Feature Video Game Addiction: A Growing Threat, But There is a Remedy

The dismal path of video game addiction, and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Tom Gibbs

Published

By Tom Gibbs @TAGibby4

My legs are fidgeting. My eyes are darting back and forth. My fingers are tapping my desk to the tune of the William Tell Overture. I'm looking at my blank screen covered in white, but the only thing my brain can think of is whether or not I should play one more game of Hearthstone. Actually, I think I could add in a couple more games. Now that I think about it, maybe I have time for just one quick session of Assassin's Creed Syndicate. If I give myself a couple extra hours of work time tonight instead of some much needed sleep, that would justify me playing a video game at one in the afternoon, right? Well if I'm going to do that, I should take another crack at Mortal Kombat X. I KNOW I could beat the Challenge Tower with Takeda this time.

Now my legs are fidgeting even more. I minimize the still empty Word document and pull up Steam. There I see a long, long, embarrassingly long list of games that I have, but have not played. There's Hearthstone. There's Assassin's Creed Syndicate. There's Mortal Kombat X. Oh, and what's this? Call of Juarez: Gunslinger? I didn't even know I had that! I must have picked it up during one of those Humble Bundle sales. I always wanted to give that a try. I'm sure I could sacrifice a few more minutes for the chance at shooting some bandits arcade style.

I look at the time. No, that can't be right. 5 PM? Where did the past four hours go? I needed that time to work! I'm so damn stupid! How could I let myself get caught up in video games for the past four hours? I can't get that time back, and now I have to work until the crack of dawn just to make up for it. And yet, even as the growing stress causing me to get yet another headache and more pimples to sprout on my face, I can't help but look at my Steam library once again. You know, I don't think I ever finished Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. It would be a shame to let such a great game go to waste. Maybe just a few more minutes.

This, for the longest time, was my life. I never considered it to be an addiction. To me, addiction was linked to drinking, doing drugs, gambling, or the ugly vices that you would see in an after-school special. But not video games; surely not the one hobby in my life that gives me endless joy. Even during those times where I cursed at my screen shortly after dying at the hands of a tough boss for the nth time, I still couldn't stop myself from pressing forward. From the day I first laid my hands on a Nintendo NES console until now, video games have always been, and continue to be, a part of my day to some extent. But as much as it pains me to admit it, I'm not a kid anymore. Now a fully-grown adult, I have these things called "responsibilities" that I have to own up to. Having a job, making a decent income, paying bills and taxes, and helping loved ones when they need it. In a perfect world I would be a gamer 24/7, but in the real world I have to wear many different hats even if some of them look goofy on me.

But I digress. This article is not about my personal life, but rather about the addiction I found myself consumed by not too long ago. As I said, I never thought video games counted as an actual addiction. When I heard the term "video game addict" I thought it was just silly slang to call gamers who would rather play Super Mario Bros. than go out to a dance club on a Saturday night. I learned the hard way that video game addiction can be just as bad as any other addiction, when taken too far.

Withdrawing from the addiction causes symptoms to emerge that can be both physically and mentally daunting on the user."

Addiction by definition

So what exactly IS an addiction, and why do video games fall under this category? Well according to the ever-reliable Merriam-Webster dictionary, an addiction is "A strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble; an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something." It goes on to further explain that addiction is a "compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance... characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal."

So what does all that mean? