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What is "Video Game Addiction"?

Video game addiction is the name of a new and quite controversial disorder that's effectively the gaming equivalent of alcoholism or a gambling addiction. The reason it's controversial is simple: a lot of people don't believe it's a real disorder. In particular, the demographic that would see it the most (ie, gamers) generally thinks that video game addiction isn't a thing.

Not helping matter is that many of the places talking about video game addiction also have a history of attacking new forms of entertainment, and this looks like it might be more of the same. For example, rock and roll music was once said to irreversibly corrupt the youth of America, and at one point people were terrified that reading Harry Potter would indoctrinate people into Satan worship and witchcraft. These types of events are known as moral panics, and articles on video game addiction often look like an attempt to stir up yet another one. Simply put, there is a huge overlap between things that interest gamers and things that have been the subject of past moral panics. We've been there. We've had our belongings thrown out by scared parents. We've been prohibited from visiting our friends because they enjoy the "wrong" kind of kids entertainment. We don't like the idea of another moral panic hurting today's kids.

The catch? While "video game addiction" might not be the best name for the problem, and it's definitely being made to sound much more commonplace than it really is, there's actually some truth to the fearmongering this time. Some people who get into gaming get far too invested in it, and it's only reasonable to alert parents to this potential danger. That said, the odds of you encountering anyone that has this problem are very, very remote.

Let's break this all down as simply as possible.

What video game addiction is not

Perhaps one of the more troubling things about video game addiction is that many of the signs experts are telling us to look for are, in reality, just normal childhood behavior. Thus, if you follow their advice, you're very likely to assume the worst or worry about your children when there isn't reason for it. Of course, the fact that there are experts on a topic that is just now being defined is already good reason to question the motives of the people sounding the alarm. Expertise requires experience, and there hasn't been enough time for anybody to have studied video game addiction yet. This means that the self-proclaimed "experts" we're seeing are likely overstating their credentials to make themselves sound more important, sell books, or promote some other agenda. It's possible that these experts have experience with other forms of addiction, but their recommendations don't reflect this.

Here are a few of the so-called "symptoms" of video game addiction and why they don't hold up under scrutiny.

Constantly talking about a game or games in general
People talk about things they enjoy. This is especially true when it comes to children, as they tend to fixate on whatever their favorite hobby or interest of the moment happens to be. For example, children who enjoy watching SpongeBob SquarePants are very likely to talk at length about the show, its characters, and just about anything related to it. They're also likely to continue talking about it long after other people have stopped listening. Knowing when you've spent too much time talking about a subject is something most of us learned at some point, and since children have yet to recognize when this happens, it can sometimes be hard to change the topic or end the conversation. But, regardless of whether they're talking non-stop about a TV show, movie, or video game they enjoy, this isn't a sign that they are "addicted" to that media. It's just normal childhood behavior.

On the other hand, adults are generally expected to have more to talk about than their hobby of the moment, but we all do this to some degree. A somewhat stereotypical example of this are the many Thanksgiving dinners that have been ruined because someone droned on for ages without letting anyone else talk.

Playing video games frequently, even if they've played the game before
There are two problems with this "warning sign". The first is that, much like I mentioned in the above paragraph, kids get "stuck" on things they enjoy. Whether it's eating the same meal everyday, watching Disney's Frozen for the billionth time, or listening to Baby Shark yet again, when children like something, they want to be exposed to it again and again. Video games are no different.

The other problem with taking this as a warning sign is that many games that are available today are explicitly designed to be played over and over again. This may be because there are alternative characters and stories to explore, or perhaps the game itself creates an entirely new world for the player to experience every time they start a new game. Additionally, many games out there are rather long -- it's not uncommon for modern games to feature more than ten hours of story for the player to cover. Thus, it's only to be expected that many gaming sessions will be required to finish a modern game. That's also assuming the game even has an ending -- not all games do!

Spending a large portion of their allowance on games
Children are given an allowance for a large number of positive reasons. Importantly, it gives them some control and autonomy, allowing them to make purchases on their own. But that's also why it doesn't make sense to treat someone spending their allowance on games as some sort of crime. It's their money, and when parents give their child an allowance, it comes with implicit right for them to spend it on anything they want, including candy, toys, movies, music, and yes, video games. Obviously, a parent does have the right to set some ground rules or stop their children from buying something dangerous, but my point here is that there isn't anything inherently wrong with people spending money on games, provided they can afford to do so.

