“I’ve always been afraid of video games – not afraid that I wouldn’t like them, but that I would like them too much, and that after mere seconds in front of any particularly bright and absorbing game, I would abandon all ambition, turn into a mouth-breathing zombie, and develop a wide, sofa-shaped rear end.” ~ Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker Common sense tells us that Internet games can be addicting. If you have ever played Angry Birds or Farmville, you most likely know what we are talking about. But what does research tell us about Internet gaming addiction? Thankfully, there has been quite a bit of research conducted on the topic of Internet games and what addiction to these games looks like. From the time the American Psychological Association gave a term to this addiction – Internet gaming disorder – with an actual list of symptoms, researchers have been trying to expand on what is meant by the term. Research has examined everything from the prevalence of addictive symptoms in players of Internet games to the accuracy of diagnosis and efficacy of treatment for this form of addiction. The questions addressed in this post include:
- Is there a real Internet gaming disorder?
- Why are Internet games so addicting?
- What has research found regarding Internet gaming addiction?
- What do we know about Internet gaming addiction?
- What can be done about Internet gaming addiction?
Much of the research regarding this topic has reached similar conclusions regarding Internet gaming disorders and addiction to Internet games. Ultimately, what we know about Internet gaming addiction is this: there is a strong connection between the amount of time spent playing Internet games and addiction to these games. However, there is a caveat with this key finding. While online gaming may be addictive to a small percentage, there is little evidence that points to decidedly detrimental physical, social or mental effects for this addiction (what the American Psychological Association calls an Internet gaming disorder). If you want to learn more about addiction to Internet games, why online games are so addicting in the first place, and what can be done about Internet gaming addiction, read on.
How did Internet gaming become so popular – and so addicting?
With the rapid rise of the Internet over the past two decades came the equally rapid popularization of online games. From early flash games (like many of those still featured on websites like Addicting Games) to so-called ‘freemium’ app games (such as the ever-popular Bejeweled), Internet gaming has becoming something of a phenomenon. There is no one (or, at least, almost no one) who denies that Internet games can be addictive in the layperson’s sense of the word. Given the nearly obsessive way many people use these games, there is little question that they can be addicting in a more general sense. But what is it about these online games that make them so immersive in the beginning and so difficult to stop playing in the long run? One theory has to do with the inherent rewards that players receive from playing these games. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are apparently the most popular of online games precisely for this reason. These role-playing games supposedly offer a wider variety of incentives for players when compared to other game genres – as a result, close to half of online gamers play MMORPGs. The most prominent example of a MMORPG is World of Warcraft, which over eight million players engage in on a daily basis. One academic study from the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management discusses why MMORPGs are of particular interest to players because of the incentives that they offer: “MMORPGs allow players to achieve game goals, be social, and immerse in the game. Each of these factors is composed of a number of subcomponents as particularized by the gamers. First, achievement includes advancing in the game… Reputation and admiration from the gaming community for gaming achievements are further key factors motivating players to keep playing. Second, the social factor is composed of socializing, including chatting and making new friends in the game, forming new relationships, and working in a team. Third, immersion in the game is denoted by discovery, i.e. exploring the game…content, role-playing, and escapism – i.e. playing in order to avoid real life.” In less academic terms, this essentially means that players may not be addicted to a game itself, but rather the achievement, social, and immersion benefits that it offers (whether real or only perceived). While this description is tailored to the role-playing games discussed above, many of the experienced benefits may be the same for all genres of online games. The main reason that Internet games are so fun to play, then, is arguably because of the perceived benefits and personal satisfaction with life that they offer to players. It is another question altogether whether or not this alone is enough to lead to addiction or an Internet game disorder. While the main theory regarding the addictive nature of online video games is about the inherent rewards that they give to players, the various reasons for video game addiction can be broken down into more specific factors that lead people to play Internet games in the first place, and then to continue playing them:
- Many addictive video games do not have an ‘end’, making extensive play more likely
