Gaming Addiction: Symptoms and Responses
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Ciaran O'Connor M.A. (UKCP)
6th August, 2013
Most likely you are reading this because a loved one has been spending increasing amounts of time playing video games and now seems estranged and unhappy; perhaps you are that very gamer and want to make a change. This article addresses excessive gaming - what it looks like, its causes and some ways in which we can respond.
What is Excessive Gaming?
This article uses the term ‘excessive gaming’ rather than ‘addiction’. The term addiction can too easily relegate the behaviour to a disease, or demonize games as something that happens to certain people. These perspectives diminish players’ responsibility for their overuse of games as well as their capacity to make a change in their lives. While addiction is commonly recognised, I believe it is healthier to rephrase this in terms of excess.
Excessive video gaming should not be confused with spending a lot of time gaming. Someone who loves games, but can easily put them down to spend time with others, or attend to their work and well-being is not using them excessively; they are just enjoying them. When gaming becomes excessive it can have a powerful negative impact on mental health – commonly associated with depression and social anxiety.
Signs of excessive gaming are:
sacrificing other priorities such as food, sleep, work, school or relationships in order to game
playing without enjoyment for protracted periods
becoming irritable when forced away from gaming
using secrecy and deception in order to create gaming time
buying in-app purchases and then quickly regretting doing so.
Historically, the excessive gamer has been the teenage boy playing hardcore games such as World of Warcraft for six hours plus a day - this does not fully reflect today’s gaming market. Today, the average gamer is in their 30s and the gender mix in gaming is nearly even. Additionally, snackable games such as Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans encourage many brief, frequent visits throughout the day and offer the player in-app purchases upon which they can spend limitless amounts of money. Don’t be blinkered into thinking that you or someone you love is not gaming excessively because they don’t fit into an out-dated stereotype.
What Causes Excessive Gaming?
Games don’t make players overuse them; they are open to abuse, much like sex, food, shopping, work, drugs or exercise. While some research suggests there are certain traits that make people prone to ‘addictive’ behaviour, there is little use in trying to decide if we, or someone we care about, ‘suffers’ from addiction. It is more useful to think in terms of the player’s reasons for engaging excessively and address these individually.
My research, my own experiences and my work have shown me that excessive gaming is gaming that is not solely for enjoyment. While many functioning gamers will play games with a genuine delight, those that struggle to control their gaming are likely to have other reasons to keep going. Some of these reasons are:
The need to keep up. This is a purely online phenomenon whereby players feel that any time spent away from the game will cause them to fall behind their gaming peers. Effectively, they’re keeping up with the Joneses.
The need to escape. Some players have lives they would rather avoid. Arguments in the house, health issues and low confidence can all lead to this.
The need to feel useful. The current economic climate has left many young people feeling that they are unable to make a difference. The prospect of heroics in a virtual world becomes an alluring second best.
The need to connect. The increasingly social nature of gaming is appealing for those that don’t feel they can otherwise create and maintain connections.
How to Get to Good Gaming
I believe the goal for all excessive gamers should be to make all gaming good gaming; cut away any gaming that is not high-quality by making time for other priorities in life. Some of the steps I would advise:
- Create a gaming diary. While you play, mark the time that passes and rate how much you enjoyed playing. If you didn’t enjoy it, write down what made you play. Ultimately this should suggest an optimum amount of time to spend gaming in a week.
- Create a reward system. Create a list of activities such as seeing friends, exercise, work and family time, that earns you gaming time as a reward. Stick to this.
- Ditch the games that don’t fit your system. Many multi-player online games create the need to attend. If these heavily inhibit your ability to limit play then change games. If you do so, remember to say goodbye to your friends in the gaming world – they are real connections and will miss you. They will also more than likely support you in what you are doing.
- Arrange counselling. If you can find a therapist that you feel understood by, they will be invaluable in helping you turn all your gaming into good gaming. This will then allow you to get more from other areas of your life.
- If you are an affected loved one then get interested in games. If your son loved playing football you’d support him and go see his matches. This is no different – don’t just display interest in your loved one, take an active interest in the games themselves. While you are not doing this you are relegated to simply ‘not getting it’.
The Future of Excessive Gaming
The social elements of multi-player games is what most commonly leads to excessive gaming. With internet connection becoming more widely available, the next generation of gaming is going to be increasingly social and thereby increasingly alluring to overuse.
Demonizing games is not the right direction – game playing was compelling for thousands of years before the computer was invented. Recent technological shifts have only served to emphasise what already existed. I believe the goal should be to foster and support good gaming. Gaming for any purpose other than occasional, frivolous enjoyment can lead to hurt for both ourselves and those close to us.
For those of you that would like to know more about gaming addiction, including a more detailed look at its causes, symptoms and steps to recovery, see Ciaran O'Connor's book 'Control the Controller: Understanding and Resolving Video Game Addiction' on the Amazon store.
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