Gaming is so entertaining that 72% of the U.S. population plays games online1; gaming comes in second only to social networking in a ranking of time Americans spend online by category2. In fact, the average number of hours spent by gamers each week on online gaming increased by 10%, or a total of 8 hours a week, between 2009 and 20103.
An ‘addiction’ to online gaming can occur with any type of game (for women over 50 it’s more likely to be simple single-player games like Tetris and Solitaire played for hours a day) but compulsive playing is most commonly seen among MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) players, who represent approximately 9% of gamers4 .
MMORPG’s provide environments with real-time interactions are and highly social; aspects that all gamers enjoy, but which may provide marginalized youth a sense of control of their social relationships, providing greater success in social relationships in these virtual environments than they have in real relationships5.
“[Gaming addiction is] a clinical impulse control disorder”, says Dr. Kimberly Young, Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery “an addiction in the same sense as compulsive gambling6.”
Echoing Dr. Young’s thoughts, Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants says “children who play four to five hours per day have no time for socializing, doing homework, or playing sports. That takes away from normal social development. You can get a 21-year-old with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old”.
In a two year longitudinal study conducted by researchers from the US, Singapore and Hong Kong, in 2010, researchers found that the percentage of pathological youth gamers is similar across the world, with about 8.5% of young U.S. gamers showing video game addictions. The researchers concluded that video game addiction is a serious and unique behavioral problem. “Once they become addicted, pathological gamers were more likely to become depressed, have increased social phobias, and increased anxiety. And they received poorer grades in school,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State associate professor of psychology. “…pathological gaming is not simply a symptom of depression, social phobia or anxiety. In fact, those problems seem to increase as children become more addicted. In addition, when children stopped being addicted, depression, anxiety and social phobias decreased as well.”
However, it’s important to note that heavy game playing in and of itself does not mean the gamer is suffering from addiction. Dr. Douglas Gentile, Director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University and the director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family underscores this message saying, “It is important that people realize that playing a lot is not the same thing as pathological play. For something to be an addiction, it has to mean more than you do it a lot. It has to mean that you do it in such a way that it damages your life7.
In the same way that not all heavy gamers are addicts, not all negative outcomes associated with video gaming are addiction related. Other negative effects can include physical symptoms and emotional issues. Physical symptoms may include tendonitis and seizures, short term aggression mimicking violent age-inappropriate games# (there is conflicting research about any long term changes in aggression), obesity due to lack of exercise, poor socialization, or a lack of attention to school, chores or work. Negative emotional effects include depression, anxiety, social phobias and lower school performance8.