Video Game Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

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.

[For reprinting rights, contact John Rice.]

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.

Update:
Safad0 at GameSpot has a good discussion based on this article here.

Update:
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.

Update:
Good news on DSM-V.


38 Comments

  • By Chris, May 3, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    This is a very interesting piece and one we need to examine more closely as the environments and simulations become more life like. It would be nice to see this level of development in educational software too.

  • By Educational Games, May 5, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    Hi, it’s Victoria from education-games-for-kids.com, love your post on Addictive or Not, although many games have proved to have educational value, I guess it’s up to us as parents to choose our childrens games wisely.

    A wise approach with all media I think.

  • By Al Meyers, May 7, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    John,

    This is definitely a theme that needs to be revisited from time to time. I am a big proponent of using games far beyond their “entertainment” value, but also as “immersive learning tools.” And while I agree that there has been no conclusive evidence linking games with addiction or other “deviant” behaviors, there are some words of caution, particularly with games that are in the massively multiplayer online role playing game (“MMORPG”) category.

    Whether we approve or not, in China, the government implemented laws to force game companies that target children to include mandatory “time-out” features so that children would cap their game-playing in a given day.

    In addition, Korea had to have the game companies subsidize counseling centers to support gamers who were facing psychological depression as a result of too much online game-playing, either at home or mostly in the PC cafes that are commonplace in many Asian markets.

    I point these out because I can. Having spent the past six years intensely focused on the video game industry, I can say that game developers build reward systems into the games to encourage game play. But wouldn’t it be great if we can create these same type of systems in games that are fun and educational first and foremost, and not simply about shooting elfs and orcs?

    Thanks for keeping this at the forefront, because even us proponents of game-based learning need to remember that there are still many people who will never, ever support this quest.

  • By dragon, May 29, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    I think it is the fiction.

  • By wowgoldpig, July 3, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Personally I feel that video game addiction is a real threat, but I would not consider it a mental disorder or a disease. Anything in the world can be addicted and abused, it is all about moderation. Let me share this article.

    http://www.2articles.com/story/wow-gold-saves-the-day-how-rmt-helped-a-starving-student

  • By Billy, July 13, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    Video Game addiction is a fact. But there are ways on how to avoid it. Just always remember that anything done in moderation will do you no harm. You may also want to check this article: http://www.webarticleworld.com/kicking-the-habit/

  • By Ben 10 Games, July 18, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    Video games addiction is a fact.
    If I start playing some (pc/video) game, I will not stop until I finish the whole game.
    I don’t think I could do it in moderation
    Ben 10 games

  • By ayu, October 5, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    I think that game addiction is a fact. if the person was a game addiction they will play compulsively, isolating themselves from, or from other forms of, social contact and focusing almost entirely on in-game rather than broader Achievements events.and life it has been proposed for inclusion in the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

  • By ameyers3727, October 6, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    I must respectfully disagree to some extent with the last post here. While game developers absolutely design games that encourage players to be rewarded for mastering levels and demonstrating competency, why wouldn’t I want my child to play a game-based learning product that might be somewhat addictive? That means they’re learning something!!! I would question the validity of any research done from the source you mentioned, because I can find valid research that shows no correlation.

    Have you ever watched your child play video games with their friends? A book I’m writing will propose that our society must consider redefining what “socialization” is.

    I would recommend that the author of this post review some of the extensive research about games, literacy, and how this medium can provide many soft skills that make children better prepared for a 21st century work environment driven by digital technology.

    I’m happy to recommend these materials on request.

  • By John Rice, October 7, 2009 @ 9:16 am

    The book sounds interesting. Be sure to return and mention it again when it’s available.

  • By Al Meyers, October 7, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Happy to, John. We have common friends in this space. Check out my website and there is a fuller overview on my book project. Lets talk.

  • By Stinky83, October 22, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    This effort includes a strong commitment to community engage- ment. ,

  • By Al Meyers, October 22, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    John,

    Thanks for the very gracious post about the dialogue on your blog about video game addiction. I know you share my belief that you were wise (and maybe a bit courageous :)) to tee up this conversation. You should be commended for raising awareness on this particular issue.

    For some reason, it continues to create emotions on both sides of the issue, and I think it’s absolutely important that cool heads prevail so as not to create a “Scarlet A” on an entire industry based on the vast minority of games that may be controversial, yet there continues to be no credible, consistent conclusive evidence indicating a direct link between high level video game use and deviant or other behavior that some consider “inappropriate.”

    At the end of the day, it is parents who should both understand what their kids are doing with video games and why, and then make sure that their game usage is moderated so that they continue to live a balanced life during their formulative years. Game play, physical play and other forms of play are essential to maintaining the health and self-esteem of children here and around the world.

    But games will continue to play an important role in how our children learn, collaborate, make decisions and build other “soft skills” needed in a digitally-driven world.

    Thanks for your support, John.

    Al

  • By Jocuri Gratis, December 30, 2009 @ 8:22 am

    It’s true games can be addictive. At least that’s my opinion.

  • By Jocuri Online Tari, December 30, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Many games carry hidden messages like fight, do this, do that. One image can influence a kid very much!

  • By Ryan, March 10, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    I believe that video game addicts really do have a chemical dependency. When a person has an addiction to video games the chemicals in the brain that are affected by rewards or praise are stimulated. This can form a chemical dependency in video game players. Those more affected in this way would be persons having a lack of self esteem or little parental supervision.

  • By John Rice, March 10, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    @ Ryan – I would agree with you that “positive” chemicals are released in the brain when videogamers play a good game. I would disagree if you then would state they needed treatment due to a “chemical dependency.”

    If you argued thus, your argument would break down when applied to other things people enjoy. I enjoy reading. “Positive” chemicals are released in my brain when I’m enjoying a really good book. So, am I “chemically addicted” to reading? Nonsense. Millions of people enjoy reading and no one wants to see them treated like drug addicts.

    JR

  • By Michael Porter, March 27, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    Great article. I just wanted to make mention of one possible issue regarding your conclusion where you say, “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).” Video games CAN result in lost sleep and delayed homework, if you play too much and do not go to work, like a few people I know on World of Warcraft, you CAN result in you not having an income, so you may have a mortgage issue. and what of this chappy: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4137782.stm I Korean man dies after playing Starcraft for 50 hours without stopping to eat or drink. Extreme cases, I agree, perhaps even in the 0.0001% of any study, but still something to keep in mind.

  • By John Rice, March 27, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    Ah, Michael … you have found the exception that proves the rule. :)

    JR

  • By John Sr., June 24, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    This is a good topic for every parent. Game addiction is bad or not, I am not sure how much we should judge at this point of time, when technology is changing with each passing day.
    I am currently using my iPad to teach my 3 year old son to learn alphabets and numbering system. I am finding the educational apps with gaming and learning approach, quite good to productively engage the kid.
    For the time being my son is hooked with Letters A to Z and Hello Hello Kids iPad apps, well he is proceeding well.

  • By Dorcas Alman, April 20, 2011 @ 3:04 am

    whoah this blog is fantastic i love reading your articles. Keep up the good paintings! You recognize, a lot of individuals are hunting round for this information, you could help them greatly.

  • By Gaming Forum, January 21, 2012 @ 12:59 am

    I would say it is fiction but that is just my opinion.

  • By Certification Preparation, June 30, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    I think there should be strict guidelines for games. Say car game is not suitable under 9 years old child or say shooting game can be played by those whose age is over 18. I think then we can save our children from getting addictive in games.

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