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Video Game Addiction

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

A gaming disorder, sometimes referred to as “video game addiction,” is a pattern of game-playing behavior—involving online gaming or offline video games—that is difficult to control and that continues unabated despite serious negative consequences in other areas of the gamer’s life.

The Debate Over Video Game Addiction

Experts debate whether severely problematic gaming truly constitutes an “addiction” in the same sense as drug and alcohol addictions. But disordered gaming behavior recently received official recognition as a mental health condition by the World Health Organization (WHO), which included “gaming disorder” in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). According to that guide, gaming disorder is marked by “impaired control” over gaming, which leads to it taking priority over other interests and activities. The gaming behavior persists even as it causes “significant impairment” in areas such as personal relationships, school, or work.

While gaming disorder is not officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely used for behavioral health diagnoses in the U.S., the latest version of the manual—the DSM-5—refers to Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition for further study.

Among the tentative criteria for such a disorder are withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability or sadness, when Internet gaming ceases; tolerance, or an increasing need for gaming; deception about the amount of one’s gaming; and failed attempts to control one’s gaming.

What are the criticisms of gaming disorder?

Experts are critical of creating a gaming disorder diagnosis for several reasons. One is the fear of pathologizing normal human behavior, which treatment providers could potentially exploit for profit; some argue that the proposed symptoms of Internet gaming disorder may reflect passion for a hobby rather than a clinical condition.

Some argue that there is not enough compelling evidence for a gaming addiction and its discerning criteria. An addiction may reflect underlying psychological conditions that problem gamers are likely to have, suggesting that gaming disorder is not a discrete condition.

Is gaming disorder the same as a gaming addiction?

Colloquially, people tend to use gaming disorder and gaming addiction interchangeably. But some researchers believe the criteria and language put forth to diagnose gaming disorder doesn’t fully capture the nature of addiction.

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When Is Gaming a Mental Health Problem?

Online and offline gaming can have social and recreational benefits, and most people who play them will not exhibit clinically problematic use. The kind of gaming behavior that concerns mental health experts involves a prolonged or recurring habit that comes at the expense of a person’s functioning outside of games and that may damage close relationships or interfere with the pursuit of educational or career goals.

A passionate engagement with games or even an extended bout of intense gaming doesn’t indicate a disorder or an addiction if it does not disrupt a person’s life. The ICD-11 advises that hard-to-control gaming that crowds out other aspects of life should typically be evident for a year or longer in order for a diagnosis to be made.

Since gaming disorders are defined and measured in different ways, estimates of their prevalence vary widely. Representatives of the WHO, which established gaming disorder as a diagnosis, have emphasized that those who could be classified as having it make up a small proportion of gamers overall. According to the DSM-5, disordered Internet gaming seems to appear most among male adolescents.

What are the signs of video game addiction?

According to the gaming disorder diagnosis in the ICD-11, signs include:

• The inability to control gaming, such as not being able to stop.

• Prioritizing gaming over other interests and activities.

• Continuing to game despite negative consequences, such as losing a job.

According to the DSM-5 proposed criteria for a potential Internet gaming disorder, signs include:

• Preoccupation with gaming.

• Symptoms of withdrawal when unable to play video games, such as irritability or anxiety.

• Tolerance over time—needing to play more or more powerful games.

• Inability to control gaming.

• Loss of interest in other activities.

• Excessive gaming despite negative consequences personally or professionally.

• Deception about gaming habits.

• Gaming to escape negative emotions.

• Jeopardizing or losing a relationship, job, or other opportunity due to gaming.

How common is video game addiction?

One large-scale study concluded that 1.4 percent of video gamers may have an addiction. Other studies, conducted in various parts of the world and with various age groups and assessment criteria, have revealed prevalences of addiction among gamers ranging from 0.6 percent to 6 percent. Across all of these studies, what is clear is that the vast majority of video gamers do not have an addiction.

Children and Video Games
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About 90 percent of adolescents report playing video games of some kind, according to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center. With the amount of time children and teens spend gaming, it’s natural for parents to wonder how video games affect their children, if they should implement rules around screen time, and whether they should be concerned about their children’s mental health. It can especially difficult for parents to know how to proceed because children's entire social lives may take place through gaming. Identifying why a child plays video games is often the first step of understanding how to curb video game use and help cultivate balance in children’s lives.

Is my child addicted to video games?

A gaming addiction involves a lack of control despite adverse consequences—if your child can pull themselves away from a game to join the family for dinner, for example, and shows interest in other activities, like sports or socializing, the child doesn’t have an addiction. Kids may be drawn to video games because they satisfy psychological needs such as competence, autonomy, and connection, which are sometimes difficult to find in other places.

What makes video games so appealing to children?

Video games are often intentionally designed to capitalize on users’ attention and engagement, such as through patterns of rewards that users receive. But gaming has other qualities that make it appealing as well, especially to children. Users create avatars through which they can remain anonymous while expressing their unique traits and qualities. Friendships and communities form around gaming. Video games also provide positive feelings due to goal achievement and problem solving.

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