When we consider gaming to be a possible source of addiction, it is important that we do not fall into the lure of just blaming the game. In order to understand some of the factors of addictive behavior around computer games, this e-booklet will cover some of the current research as well as examine how IGD (internet gaming disorder) differs from normal additions that are currently known and accepted as psychological disorders.

Addictive behaviors of computer gaming

One very important factor to understand about addiction when it comes to gaming, is that it cannot be put in the same category of addiction as more traditional addictions such as substance abuse, like alcoholism or heroin addiction. Gaming is not in and of itself hurtful to its users. There is nothing in a computer game itself that will enter your bloodstream and give you an artificial high (not yet anyway).

The addictive component of computer games lies more in their ability to motivate the player at a very high level. If you ask critiques of gaming they will often bring up the example of the young Korean man, dying of a heart attack after spending countless hours sitting behind a computer screen in a south Korean gaming café. Though this young man might have been victim of his own extreme motivation for playing computer games, there is little that suggest that his story has been repeated all over the world. If you look at the statistics of the amount of people dying directly from playing computer games, it is very clear: none.

We can conclude that games neither enter your bloodstream nor stabs you through the screen. Why then are we concerned enough to put up internet gaming addiction as a possible future diagnosis to be given by psychiatrists around the world?

To clarify this, let us dive into the proposed diagnoses Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD).

Internet gaming disorder itself

To clarify what IGD is, here is a short description of why it is being researched, and what it is.

When most of the population plays computer games in one way or another, and a major part of them online, it is very important that healthcare professionals helps out people who fall into addictive patterns. That is the main reason for studying the effects of gaming on addictive behavior. To help out those who fall into the pit of overusing games – just as addicts of other sources do. In order to create a useful diagnosis that can help guide the treatment of it across boundaries and cultures, the term is now being researched by a number of researchers throughout the world. But what are they researching?

Internet gaming disorder is a new possible diagnosis put forth and called on for more research by the American Psychological Association (APA). APA is responsible for creating and developing the manual that health professionals from all over the world uses, when setting a diagnosis for a psychological disorder. They have created the possible diagnosis to have a term to use and develop upon because a number of psychologists experience especially young people having trouble with controlling their desire for gaming, which is affecting their everyday functioning.

The way that researchers are testing whether this concept of IGD is a real or not, is by creating different short surveys containing factors from APA’s description to be checked off (see fx the nine-item criteria list from this article by Weinstein et al, 2017). They then compare the results against models of addictive behavior that are well founded in research from the world of psychology. This helps explain how well IGD fits the criteria of being a psychological disorder. So far, the researchers are concluding that it is hard to call IGD a diagnosis, because it seems as though it is mostly other factors in an individual’s life that determine whether they spend too much time playing computer.

To sum up, the concept of gaming as an addiction is hard to even discuss, because it is not gaming in and of itself that creates an addictive behavior. This is one of the reasons that researchers have suggested calling it “excessive gaming” or “problematic gaming behavior”. Therefore, we will examine some of the factors around the personality and behavior that is typical of the gamer that would categorize as addicted. This is guided by the research presented in this study by Choi, Yoo and Greenwell (2017).

One of two factors especially highlighted by the study is the “need for achievement”. It is a personality trade that is often linked with both high performing individuals in sports and business. It is also part of what humanistic psychology call the need for self-actualization. Basically, it describes a person’s need to do an activity at a high level, gaining either personal satisfaction or recognition by others. When combining this need with the general characteristics of competitive online games such as CS:GO or LoL, it becomes clear that it is a big part of the game to measure your achievement. Both games (along with countless others) have publicly accessible ranking lists online, that track the players statistics in real time and constantly updates with new information. If an individual has a high need for achievement, and can constantly track her own development, it helps clarify how this can become an obsession. Another picture that becomes clearer from this idea, is that there is not long from the concept of motivation to the concept of addiction that is employed when talking about IGD. And it is dangerous to mistake motivation for addiction.

The other factor drawn out by the study by Choi, Yoo and Greenwell is risk-taking. A risk-taking personality has a tendency to take chances and risks that might not be well thought out. At the same time, risk-taking is a central aspect of learning – a factor that teachers all over the world are trying to install in kids. A balanced risk-taking behavior is a symptom of healthy curiosity. An exaggerated willingness to take risks might be a symptom of too few boundaries, in a child’s life. The authors suggest that risk-taking is linked with IGD because the individuals with a high risk-taking nature perceives the game as rewarding them for taking these high risks.

The take away message from this short discussion on the personality factors around IGD and addictive behaviors of gaming in general is that it is not easy to work with and further understand the concept, because it is not clear whether it even makes sense to link the addictive behavior to the game, but rather to the personality of addicted people. It should be noted that IGD is not the only addictive category suffering from this effect. Training addictive behaviors suffer from much of the same problems. It is, nonetheless important to do thorough investigation into the subject.

