Pathologizing Play

Recently, my good friend Jeowulf over at Nerd Speaker sent me an article by Charlie Hall of Polygon, which discussed so-called erroneous claims that people can become addicted to video games.

Basiscally, the article reported on the assertion by clinical psychologist Dr. Anthony M. Bean that the idea of video game addiction is being mishandled – unknowingly at yet purposefully – and is being driven by politics, moral panic, and general societal pearl-clutching, rather than by sound science.

ghirahim

This is quite a refreshing breath of fresh air, after some economists tried to save the economic day by blaming games for low employment rates, so enormous kudos to Charlie Hall, Polygon, and most especially Dr. Bean for taking a look at real, quantifiable facts and advocating for video games.

It really restores some of my faith in humanity to know that there are still people who look for Facts in a world that is swimming in and at times propagating Alternative Facts exaggerations opinions presented as facts but have no basis in reality oh you get the idea.

well-done

One particular point that Dr. Bean mentioned is that there is no research to support that video games are addictive. This is of course very concerning, because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is basing its proposed “gaming disorder” on this research.

If the research conclusions are drawn from fuzzy science, political agenda, or social pressures, then we have a real problem on our hands, and I’d quite frankly be more disappointed in the APA than I am already (cough I’m looking at you, DSM5).

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This is how I look at the DSM5 about 95% of the time.

But is it fair to put all the blame on the research?

Happy Medium

I know, it seems like I’m never happy, doesn’t it? But with great power comes great responsibility, as they say, and that is true for any side of an issue. So, like we dug into violence in games before, and touched briefly on some of the facts behind economics in relation to claims made about games, we’ll be digging into research on addiction and video games. Hooray!

mario and luigi

At first blush, my personal thoughts on it are that there is no real “gaming” addiction, but rather, there is addiction, which comes with its own traits and symptoms, but can be applied to many different things. A person could be addicted to coffee, shopping, sex, gaming, smoking, or what-have-you, and yet I think even though some of these are overtly chemical addictions and others are overtly behavioral addictions they have many things in common. I’ve touched on this before, so if you have a moment, check out this article because moving forward we’ll be diving more into the details of the research.

What is Addiction?

One important point to establish is what exactly an addiction is, especially today when people may potentially say they are “addicted” to something when they really mean they enjoy it a great deal.

dragon-age-origins
Oops. How did this get here…?

So, what is a real addiction? According to the dictionary, it is a condition of being addicted to a particular thing, substance, or activity.

Thanks. Helpful.

According to the American Society of Addictive Medicine, addiction is defined as – basically – a chronic disease of the brain’s reward and motivation systems that causes a person to persistently pursue a particular reward/relief via the substance they are addicted to, at the expense of other activities.

Image result for reward system in the brain

What this means, is that an addiction modifies a person’s behavior to do one particular thing to the point that the person is not able to function normally. The addictive behavior is not something they can simply “stop doing,” because they are compelled to seek out the reward they get from the behavior. The reward could be completely chemical (e.g., alcohol or nicotine), behavioral as its own end (e.g., shopping), or a combination of the two (e.g., making a purchase makes you “feel good” and so you repeat the behavior).

Think of smoking cigarettes. We all know nicotine is addictive, but why? Very simply, because it makes your body produce epinephrine, one of the brain’s “happy chemicals.” After a while, your brain is no longer able to produce epinephrine at the levels you need it to be at, unless you take in nicotine.

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Via handy pile o’ nicotine

To instantly stop taking in nicotine is incredibly difficult, because your brain relies on the addictive substance to function. Therefore, nicotine addiction is called an addiction because it negatively impacts your ability to function (i.e., you can’t function without it). Similarly, alcohol addiction can negatively impact a person’s ability to hold down a job and maintain friendships, and may put financial strain on the person, as well.

A behavioral addiction, such as shopping, gaming, or sex, may likewise negatively impact a person’s ability to function, as the person may fixate on their addictive behavior (e.g., not be able to think about anything else), or they may eschew responsibilities to partake in their addictive behavior, or the behavior itself might put pressure on the person, such as shopping addiction putting financial strain on the person.

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But the person has to continue the behavior because of the reward (chemical or not) they receive from it.

The Bottom Lines

So when talking about addiction, we need to remember a few things:

  1. Addiction gets in the way of a person’s ability to fulfill important life responsibilities
  2. A person is unable to stop the behavior
  3. A person will crave or be preoccupied by the behavior or substance
  4. Addiction may negatively impact a person’s ability to think clearly or recognize there is a problem with their behaviors
  5. Addictive behaviors may occupy a majority of a person’s time (see #1)
  6. Even behavioral addictions have a brain chemical component

Whereas, a hobby or preferred activity sans addiction will look more “normal.” For instance the person will still hold down a job, a social life if they choose to pursue that, and perform other necessary activities.

little-big

In regards to video games, consider the stereotypical basement troll who cannot care for him/herself or hold down a job, versus, well, almost any real-life gamer you know. That’s the difference between an addiction and a hobby.

