Video games are everywhere, and most people play some of them, perhaps a lot of them. Unfortunately, there are a few people who become badly addicted to them. Any highly stimulating or pleasurable activity can become an addiction, it turns out. But many people say “Really? Are you kidding me? Addiction is something like heroin use, or abusing prescription drugs. You can’t have a video game addiction!”
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of research that says otherwise. In every country where it has been studied, a small percentage of the people who play regularly (perhaps 2-8%) are seriously addicted. (We’ll talk about what that looks like in a moment.) There are many others who play a lot, but are not addicted. Most people are not addicted to video games, or else they have an problem that is fairly mild. Perhaps they play a bit too much, perhaps they would be better off if they played a bit less. But that’s not what we mean by addiction.
Video game addiction involves most of the classic signs of addiction that are found in other addictions, like substance abuse and gambling: Use increases over time, people enjoy it less, there is a loss of control over how much and when one plays, it’s used for escape or to modify a negative mood, and there are serious withdrawal symptoms, failed attempts to cut back or stop, etc. Some of the research papers below provide more information. If you’re wondering about yourself, here’s a self-test.
How bad does it get? Well, the problems caused by excessive gaming can be mild or severe. For some people, they are just a bit withdrawn from friendships or other activities; perhaps it occasionally or often interferes with sleep. But in the worst cases, people lose jobs, careers, relationships and/or fail out of school. And they end up playing perhaps 6-10 (or even many more) hours per day, almost every day, and isolate from most other activities and relationships. When it gets to this point, it’s bad. As bad as compulsive gambling, or in many ways as bad as abusing drugs.
What can be done? Well, as with any addiction, people need support. Most of us seem to understand that if you’re an alcoholic, you can’t drink. So we should give those who are struggling to stay off games (and there are some, just about everywhere) the same courtesy: a bit of support and understanding. Therapy can be very helpful in cases of addiction–and there are often other mental health issues lying around that need to be addressed as well. But by itself, it’s rarely enough. So support or recovery groups, family and friends, changing habits to be more balanced and healthy–all of these things play a role. It takes a village to help someone who has a severe addiction get well. We can all play a part.