Hours pass. Maybe it’s World of Warcraft or Diablo III. What was once a way to decompress or blow off steam has morphed into pattern of behavior that’s downright addictive. Conceivable or no?
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is. Gaming disorder was recently classified as a mental health disorder in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
So when is gaming a problem? According to the WHO, gaming disorder is rare. To be diagnosed, the behavior must be severe enough to cause “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
The disorder isn’t sudden, but rather is considered as a diagnosis when the negative behavior lasts for 12+ months and dominates the player’s whole life — often to the detriment of a healthy diet and physical fitness.
“If players are avoiding other responsible behaviors, such as going to work, school or doing homework, then they’re starting to have a problem,” says Cleveland Clinic psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “And if relationships are suffering because of excessive gaming behaviors, this can be a sign of trouble.”
Why does gaming become addictive?
The addiction involved with video games isn’t the same as with alcohol or drug use, Dr. Bea says, in which the brain receives reinforcement every single time.
“In gambling and gaming addictions, the reward occurs on-and-off and it’s unpredictable,” he explains. “This keeps players actively seeking the good feeling that’s produced in the brain when they reach a new goal or successfully complete an objective.”
Video game developers understand a great deal about what’s called “schedules of reinforcement.” Many games, especially massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), are designed to make players repeat behaviors in the quest of that gaming high. With virtual societies, money to earn and even spouses to be had, the draw to stay connected can become irresistible.
Who is at risk?
Dr. Bea says individuals who are prone to other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, may rely on gaming to produce changes in brain chemistry that make them feel good temporarily.
Those at highest risk are adolescents and young adults, who may have greater difficulty judging the negative effects of gaming behavior.
“It’s thought that around age 25, our brains are more completely developed,” Dr. Bea explains. “The last part of our brain to completely develop is designed to help us make good decisions, better predict the outcome of our behaviors, and gauge likely consequences more effectively.”
Still, he notes, just as with gambling disorders that involve the same type of addiction mechanism, gaming disorder can still occur at nearly any age.
What help is available?
Limit setting or, in some cases, complete abstinence from gaming, might be required to treat addiction, Dr. Bea says.
“Parents may need to help their children set firm time limits for gaming activities,” he says. “But if video games are severely impairing someone’s life, they may do better eliminating gaming activities altogether.
“Like other compulsive or addictive behaviors, it’s often hard for individuals who’ve had problems with a specific behavior to develop greater control over it.”
But is classifying ‘gaming disorder’ ultimately helpful?
Since addictive or compulsive behaviors, such as gaming, often mask other mental health conditions, Dr. Bea believes the new classification is actually a good thing.
“While these may be symptoms of other concerns, these symptoms need to be addressed actively,” he says, noting that mental health professionals will soon come to view other behaviors, such as excess use of social media, to be problematic as well.
“Proactively addressing the symptoms of gaming addiction may help individuals find their way to mental health providers who can offer accurate assistance for underlying or co-occurring conditions,” he says.