So… is video game addiction real? Has the research been skewed? Are people trying to help a real problem, or demonize an already-misunderstood medium?

Coming Attractions

A few questions I’ll be seeking to answer in my upcoming research crawl:

  • Is it possible to become addicted to electronic media (specifically movies or video games)?
  • Is it possible to become addicted to non-electronic media (specifically books, magazines, or music)?
  • Are there specific symptoms that are only seen during so-called video game addiction?

I think that’s a wide enough net to cast, and I’m surely going to be pulled down a rabbit hole with this, so stay tuned for an upcoming follow-up post, most likely in September (just in time for Back To School)!

What do you think? Is “video game addiction” different than other addictions? Does it even exist? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

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36 thoughts on “Pathologizing Play

  1. I think its possible to become addicted to videogames, but I think that true addiction only manifests in a small number of people. Most people who play seem to enjoy playing games, but you’re unlikely to see the folks that are truly addicted. It’s hard to say really, I suppose. If researchers can find elevated levels of hormones in players’ brains while playing, and drops in those hormone levels when they’re not, then I think a case can be made. If not, I think it’s just a case of people really enjoying something.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s very logical. After all, there are people who drink alcohol and even smoke cigarettes on rare occasion and/or to be social, and they are not addicted to either one of those substances. The line is really drawn when a person’s life is negatively impacted in major ways, so technically, as long as the person works and takes care of themselves, then it might not be addiction.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I knew you were the right person to send that article to! I’m curious to see what your next research pulls up. I will say that in terms of addiction, there was definitely a time when I binged a lot of games – but that wasn’t an addiction in my mind. It was actually avoidance of social activities which gave me true anxiety, so I used it as a crutch to avoid going out. In that sense it often wasn’t healthy, but also wasn’t addiction either. Anxiety was what needed to be treated, and now that I have gotten over the worst of it, I can maintain a social life and still find time to play games. Even the Japanese Hikikomori I believe are trapped in their bubble because of larger societal issues in Japan. I am sure “gaming addiction” is a thing for some people, but for many binging games is just as symptom of an underlying cause.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you sent it!! 😀 You are always welcome to send things my way!!

      You’re right that even in your case (and thank you for sharing your story), video games weren’t the addiction. It was an alternative leisure activity to going out. I imagine you still worked, cleaned your place of residence, payed your bills, etc., so games were just that: something you played for enjoyment. I do think it’s possible to become addicted to games, but we’d have to be very specific in regards to how we describe it in order to not catch non-addicted gamers in the net! Because, like you said, spending long amounts of time playing can either be a symptom of a preferred activity, or a way of coping with some bigger issue (which is another topic that’s coming down the pipeline!).

      Like

  3. I believe that video games can cause someone who has a very addictive personality to become addicted. We see people that have addictive personalities who literally get driven to perform a certain task or behavior through sheer impulsion.
    I have a friend who had an eating disorder that led to OCD and eventually addictive behavior. She became anorexic which led to her going to the gym and eventually becoming consumed by it. Now getting fit is never a bad idea. However, it got to a point where she was hurting herself and her doctor was telling her that she needs to back off. Every time I mention video games or gaming, she immediately tells me that she can’t even think of playing games because she knows she will become addicted.
    I think it’s possible that those with some type of addictive personality could make up the major number of those in these studies and therefore would not represent the majority of gamers.
    I look forward to reading your research!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience seeing this type of addictive behavior in action. You’re absolutely right: when the behavior takes over a person’s life, *that’s* the time it crosses the line from “hobby” to “addiction.” It definitely is possible that the participants in the studies were only gamers who had addiction problems to begin with, but it’s also possible that the research is as benign as saying that games tap into our internal rewards system (which they do, like any enjoyable activity), and some people become addicted to that. We’ll see!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah, I think the distinction between Games being “addictive” and full-on Gaming addiction is an important one. For sure, Games *are* addictive to a point – that’s a big part of their appeal – and they’re addictive precisely because a lot of their features “piggyback” the rewards systems that evolution has been consolidating in us for millenia. In games, anything from problem solving, to novelty, to fairly basic feelings of “reward” all have results similar to those experienced in “real life” situations. Because of this – and because they’re not necessarily as prevalent in more passive media – I often *prefer* to play Games over the latter, because passive media often feels less rewarding to me – or to put it another way, I get twitchy/bored more easily.

