As computers have become more sophisticated over the decades, so too have video games. While many people think of video games as a pastime enjoyed by children and teenagers, the Pew Research Centre found that 49% of adults play video games on either their computer, television, game console, or a portable device such as a cell phone or tablet.sup>1 Other research has found that approximately 88% of American youth play video games, and 8.5% of children and teens, ages 8 to 18, show signs of video game addiction. sup>2 Because video games and video game addiction are relatively new problems, there is very little information and few treatment options available—but internet and gaming addiction treatment centres do exist for those who need them.
What is Video Game Addiction?
Video game addiction is a serious disorder characterised by excessive game play and disturbances in normal life functioning.3 The American Psychiatric Association does not yet consider video game addiction or compulsive gaming a diagnosable condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5), yet many mental health and behavioural health experts consider the condition to be real and serious. Experts believe that the signs and symptoms of video game addiction mimic those of other compulsive disorders, such as exercise addiction and sex addiction. 2
Even if a gamer plays frequently or for long periods of time, that does not necessarily mean they are addicted to video games. A person who is addicted to video games is more likely to have difficulty thinking about activities other than gaming and the gaming interferes with school, social activities, hygiene, physical or mental health, or work performance. 2
The major signs and symptoms of video game addiction or compulsive gaming are similar in some ways to those of drug and alcohol addiction. First, a person who suffers from compulsive gaming feels compelled to play games more and more over time, and the urge to play becomes stronger such that they can’t resist the desire to play.sup>3
When a gamer initially starts playing, one or two hours might be enough. But similar to drug and alcohol addiction, people suffering from gaming addiction become desensitised to the effects of short gaming sessions, and develop a need to play for longer periods or with more intensity as the addiction worsens. 3
The second sign that someone has a problem with video game addiction is that people become irritable, anxious, or miserable when they are unable to play games.3 A person suffering from video game addiction may also experience:3
Significant weight gain or weight loss.
Avoiding friends and family members.
Lying about the time spent playing video games.
Poor work performance.
Poor academic performance.
Although researchers know many of the factors that contribute or lead to substance abuse problems, the origins of video game addiction are still unclear.
Some researchers believe that bursts in dopamine activity play a hand in the development of this disorder. 4 As a neurotransmitter, or brain signalling molecule, dopamine is a key player within the brain’s reward system and also plays an important role in problem-solving, memory, and attention.4 Dopamine is released during pleasurable activities, such as eating and using drugs and, in a similar fashion, its heightened activity may also contribute to video game addiction. 4 The brain may begin to associate gaming with increased dopamine levels, making it difficult for a person with this type of addiction to stop the compulsive behaviour. 4
Some researchers also believe that video game addiction has an emotional component, hypothesising that some compulsive gamers use gaming as a way to escape their problems. 3 Much like some people who suffer from alcoholism drink to escape emotional pain, a person addicted to video games may use gaming as a way to bury their emotions. 3 Compulsive gamers may also use violent games as a safe way to express anger and aggression. 3
What is well documented are the physical effects of too much game play. When someone is truly addicted to gaming, they may avoid showering or participating in other personal hygiene activities. This addiction also increases the risk for compulsive eating and weight issues. With the exception of games like Wii Sports and Dance Dance Revolution, gaming is a sedentary activity, which may lead to health problems associated with sitting for long periods of time, such as diabetes, heart disease, poor circulation, and weight gain. 5
The more time someone spends participating in sedentary activities, the fewer calories they burn, which can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome, a disorder characterised by excess fat around the waist, which increases the risk for hypertension, diabetes, and other serious medical problems. 5,6 It may also cause hormonal changes in women, leading to facial hair growth and menstrual cycle disruption. 6 Playing video games for long periods of time can also increase the risk for injury.
Playing video games for long periods of time can also increase the risk for injury, such as “video gamer’s thumb” and “nintendinitis,” terms used to describe one of the physical effects of excessive video game play. Repeatedly pressing the buttons on a video game controller may cause your thumb to swell and create long-term problems with your hands and arms. 7 Other symptoms associated with this problem include: 7
Burning and tingling.
Prolonged stress on the ligaments, tendons, and nerves of the hands, wrists, and arms may lead to bursitis and tendinitis. Bursitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the fluid-filled sacs that lie between the skin and the tendons or between bones and tendons, which reduce friction and aid movement. Bursitis causes swelling of the joint, stiffness when moving the joint, and tenderness pressing on the joint; some people also develop redness of the skin covering the affected joint. If someone with bursitis does not cut back on excessive gaming, the condition may become a chronic problem. 8
Tendinitis is inflammation that affects the tendons, which are cords that attach the muscles to the bones. Depending on where the inflammation is located, tendinitis may be called pitcher’s shoulder, tennis elbow, or golfer’s elbow. This condition causes pain, mild swelling, and tenderness around the affected tendon, and without proper treatment, the affected tendon may rupture, a serious complication that requires surgical intervention.8 Without proper treatment, tendinitis may cause serious pain and loss of mobility in the affected area. Tendinitis may also cause partial disability, making it difficult to engage in physical activity.Excessive gaming may also contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive stress disorder that develops due to compression of the median nerve.
Excessive gaming may also contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive stress disorder that develops due to compression of the median nerve. 9 This nerve runs through the forearm and the palm of the hand, so excessive video game play can create this type of nerve compression.9 Because the median nerve controls sensation in some parts of the hands, carpal tunnel syndrome causes numbness, pain, and tingling in the hand and wrist. 9
The psychological effects of video game addiction are just as harmful as the physical effects. One of the biggest debates in the gaming world is whether playing violent video games causes increased violent behaviour. Researchers have found that some people do develop severe and sometimes uncontrollable aggression as a complication of video game addiction.10 This is especially true when a concerned family member or friend tries to convince the compulsive gamer to stop playing. This may cause agitation, anxiety, aggression, and other emotional changes.
Treatment Options for Compulsive Gamers
Treatment for video game addiction is similar to treatment used for other types of behavioural addictions. 2 Counselling and behaviour modification are two of the most important components of a compulsive gaming rehabilitation program. Individual counselling helps compulsive gamers address their behavior and motivates them to work toward reducing their compulsions to play, and family therapy helps compulsive gamers address family issues that may contribute to their addiction. The goal of these therapy sessions is to help the gamer learn to cope with the addiction and engage in positive activities in place of gaming.
Video game addiction treatment programs often use behavioural modification techniques to help people suffering from video game addiction recognise when they are most vulnerable to engaging in excessive gaming and turning to healthier options.3 There are also therapeutic boarding schools for children and teenagers, as well as wilderness therapy programs that help people struggling to overcome video game addiction. 2 If you would like to get treatment for video game addiction, talk to a behavioural health specialist about the options that suit your needs.
Video game addiction is a relatively new disorder that mental health and behavioural health experts are just beginning to understand. As a result, there are very few proven treatment methods available for video game addiction and limited inpatient treatment programs specifically for video game addiction. However, using techniques created to treat other behavioural addictions is showing promise. Also, mental health professionals can employ proven methods to treat conditions associated with video game addiction such as depression, anxiety, and anger management problems. If you or someone you care about is struggling with video game addiction, there is hope. Contact a mental health professional today to discuss your options.