By Dr. Brent Conrad
Clinical Psychologist for TechAddiction
Is video game addiction a "real" psychological disorder that deserves to be recognized as such? According to the American Psychological Association, video game addiction is not a mental disorder (at least for now).
Depending on whom you ask however, the answers you get will vary considerably. A mother with a teen who neglects his studies, rarely goes out with friends, and plays World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in excess of six hours per day will likely believe that video game addiction is all too real. A gamer who occasionally finds himself spending too much time playing video games may believe that video game addiction is possible but quite rare. Someone who has never played video games may laugh at the idea of video game addiction and completely dismiss the entire concept.
And then we have the psychologists - of which I am one. Unfortunately (or depending on how you look at it, fortunately) we don't always agree on the causes, symptoms, and effects of various psychological and emotional issues. For example, there is considerable disagreement on the effects of violent video games.
TechAddiction has a commitment to providing non-biased information about video game addiction, internet addiction, and computer addiction. We make conclusions based on actual clinical practice with clients and also on the latest scientific studies in respected, peer-reviewed journals.
As such, this article summarizes a recent journal article published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction arguing against the concept of video game addiction - and also several follow-up papers that take issue with some of the arguments.
The goal is not to present a case for or against the inclusion of video game addiction as a clinical diagnosis, but to present a balanced take on the issue.
Note: For the complete arguments, make sure to check out the full published articles.
Wood, R. (2008). Problems with the concept of video game "addiction": Some case study examples. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 6, 169 - 178.
Video game addiction has not been accepted by any recognized authority for defining mental health disorders.
Support for the concept of video game addiction has come from reports in the media, parental concerns, and a few high profile cases.
The common practice of adapting the diagnostic criteria for problem gambling to "fit" video game addiction is a potential problem because there are significant qualitative differences between gambling and video games. For example, a problem gambler will chase monetary losses, believe that more gambling will solve the problem, and will gamble in order to escape the reality of their increasing debts. These processes do not happen when playing video games. The author does not believe that excessive video game play is comparable to problem gambling.
Video game addiction typically does not result in the same consequences as other addictions (e.g., large debts, health problems, illegal activities). The main problem caused by playing video games too much is lost time. Spending a lot of time doing something does not, by itself, signify a problem.
It is difficult to determine whether playing video games is having a negative impact on other areas of a person's life, as this is an individual value judgment. Concern from others does not justify a label of video game addiction.
A common argument from those who support the diagnosis of video game addiction is that the gamer cannot cut back on the time spent playing. This does not indicate addiction because there are many behaviors that become habits which are difficult to give up. Media reports on the seriousness of video game addiction may lead others to believe that a problem exists where there actually is none.
People identified as having a video game addiction often use the games to cope with stress. However, using games to relax and escape from reality is not necessarily a problem. If people choose to play video games instead of dealing with problems or responsibilities, this is a symptom of their problems, not a cause.
No studies have looked at whether video game addiction exists in players who have no other problems in their lives. Is this because video game addiction is not an independent condition, but just one symptom of another problem or condition?
There is not enough evidence to conclude that video games actually cause problems that did not already exist.
Millions of people play video games, but only a very small minority appears to experience any associated problems. Those that do play video games excessively many be doing so to avoid other problems (see previous point).
To this point, there is little objective evidence that video games are inherently addictive.
Vivid case examples of video game addiction may define, legitimize, and perpetuate confusion about the reality of video game addiction.
Instead of looking at wider behavioral or emotional problems, parents may blame video game addiction for the difficulties their children are experiencing.
People may turn to video games to avoid dealing with difficult relationship issues. This does not mean that they are addicted to video games.
Griffiths, M. (2008). Video game addiction: Further thoughts and observations. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction, 6, 182 – 185.
There is a growing movement to consider the potentially addictive qualities of activities that do not involve drugs (such as gambling, exercise, sex, internet use, and video games).
The fact that several studies overestimate the prevalence of video game addiction does not mean that it does not exist.
There is a potential overlap between excessive video game use and video game addiction.
Excessive video game playing and compulsive gambling have more similarities than differences, which is why symptoms for video game addiction have been adapted from the diagnostic criteria for problem gambling.
Many of the arguments in the Wood (2008) article against the concept of video game addiction were made against gambling addiction several decades ago. Gambling addiction is now recognized as a legitimate diagnosis.
The argument that video game addiction does not result in negative health consequences is not necessarily true and many physical problems can come from excessive play (for example, tenosynovitis and obesity).
The Wood (2008) article asserts that determining whether excessive play has a negative impact is a "value judgment". There are multiple objective criteria that could be used to determine the likelihood of video game addiction (for example, playing video games instead of working, sleeping, or spending time with a partner).
There are published studies suggesting that online games (especially those with no end point) can be addictive.
Excessive time alone can signify an addiction. For example, recent research has identified a particular form of problem gambling in which the person does not lose excessive amounts of money, but rather, loses excessive amounts of time.
The Wood (2008) article spends much time attacking the diagnostic criteria put forward by others but does not offer an alterative definition for video game addiction.
The argument that video game addiction is only a symptom of another underlying problem is not convincing. It can be argued that other addiction (such as alcohol addiction or drug addiction) also develop out of other "underlying problems". Alcoholics and drug addicts very often have other pre-existing problems, yet no one questions the authenticity of these addictions.
Arguing that video game addiction is not an actual disorder because excessive play could be caused by another problem is not a valid reason to conclude that it does not exist. Addictions should be defined by the actual behaviors, not the theoretical causes of the behaviors.
Turner, N. (2008). A comment on "Problems with the concept of video game "addiction": Some case study examples." International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 6, 186 - 190.
Wood (2008) argues that since millions of people play video games, there are too few people suffering negative effects for video game addiction to be considered a true disorder. However, millions of people also gamble and drink alcohol and very few become addicted. The proportion of people who become addicted is a poor measure of whether something is addictive or not.
Wood (2008) under-emphasizes the consequences of video game addiction. There are numerous negative effects of excessive play other than time loss - such as job loss, poor grades, and social isolation.
Although people who are addicted to video games may suffer from preexisting problems, the same can also be said of those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
One theory of addiction is that people become addicted to things / activities that are either positively reinforcing (receive rewards) or negatively reinforcing (escape from something aversive). Video games offer the potential for both.
One defining symptom of an addiction is an inability to quit despite wanting to do so. This appears to be true of video game addiction for some people.
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