    However, I’m not “addicted” to Games to the point were I’ll choose them over *everything* else, and at the cost of being a functioning adult. Sure, I’ll get fractious if I don’t play for long periods of time, but Games aren’t a replacement for real life, they’re an enjoyable and interesting addition to it. Obviously, some games will grab me more than others – Overwatch being the current one – but as much as I joke about forsaking my adulting in favour of playing it, what I really mean is that I’ll forego other *non-essential* things (watching TV, for example) instead.

    I mean, there’s currently an ongoing discussion in my house as to whether showering’s “essential” or not, but other than that, I think I’m still good…..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s such an important distinction to make, and I could not say it any better! You are also absolutely right that games are designed to play with our rewards system, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who plays a game will get “hooked.” Like you mentioned, it might be a preferred activity, but that’s not the same as an addiction.

      This is very well stated, and there’s really nothing much for me to add, other than the fact that I think you’re still good, too! haha

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that, as a species, we all have the potential to become addicted to many different things due to the way the human brain works. What it’s physically possible to get addicted to will vary for person to person due to each person finding different levels of pleasure in different things. The upshot of that though is that it is technically possible for just about anything to be the focus of an addiction for someone.
    Are there different symptoms relating to the theorised gaming addiction? Only insofar as where the fixation lies. Instead of a drug, you have a console. Instead of spending money on caffiene, you spend it on DLC. That sort of thing. At a base level though, I suspect that the symptoms are the same, at least in terms of their potential destructive power.
    A point though: I heard of a man who spent so long playing WoW that he was spending next to no time with his wife. At one point, he was unable to even remember details about what his wife looked like. She ended up leaving him. The question is, was he addicted to WoW as a specific focal point, or was he obsessed with the game? In that regard, given that the signs of obsession and addiction can cross-over, should we be looking at the difference between the two when pondering gaming addiction so as to avoid mistaking one for the other? Or, are the effects similar enough that the two behaviours can be taken as essentially the same thing in this context?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very good point you make between obsession and addiction. Off the top of my head, I’d imagine that when it comes to a behavioral addiction, there might be components of obsession (fixating on an object/event), coupled with the chemical cycle of addiction. I do plan on looking into obsession, as well, so maybe we’ll be able to shed some light on the differences between the two, and when they might overlap. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When you posted the Dragon Agr cover I laughed, but then it made me think about how obsession and addiction might be conflated. Also how the term “obsession” is used nowadays is usually far tamer than it used to be. Are you obsessed because your addicted, though?

    I’m actually not sure if you can have a video game addiction, but I’m definitely interested in hearing more, and I’m curious about your thoughts on obsession compared to addiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right that terms like “addiction” and “obsession” are not always used correctly, insofar their meaning has been softened a bit in, shall we say, common parlance. I do think they can overlap a bit when it comes to a “behavioral” addiction, since there needs to be a focal point of the addiction that isn’t chemical, so my knee jerk reaction is that they happen simultaneously, but maybe an obsession is just a by product of being addicted, like you alluded to. I’m on the case, so hopefully we’ll have some answers soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually had a revelation about this on my drive home today. An obsession is when you can’t stop thinking about something, and an addition is when you can’t stop doing something. I agree with you though about how the definitions have changed.

        I’d love to see some data comparing them though. Like when I think about FFVII are some of the same brain chemicals released when a smoker takes that first inhale? There’s also memory. So when someone is smoking, there really aren’t memories specifically attached to the act of smoking. It’s purely an addiction, but with any obsession, you have memories and experiences tied to it.

        So “addiction” is listed as a synonym to “obsession!” I just googled it. I thing there’s definite overlap. I think I’ll have to explore this more, poll the audience (ask on social media).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think the memory aspect could, if we’re comparing to chemical substances, be considered a contact high, which is basically remembering how good it felt when using the drug so you experience similar “good” feelings as when using the drug. I think obsessing over something is perhaps part of an addiction, but obsession doesn’t always imply addiction…

          Let me know how your poll goes! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the real mark of addiction, at least in a non-chemically-induced sense, is when you keep doing something habitually even when it has stopped being fun. When you just keep picking up that MMO or F2P game every single day, not because you enjoy it anymore, but because you feel obligated to for various pointless reasons, then it has officially become a problem. (and that’s why I’ll never touch one of those games again!)

    Aside from extreme cases like that, I find the idea a bit silly though. We never hear about anyone accusing people who read a lot of being book addicts or football fans of being sports addicts and etc. The only thing separating these things from video games seems to be the looming of the older generations, as they continue to live in denial about video games being an art form.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think you’re spot on with your description of addiction. It’s when the behavior/chemical controls your life. There are plenty of folks addicted to other substances who see that they’re hurting their lives and aren’t enjoying themselves anymore, after all. That’s why they try to quit, I’d imagine.

