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Living in Another World: Video Games & Video Game Addiction

Updated 07 February 2016 Written by Deborah QuinnClinically Reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC
When a 50-year-old today was 12, there were about six TV channels.  Most people couldn’t conceive of cell phones, pocket calculators were just hitting the consumer market, and Pong was the most intricate and popular video game available. Today, children as young as 1 are operating smartphones (at least learning to swipe) and complex fantasy worlds are only a power button away.

Enter the steep learning curve of living with technology!  It’s arguably one of the most dynamic times in human history, where there have never been such widespread changes for so many people in such a short amount of time. For some, technology has brought incredible advances and for others, great challenges.

Magnus is 14. He’s a sweet boy, does fairly well in school and has a few good friends, but he is small for his age and often gets in skirmishes with other children.  He is bullied at school and when he comes home each day, his favorite thing is to turn on his Xbox and play Assassin’s Creed. As a character in the plot-line, he becomes a strong and daring pirate or assassin. When he plays with others online, he is treated with respect. If not, he can challenge them and use his amassed skills to win. He loots treasure chests and even if his avatar dies, he can start again. In this world, he is captain of his own destiny and there’s little consequence for failure.

Recently his mother, Erica, has grown concerned about the amount of time and the way Magnus plays online. It’s always been a struggle for her to hold a boundary with her son around video games and over the past few months, it’s become nearly impossible. If he had his druthers, Magnus would log in the moment he got home from school and only push pause to go to the bathroom.

This story is one not unfamiliar to many of today’s parents. Technology has changed the human way of life drastically over the course of the last generation and understanding the environment, psychology, and healthiness of gaming is a worthwhile inquiry.

In a 2007 study of seven thousand video gamers, close to twelve percent were classified as being addicted (1), and experts believe that that percentage has continued to rise. While “Video Game Addiction” is not yet recognized as a diagnosable disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, the psychological motivation of excessive gaming can be very similar to those seen in other addictions such as drug or alcohol use:

  • There is a positive and often instant feedback or reward cycle that keeps the user coming back (the feeling of getting high or receiving reward for a job well done)
  • Users are often trying to escape an aspect of their current reality by going “outside of themselves”
  • Users often have an impulse control disorder and the behavior satisfies the ability to act impulsively with low risk

If you think you or your loved one might have a video gaming addiction, it’s important to take the behavior seriously and get help.  Like alcohol or drug addiction, results of excessive gaming can be devastating and long-lasting.  There are narratives of lost jobs, ruined relationships, failures to function in the everyday world, and even death and suicide from excessive gaming.

In the (2006) book Playstation Nation, Kurt and Olivia Bruner provide a checklist of signs to watch for if you think you or your loved one might have a gaming issue:

Does he/she:

  •      Play almost every day?
  •      Play for extended periods (more than three or four hours at a time)?
  •      Play for excitement? Play when stressed?
  •      Get restless and irritable if he or she can’t play?
  •      Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play?
  •      Play instead of doing homework or taking care of other life responsibilities?
  •      Struggle to limit playing time?

You might try documenting the gaming behavior for one month, focusing on how much time is spent, any issues that are coming up as a result of gaming, and how the user reacts to any limits.  You can also take a Technology Addiction online quiz like this one from Tech Addict.

Gaming can be fun, and like most activities, it can be healthy in the right dose and in the right setting.  We know some people like to drink coffee in the morning before they head out the door, but drinking only caffeine, non-stop all day will eventually lead to some serious health problems. In the case study above, it’s easy to understand why Magnus might like to play Assassin’s Creed: he is able to take a break from the social stresses he feels at school, he experiences feelings of competency and self-worth, and he’s even made friends with other players online, ones he feels a connection to. These experiences are not without merit; the challenge is to keep the behavior in a healthy balance and incorporate the value into other aspects of life.  If you think you or your loved one might have a video gaming addiction, please reach out for help.

1: Grüsser SM1, Thalemann R, Griffiths MD., “Excessive computer game playing: evidence for addiction and aggression?US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 10 April December, 2007

About Sandstone Care

Sandstone Care is a Denver, Colorado-based treatment program for young adults and adolescents struggling with substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Sandstone Care offers a full continuum of outpatient care including Extended Care, Day Treatment, Intensive Outpatient, and General Outpatient Programs for young adults (ages 18-30) and adolescents (ages 13-18). Sandstone Care believes that successful outcomes are achieved through a systemic, evidence-based approach that addresses the entire individual as well as their environment – this means providing academic & vocational support to help individuals achieve their goals and discover their strengths, family participation to educate and support the entire family system, psychiatric and dietitian evaluations and support to promote a healthy mind and body, as well as community-based activities along with the more traditional evidence-based group and individual therapy. If you or a loved one needs additional support, call our confidential line, at (888) 850-1890 or fill out the form on our website, and our admissions team will be able to answer any questions as well as guide you and your loved ones toward the path of long-lasting recovery. For more information, visit sandstonecare.com.