Wes: On first blush idea of video game addiction seems trite. Of the many indulgences in our world, it’s hard to imagine that flashing images on a screen could pose much of a threat. Moreover, the word “addiction” gets thrown around quite freely these days, usually more as a weapon than a diagnosis (e.g., “Get off your phone! You’re completely addicted to it!”).
However, behavioral addiction is not simply in the eye of the beholder. It’s a real problem with clearly defined criteria. We’ve all engaged in something pleasurable (sex, golf, Netflix, fantasy football, etc.) to the exclusion of what we’re supposed to be doing, but most of us can recognize our drift toward obsession and compensate for it by setting personal limits. A behavior reaches the threshold of addiction when one cannot stop set those limits and it poses clear, negative consequences in one’s life.
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Video game play is the leading obsession for teenage boys. Girls play, but less often with the same degree of attachment. Over the years, numerous experts have offered dire warnings about gaming ranging from the fostering of violence to promotion of a sedentary lifestyle. Most of these concerns have not proven out in the research, though meaningful study on such a broad and long-term issue is difficult to conduct or interpret.
From a clinical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with gaming as a hobby or entertainment. It’s engaging for the mind and with today’s interactive technology can be quite social. But the very design of modern video games makes them perfect for the kind of excess play leads to behavioral addiction.
The other problem with gaming is that it creates for users the feeling of having accomplished some pretty amazing stuff. It used to be that one had to actually do amazing things in real life to get that sense of achievement. Now, the same neurons will fire if you just flip on the box and start jockeying the controller.
And where this issue is concerned, we’ve only just begun. As practical virtual reality systems make their way into consumer markets we’ll see a whole new generation involved in and becoming reliant on better, more realistic gaming. As a society, we’d better get equally interested in the impact of behavioral addiction and more importantly, it’s treatment. That’s one essential technology we’re far from mastering and as any one acquainted with recovery knows, the first step is accepting that we have a problem.
Gabe: My name is Gabe, and I’m a video game addict. OK, not really, but honestly it could be true and you would never be able to pick it up. Often addicts can seem well functioning, able to create ornate ways to disguise their struggles and keep them hidden. Video game addiction is no different.
One common way an addict may cover up their addiction is by simply lying about it to everyone including themselves. “I didn’t spend all afternoon playing Battlefront, I was writing my English essay.” “I had basketball practice. I wasn’t playing DOTA.” “I got a full eight hours of sleep, really.” It’s easy to buy into these excuses, especially when you have a neurochemical incentive to do so.
One of the most damaging aspects of any addiction is the monetary toll it places on the addict and their family. That’s increasingly true for video games, which seem to be free, especially on your phone or tablet, when they aren’t. If you’re not careful, you can rack up thousands in charges as games nickel and dime you here and there.
Addicts aren’t bad people. They have a psychological condition and this needs to be understood when seeking a solution. Wes is right, we need to take behavioral addiction more seriously and develop better models of recovery for the subset of gamers who need it.
On the Air: Check out the podcast from Up to Date with Steve Kraske. Dr. Wes and Ryan Sipes, a young adult gamer and technology entrepreneur, discuss the pros and cons of gaming and how to think about and respond to gaming addiction. Link to the KCUR podcast through www.dr-wes.com.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at dr-wes.com. Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.