Realities and myths of video game addiction
13, Jul, 2022
Addiction is an insidious spirit that takes many forms. Traditionally associated with substances like alcohol and drugs, it can also appear in behaviours like gambling, sex, work or exercise. These behaviours aren’t limited to offline activity; the screens we turn to every day for entertainment can also lead to problematic and unhealthy obsession. One form of digital media that has received a lot of attention in that regard is video games.
A few seismic shifts have evolved the conversation around gaming and addiction. The first came in 2013, when the American Psychiatric Association included internet gaming disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (as a partially recognized phenomenon in need of more research).
In 2019, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder as a behavioural addiction, in its international classification of diseases. Later that year, the Chinese government imposed a curfew for online gaming during the week for minors, state media describing the hobby as “spiritual opium.” With a growing body of research literature examining video game and screen addiction, it’s worth examining how pervasive the issue has become.
Dr. Mark Griffiths has spent years on this topic. Griffiths is Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction and the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He's been studying game addiction for over 30 years, and is one of the longest-running research specialists in his field. Among his other pioneering work, he was the first academic to publish a paper on online gaming in a peer-reviewed journal, and has been investigating various forms of addiction for 35 years. These include gambling, sex, work, exercise and other online addictions (e.g., disordered social media use).
In an article about the gravity of behavioural addiction, Griffiths argues that if the rewards of engaging in something are constant, a minority of individuals could become addicted to almost anything. This applies to video games as well.
“If behaviours like gambling can become a genuine addiction for some people, there is no reason why some people might not become addicted to things like video games, work or exercise,” he writes.
From his decades of research, Griffiths has pinpointed six core components of addiction: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse. (See the indicator definitions below.) If someone exhibits all of these indicators, Griffiths would define that behaviour as genuinely addictive.
Griffiths has seen these indicators appear with video game playing. While he firmly acknowledges the existence of video game addiction, he’s been vilified by voices coming from both extreme sides of the debate that’s sprung up around it.
On one side are media psychologists who align with the gaming industry, and downplay or deny the existence of the condition.
“Then on the other side, you've got probably a much bigger contingent of people who believe that gaming disorder or gaming addiction exists,” he says, but this side tends to overexaggerate the problem’s scope.
“They say I try to minimize the problem, because I believe the number of people who are genuinely addicted to video games in the same way that people are addicted to more traditional things, is actually a really small number.” Griffiths contends that some of the accusations come from the mistake of distinguishing between full-blown addiction to video games, and the lesser beast of what he calls problematic gaming.
Like any pastime, gaming has a continuum of behaviours, ranging from no gaming, to frequent gaming, to problematic, to addictive, with more variations in between.
“When I talk about gaming addiction, we're talking about an infinitesimally small number of people where gaming takes over their life, and it clinically impairs everything else in their lives. And these are the people that would seek out treatment,” he explains.
“I've been working with a unit in Spain, and over the course of the year, basically two cases a week come in, so literally 100 cases a year will come in for treatment. In a population the size of Spain, to go to the national treatment clinic in Barcelona to be treated, it's an infinitesimally small number.” Griffiths says when those individuals seek treatment, there’s a very debilitating struggle with addiction. That’s a substantial difference from the people whose video game habit may be causing a few problems in their home or work lives, but who can still function in other avenues.
There’s also a misconception about the amount of time spent on screen-based entertainment, and addiction. Just because a person is spending a lot of time farming kills in Battlefield or exploring the world of Skyrim, doesn’t mean their life will crumble as a result.
Since the APA’s inconclusive findings in 2013, Griffiths says there have been around 20 nationally representative studies released, meaning researchers and policymakers have more robust findings to comb through. These studies have shown similar findings to Griffiths’ work, where a small but significant minority have shown problematic gaming behaviours.
Ultimately, Griffiths holds that video games bring more positive things to our lives than potential repercussions. He highlights their use as a pain-numbing tool as one case of this. “Children who are undergoing cancer chemotherapy, you give them a video game to play, they take significantly less painkillers compared with other types of activity,” he says.
“There's far more evidence that video games have a more positive effect on people's lives than a negative effect. People find it very strange that somebody like me who’s spent over 30 years studying problematic gaming is saying that the positives of gaming outweigh the negatives. And I'm sorry, that's true,” he holds.
“All of these things, when taken to excess, can be potentially problematic and potentially detrimental. But there's no evidence that any of these things in moderation has anything but good effects in peoples' lives.”