By Dr. Brent Conrad
Clinical Psychologist for TechAddiction
What is computer game addiction?
Computer game addiction generally refers to an excessive, unhealthy amount of playing computer games. Rather than engaging in the real world, an addicted user devotes the majority of his or her time to gaming. The addicted gamer often isolates him/herself from others, ignores more important responsibilities, and is often obsessed with obtaining higher status / rankings / achievements in his/her favorite computer game.
Is computer game addiction a diagnosable disorder?
According to the DSM-IV (the current manual for classifying emotional, psychological, and mental disorders), no. Although there have been calls from some mental health professionals (and parents) to recognize computer game addiction as a "real" disorder, it has not been granted official diagnostic status. As more research on the effects of excessive gaming is conducted, many believe that it is only a matter of time before computer game addiction is classified as a compulsive behavior similar to gambling addiction.
What are the symptoms of computer game addiction?
Because there is no official diagnosis of computer game addiction, there is obviously no universally agreed upon list of symptoms. Psychologists and other mental health professionals initially adapted the diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction and used this as a rough assessment tool for computer game addiction. This classification approach is rarely used today and for better or for worse, it is essentially up to the individual researcher or clinician to define the symptoms of computer addiction. Still, there are some signs and behaviors that are almost always included in definitions of computer addiction, such as…
Significant interference with school, work, or relationships
Often avoiding other commitments in order to keep playing
Frequently turning down social invitations in favor of gaming
Using most or all of one's free time for gaming
Regularly playing late into the night and which results in poor sleep habits
Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
Regular gaming "binges" of 8 hours or more nonstop
For more a more detailed answer, see The Signs and Symptoms of Video Game Addiction.
To evaluate whether a child is addicted to computer games, see The Video Game Assessment Questionnaire for Parents.
Who is most at risk for computer game addiction?
Although virtually anyone who plays computer games could become addicted (see "Boyfriend or Husband Addicted to Video Games?"), certain groups appear to be more likely to develop unhealthy levels of play. These groups include:
Individuals with long periods of unstructured time (for example, a teen who is not involved in other activities outside of school)
Those with higher levels of neurotocism
Why are computer games addictive?
First, note that some types of computer games are clearly more addictive than others. For example, most research suggests that MMOs (like World of Warcraft) and FPS games (like Call of Duty) are more addictive than racing games and platformers. For a detailed explanation of why this is, please see "Why are Video Games Addictive?" In brief though, the most additive video games usually employ many well-established psychological principles to encourage longer and longer periods of play. For example, the most addictive computer games…
are based on a leveling system that requires only minimal effort to "level-up" in the early stages…which slowly evolves into very long gaming sessions to reach the next stage as the game progresses
are open-ended with no clearly defined end
require cooperation with other human players to advance in the game…which creates a sense of obligation and dedication to one's teammates…which translates into more and more time strengthening characters and improving skills
How common is computer game addiction in children?
Depending on the research methodology and the definition of computer addiction used, estimates range from 2 to 10% of all children who play video games. More accurate and consistent estimates should be possible if formal diagnostic criteria for computer game addiction are introduced.
Is computer game addiction different from video game addiction, online addiction, and internet addiction?
Yes - although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which has resulted in a fair amount of confusion. In general…
Computer Game Addiction refers to excessively playing games on a PC. Most often these games are of the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) or the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre. Competing online with and against other players is a significant factor in what makes these particular genres more addictive than others.
Video game addiction refers to excessive play on computers, home consoles, or handhelds systems.
The terms "internet addiction" and "online addiction" are occasionally used to describe computer game addiction, but more appropriately describe excessive web surfing, email checking, instant messaging, Facebook addiction, or downloading movies, images, or music.
Is computer game addiction similar to alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and gambling addiction?
Whereas alcohol and drug addictions involve both psychological and physiological addiction, computer game addiction is often viewed as an impulse control problem involving psychological addiction only. In this regard, computer game addiction has more in common with gambling addiction than alcohol or drug addiction.
What are the main consequences of computer game addiction?
Although somewhat similar to the symptoms of computer game addiction, the negative consequences of excessive gaming are often divided into five main categories:
Social Consequences - As a computer game addict spends more time gaming, he / she tends to spend less time interacting with others in person. As such, he / she may lack face-to-face human contact, experience isolation & loneliness, and the loss of friends or relationships.
