Game Addiction: Knowing When to Disconnect

Games are fun. For most people who play games, that’s a pretty obvious statement. Games can help us relax, connect with other people, and even exercise our brains. All in all, games can be a good use of our leisure time. But what happens when we start to spend too much time gaming? At what point does gaming stop being a healthy activity and start to have damaging consequences? Is there such a thing as “gaming addiction”?

Daniel Villarreal of Unicorn Booty thinks so, and he recently gave a talk on the subject at GX3, an LGBTQ-inclusive gaming convention held earlier this month in San Jose. Villarreal argues that gaming and technology addictions develop when we become so attached to the screen that we start to ignore other important aspects of our lives, such as sleep, personal hygiene, or attending school and work.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Daniel Villarreal following his presentation. We discussed how to identify addictive behavior, steps you can take to help yourself or a loved one overcome a gaming addiction, and why certain people may be more susceptible to addiction.

To start us off, could you provide a definition of game addiction? Specifically, how do you distinguish between someone who has a problem and someone who just spends a lot of time using electronic devices?

Villarreal: The American Psychological Association has had a hard time creating a clinical definition of game addiction because it’s a relatively new field of study (it’s only been around about a decade or so with most studies focusing only on Asian countries and young males). Some of the original research conflated game addiction with gambling addiction, but both are pretty different in terms of accessibility and consequences.

It’s also been difficult to pin down because game addiction isn’t just based on how much time people spend gaming: two different people could game for the same amount of hours each day, and one might exhibit symptoms of addiction while the other doesn’t. It’s important to remember: addiction isn’t about what you do, but rather what you don’t do as a result of the addiction. If a gamer stops taking care of themselves, stops going to work or school, or stops socializing, then they might be an addict.

Right now, the American Psychological Association has thrown “Internet Gaming Disorder” into Section 3 of the DSM-5*— a section which lists conditions needing more research before they can be designated as “legitimate” mental disorders — with seven symptomatic criteria. Some of these include: excessive use (over six hours of gaming or internet use a day), increased use to escape negative feelings, increased anxiety or irritability when separated from games/tech, inability to function in non-gaming social environments, loss of interest in loved ones and hobbies, and the inability to stop gaming despite negative personal consequences.

Gaming addicts will sometimes gain a lot of weight due to prolonged inactivity or have poor personal hygiene as a result of non-stop playing. Others will stop attending work, school or other social obligations just to play. Others will game non-stop, sometimes even avoiding sleep or meals just to stay connected to the adventure at hand. Over time, the withdrawal, lack of exercise [and other problems] can actually kill you, so it’s a pretty serious condition. It’s likely that many gamers and tech users experience some or all of the DSM-5 symptoms to some degree. But if you continue experiencing these symptoms over three months, then the APA agrees that you might have an addiction problem.

What are some of the motivations behind the addictive use of technology?

Villarreal: The four key motivations are: a desire for intellectual or sensory stimulation; a desire for connecting to others; a desire for social/virtual achievement; and a desire for distraction. When you play Candy Crush or use a social network [app], for instance, you’re immediately distracted from your stresses, and connect with a network of other [like-minded] players and users. Beating levels or chatting with others makes users feel good, like they’ve succeeded in some significant way. Popular games and apps add lots of opportunities for increased stimulation and interaction, which keep users coming back for more.

Plenty of people use electronic devices without becoming addicted. What do you think makes some people more susceptible to addiction than others?

Villarreal: Many studies and theories agree that young age, pre-existing mental health issues, and having parents who were addicts all predispose one to potentially becoming an addict. People with high IQs, social outcasts, and people with greater emotional sensitivity are also more inclined. Though the explanations vary, basically the idea is that a lack of coping skills and a greater propensity towards feeling negative emotions make it more likely that a person will try to elevate their mood through “self-medication” or “self-soothing” with addictive behaviors. The person will end up using whatever available substance best elevates their mood. This means the substance has to be accessible and somewhat discreet, so they can enjoy its pleasure without social backlash, at least at first. Since not everyone has consistent, discreet, and equal access to drugs, games, or sex, not everyone ends up developing the same addictions.

Building off of that, do you believe that members of the LGBTQ community are more susceptible to addiction?

Villarreal: Generally speaking, I’d say we are. Polls report that familial abuse and rejection occur more frequently among LGBTQ people, as do rates of drug use and depression. Add in the fact that LGBTQ people experience higher rates of poverty and lower access to medical and mental health care, and you have a recipe for an addiction. The more negative offline interactions a queer person has, the less likely they’ll want to stay there. Gaming worlds end up seeming much safer, more welcoming, and empowering in comparison.

