Video Game Addiction
10/04/19: AddictionVideo gaming has exploded in popularity over the last decade as technology has grown exponentially, and the hobby has become accessible to millions of people all across the world. Most people have played video games at some point in their life, whether it was playing classic arcade games with friends in the 80’s, to a stint with mobile games like Candy Crush, to online RPGs and first-person shooters. But what happens when a casual hobby morphs into something much more sinister?
The History and Controversy of Gaming DisorderMid-2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added “gaming disorder” to the 2018 version of its medical reference book, International Classification of Diseases. This move was fairly controversial and left many people split into opposing sides of the issue. Those in support were saying “it’s about time!” while others thought perhaps the term “disorder” was a bit too dramatic. According to ABC News, there are 2.6 billion gamers worldwide, but only 3% are said to have gaming disorder, which has led many people to question whether gaming addiction is the issue, or if it is merely a symptom of a deeper mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety that is going undiagnosed. One of the biggest opposers of this action taken by the WHO is, unsurprisingly, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a lobbying group that supports the expansion of the video game industry. According to its website, “ESA serves as the voice and advocate for the video game industry. [Their] mission is to expand and protect the dynamic worldwide marketplace for video games.” In response to the WHO’s classification of gaming disorder, ESA said that putting an official label on the perceived problem “recklessly trivializes real mental health issues like depression and social anxiety disorder, which deserve treatment and the full attention of the medical community,” and called upon the WHO to reverse the decision. They also claimed that there is no evidence to prove that gaming is addictive.
How Gaming Addiction StartsAs mentioned earlier, not all researchers believe that gaming is addictive. However, there’s no debating that spending 10+ hours per day gaming is a detriment to one’s health and personal life. Senior therapist at Primrose Lodge, Matthew Preece, interviewed in a Guardian article said gaming addiction disorder becomes diagnosable when gaming “starts to be of detriment to other areas of someone’s life — their work, relationship, their self-care. If someone tries to cut down, and they find they can’t control that, or if they start to be secretive or dishonest about their behavior, they’re kind of the main things to look out for.” People can deny that gaming addiction is a real disorder, but the thing is, there’s no denying that video games are specifically designed to make players keep coming back for more. One of the main ways they do this is through something called operant conditioning.
Operant Conditioning: What is it?Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence (Skinner, 1938). Operant conditioning combines negative and positive consequences to influence how an individual behaves. But simply rewarding someone every time they perform the same action, isn’t the best way to keep them interested. Eventually, the person will become satiated due to the repetitive nature of the task + reward system. This is why video games employ techniques where rewards are given at random or under a variety of circumstances each time. This is very similar to how gambling works. A person is much more likely to become addicted to spending 8 hours in a casino playing the slots for $100 than they are repeating menial tasks at their job for 8 hours for the same $100. The key is in something called reward schedules.
Reward SchedulesHave you ever played a game like FarmVille or World of Warcraft long past the point of it being fun? But you continue playing because it almost feels like a necessity? This is likely due to something within the game called a reward schedule. It’s been proven that games can increase and hold player engagement by varying when rewards are given, in a sense allowing players to play the game for the game itself. The goal in these games is to extend the amount of time a person plays the game, not necessarily to provide value or entertainment. Reward schedules are the reason gambling is so addictive, because rewards are inconsistent and unpredictable, which makes the risk higher and payoff much sweeter.
Other things that make games addictiveSome other variables that make games addictive are:
- An escape from reality. Many people who spend an abnormal amount of time online or playing video games often do so because of a lack of self-esteem or happiness with their real life. Video games, especially RPGs, allow individuals to become pretty much whoever they want within the game. They have full control over their appearance, skills, and how others perceive them in the context of the game, which they may feel they are lacking in real life.
- Competition. Games that allow you to play against others in an online setting, such as Fortnite, rely heavily on the aspect of competition. You “win” these games by beating out other players, which provides a sense of achievement and elitism over other individuals playing the game.
- Social aspects. Online games can also provide players with a sense of community and friendship with other players. Multiplayer games that employ things like guilds, quests, etc that are designed to build a sense of camaraderie among fellow players are effective in keeping people playing the game because of the genuine connections many players form through the game. This, of course, is typically a positive thing, unless individuals begin neglecting their “real life” relationships in favor of those with their online friends. Many gamers who struggle with making friends in real life find it easier to build relationships through the game.
Real-Life Accounts of Gaming AddictionThe website Game Quitters was created by Cam Adair, international speaker and leading expert on video game addiction, as well as a former gaming addict himself. On the website, he compiles stories of people who have struggled with gaming addiction. We highly recommend visiting the site and reading the full stories, but here are some quotes that demonstrate the extreme negative impact that gaming addiction has on real life human beings: Discharged and Divorced: How Gaming Addiction Ruined My Life: “What started as a harmless hobby, transformed into a life-destroying addiction. One that ultimately led to me getting discharged from the military and having a marriage ending in divorce.” Gaming Is Killing My Mental Health: “Constantly being mentally stimulated and stressed about making the most of every single minute of free time, thinking about gaming all the time, normal responsibilities as an adult, and everything else life requires became stressful. Both my mental and physical health began steadily declining.” Quitting Gaming Improved My Life In Almost Every Way: “For me, games provided a sense of achievement and a means of escape from the reality of my life. I wasn’t happy, and instead of dealing with my problems head-on, I escaped to video games to drown my sorrows.”
How Gaming Addiction Can Be TreatedGaming addiction, like any other kind of addiction, should be treated like the complex, layered disorder that it is. No one individual is going to present symptoms the same, and treatment should be holistic and individualized to suit each individual’s needs. Typically however, treatment for gaming addiction is nearly identical to substance abuse treatment in that there is a period of detox, followed by counseling and therapy which provide the addicted person with support and lifelong skills to remain “sober.” Behavioral modification therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are usually employed to help the client break their obsessive thought patterns and habits contributing to the addiction. Group therapy can also be helpful in providing motivation and moral support, especially for those who have lost close relationships as a result of their addiction. Regardless of your circumstances, if you or a loved one is suffering from gaming addiction or believe that there is a problem, recovery is very, VERY possible. With the right support and treatment plan, anyone can beat addiction.
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