Avoiding or neglecting chores and homework in order to play games
Just to be clear: I'm not condoning or excusing this. Responsibilities are always more important than games. Instead, I'm highlighting this here because children have always disliked doing chores. Adding video games to the equation really doesn't change anything, as it's just another activity that's more interesting than homework. Children both need and crave stimulation, and a pages full of math problems has historically never provided enough of that.

Playing games for more than an hour a day
A common claim being made by "experts" is that nobody should be looking at a screen for more than an hour a day. On one hand, they do have a point. People, especially young children, need to be active and moving about. Sedentary lifestyles aren't healthy, and as a general rule, Americans are steadily growing more overweight and less mobile every year. But, claiming that people are addicted when they spend more than an hour a day looking at a screen just isn't realistic.

If the intent really is to promote exercise, then time spent playing motion activated video games (such as those for the Wii U or Xbox Connect) shouldn't be treated the same way as time spent sitting on the couch with a controller in your hands. Both require being "in front of a screen" for long periods, but with motion activated games, you're up and moving around. I've yet to see any articles on video game addition suggest this as a possible alternative, which suggests that the concern isn't about healthier living at all.

Another issue with this claim is that it ignores other things you can do in front of a screen. Suspiciously, there is never any mention of watching television or watching movies. Since both involve sitting in front of a screen, they should be just as bad as video games. The fact that only video games are being talked about strongly suggests that these articles are an attack on a new form of entertainment, not a genuine concern for the next generation's well being. After all, consider this: if you were to watch Disney's Moana and then spend the rest of the day away from all electronics, you'd still have used a screen for nearly twice the daily limit. Yet, since nobody's sounding the alarm for "movie addiction", you need to ask where the problem really lies. Selective omission like this can be an indication of an alterior motive, such as an attempt to get people to avoid something that would compete with your own products.

To be blunt, if you're spending your free time in front of a screen, that's really your own business. There is really only a problem with this when your screen time comes at the expense of your physical needs, as I'll explain in the next section.

When to intervene

Early on in this article I mentioned that the concept of video game addiction does have some merit. This poses an important question: what really are some signs that someone has an unhealthy attachment to games?

The answers to this are pretty disturbing. They are also impossible to hide, which means that parents should already be aware that things have gone very wrong somewhere if their children are behaving this way. In fact, the severity of these behaviors is also a hint at something else: the vast majority of the time, this is a problem that strikes older teenagers and adults -- people who are living on their own, and thus are able to neglect their own needs without anyone to stop them.

If you want to be disturbed, here's a list of some real warning signs parents and friends of gamers need to watch for:

Urinating or defecating while playing
Now, I'm not talking about pausing a game to go use the bathroom. Everyone has to answer the call of nature at some point in their day. Instead, I'm talking about relieving yourself right where you're sitting, and then remaining seated in your excreta because you're still playing. I'm not making this one up either; this sort of thing has been witnessed enough times for gamers to have coined a term for it. It's referred to as poopsocking, even if no actual sock is used. Some gamers who are truly addicted to their games refuse to stop playing long enough to use the bathroom, and once the need to go becomes unbearable, they just go right where they are at the moment to avoid interrupting their game with a bathroom break. Alternatively, if they are playing on a mobile device, they simply take their game into the bathroom and continue playing while they do their business. Either way, they are prioritizing their game far, far too much.

Abnormally long gaming
Gaming sessions lasting a few hours happen from time to time. This is more frequently seen on weekends, as the gamer can stay up later than usual and then sleep in the next day. Alternatively, long sessions happen because the player simply lost track of time while playing. This isn't generally a problem, as even dedicated gamers will occasionally stop to stretch, grab something to eat, down some soda, and otherwise take care of themselves.

Long gaming sessions become a problem when the player starts ignoring their biological needs, including sleep. Playing for more than five hours without stopping to eat or drink is dangerous enough, but people have been known to play for more than thirty hours straight, which is beyond reasonable. In several cases, this has led to the player dying at their computer or game console, as their body just couldn't keep pushing any further. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, high school and college students have been known to get themselves into serious trouble by playing games long into the night, resulting in them having little chance to sleep or study.