- In-game rewards and leveling systems create a sense of accomplishment
- Internet games often encourage collaboration and socialization, more than any other form of video game
- Internet games work as a form of escapism from stressful aspects of life, particularly for role-playing games
- Players of online games often keep playing to try to beat high scores, reach the next level, or discover new aspects of the game
- Because online games are usually seen as harmless, few people associate extensive use with addiction to the game
- Video games, even of the Internet variety, can create strong feelings in players, making it both rewarding and challenging
“What I see in the population that I’m working with around video games, many gamers are people who are bored and lonely, and this is an addiction which kind of gets its hooks into them. There’s a tremendous gratification if you level up and get really good. And so you can be competing against yourself, and that has a certain power. But once you really feel like you’re competing against other people and you really want to receive the admiration that comes with achieving a high status in the game, that’s a very powerful motivator.” ~ Dr. Hilarie Cash
What We Know About Internet Game Addiction
While many people, including gamers themselves, recognize the addictive properties of many video games and online role-playing games, it was only a couple of years ago that the American Psychiatric Association decided to place a diagnosis on obsessive game playing, calling it an Internet gaming disorder. This is not yet an official disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but is instead listed in a sub-section that recommends further study of the disorder. As part of this term, the psychiatric organization provided a list of nine symptoms for the purposes of diagnosis. In order to actually be diagnosed with a disorder, a person must meet at least five of these symptoms, which include:
- Persistent use of Internet games, leading to distress or problems functioning
- Unsuccessful attempts to limit participation
- Loss of interest in other activities
- Deceiving others about the amount of time spent on games
- Problems in relationships, school or work because of Internet games
- Anxiety when the online game is unavailable
- Social withdrawal
- Losing personal, professional, or academic opportunities as a result of gaming
These are crucial findings from the American Psychiatric Association, as they help both psychiatrists and average game players recognize what addiction looks like in the context of Internet gaming and game play. However, while the organization has identified the phenomenon of an Internet gaming disorder and even forwarded a list of specific symptoms, it has also recognized that very little is known about the impact that addiction to Internet games has on personal, social, professional, and academic life. So what do we know about the impact that Internet game addiction has? The most relevant knowledge that we have for Internet games and addiction comes from a study published at the end of 2016. The study conducted an open-science methodology, assessing the survey responses of close to 20,000 participants around the world. The goal of the study was to fill in the gap of knowledge regarding the prevalence, validity, or cross-cultural robustness of the Internet gaming disorder diagnosis criteria. The results are worth quoting here at length, as they provide us with valuable knowledge regarding Internet games and addiction: “Among those who played games, more than 2 out of 3 did not report any symptoms of Internet gaming disorder, and findings showed that a very small proportion of the general population might qualify for a potential acute diagnosis of Internet gaming disorder. Comparison to gambling disorder revealed that Internet-based games may be significantly less addictive than gambling and similarly dysregulating as electronic games more generally. The evidence linking Internet gaming disorder to game engagement was strong, but links to physical, social, and mental health outcomes were decidedly mixed.” In other words, Internet games can be addicting, but the vast majority of players do not experience addiction. Instead of serving as a warning against playing Internet games at all, the research we have available shows that addiction to Internet games occurs only in a small amount of cases. Perhaps the most important finding of this study is that addiction to Internet games is more likely to occur in players who spend an inordinate amount of time playing these kinds of games.
What Can Be Done About Internet Game Addiction?
The first step in treating Internet game addiction is to realize that there is a problem in the first place. While the research described is reassuring regarding the prevalence of Internet games addiction, it can still happen. If you see any of the symptoms of addiction described above in yourself or someone you love, it is most likely time to pull back from playing Internet games. The symptoms described by the American Psychiatric Association largely align with the signs and symptoms of addictive behaviors more generally, and should therefore be taken seriously. Thankfully, addiction – whether to drugs or to video games – is a fully treatable condition. If you think that you may have an issue in addiction to Internet games, do not hesitate to reach out to an addiction recovery center, psychologist, or therapist to get an assessment.