      But otherwise, to have a blanket statement about “gaming addiction” is dangerous. It’s possible to become addicted to many different types of behaviors, and to become obsessed by many different things, so I’m not sure if video games will take a special seat in that world, or if they’re just another “thing” that someone can become addicted to. Hopefully the research will show something fairly conclusive!

      Like

  8. I hate the fact that the word “addict” is used so loosely to describe people. My in-laws talk about gaming and how I must be addicted and I get upset by their erroneous use of the word. I love that you bring up the difference between real addiction and the way people choose to use the word addiction. I look forward to reading the rest of these posts!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Video games most definitely have the potential to be addictive in some people, I think. I agree with Richenbaum Fotchenstein’s comment above regarding MMOs and the F2P (i.e., freemium menace) genre. I have read stories about MMO addictions even causing suicides in some rare, extreme cases 😦

    For me, I think video games are more of an “escape” not an addiction. For example, I don’t NEED to play games, thus neglecting other responsibilities. I play games as a mental health break from harsh reality, haha. I have no comment on my Amiibo habit though…

    Also, Dragon Age Origins rules!!! *fist bump*

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Woo!! *fist bump*

      There are definitely stories of people neglecting themselves and dying due to their MMO (usually) addiction. And that’s a real problem that needs to be recognized and addressed, but like you mentioned, not all gamers are addicted and most use them for the same reasons people might use any media (e.g., amusement, escape, etc.).

      Now, when it comes to buying amiibos…. haha I’m just kidding!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think you can become addicted to anything, provided your personality is prone to addiction. Games, movies, music, books, sex, eating, shopping, whathaveyou, are all things that a person with an addiction disorder can be ensnared by.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d agree with this. With an addiction to a chemical, that can be a matter of a chemical reaction, but I do wonder if the addictive *behaviors* are as reliant on those chemicals, or if there is a personality component. Thanks for chiming in! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I think you’re spot on here- I love how you broke it down to talk about the difference between addiction and being addicted and then consequently separated gaming out from this. Personally I tend to lean towards this being exaggerated when it comes to hobbies like gaming. I think for most people it’s completely normal hobby that doesn’t disrupt their real lives, but I’d be interested to see what the research and your future posts say on this. Great topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That distinction is so important, so I’m glad it came across clearly. I tend to agree with you. While I think people can become addicted to many things – games included – to say that video games are inherently more addictive or harmful than any other potentially addictive behavior is very amplified. I’m looking forward to seeing what the research has to say, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! Yes, that does seem to be an issue, especially with so many campaigns to demonise games in the past, my instinct is that this is another attempt at that… but obviously I’ll have to wait for your next post on it! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  12. having delved into MMOs, specifically WoW back in the day, I think addiction does tie into, as someone already stated, a persons choice to continue a said activity, even though they are not necessarily enjoying it, and just doing it for pointless reasons. Even worded that way, it’s hard to call it an addiction. What may seem pointless from my perspective, may be something else to a person playing that game.

    I had an RL friend I played WoW with. They played way more than me, and at a point, they had told me I needed to play more because the guild was depending on me, and that I had to start setting goals in WoW. I was of another opinion and although I enjoyed WoW, when I played it, I kept my distance. I don’t know if I’d call this an addiction or not. From my perspective, it seems pointless to play so much, but I could understand the reasons why he would, because there is loot to obtain, levels to reach, gold to farm etc.

    It’s a tough call, but I do agree on the fact that addiction is too easily thrown around, as several comments have talked about people play games more than normal, but for other reasons instead of being addicted to games. One person talked about anxiety and that truly was the root problem, and fixing that took them away from gaming so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d agree that addiction is being compelled to do something, whether or not you want to. It has complete control over you, then. I think that’s the difference between what someone might call “pointless” and what is actually an addiction – you *need* something when you’re addicted to it, at the expense of everything else.

      I’ve heard stories about WoW really sucking people in, which is fine, I suppose, as long as everyone is on the same page as to what they expect from the other players (and, you know, they’re still functioning adults haha).

      Like

  13. I’m into this. Gotta analyze the features that agree with you just as much as the studies that don’t.

    But yeah, video games are a behavioral addiction, same as so many others. I don’t think it’s functionally different than an addiction to tv or work or gambling. It’s a behavior that gets too lodged into one’s life to the point that it crowds out things that should be higher priority on the hierarchy of needs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! I’m looking forward to seeing what I find, even if it’s not much. That would say a lot, as well.

      I agree with you that video games are like other behavioral addictions, so hopefully the available research agrees with *us,* too!

      Liked by 1 person

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