Years ago, when Nintendo was not yet a household name, an article written by a father on the back page of Newsweek magazine detailed a conversation between the author and his 7-year-old son. The article was titled, "Why I Won't Let My Kids Have Nintendo."
Child: "Our teacher says we can't talk about the Mario Brothers any more."
Father: "Why, because that's all you were talking about?"
Child: "No, because that's all we were thinking about."
It is well known that video games are a huge business. In fact, in an era when Hollywood movies are making less money, one of the only growth sectors in entertainment is games. That is why movies are now routinely based on existing video games (Lara Croft, Resident Evil, etc.) and why video games are routinely created as tie-ins to movies, along with action figures and other merchandise.
It is not as well known, though, that video games are specifically designed to be addictive, that is, they have certain characteristics in common with drugs. They are increasingly designed to be immersive, constantly stimulating and exciting, and to be complex ("realistic") and thus require extended amounts of time to master.
In some people, the experiences they have while playing video or computer games make them feel better than real life does. The question of whether depression or social anxiety predisposes one to become game-addicted has not been addressed in any study I am aware of, but the possibility makes sense intuitively. Depression and anxiety can predispose one towards other addictions, as well.
Going onto the Internet to look at certain websites, or using a phone, can also become an obsessive focus, and we are seeing an increasing number of pre-teens and teenagers who seem to be addicted to internet use and/or texting. Much of what we say about game addiction can also be applied to computer or phone use.
There are a number of experiences that players can have in games that they cannot have, or can only have in limited ways, in real life. One of the main things that players can experience in games is the sense of mastery, or being skillful and being recognized for skillfulness. There are almost unlimited chances to succeed, in that if your character is killed you can reconstitute him or her and try that level again, until you master it. There is a certain level of egalitarianism in games, in that if you play a lot you can achieve certain levels, and the set of skills required is very circumscribed.
Real life is far more complex. Most of us are born with a certain set of handicaps (not as smart, not as attractive, not as financially well-off, not as popular, not as socially adept, not as confident, not as good at conversation, etc., as we wish) but all that is minimized in the electronic world. There is less boredom, more direct interaction with the device, you can always be doing something (not much time waiting), and there is not as much need to attune yourself to others. In some ways, for individuals who have social anxiety issues or poor social skills, games are better than real life because they eliminate the need to look people in the face and listen to them, and to respond to things they say. Yes, there are online games that allow people to text or talk to others while playing, but it's semi-anonymous and not personal. It's less personal than a conversation you might have with someone on your bowling or softball team, or with another guy at the gym.
"Text addiction" is more prone to happen with girls, and it results in a similar distortion of priorities - "staying connected" to friends becomes more important than doing homework, etc. The phone becomes a source of constant distraction. One 13-year-old girl we know had 19,000 text messages in one month. When did she have time to sleep? When her parents tried to limit her phone use, she sneaked phone time by using others' phones.
An addiction has certain characteristics. It creates a tolerance, that is, it makes you feel as though you "need" it to feel normal. As you accommodate to the stimulation of the activity, it doesn't do as much as it did in the beginning, so you feel the need to continue playing, to achieve the next level, to complete something you are working on, etc. Also, in people prone to obsessive focus, the perceived need to "complete" something can cause them to increase the amount of time the devote to it, to the eventual exclusion of other activities.
Like the "gateway drugs" of alcohol and marijuana, there are "gateway games" that get people started. Have you heard of Webkinz? It's a website that promotes many related products, such as stuffed Webkinz (animals), books and games. Virtually all of the other products that are aimed at kids have games on their websites that promote their products, too. Check out Disney, Cartoon Network, any major breakfast cereal for kids, etc.
For most people who drink alcohol, they will continue to drink moderately and enjoy occasional drinking. But, about 5-10% will develop problems with their drinking. Likewise, most people who play games will play and enjoy the games as entertainment and will not develop a dependence on them. However, some percentage of kids will devote too much time and invest too much emotionally in the games.
How can you tell that a child (or adult) is becoming (or is already) addicted to games?
1) Increasing time and emotional investment in games
2) Great difficulty stopping when other activities are required
3) Always the first choice for free time activity
4) Talks and thinks about game(s) almost constantly
5) Only has friends who play, or only plays games when with friends
6) Anger/whining/tantrums when having to stop playing
7) Sneaking game time when forbidden
8) Feels that responsibilities get in the way of playing
9) All money goes towards specific games or game-related products
10) Only reads game-related literature (magazines, websites)
We have had enough experience with game-addicted patients to have some understanding of the similarity between game addiction and other addictions. The addicted person's perspective is completely distorted by their need to pursue the experience that makes them feel good, and they justify and rationalize their behavior or minimize the seriousness of their problems. And, as in an alcohol or drug addiction, it results in the stunting of emotional growth and development.
For example, one young man we worked with had gotten in serious trouble at college, due playing an online game obsessively. This was a fantasy game in which accomplished players could do things like cast spells on others, etc. He admitted that, some of the time, he would be out in public and would get the urge to do something in real life that he could only do in the game, such as cast a spell - then he would catch himself and remember he was in "real" space, not cyber space. This blurring of fantasy and reality can be a serious problem, especially for younger players.
Treatment of game addiction is almost impossible while the most addictive games for that person, are played even occasionally. It is better to prevent all video or computer game playing if possible. This almost always results in anger from the gamer, and this is the main reason why parents are not firmer about setting limits. Many of the parents we have worked with need help and support in doing this, and we have helped many families restore their children to health following a period of game addiction.
The good news is that, by eliminating access to the most addictive activities, over a few weeks most kids will begin to come out of the obsession and will become interested in other activities. Often parents report that the child becomes nicer, less disrespectful, more social, and shows an interest in schoolwork once the addiction is tamed and controlled.