Academic / Career Consequences - Children and teens who are addicted to computer games very often experience falling grades and decreased academic performance and dedication. Completing homework, studying for tests, and efforts during school become very low priorities. Adults who are addicted to computer games may experience a similar deterioration in work performance, job dedication, and career aspirations.
Financial Consequences - Adults and teens may spend large amounts of money on new games, expansion packs, micro-transactions, service fees, and computer upgrades. In extreme cases, jobs may be lost due to poor work performance, playing while at work, and frequent absences.
Family Consequences - Computer game addiction often leads to deterioration in family relationships. Tension and conflict between family members escalates as requests to cut back or stop are ignored. The addicted players may initially deny that a problem exists, try to hide how much he / she plays, and accuse the other of trying to "control" his / her life. Parents of addicted children may disagree on how to address the problem, which may lead to frequent arguments and conflicts.
Health Consequences - Computer game addicts may neglect personal hygiene, have poor sleep habits, give up healthy physical activities, and may make meal decisions based on quick and easy preparation (so that gaming is not interrupted) rather than dietary needs.
Emotional / Psychological Consequences - Those addicted to computer games may experience depressed mood, low self-esteem, social anxiety, low frustration tolerance, anger, and feelings of guilt and shame for not being able to control their gaming habits. Of note, it seems likely that difficulties in other areas can cause and be caused by computer game addiction.
How is computer game addiction treated?
Because computer game addiction is a new development in the world of mental health, treatments are not as well established as those for depression, anxiety, anger, etc. Most interventions take a cognitive-behavioral approach which involve changing how the addict thinks about the addiction (for example, recognizing cognitive distortions designed to convince the gamer that it is not a problem), and simultaneously changing his/her behaviors (for example, setting strict limits for play, taking care of other responsibilities before gaming, using game blocking software or devices, etc.). Treatment can take a variety of forms including:
Individual therapy with a psychologist who specializes in treating computer game addiction or who has experience with addictions in general.
Pros: Treatment is tailored to the individual player and is based on established psychological principals and interventions.
Cons: Computer game addiction specialists are quite rare and it may be difficult or impossible to find one locally. Treatment can be quite expensive if multiple sessions are required (which is usually true).
Family therapy - especially if the addicted player is a child or younger teen.
Pro: Computer game addiction almost always affects other family members, and the chance for recovery is increased if these members are involved in treatment and are working together toward mutually agreed upon goals.
Cons: It may be even more difficult to find a computer game addiction specialist who is also experienced offering family therapy. Additionally, some family members may see the problem only as the addict's responsibility and may be unwilling to participate in therapy.
In-patient treatment facilities (very rare in North America but much more common in counties such as China and South Korea).
Pro: Intensive daily interventions offered by a team of specialists.
Cons: Very expensive (tens of thousands of dollars), few facilities in North America and Europe, and little research on the efficacy of the treatments.
Wilderness therapy in which the addicted gamer enters an outdoor treatment program focused on survival skills, team-building, goal-setting, and developing self-confidence. The programs typically last at least thirty days and the participants have absolutely no access to video games (and limited access to other technologies).
Pros: Complete removal of game for an extended period of time in a wilderness environment with an emphasis on personal responsibly and character development.
Cons: Very expensive (again) and a limited number of programs are available. There are few programs specifically for computer game addiction and participants generally come with a wide variety of behavioral problems. Wilderness therapy is generally only offered for children and teens.
Treatment books on computer game addiction (see TechAddiction's downloadable video game addiction books).
Pros: Convenient, affordable advice from computer game addiction specialists or mental health professionals.
Con: Advice and interventions may be based on outdated research and techniques unless the book is frequently updated (Note: The books above are updated several times per year).
Is it possible to play computer games in moderation?
Yes. Most people can and do play in moderation. They play games for casual entertainment, as a way to relax, and to socialize with friends. However, there are those who are far more likely to become addicted to computer games. For these people, certain games (very often MMOs) appear to present a high risk for addiction and may need to be avoided (adults) or banned (children) in order to prevent unhealthy gaming habits.
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