Dear Dr. Mark,
I was recently having a conversation with my brother about a video game we both love. He told me he was trying to stop playing because he was worried he was addicted due to a recent conversation he'd had with a friend's mother who is "studying addiction" in college.
My concern isn't really whether or not my brother's addicted (from what I can tell he's perfectly healthy), but the conversation did start me wondering about what videogame addiction looks like, and whether any serious gamer might be labeled as addicted.
Is videogame addiction real, or is it simply a sensationalized stereotype for TV news shows? I have a friend who games at least five hours per day, but he's got a perfectly healthy social/family life, plays sports and what have you. Would you call that healthy enthusiasm or dangerous addiction?
As I wrote in my first column, I am suspicious about calling habitual, compulsive behavior addiction. As I explored the question more deeply, I became more convinced that difficulty engaging in any activity in a controlled way, despite significant negative consequences, can be thought of as addiction. I even think it is possible that such strong behavioral tendencies, and the kinds of stimulation they provide, may well affect neurophysiological pathways in a fashion that mimics substance abuse.
My own experience tells me that certain gaming experiences have a strong pull and create a kind of craving--for enjoyment, stimulation, excitement, interpersonal engagement, challenge, progress, victory, or simply just making mayhem--and that these cravings can be extremely hard to control. Call that addiction, habit, hobby, or whatever else you like--for me the question is, what ensues? Serious detrimental consequences mean problematic, potentially addicted gaming.
What does this look like? In my experience, it isn't very pretty. Game play comes to fill most free moments in a person's day and eventually edges out other obligations, activities, and even relationships.
Students understandably find gaming more interesting than school work, so it doesn't get done, which can lead to poor grades, diminished learning, and even failing out of school. With their minds on gaming, many bright students drift through school in a kind of detached fog. They may barely graduate, but have they really learned what they need to know to cope with the next steps in their lives? Some go on to crash at college, where every dorm room has a Playstation, Xbox, computer, or all three, and gaming is everywhere at all hours.
Family relationships are ignored or neglected, which can create tremendous conflicts at home. The fight between parents and children about how much gaming is enough, which goes on in many households, becomes relentless and in some cases even violent. I have seen these struggles lead to psychiatric hospitalization, police involvement, and even removal of family members from their homes.
Romantic relationships may become secondary to gaming. Marriages can be damaged and even lost when a partner's libidinal energy becomes invested in a game and is withdrawn from the relationship, leaving an empty husk, with chronic loneliness and despair the result for the non-gaming partner, and for the gamer, when the relationship understandably comes to an end.
For gamers in the work force, there is the potential for unreliable attendance and performance (also characteristic of employees with substance abuse issues, by the way). Problem gamers may have trouble obtaining and holding onto gainful employment, already challenging enough in today's economy.
Health issues can also emerge around problem gaming. These can include nutrition, exercise, and most especially, sleep. High school teachers can often identify the most ardent gamers by looking at who is sleeping during class each morning--but lack of exercise and eating poorly can also become serious concerns.