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Video Game Addiction: Is Excessive Gaming a Mental Health Disorder?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now including Video Game Addiction as a disorder. The disorder is defined as a “persistent or recurrent” behavior pattern of “sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

Essential it describes a person who has impaired control with increasing gaming behavior despite negative consequences gaming has in his or her life.

The designation of gaming addiction as a disorder allows for insurance reimbursed treatment. But the research is unclear as to whether this is a good direction for treatment.

Many researchers suggest video game addiction is often related to an underlying issue such as depression, anxiety, or Asperger’s. In an interview with CNN, Dr. Chris Ferguson of Stetson University described treating the gaming addiction vs. the true underlying issue as “…treating someone with pneumonia with a cough suppressant; you’d get rid of the cough but they’re still gonna have pneumonia.”

In essence, the idea of gaming addiction is somewhat controversial and there is no scientific consensus. To contradict myself, as a psychologist, I have seen teens whom I would describe as addicted to gaming. Their behaviors very much mimicked those of an alcoholic.

Such behaviors included finding access to games at all costs: stealing, sneaking devices, staying up all night, and avoiding regular activities such as hygiene, socializing, and school work. They appeared to be truly addicted to gaming, and their behaviors significantly interfered with their activities of daily living.

At one point I treated a client who actually threatened suicide if he could not play games. Treatment for this particular individual involved removing all access to games and electronics with a 90-day stint at a wilderness program.

After treatment he was grateful; however, he attributed the gaming addiction to an underlying anxiety disorder as well as trouble socializing. Treatment ultimately focused on his stated issues, so he was able to experience more out of life confidently rather than escape into the gaming world.

What is unclear to me is the WHO singled out gaming in particular. Many people can be addicted to all kinds of behaviors including binge-watching Netflix, engaging in constant social media, exercising (Ultra Marathon runners), and even collecting cats. Why not just describe a behavioral addiction?


Video Games Are an Easy Target

Many parents complain about their children’s gaming habits. The gaming industry has often been blamed for all kinds of societal problems including heightened violence and aggression.

In 1955, the U.S. Senate blasted comic books, deploring their depiction of every horrible thing from murder to cannibalism. The lawmakers heard from a prominent psychiatrist who singled out the Superman comic books as especially “injurious to the ethical development of children” because they “arouse phantasies [sic] of sadistic joy” in our youth.

Another witness testified that children had been jumping off high places in attempts to fly like their hero, none of which was true.

Half a century later, violent video games are the comic books of our day. Testimony before a state Senate committee included descriptions of horrific-sounding games.

One witness described a game where the player scans in faces of classmates and teachers and then shoots them. He also referenced another game called Postal that gives points for watching innocent people beg for mercy before you kill them.

The only problem is that we’ve never met one kid – or any person of any age, for that matter – who has even heard of these games. They are straw man arguments.

One frequently cited research article criticizing violent video games includes several studies. One of these studies was a “correlational study” from which the authors concluded, “Playing violent video games often may well cause increases in delinquent behaviors, both aggressive and non-aggressive.”

However, in a remarkable moment of self-contradiction, they later said that making such causative statements with a correlational study is “risky, at best.” Why is it risky? Because correlations are just relationships between two variables; you can never say one causes the other.

We could say that during the season when ice cream sales increase, shark attacks also increase. But we could not say the more ice cream you sell, the more you cause shark attacks. People go in the water when they are hot. Duh.

One systematic analysis of the research literature found “insufficient, contradictory and methodologically flawed evidence on the association between television viewing and video game playing and aggression in children and young people with behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Another extensive study found “no support for the hypothesis that violent video game playing is associated with higher aggression,” (Ferguson, 2007).

In fact, that same study found some positive benefits of playing violent video games, particularly improvements in visual-spatial thinking.

While there are studies that find people who play violent video games may have a brief increase in violent thoughts and feelings, newer research finds that these thoughts and feelings typically last less than four minutes (Barlett, Branch, Rodeheffer, & Harris, 2009). And remember, having a violent thought is a whole lot different than actually committing violence.

Common sense tells you that you don’t let an elementary school kid or an older child with a history of aggressive behavior play Grand Theft Auto. But that same common sense tells you that if 90 percent of households have owned or rented a “violent” video each year, and games cause violence, the juvenile crime rate should be up. In fact, the juvenile crime rate is at the lowest in history.


So, Are Video Games an Addiction?

I get it. Parents and kids are more stressed and anxious than at any time in our history. The creation of iPads, iPhones, as well as the video game industry as a whole, has provided a convenient babysitter. As a parent, I have been guilty of this as well.

For video games to be singled out as a particularly addicting behavior and being scapegoated into a disease seems premature and a politically easy move.

The research is not clear as to whether gaming addiction is a disorder. In my opinion, parents need to step up at an early age, engage their kids, and at the risk of sounding old school, get back to some old school parenting values.

Now excuse me while I play some Call of Duty…


Click here to read more articles by Dr. Frank Gaskill!

Dr. Frank Gaskill
Dr. Frank Gaskill is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of Southeast Psych, Psych Bytes, and Shrink Tank. He works with individuals on the Autism spectrum and consults on the development of Autism programs and private practice development across the country. Dr. Gaskill is the co-author of Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero as well as How We Built Our Dream Practice: Innovative Ideas for Building Yours.


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