What is Video Game Addiction?
The World Health Organization defined “gaming disorder”, also referred to as video game addiction, in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as:
- A pattern of gaming behavior characterized by a lack of control over gaming.
- Prioritizing gaming over other, more important activities.
- Continuing to play games despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Video Game Addiction
How Many Hours of Gaming is Healthy?
The simple answer is that if it causes a problem, then it is a problem. If the amount of time you spend gaming prevents you from doing the things that you need to do in life, then it is a problem.
You might ask yourself the following questions:
- “If I finish a week of finals, and then play World of Warcraft for the whole weekend, do I have a gaming problem?”
- “Is it bad if I play video games for 12 hours on Saturday and Sundays, after studying very hard the rest of the days of the week?”
It really depends on which stage of life you are in, and how much time you can afford to spend playing video games. For example, a 12-year-old child needs to focus on school, but if their grades are good, they are mentally and physically fit, and they have healthy relationships with family and friends, then they can afford to spend time playing video games.
Some people might prefer to play video games for only an hour every day, while others might not play the entire week and then play a lot over the weekend. Every individual gamer has different preferences.
In this video, Dr. K talks about recognizing video game addiction.
Common Signs of Video Game Addiction
- Preoccupation with video games.
- Being unable to stop playing video games when needed.
- Being unable to cut back on time spent playing games.
- Prioritizing gaming over other parts of your life.
- Problems with daily functioning.
- Compromised physical or mental health.
- Deteriorating relationships as a result of too much gaming.
- Inability to move forward in life due to time spent gaming.
Stages of Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction typically presents itself in three stages:
- You play video games for several hours and have fun.
- You play video games for several hours, but you don’t have as much fun. They still help you improve your mood.
- You play video games for several hours, but they are neither fun nor do they improve your mood.
Recognizing the three stages of video game addiction is important because it informs the kind of steps you need to take in order to overcome your gaming habit.
Are Video Games Addictive?
Video games are designed to be addictive. However, even though the problems that video games create are getting worse, they do NOT create a biological dependence. Therefore, they are fundamentally different from other addictions.
Video games are addictive because:
- They stimulate our brain’s pleasure centers and cause the secretion of dopamine.
- Games engage the Triumph Circuit in our brain and allow us to feel challenged and victorious.
- Video games suppress negative emotions, and they become an excellent way to cope with negative emotions and therefore result in dependency.
Video Game Addiction Statistics
Video game addiction is a rapidly growing problem that most experts do not understand very well.
There are about 2.5 billion active gamers all around the globe. Minecraft, the blocky sandbox adventure game, dominates the market with 480 million registered accounts and 126 million monthly players as of May 2020.
- In a study conducted on adults in the US, UK, Canada, and Germany, researchers found that 0.3% to 1% of the general population fit the criteria for an Internet Gaming Disorder diagnosis.
- A national survey of “internet addiction” was carried out in Japan, and the samples that exhibited signs of IGD ranged from 0.7% to 27.5%.
- Another study done on gamers from Norway found that 1.% of the sample could be classified as addicted gamers, while 7.3% of the sample were problem gamers.
Why do People Start Playing Video Games?
Many gamers start playing video games at a young age. This is not a coincidence, a fair number of gamers start playing video games to escape from problems that they face in real life. Some of these problems are:
- Being bullied at school
- Not being challenged enough at school
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Living in an abusive household
- Lack of guidance around coping with negative emotions
- Having special needs
For example, when a child gets bullied at school, they have to go back the next day and face the bully again. They do not have any control over that. However, in the online world, if someone is mean to you, you can simply choose to not talk to them.
In online gaming, nobody knows how you look, whether you are rich or poor, what you wear, etc. You are judged on the basis of your skill at the game. Quite often, these can lead to authentic relationships that are not superficial.
Moreover, on the internet, you get to pick friends that share your interests. You can find these people in online groups much more easily than in real life. There are many fifteen-year-olds who play games online and talk about philosophy. They talk about their hopes and dreams. The connections that we form online are authentic.
As a result, gaming is not just an activity that people engage in to have fun. It is also about the communities that we participate in, online.