That being said, I think game addiction straddles both sexuality and gender. One study even said that 8.5 percent of all American children aged of 8 to 18 are game-addicted. While we’re likely to find higher rates of such addiction in young queer communities with access to gaming technology, we’ll have to wait for more studies to truly understand the extent to which it affects the entire community, and queer people especially.

Are you familiar with the Rat Park experiment, in which morphine-addicted rats chose to stop consuming morphine once they were freed from their cages and given the opportunity to exercise and socialize with other rats? In response to this study, some people believe that the opposite of addiction is connection. Could the solution really be that simple?

Villarreal: Before this study, many folks thought that drugs alone created addiction. The idea was that if you gave someone lots of morphine, they’d want more because of their newly formed physical addiction. When researchers gave rats expanded social options beyond mere “morphine or water” they rejected morphine for things like running in wheels, playing with balls and mating with others.

There’s a valuable lesson in all this, but I don’t think it’s simple. Yes, the more a social support and opportunity for interaction and play, the less likely a person is to isolate and fall into an addicted stupor. But many social barriers prohibit would-be addicts from socializing. Few neighborhoods and communities are as radically welcoming and inclusive as, say, a bunch of rats put into a caged playland. Creating that sort of community takes time, money, and involvement by committed groups of individuals. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but (as the Rat Park experiment suggests), it is worth it — it can literally save lives.

If you see that a loved one is struggling with gaming addiction, what are some things you can do to help them?

Villarreal: Research has shown that gaming addiction is usually the result of underlying mental health issues rather than from gaming itself. So if someone is struggling or gaming non-stop for months, it could be because of emotional stress rather than a super-exciting game.

It’s a good idea to first talk to the loved one away from any gaming apparatus. Try to ask about their feelings and interactions with loved ones, work/school or their self-perception and worldview. They might be defensive at first, but if you frame the discussion in terms of caring about them rather than being “anti-game,” they might relax a bit. For example, instead of saying, “You game too much! How long has it been since you last showered? Have they fired you yet?” consider saying, “I see you gaming eight hours every day, taking less care of yourself, and ignoring your job — a job you used to love. I’m a little worried. Are you feeling okay?”

If possible, encourage them to spend time socializing with you and other loved ones, away from gaming and tech. You can make deals like, “How about we have dinner together for a few hours? You can game later,” or “If you stay off your phone and chat with me for an hour, I’ll give you a back rub.” You won’t always want to incentivize it, but small rewards can help at the start. Don’t center your talks just around socializing, though. Make it about showing love, reminding them of their self-worth, and expressing concern for their well-being. If you’re really worried, consider getting them professional psychological help. Showing them [articles like this one] might also be a good place to start.

With the way games and technology now saturate our lives, it can seem a lot more feasible to stop drinking or using drugs than it is to stop using electronic devices. Do you have any advice on coping with the omnipresence of electronics for someone who is recovering from an addiction?

Villarreal: It’s important to establish boundaries. Have “no phone” zones. Encourage time slots away from games and tech. Some people feel they have to be online all the time for work or emergencies, but you can still turn off your phone or leave it in another room from time to time to socialize without it.

Regularly seeing a therapist or talking to friends about your feelings is also a good idea for everyone. It helps you emotionally reconnect and reflect on your time and relationships. A recovering addict needs to take seriously the idea that they’re always in recovery [by] doing their best not to over-indulge their addictive compulsions. They should also remember that people slip-up: “Progress, not perfection,” as they say. As long as you’re trying to do other personally important, non-gaming activities each day, that’s progress.

Electronic devices are likely only going to become more prevalent as time goes on, providing younger people with more opportunities to develop gaming and technology addictions. What can we do to ensure that the next generation isn’t worse off?

Villarreal: Experts suggest limiting young people’s “screen time” so that children have a chance to develop healthy personal behaviors and relationships. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to not give a young person their own portable computer or smart device until they’re older, say something closer to age 16. While limiting screen time is best when a child is very young, waiting until age 16 gives a young person a chance to learn about responsible internet and computer use with some adult supervision — that includes learning about responsible gaming (not all day, and not using lots of money), cyber fraud, phishing and identity theft, cyberbullying, spam/adult sites, sexting, and responsible research and personal posting. I also think we should definitely be doing more to encourage students to emotionally express themselves so that teachers, parents and communities stay more aware of child depression, anxiety or other addictive indicators.

Some games and smart devices limit the amount of time a young person can spend online. I suspect we’ll continue to see child-centered technology and gaming companies pressured to provide such controls, so that children aren’t endlessly drawn to the glowing screen. But as we move towards wearable tech and augmentations that integrate games and networking more so into daily life, preventing tech-addiction will require greater, widespread community vigilance, for sure.

Richard is a gaymer from Portland, OR whose sleep schedule is determined by the RNG. Charisma is his dump stat. Twitter: @RichardTheWorst.

*Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (more)

Image: Kelly Hunter (Creative Commons)