buying consoles, to shift my addiction onto something less costly, but that just further spurned my addiction, or "rounded it out", so to speak. At one point my collection was insured for $30000, in the case that something should ever happen to it, I would be able to get right back to square one. Whenever we went into town, one stop was always to EB or Best Buy. I would make plans with my girlfriend (we lived together) to go out to the mall or a restaurant and I would leave her sitting on the couch for hours at a time as I tried to finish that one last level. Several times, she would get undressed and decide that we weren't going after all. After 8 years, our relationship finally ended, partially due to my addiction, partially other things.
I could keep going on and on, citing specific examples or declaring individual events, but you get the picture. I may have been compensating at first for some other problem I was facing, but could not tell you what that problem was or when it turned from compensation to true addiction. It was only after ending my doomed relationship and moving to another city, did I get a handle on my addiction. And even then it took me 3 more years to become completely cured. I still play video games this day, but at no where NEAR the level I did. I'm living proof that video game addiction is real; there is not a paper/person in the world what will convince me otherwise. For those that need that help, it should be recognized and dealt with.

True addicts don't limit

True addicts don't limit themselves to a single behavior. Gambling addicts are typically also drug/alcohol, sex or thrill addicts as well. All addiction comes from a particular part of the brain that harbors GABA-A receptors. In the brain of addicts highly intense and pleasurable experiences take priority over all other reward mechanisms in the brain once the switch for addiction has been flipped. Once the switch has been flipped an addict will be unable to stop doing the behavior that he or she is addicted to regardless of the consequences.

I should also clear up a common confusion of definitions. Drug dependency should not be confused with addiction. Lets take two people. One has a brain of an addict and the other doesn't. If the two of them have a surgery preformed on them that requires an extended use of morphine over 1 week, both addict and non-addict alike will become biologically dependent on the morphine. Both addict and non-addict alike with go through withdraw. The non-addict will not have much of a desire to use opiates again while the addict will crave it over all things.

If the compulsive playing of videogames is in fact a true addiction, in those that call themselves addicts, we'd see many other types of addictions as well since the compulsions all come from the same part of the brain. We do to a small degree but not on the global scale that we do with behaviors that can with out question be defined as addiction.

I'm not saying that compulsive video game playing isn't a problem and doesn't create horrible consequences but I don't think it's an addiction.

If you are an addict and also compulsively play video games than both behaviors can be curtailed by attending a 12 step group in your primary addiction. If you go to meetings, work the 12 steps with your sponsor you'll find the need to act out in other compulsive ways will decline.

if your not addicted to any other behaviors, attending something like Emotions Anonymous will be extremely helpful in creating the tools for containing your behaviors. Again go to the meetings, get a sponsor and work the steps.


So many addictions, it really makes me wonder if looking for addictions may be an addiction too...

videogames in general vs. particular video games

The first mistake one can make in this debate is to suppose that video/computer games may or may not be inherently addictive per se. Each game must be evaluated on its own terms. It makes the debate much more complex, and it becomes limited to people who actually understand the nature of specific games. However, it is the most important question to ask. The second respondent seems to be addicted to video/computer games in general, whereas I know someone who is addicted to World of Warcraft in particular, not video games in general.

So we must ask not, what is it about video games that makes them addictive, because that would be like asking, what is it about drugs that makes them addictive. The truth is that not all drugs are addictive, and likewise not all video games are addictive. We must ask, what is it about the structure of this particular game, the skills involved, the goals achieved, the interplayer and player-npc relations involved; that makes this game addictive.

Sure, this whole argument turns on the definition of addiction, but addiction is really just a state of mind signified by certain symptoms. We define addiction, and all states of mind, by their symptoms, since the state of mind itself cannot be experienced by anyone except the subject. It's better to look at addiction on a case by case basis, cause I mean, you can just tell when someone is addicted to something. You don't really need a definition. to tell you that someone is addicted to weed, or alcohol, or Everquest. So, I'm saying that attempting to determine whether video games are addictive by simply analyzing the concept of the video game in general is absurd, because in doing so you exclude that which makes a given video game addictive, namely the structure of the game itself.

We need to look at how real people play specific video games in order to figure out what makes them addictive, so that we can finally get some definitive conclusions out of this argument. Trying to determine whether videogames are addictive by analyzing the concept of video games in general will never yield conclusive results because video games in general are not addictive in the same way that drugs in general are not addictive. We have recognized certain drugs as addictive with good results; we've got to do the same for video games, so as to treat people on a case by case basis.


"In addition, research has shown that many pathological gamblers experience a high similar to that which cocaine addicts experience."

Can I LOL?

Video game addiction

I disagree with the OP.

I think video game addiction DOES meet the the clinical criteria. I never would have considered video games "addictive" but rather "habit forming" UNTIL I read the clinical criteria for addiction and realized that non drugs can fit this description.

The OP is wrong, because while gambling has a tendency to bet higher and higher to win back losses and video games dont.....that is not the criteria. The criteria is 3 out of 7....ANY 3 out of 7.

I think the criteria is total garbage, as is the disease model of addiction.

I think I prefer using a more simple definition of addiction......craving + habit + dependence. If you have all 3, you have an addition....and forget those specifics on self destructive tendencies...leave that for the psychologists and sociologists and social workers.

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