The majority of North Americans play video games. Exact numbers are difficult to define as each study seems to present slightly different numbers, but as of 2007, approximately two-thirds of North Americans own and play video games. Among North American teenagers the numbers are higher, with most studies indicating that 75-90% of North American teens own and play video games. To coincide with that, an April 2007 poll conducted by Harris Interactive stated that 85% of American youth under the age of 25 had the potential to be addicted to video games. How Harris came to that conclusion is a bit of a mystery, but on a personal level, I certainly know more than a few people who jeopardize their work, school and family because of their inability to stop playing. I have also seen several distraught parents on a myriad of daytime talk shows, claiming that their child has become addicted to this game or that console. Having recently re-entered the world of MMORPGs, I am once again seeing first-hand how much people do sacrifice to play and some of their behavior has brought this old argument back into the forefront of my mind.
One of the leading arguments put forth by those who do not believe in video game addiction is the fact that those who would be labeled as addicts do not, in fact, present the scientifically recognized symptoms of addiction. According to Merriam-Webster, an addiction is a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance” and is “characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal ; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”. While it must be acknowledged that some individuals may spend unusual amount of time playing games, the actual games and consoles upon which they are played do not pose any known health risks to players nor do they appear to do any other harm to players. At worst, video games may be the focus of a compulsive habit for individuals with personality-types which make them vulnerable to such behavior.
If video games are not a harmful substance, perhaps some legitimacy to the claims that they are addictive can be found in the portion of the definition of an addiction referring to the physiological responses of people who either play games, or have games taken away from them. The best example of documented physiological responses to date appears to be a study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine, which was released in February of 2008. The study consisted of an even number of men and women who played a simple computer game, while being monitored by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Researchers discovered that there was some activity in the mesocorticolimbic center of the brain, often referred to as the “reward center”. The study also found that the males studied showed a greater amount of activity than the females who were also studied at the time. The activity, however, was not at an unusual level. Similar levels of mesocorticolimbic activity occur when we eat foods that we like, or see a familiar, friendly face. It may also be worth noting that when the test subjects were not playing the game, but were still being monitored, no ill-affects were observed, no physiological symptoms of withdrawal or depression.
To date, video game addiction has not yet been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the American Psychiatric Association’s cornerstone list of confirmed, validated mental disorders. The case of video game addiction is currently under review, because it is felt at this time that there is insufficient evidence to justify adding it to the list. This has lead researchers and video game addiction therapists to produce research which will validate their work and theories. As of October 2008, nothing that would constitute formal research on the subject has been offered, merely surveys and studies such as the previously referenced Stanford University study, which only touched on a fringe element of the subject matter.
The most common theories regarding video game addiction suggest that the games themselves are not addictive, but they are the means to an end for persons with other psychological issues. Anti-social disorders and depression can be manifested by a compulsion by a person to hide from the real world inside a fantasy world. If this is the case, then it would stand to reason that video games are not the cause, merely the conduit. If the video games are taken away, people would turn to books, movies, or other forms of mental escape, and the vicious cycle will continue. It is tragic that people lose their jobs, homes and families because of their inability to stop playing a game. There is no denying that this happens, countless cases have been documented and presented to us via the media. However, removing these games from their lives would not cure them of their illness, but merely force them to find another focal point for their compulsive tendencies, or another escape from their social or mental disorders.
While there can be no denying that the act of playing a video game does stimulate certain areas of the brain that can be related to addictions, this is not conclusive proof that they are, and without additional physiological symptoms, games would appear to be no more addictive than your favourite colour or the television program you watch regularly. A significant portion of the population spend each and every night sitting in front of a television, ignoring the world outside of that box. Are they addicted, or is this just one of the pass-times of this era? Until and unless further proofs are offered, I cannot accept nor agree with the idea that video game addiction is a valid disease or disorder. Instead I am forced to conclude that some individuals suffer from poor parenting, or a lack of personal responsibility. I feel that relentless, compulsive playing of games is a symptom of an underlying issue, and not the actual issue.
What do you folks think? Do you also know people who have lost their jobs, scholarships, etc, because they chose to play games all day, or stayed up all night gaming? Even if, like myself, you do not see the games themselves as the problem, do you feel a certain responsibility to your fellow gamers to stage an ‘intervention’ if things seem to be out of hand? There is a member of my former WoW guild, for example, who I just discovered is repeating a year of high school because he was up until about 5am raiding with us on many school nights. While I do recall some of us occasionally saying “Wow, dude, it’s friggin’ late there … ” I do not recall anyone actually firmly telling this young man to turn the computer off and go to bed. I personally am now regretting not speaking up when I knew that what he was doing was wrong for him. Or do you perhaps believe that there is something about games, particularly multi-player games, that does cause a physical or psychological dependency?