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Video Game Addiction No Fun

Compulsive video gaming is a modern-day psychological disorder that experts tell WebMD is becoming more and more popular.
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

At an addiction treatment center in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, teenagers and young adults begin detox by admitting they are powerless over their addiction. But these addicts aren't hooked on drugs or alcohol. They are going cold turkey to break their dependence on video games.

Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants, tells WebMD he created the new program in response to a growing problem among young men and boys. "The more we looked at it, the more we saw [gaming] was taking over the lives of kids."

Detox for video game addiction may sound like a stretch, but addiction experts say the concept makes sense. "I was surprised we didn't think of it here in America," says Kimberly Young, PsyD, clinical director of the Center for On-Line Addiction and author of Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction -- and a Winning Strategy for Recovery. "I've had so many parents call me over the last year or two, particularly about the role-playing games online. I see it getting worse as the opportunity to game grows - for example, cell phone gaming."

But can a game truly become an addiction? Absolutely, Young tells WebMD. "It's a clinical impulse control disorder," an addiction in the same sense as compulsive gambling.

Defining Addiction

While most people associate addiction with substances, such as drugs or alcohol, doctors recognize addictive behaviors as well. In a WebMD feature on the definition of addiction, psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD, set forth the following criteria:

  1. The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going.
  2. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he becomes irritable and miserable.

Young says compulsive gaming meets these criteria, and she has seen severe withdrawal symptoms in game addicts. "They become angry, violent, or depressed. If [parents] take away the computer, their child sits in the corner and cries, refuses to eat, sleep, or do anything."

The Psychological Factor

Unlike with substance abuse, the biological aspect of video game addiction is uncertain. "Research suggests gambling elevates dopamine," Young says, and gaming is in the same category. But there's more to addiction than brain chemistry. "Even with alcohol, it's not just physical. There's a psychological component to the addiction, knowing 'I can escape or feel good about my life.'"

Bakker agrees. "The person is trying to change the way they feel by taking something outside of themselves. The [cocaine] addict learns, 'I don't like the way I feel, I take a line of cocaine.' For gamers, it's the fantasy world that makes them feel better."

The lure of a fantasy world is especially pertinent to online role-playing games. These are games in which a player assumes the role of a fictional character and interacts with other players in a virtual world. As Young puts it, an intelligent child who is unpopular at school can "become dominant in the game." The virtual life becomes more appealing than real life.

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