How Does Video Game Addiction Affect the Brain?
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure in the brain. When dopamine activity happens in the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, we feel pleasure — it is the pleasure center of our brain.
If you have never had caffeine before, the first cup of caffeine that you ever have in your life is going to make you completely wired. However, over time your body develops a tolerance to that caffeine. As a result, if you don’t have caffeine, you feel really tired. Moreover, if you have caffeine, it will not actually hype you up — it will just make you feel normal.
Similarly, video games release a constant stream of dopamine, and in response, the brain down-regulates that dopamine response. People who play video games a lot tend to not have fun when they’re playing video games. However, if they stop playing games, they just don’t feel normal.
This process also makes gamers have difficulty finding pleasure from other activities. If a gamer is unable to enjoy books, it might be because their dopamine circuits have been so down-regulated because of the consistency and intensity of dopamine release from gaming. As a result, gamers find it difficult to enjoy things that other people enjoy.
The triumph circuit is different from the dopamine circuit. It is not as easily mappable onto the brain. It does not localize to one part of the brain — it is a general pattern of psychology and cognition that is important to all human beings. The triumph circuit is the part of our brain that makes us feel good when we overcome a challenge.
Games are addictive because we experience a challenge that is followed by achievement. When a gamer beats a difficult boss in a video game, they feel amazing. Where does that rush come from? Why do human beings relish a challenge followed by success?
The answer lies in evolutionary biology. There is a strong narrative of going out into the unknown, overcoming an obstacle, and coming back with a reward. This pattern is wired in our circuitry — that is why, as a society, we value people who accomplish difficult things.
Video games have done a great job of hacking into this circuit. In fact, they strive to strike the balance between being challenging enough to feel like you accomplished something and being easy enough to not create frustration. That is the sweet spot where games are the most engaging, and it is because of the Triumph circuit.
However, the Triumph circuit was originally designed to motivate us to achieve difficult things in life. It was not meant to be exploited in the way video games have. Video games give gamers the feeling of achieving something and feeling triumphant by activating the triumph circuit. The downside of this is that gamers who are addicted to video games no longer need to solve real-world problems to feel triumphant. As a result, they get stuck — it robs them of their motivation to move forward in life.
Suppressing Negative Emotions
Video games suppress negative emotions. The amygdala is the part of the brain that governs our feeling of negative emotions. However, fMRI studies have shown that if we start to play video games when our amygdala is active and we’re experiencing fear, anger, frustration, sadness, or any other negative emotion, then our amygdala starts to calm down. Our emotions get suppressed. That is why gaming is such a good coping mechanism.
The learning circuitry of the brain (located in the hippocampus) is closely related to the negative emotion circuitry. In fact, that is why pain is such a good teacher. If a five-year-old touches a hot stove, they get burned and learn to never touch it again. We learn from pain and try to avoid it in the future.
Since video games suppress the amygdala, they also suppress the amygdala’s capability to access the hippocampus. As a result, gamers have a hard time learning from their mistakes. That is one of the main reasons why they cannot stop playing video games. Their amygdala’s ability to access the hippocampus and teach them something gets compromised.
Does Video Game Addiction Affect Gamers’ Problem Solving Capability?
Gamers are very good problem-solvers. However, there are two types of problem-solving: open-ended and close-ended.
Video games give us particular objectives and certain tools or assets to achieve them. For example, in an RPG, a character has certain abilities. In a sports game, we are given a team of players. The game forces you to figure out how to use those abilities or that team of people to accomplish a certain objective. The game also enforces some rules, and you have to use that set of rules to achieve those objectives.
So when gamers are given the task of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘Z’, they can do it very easily. If they have a problem, an objective, and a set of tools, then they can reach their goal.
However, when our brain spends a lot of time playing video games, it starts to optimize for working within that close-ended framework. That is why gamers have trouble with abstract ideas, such as “becoming healthy” or “gaining financial independence” or “losing weight” because those abstractions do not exist in video games.
The solution to that is to operationalize those problems. For example, if you wanted to operationalize the task of gaining financial independence, you would break it down into creating a bank account, earning enough money to pay rent, and finding a place to live.
