A New Study Rekindles the Debate in a War on Terms
Parents are often concerned their children are playing addicting games. A new study offers clues to help determine if video games can be truly “addictive,” or are simply a preferred entertainment venue that crowds out other activities.
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Another salvo has been fired in the war over video game addiction. In one camp are non-believers, who feel video games players may be impulsive but never truly addicted in the traditional sense. Their argument goes something like this: drug addicts are addicted because they have chemical dependencies. Video game players do not have a chemical dependency with the games, therefore they cannot be addicted in the sense most people define the word.
On the other side are true believers in video game addiction. They postulate an addiction can occur without drugs when the action involved harms the persons and/or those around them. Their strongest argument for video game addiction has revolved around linking video games with online gambling.
This is the strongest point the pro-video game addiction crowd has, that like gambling too much game play can be detrimental. But from there the argument loses steam. Someone addicted to gambling suffers clear detrimental consequences, mainly extreme loss of money. Gambling addicts have been known to lose their homes, jobs, spouses, and every dime that comes their way chasing the next opportunity to wager. Kids, or even adults, who like to while away their time on the latest video game rarely come close to that level of detrimental effect.
Nonetheless, many parents worry their kids are “addicted” to video games. Their children may get hold of a new title and disappear behind a monitor for hours on end. In some cases, grades and social opportunities may suffer due to intense game play, especially among adolescent boys.
But is this a true addiction? Does the overuse of video games lead to such negative life consequences that it should rank with gambling, nicotine, heroin and other drugs? Someone can overdose on heroin and die. Is it easy for someone to overdo a night of game play to the point it kills them? Should we be equating heavy video game playing with heroin addiction? Or is this simply a parental issue, something parents can simply pull the plug on if they feel their children play too much?
Ultimately, this is simply a war on terms. Using the proper term helps us to understand exactly what is being discussed. And to help nervous parents answer the above questions: no, a heavy video game player does not sink to the same level of addiction as a heroin addict.
The latest round in this ongoing discussion comes from a paper soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science by Douglas A. Gentile at Iowa State University. Dr. Gentile’s specialty is studying the effects of media. He has written or co-written several papers examining both the benefits and detrimental effects of videogames. Recently he co-authored a book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, examining how violent video games may lead to proclivities in players for real life violence.
His latest study tackles a national survey of more than 1,100 youths by Harris Polls and looks at their self-reported video gaming habits. The survey used sets of questions, including one published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) designed to measure pathological gambling that had been modified for video games. This set included 11 questions such as, “Have you tried to play video games less often or for shorter periods of time, but are unsuccessful?” and, “Do you sometimes skip household chores in order to spend more time playing video games?” and, “Have you ever needed friends or family to give you extra money because you spent too much money on video-game equipment, software, or game/Internet fees?” Respondents replied with “yes,” “no,” or, “sometimes.”
Of course, answering yes or sometimes to one or a few of these questions did not automatically shunt a respondent into the pathological column. The bar was set at six positive replies, with “sometimes” counting as a half “yes.” Using that measurement, Genitle found almost 12% of boys surveyed qualified as “pathological” video game players, and almost 3% of girls, for a grand total of 8.5% of all respondents. There also seemed to be a correlation with students who performed poorly in school being more likely to rate as pathological game players.
Gentile reasoned video game players with pathological playing tendencies may be “behaviorally addicted.” Ultimately, he noted there is strong debate as to whether or not video games can be truly considered a behavioral addiction or not, and readily admitted his study would not resolve the question. The survey’s strongest element was its national scope, he wrote, but both the survey and his study were far from resolving the question of video game “addiction.”
Reaction in the media was swift. In light of the fact a national survey apparently indicated 8.5% of American children are “addicted” to video games, headlines quickly trumpeted the news. A backlash also developed. Renowned video game research blogger Wai Yen Tang noted the Harris Polls product was a self-reported Internet survey. The “yes,” “no,” or “sometimes” response on the modified scale seemed to be simplistic as a diagnostic tool and suggested professional follow up would be needed before any individual could be properly diagnosed. Jerald Block at Oregon Health Science University was quoted by USA Today, cautioning that the respondents placed in the pathological category were placed there without physician interviews. Nancy Shute at US News and World Report wrote that if avoiding chores and homework were signs of video game addiction, then she was definitely addicted to reading.
Despite proponents’ comparisons, there is no accepted diagnosis for video game addiction as there is for pathological gambling. Therefore, as far as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is concerned, it does not officially exist. This has not stopped members from debating the issue, though, as efforts on the newest revisions to the DSM continue. In the APA’s 2007 annual meeting, a subcommittee studying the research on video games recommended using the term “overuse,” rather than “addiction,” and called for much more research before including excess video game playing as a diagnosable disorder.
Clearly there is a difference between behavioral addictions and chemical dependencies, and here is where terms matter. If a person can be chemically addicted to heroin, and behaviorally addicted to gambling, we should differentiate. Thus, the term “addiction” should be reserved for chemical dependencies. Gambling problems should fall under the term “pathological.” Playing video games to excess should be termed “overuse.” The overuse of videogames may result in lost sleep and delayed homework, but will usually not result in mortgaging the house for the next round of bets (e.g., pathological gambling) or in accidental overdoses resulting in death (e.g., heroin addiction).
Understanding the differences between the terms and resolving to use them in discussions about these issues should go a long way toward eliminating misunderstandings about players and their occasional overuse of video games.
Safad0 at GameSpot has a good discussion based on this article here.
Take a look at this class assignment over at UC Santa Cruz. Students had to take sides on the video game addiction debate. This article is cited. Lots of Wikipedia references, but there are a few other good articles on both sides of the debate the students uncovered.
Good news on DSM-V.