What can be done to help lessen the addictive behaviors of gaming?

Whether we can put a label on the behaviors of the addictive behavior of gaming or not, it is still a reality that some people experience an extreme motivation to play, often interfering with their everyday life in a manner that is unhealthy for their functioning. So how can we do something about it?

This question has differing answers depending on who is answering. Let us start from the individual herself and move outwards, through family and friends, organizations and school and lastly healthcare professionals.

The individual herself is of course the most important figure in overcoming her own addictive behaviors. First step of overcoming any kind of addiction is always to realize and acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. This can be a big and difficult thing for the individual to do, and often requires help from her surroundings. Sometimes it also takes time. An important factor for an individual to be aware of is that it is very hard for us as human beings to evaluate ourselves precisely.

We have a tendency to either glorify or demonize our own behavior – neither being good effects when it comes to understanding one’s own situation in a useful way. Therefore, the individual needs friends and family that can help reflect how the behavior is affecting her life. To receive that help it is important that the communication between her and her close relations are strong enough to help her realize her problem in a respectful and kind way. Countless times the attempt to help addicted personalities has drowned in anger and sadness, leaving no room for the individual to reflect upon the addiction itself, as they get overwhelmed with feelings of embarrassment or anger towards themselves or their close ones.

The family and friends of someone who is playing games at an unhealthy level, can be a major influence in helping them regain balance. Being able to communicate with the individual is the key here. It can be an important factor to remember that the person with the problem is not trying to be evil to neither parents, siblings or friends, when they forget appointments or miss dinner. They are doing this because they are either completely spun up within the game, or there is something else amiss, and the screen just becomes the excuse to not discuss subjects such as loneliness, sadness or guilt.

The first example, being completely swallowed by a good game, can be compared to forgetting time and place when reading a great book, or watching a masterpiece of a movie. It can happen to everyone. Luckily most times this behavior does not last forever. Human beings inherently grow tired of doing the same thing repeatedly. Either that, or we grow to learn that skipping dinner is not a good idea, if you want to be on mom’s good side.

The second example; the screen becoming a retreat from talking about the factors in a person’s life that are problematic, is more important to be aware of. When the games become an escape from real life, and from receiving the help one needs, we have to be vigilant in our attempt to help the person in need.

One way to offer a bigger amount of help for individuals who are in need, but “caught” behind a screen, is to create and develop communities of gaming. In some games, like World of Warcraft, one of the most essential part of the game has always been guilds. Guilds are a structure, which allows any number of players to participate in achieving common goals within the game, or just socialize. This has translated outside the game as well, with a growing number of countries housing a growing number of gaming communities.

In Denmark, a new eSports organization sees the light of day almost every month, bringing a big amount of young gamers into an organized platform from which they can socialize and grow together, while growing as individuals as well. While some of these organizations have a focus of “elite development”, many of them offer a social aspect as well. Some even specialize in getting out the young people caught behind the screens at home, like the organization Gastro and Gaming (GG for short of course). They utilize contact with local schools to reach out to all kinds of children, inviting them into their organization. Here they play games together and they cook and eat together. So far it has been very successful at creating unity within different age groups. It is now receiving national attention for its way to work with children and gaming as a positive thing.

Schools all over the world are using gaming and eSports to motivate and help children grow as well. When looking at the school’s intention with using gaming, it is rarely to break down addictive patterns in their students. That being said, it might be having a similar effect to what the organizations are doing. By creating an environment where the computer is not an escape, but a strengthening factor, individuals who portray addictive patterns, might be compelled to socialize more. This could lead to these individuals becoming more outspoken about why they have spent so much time in front of the computer, as an escape.

Lastly, healthcare professionals can have a part in the aiding of individuals with addictive behavior towards gaming. By being advisors and counselors of both the individual, family and schools, a professional can help guide the process of dealing with the addictive behavior. Using both research and practical experience as tools to help clients understand what they are actually experiencing and what they can do about it, puts the professional in an important role for a successful treatment process.

What can you do, if you might have IGD-addictive like symptoms??

If you are already reading this, and think that you have an addiction towards online games, you have taken an important first step: You are seeking more information about your current state, and are most likely getting ready to ask for help. A few things you can ask yourself to guide your path could be these simple questions. It can be very useful to reflect upon them with someone who knows you well:

  1. Are you playing so much that it affects your school/work in a negative way?
  2. Are your personal relationships to loved ones being strained from your gaming?
  3. Are you playing even though you do not want to play?
  4. Do you feel as a bad person from playing too much?
  5. Are you using gaming as an escape from something else in your life?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions to consider, and it should be very clear that this is not the questions used by IGD researchers. This is questions based on experience working with gamers and research in the field of IGD, as well as experience from working with other addictions. They are meant to spark self-reflection and conversation about a subject that can be hard to talk about. It takes courage, but it pays to get a better understanding of yourself.

If you feel like it is totally beyond your control, then seek professional help near you.