Gamers have trouble operationalizing tasks because games tend to do that for them. They are good at putting the pieces together, but they struggle with figuring out what the pieces are. As a result, gamers often come to the conclusion that they are lazy.
How Does Video Game Addiction Affect Mental Health?
The media often talks about how video games have a negative effect on mental health. Gaming seems to result in people becoming anxious, depressed, angry, or even violent. While that may be the narrative pushed by the mainstream, it does not paint an entirely accurate picture.
Video games are not bad by nature. They do not necessarily cause anxiety or depression. However, video game addiction can certainly make these issues worse.
How to Stop Playing Video Games (For Gamers)
There are three primary ways to stop gaming:
- Quitting gaming instantly.
- Slowly reduce the amount of time you spend gaming.
- Find a competing interest that pulls you away from video games.
Simply putting an end to your gaming habit will not necessarily fix your life. However, you have a better chance of having a healthy relationship with video games if you figure out why you play video games
Find A Competing Interest
A competing interest is something that you care about and want to do, that is not related to gaming. Even though wanting to get a job, move out of your parent’s house, and move forward in life are admirable goals, they are not competing interests.
While they are things that you want, they don’t drive you to change your behavior — they are just desires. Desires and motivators are very different things.
A competing interest puts a cost on your gaming. Every minute you spend gaming is a minute not spent working on your competing interest. It’s hard to stop gaming because you do not lose anything you care about by playing video games. A competing interest solves this problem and is probably the most effective video game addiction treatment.
Helping A Child With Video Game Addiction (For Parents)
The first step a parent should take is to disarm their child by talking to them. When you speak to your child about their gaming habit, the first thing that will pop into their mind is that you will take away their video games.
That thought will make them defensive, and anything they say will come from the mindset of “them + their video games vs. you.”
Therefore, you need to get on their team. Try to explain to your child, “I want to talk to you. I’m not saying that we’re going to make any changes. First, just help me understand.”
The most important thing when trying to help your child gain control of their gaming habit is to communicate to them that you care and that you are on their team. Take an active role in helping them understand what video games do for them. Help them realize how other activities can be just as engaging. That is one of the best answers to how to break a child’s video game addiction.
In this video, Dr. K talks about why its so hard to quit playing video games.
Does Video Game Addiction Cause Bad Behaviour in Children?
Plenty of parents are concerned about their resident gamer. There is a growing sense among parents that when their child gets engrossed in their video game, their behavior completely changes.
If children are addicted to video games, they become very confrontational and defensive about their gaming habits. They feel like they have to protect themselves and their games, which puts you and your child on different teams.
Due to the societal and cultural influences, anger is the only emotion boys feel allowed to express. That gets exacerbated by alexithymia, as all other negative emotions get suppressed, and rage is the only emotion that finds its way out.
Moreover, children may act out when they feel threatened that their parents might take away their video games. They might get defensive, angry, and start to disobey and disrespect their parents. This behavior comes from fear, but due to alexithymia, they don’t know how to communicate this fear without expressing anger.
Alternative Hobbies to Video Games
One of the biggest obstacles that parents run into when trying to get their child to stop playing video games is when they say, “No gaming for a week. Read this book instead” or something along those lines.
Nobody in that relationship understands that the child cannot enjoy and engage with that book — they just don’t have the capacity to do that, not in the way that we do.
As a parent, you have to understand that when you give your child a small alternative to gaming, they will not be able to enjoy it. You have to pull them away from video games in a significant manner to get them to have a healthy dopamine-functioning brain.
- Art, dance, or music lessons
- Nature activities such as whitewater rafting or hiking
- Martial arts
- Learning to code
- Internships at startups
- Competitive Sports
- Boy Scouts/Eagle Scouts
- Learning creative art forms
- Playing the stock market with phantom portfolios or small amounts of money
- Roller coasters
To break a child’s video game addiction, you need to give them a hard but engaging task. That is due to how video games affect the triumph circuit in our minds. Triumph requires adversity, so your child will be the most responsive to activities that are challenging, yet fun.
Mental Health Resources for Video Game Addiction