There has been research and speculation regarding video gaming and how it can be a source of addiction. According to the American Medical Association, up to 90 percent of American youth play video games. Of those teens and young adults, it’s speculated that up to 15 percent may be “addicted.”
Video gaming addiction, and addictions in general, have biological components as well as psychological ones. The biological components are that game addicts show an increased release of the mood-regulating chemicals dopamine and glutamate in the brain.
It is a highly rewarding, stimulating, and motivating activity. And our brains know it.
Eventually, the release of dopamine and glutamate reach a threshold in the brain where a higher amount is required to experience the rewarding effects. The brain becomes desensitized and the individual will seek more of the addictive source or behavior.
The addiction often becomes life-consuming and can take priority over families, friends, jobs, school, and so on. The addictive source then becomes a need, and the individual feels it is part of his or her survival, right next to eating or sleeping.
Psychologically, the user escapes reality by immersing herself in the virtual world, similar to how a drug addict will use heroin to escape from an emotionally painful situation. Many modern games offer customizable options and the ability to create your own character, from personality traits to physical traits. This type of control over a character’s traits encourages immersion within the virtual world.
Massive Multi-user Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs) are the fastest-growing forms of Internet gaming addiction. This is because they combine customizable characters in a virtual world alongside other live players. This socialization with online characters that others around the world control replaces socialization within the real world. With those who have low self-esteem, social anxieties, or other insecurities, they will find comfort in a new identity.
Gaming addicts will sacrifice sleeping, eating, and engaging in physical social contact to play video games. They will play for 10 to 20 hours at a time, losing concept of time and reality. A lot of online multiplayer games continue to exist and run regardless of whether the player is logged on, which provides a sense of urgency for the player not to “miss out.”
“Leveling up,” or enhancing one’s video game character, usually is a component of any video game and encourages addiction. This is because each advance in level is rewarding and becomes an incentive to keep playing.
Excessive use of video game playing can cause problems with social development, mental health, relationships, hygiene, and self-care. Playing games for over four consecutive hours for children and adolescents can be detrimental to their school work, social life and development of social skills, and can also lead to irritability, anxiety, and depression. For adults, it can become problematic for work, relationships, and family life.
Other symptoms of excessive game play are being unable to control use of Internet or video games, being preoccupied by it, lacking a concept of time, and allowing it to interfere with jobs, social life, or relationships. Physical effects are back strain, eye strain, weight loss, and deterioration in physical appearance.
The Netherlands has opened up the first Detox Center for Video Game Addiction. Keith Bakker, director of Amesterdam-based Smith and Jones Addiction Consultants and founder of the center, stated that video games are “as addictive as gambling or drugs and just as hard to kick.”
Biofeedback therapy is another treatment option for video gaming addiction. When the brain becomes flooded with excess amounts of dopamine and glutamate due to an addictive behavior such as video gaming, the balance between the midbrain and forebrain becomes blurry and impaired. Decision-making and logical reasoning are then also impaired. Biofeedback therapy can help strengthen the metabolic activity of the forebrain and restore the checking system of the brain, in order to lessen the addictive behavior of gaming, and increase one’s self-control.
For children, physical effects of excessive video game playing are reported to be “body shakes,” rapid heart and respiratory rates, and hyper-acute vision and hearing. These symptoms are similar to how adults feel when stressed and in high adrenaline states, suggesting gaming can be inducing a stressful state in children. Biofeedback can help one become aware of what is occurring in the body when stressed, and through relaxation techcniques it can alleviate negative side effects.
Regardless of whether video gaming addiction becomes an official disorder, if excessive playing interferes with daily life or is negatively affecting one’s well-being, it is wise to seek assistance for cutting back.
Editor’s note: Despite over two decades’ worth of research into “video game addiction,” the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) still does not recognize this condition as a diagnosable disorder. It does appear, however, in the category of “Conditions for Further Study,” suggesting it may one day be recognized as a diagnosable disorder.