From Player 1 to Patient Zero: Is Video Game Addiction Real?

Illustration on video gamer with controller being sucked into a hole with planets inside, representing video game addiction.

Cam Adair dropped out of school at age 15 and lied to his parents about getting a job as a prep cook. They had no reason to believe he was lying. Five days of the week, his parents would drop him off near where they thought he would work grueling and long shifts.

He wasn’t working, though; he was playing video games. He would race back to his house after being dropped off and sneak into his room silently. There, he would hopelessly immerse himself in video games for 16 hours straight for days on end. His feelings of an imprisoning disappointment hovered over him constantly.

Cam’s story of video game addiction is becoming more and more common. In his TedX Talk, he said, “The addiction controlled the behavior.” In the fields of mental health and addiction studies, researchers are just now beginning to agree that it’s a real thing. Because of cases like Cam’s and sadly so many more, gaming addiction disorder requires serious and continued attention so that more proactive, effective and accessible treatment practices can be developed.

A Brief History of the Rise of Video Games

Starting in the offline mode of our pre-internet culture, video games have often allowed for addictive practices. However, because gaming has generally shifted to an online format, the propensity for players to develop an addiction has become a lot more severe.

Console and offline single player gaming

In the 1950s, the first video game ever created was a table tennis simulator. It was designed by William Higinbotham, a physicist known for his work in nuclear science. About 20 years later, Pong, a game uniquely inspired by Higinbotham’s early experiment, would be released. The game was a sensation and set the stage for the influx of arcade and early console games. By the end of the 1980s, the Nintendo Entertainment System dominated the market, setting the trend of playing video games at home.

The rise of online competitive gaming

Though some people who played video games on their computers in the mid- to late-1990s had access to multiplayer games, online gaming wasn’t very popular. At the turn of the 21st century, though, competitive online video games became more popular on both consoles and PCs. Additionally, while video games were historically popular with younger people, adults – who were present for the video game boom of the 1970s and ’80s – were beginning to play more and more as online gaming entered the mainstream.

How MMORPGs took over

With the dawn of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), video game culture – and its addictive nature – began to take on a new form. Games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars in the mid-2000s began the trend of people opting to play these fully immersive, world-building games. The pressure to stay online grew as games progressed whether a player was logged on or not. As a result, more people than ever, like the 12 million World of Warcraft subscribers, were logging on.

The nature of addictive video games currently: MOBAs and Battle Royals

As MMORPGs’ popularity faded, new genres have risen in prominence. Massively online battleground arenas (MOBAs) and Battle Royals have gained traction because gamers can team up with friends to achieve goals. These individual games are long, though, which thrusts people into a position where they have to sacrifice chunks of time to improve.

With these advancements in video games, people have experienced a nearly perfect series of conditions to develop addictive behaviors.

Distinction Between a Video Game Habit and Addiction

People can certainly play video games healthily and in moderation. A video game habit would be one where people regularly designate time to play games with each other, and this habit can have benefits. Video games can offer people constructive outlets to learn problem-solving skills, teamwork and sportsmanship. When used appropriately, video games can provide players a healthy outlet to express themselves in a variety of ways.

Often, though, the lines between a healthy and an unhealthy video game habit can become blurry over time. As game developers compete to produce the most compelling product, they implement features like rewards from leveling up, achievements and rankings to keep gamers playing for longer periods of time.

The consequences of playing video games unhealthily or excessively was recently recognized by The World Health Organization (WHO). They have identified it as a “gaming disorder” and attached to it an Internal Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which has serious ramifications. Where video game addiction previously wasn’t approached seriously or in earnest, the WHO now encourages countries to approach the addiction “when planning public health strategies and monitoring trends of disorders.”

Just as important, the WHO explained that video game addiction is now understood as a lowered ability to control when gaming, which gives video games priority over all other activities. This is likely why some people continue to excessively play while fully aware of the consequences. According to the organization, it takes about 12 months of consistent behavior on average for a person to be accurately diagnosed with a gaming disorder.

An article in Psychology Today can give a little more context to the WHO classification. It compared video game addiction to compulsive gambling and focused on how addictive behaviors can develop and persist even when substances aren’t part of the picture. Instead, those with addictive traits exhibit remarkably similar characteristics to those addicted to substances – even when it comes to withdrawal. At the same time, though, the article acknowledged that a lot of the research on video game addiction is still underdeveloped.

Other researchers have looked into the nuances of the addictive behaviors related to unhealthy video game practices. The article titled “Video Game Addiction: Past, Present and Future” explored the psychological consequences for “excessive video game use.” The researchers found that these mental health drawbacks from video game disorder include:

  • Neglecting work, school and interpersonal relationships.
    • Problems with sleeping.
    • Higher levels of stress and anxiety.
    • Lower self-esteem.
    • Intense feelings of loneliness.
    • Lowered social standing and isolation.
    • Antagonistic, contrary and inconsistent behavior.
    • Thoughts of suicide.

These symptoms are common across a number of addictions, which only helps to build the case further that video game addiction has become a legitimate disorder.

The Future of Video Game Addiction Research

At the same time, because researchers in the field disagree about the severity or position of video game addiction, screening and treatment opportunities have not yet been fully developed.

To help plan for prospective bodily and mental health treatment options, American Addiction Centers has explained the physical consequences of video game addiction. Moreover, these health risks require attention going forward because they can play a major role in establishing effective treatment measures. They include:

  • A lack of physical exercise leading to back problems, unhealthily increased weight and a dramatically higher chance of acquiring Type 2 diabetes.
    • Inability to focus or complete basic tasks.
    • Aggressive or even violent behavior on others and on the self.
    • A higher chance of developing seizures.

But some researchers are not satisfied with the current amount of research available for the condition. Specifically, a 2017 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America followed this sentiment by finding there is little room for agreement in the field, especially when it comes to prospective treatment benefits. Even though a stunning amount of “neurological evidence is growing that games may act like traditional substances of abuse, with compelling similarities between the effects of drugs and of video games on the minds of users,” researchers still manage to disagree that video game addiction is a legitimate mental disorder. These disagreements hinder the progress of effective treatment options. Despite this overarching lack of agreement among psychologists and mental health professionals, many – if not all – find consensus that the work needs more quantifiable data.

Written just a year later in 2018, researchers for the journal Archives of Neuropsychiatry aimed to give this topic a quantifiable foundation. Enlisting 327 high school students, the researchers were able to explore the activity in the brain in students who played video games excessively. More importantly, the researchers found a new tool that could accurately measure the brain activity of those playing video games excessively. This research is significant in the development toward more comprehensive and necessary treatment possibilities.

Daria J. Kuss, from her work in Psychology Research and Behavior Management, explored recent trends in video game addiction and the direction that the field is moving. Centrally, she highlighted that “neuroimaging studies indicate that internet gaming addiction shares similarities with other addictions.” With this sentiment, she effectively bolstered the need to approach it “from a disease framework,” which will offer more effective screening efforts.

What’s more, her study purported that video game addiction requires more in-depth diagnostic support, which she stated will benefit “reliability across research, destigmatization of individuals, development of efficacious treatments and the creation of an incentive for public healthcare and insurance providers.” With these stark advantages, she predicted the future of video game addiction prevention and treatment will receive more attention in the world of mental health and addiction studies. Alvernia University offers an online B.A. in Addictions and Mental Health Treatment. Balance education and a busy life through Alvernia University’s flexible online programs. Develop skills needed to succeed as a professional and learn from knowledgeable faculty in small class sizes.

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