I have been thinking about addictive behaviors lately. It seems almost everyone is addicted to something, whether coffee, cigarettes, food, alcohol, sex, shopping—you name it, and someone is addicted to it. Videogames are no exception, and as we all know, gaming is often blamed by the popular media for causing violence, deviant behaviors, obesity, and a host of other undesirable effects. A recent study published in Pediatrics by Iowa State University researchers that examined a little over 3000 schoolchildren in Singapore found that “Greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence, and greater impulsivity seemed to act as risk factors for becoming pathological gamers, whereas depression, anxiety, social phobias, and lower school performance seemed to act as outcomes of pathological gaming.” They note that their findings add to the discussion on whether gaming addiction is the same as other addictions.
This is certainly a complex issue. Unlike substance abuse, where we have a fairly good understanding of the chemical effects of these agents on the human body, researchers are just starting to examine the effects of videogames on the brain, both positive (eg, improving cognitive function) and negative (eg, potentially dangerous brain activity during gameplay), and there are many questions that remain to be answered. For example, do different games cause different types/levels of addictions? It would be interesting to know what types of games the schoolchildren who became pathological gamers played, which is something I could not determine from the study’s abstract. However, one videogame genre that is often blamed for causing addiction is the MMORPG. I have never played such games myself, but I know a few people who are or have been addicted to them. In each of these cases, the addiction started at a time when these individuals were vulnerable, so while such games are designed to be addictive to keep people coming back, there was already an underlying predisposition to this addiction. I believe that in these cases, the addiction would have manifested elsewhere had it not been to the MMORPG.
Are videogame addictions as harmful as other addictions? On some levels, I don’t think so. Most importantly, a pathological gamer’s addiction is unlikely to injure or kill another human being. The thought of a pathological gamer behind the wheel certainly does not frighten me, unless, of course, they challenged me to a game of Mario Kart. On the other hand, the addiction can still be incredibly injurious to the individual, leading to lack of employment, disrupted sleep-wake cycles, social awkwardness, isolation, low self-esteem, and a host of other problems, including depression. The Iowa researchers found that this cycle can last for years, which is something I have observed firsthand with someone who is very dear to me.
Of course, every addiction has to be treated on an individual basis and will have its own treatment protocols. That said, I don’t think it is the item of addiction that should be blamed. Videogames are often thrown under the proverbial bus, perhaps because it is easier to point fingers and to make blanket statements than to acknowledge the complexity of the problem. While we can make general observations and identify principles that may apply across the board, pathological gaming, as with any pathological problem, will have to be managed on a case-by-case basis that addresses the underlying problem(s) or vulnerability that both leads to and sustains the addiction.