Playing games that you don't enjoy
Most games have a level or section that a player would rather skip or that simply isn't very fun. This can lead to people rushing through sections in an attempt to get back to the interesting stuff, but it's just as likely that the player will abandon the game at this point. While this is a universal experience, sometimes people get stuck playing bad games. Often, this problem is tied to the amount of time and money the player has already invested in the game; because they've already sunk so much effort into getting where they are in the game, they feel like it's wrong to give up now.

It's easy to say that someone should stop playing a game they aren't enjoying, but actually quitting the game may require someone else's assistance. Above all else, games are supposed to be fun. Sometimes there's a learning curve that players need to overcome to reach that point, but if a game doesn't become fun after awhile, then it might be best to move on to another game or another activity altogether.

Spending money needed for necessities on games
This is obviously not something that children will do, as something else in their life has going seriously wrong if kids are paying rent or buying groceries with their own money. Adults, however, do need to pay bills, and if they are spending that money on video games (especially in-game purchases) then there is cause for alarm (and probably some sort of direct intervention). All games are different, so I'm not going to suggest a limit on how much is safe to spend on a game. The only restriction I would put on in-game purchases or gaming-related expenditures in general is that the money spent should be money you can afford to spend -- that is, it's not needed for other things.

On a side note, it's worth pointing out that there are games that include gambling-like features, and people can get addicted to these just like how people get addicted to regular gambling. For example, you might have heard about the loot box scandal that's going on; the reason there's a scandal is that these loot boxes work like slot machines or similar luck-based forms of gambling, and the games they are found in are often played by children. This has resulted in children getting hooked on this sort of virtual gambling, and very few people are happy about that.

Stealing money to pay for games or in-game purchases
This is related to the above point, but it's alarming enough to warrant being singled out. Seriously, if someone is stealing to pay for their gaming habits, and this includes using their parent's credit cards without permission, then something must be done. What that something is depends on the nature of the offense.

In some cases, games are linked to an account that can be automatically charged (eg, your iTunes or Microsoft account) and children don't always understand that they are making a purchase. This isn't a good thing, but the kids are making an innocent mistake and can be taught about it easily enough.

On the other hand, there are reports of children taking their parent's credit cards out of their parent's wallet or purse and using them to buy games or make in-game purchases. In that case, it's possibly willful theft -- the one exception I can think of is when it's a sign of a more serious problem, such as the gambling issue mentioned above. In that case, it should be treated like a gambling addiction, because that's really what you're seeing.

A possible solution?

One important thing about horror stories like these is that these problems are often linked to a specific game rather than gaming in general. This means that problematic behavior might be curbed by limiting access (or even outright prohibiting) the offending video game while allowing other games.

This is especially true if the problem is caused by the player being addicted to a luck-based prize mechanic like we're seeing in the loot box scandal. In a case like that, the most reasonable thing you can do is cut the player off from the game entirely.

Above all else, it's vital that you try communicating your worries with the afflicted party. The goal of this discussion shouldn't be to vilify the game or gaming in general; just focus on what specifically worries you and try to get the player to understand why this behavior is troubling. Keep in mind that you could always be misinterpreting the situation, and that you might be able to compromise so both parties are satisfied.

Unfortunately, since many cases of video game addiction involve people who are living on their own, all of the above may not be possible. In such cases, the most you can do is try to steer the person towards getting help or taking action themselves. Additionally, you should also be wary of enabling their addiction; in some cases this can be done by providing material items rather than money, but in extreme cases, it may be best to let them crash and burn. Sadly, people dealing with addictions sometimes need to hit rock bottom before they are willing to admit that there is a problem. Be ready to help them up when this happens.

Further reading

This isn't the first time that I've written about games being a problem or how to mitigate issues with gaming. Thus, you might be interested in checking out the page on rules to keep games fun.

It might also be beneficial to read up on how to help someone dealing with addictions. Since video game addiction is sometimes actually gambling addiction in disguise, consider reading up on gambling addiction. You can find resources by using terms like "gambling addiction", "problem gambling", and "compulsive gambling" on your favorite search engine.