Compulsive gaming

Approximately 32 million people in the UK enjoy online video games and use them to relax on their own or with friends. While the majority in this country spend an average of 10 hours per week playing, some people struggle with what the World Health Organisation (WHO) refers to as a gaming disorder. Although the percentage of people who game in a compulsive manner isn’t high (between 3% and 4% of all gamers), the impact is significant and can harm the user’s physical, social, and mental health.

What is gaming disorder?

The World Health Organisation describes gaming disorder as being:

”A pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour…manifested by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The pattern of gaming behaviour is normally evident over a period of at least 12 months.”

What causes gaming disorder?

Video games are intentionally designed using sophisticated behavioural psychology approaches to keep people wanting more. One of the results of this is that dopamine, a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells, floods the brain during playing. There are several distinct dopamine systems in the brain, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour.

A 2010 study in the US conducted by the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) found that the levels of dopamine released in the brains of people playing a video game were at levels similar to those exhibited by individuals using drugs like ecstasy. These results suggest that excessive video gaming may resemble substance addiction with similar damaging effects on the gamer. It is also important to note that issues relating to excessive gaming are also evident through what the CMCH describes as ‘information-bingeing’ which includes excessive interaction with online content including social media and pornography, and broadens the definition from just focusing on gaming.

A person addicted to substances such as cocaine will experience a ’high’ every time they use the drug. That high is a direct result of reward centres in the brain being activated. This experience is similar when gaming. The key difference with gaming is that the rewards are more frequent and tangible. Once the high of taking the drug subsides, the individual will experience a come down, whereas, the gamer will continue to experience additional rewards.

The adrenaline rush of completing certain gaming tasks continues with the gamer challenged to move to the next level or rewarded for beating opponents. With gaming addiction, the rewards continue to increase with every level completed. There is literally no end in sight.

People who rely on games and online content to their own detriment can also begin to perceive the world in terms of instant gratification and may become easily frustrated by any delays in their day-to-day lives. With the increasing number of games which now also employ design features such as in-app purchases, micro-transactions, and loot boxes to further promote reliance and increase the need to win, a vicious circle forms, making it much harder for some people to reduce their time spent engaged in screen time.

What are the signs that someone may be gaming problematically?

  • Preoccupation: the individual spends a significant amount of time thinking about previous gaming such as losses, or what they could have done differently to win. They are also likely to be constantly thinking about their next game.
  • Symptoms of withdrawal: when gaming is prohibited (taken away by someone else, or impossible because the individual is at school or work) he or she feels angry, anxious, sad, empty, or lost.
  • Rising tolerance levels: the individual becomes more and more reliant on gaming to feel a high. What started as an hour a day can, in extreme cases, become ten hours or even more without a break.
  • Life is dull without gaming: previously enjoyed activities seem boring in comparison to gaming, and as a result, may be avoided.
  • Impaired control: it becomes almost impossible to miss an opportunity to game despite knowing that there are other commitments to meet, such as work, social, or study.
  • Deceit: the individual may lie about the amount of time they’re spending on games, or take extreme measures to avoid people who question them about their gaming.
  • Escaping reality: gaming becomes a primary way of denying uncomfortable feelings (such as loneliness, guilt, anxiety), or difficulties such as debt, housing issues, or legal problems.
  • Interpersonal relationship problems: difficulties arise and escalate with significant people in the gamer’s life, especially their partner, parents, or children.

Remember, if someone you know is spending hours at a time in front of the computer or gaming console, this does not automatically mean that they are suffering from gaming addiction. There may be other factors contributing including social isolation and loneliness which the individual may need additional support with.

Ways to help yourself take control

If you think that you might have an addiction to gaming, there are a number of professional support resources that can help, but you may also want to become more aware of your individual triggers and reasons for your gaming. Increasing your level of understanding about how and why you game will ultimately help you to take back control.

Keeping a record of your gaming activity is an important step in helping you to gain better insight into your behaviour. Use the diary to record the following:

  • How were you feeling prior to gaming (bored, lonely or frustrated after a set-back)?
  • Before playing, did you try to resist the urge? If so, what got in the way?
  • Did you put off other activities to play games?
  • Who were you with when gaming?
  • How much time did you spend gaming?
  • How did you feel after gaming (relieved, content, disappointed, guilty or angry)?

Download Gaming Diary (0.12mb)

Keeping an accurate record is really important. Depending on your own individual gaming patterns, you may need to complete this a number of times during each day to ensure it presents a realistic picture of your patterns. Once you have completed your diary for a couple of weeks, take time to look back and review your notes. This may help you to identify particular trends and patterns to your gaming activity. It can also be helpful to share the diary with a close friend or family member who can offer you non-judgemental support to cut down, or stop, your gaming.

Due to the time spent, video games are considered harmless by many people and gaming addiction is not really understood. Nevertheless, gaming addiction can have serious consequences, both physically and mentally. Those with an addiction to gaming may develop a number of physical health issues, which could include:

  • Migraines
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Poor sleep
  • Poor diet
  • Backache and musculoskeletal issues
  • Poor personal hygiene.

Nonetheless, it is not just physical problems that occur among those with a gaming addiction. There are a number of social consequences too. Those who become preoccupied with gaming may become isolated and unable to interact with the real world. This can affect this person’s ability to develop strong relationships in the future.

Treatment and support options

For those struggling with problem gaming, there are a range of support options available, but like any addiction, its treatment is specialised. In the first instance, you might want to speak to your GP – he or she will have met patients with this particular addiction.

Video Game Addiction UK offers support to people who are worried about their gaming, and those who care about them such as partners or parents. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can be reached on 08000 886 686. If you are outside of the UK, contact +44 330 333 6197.

All calls are confidential, and answered by qualified specialists who work specifically with gaming addiction. They can talk to you about treatment options local to you, and offer insight into how to start to take control from today.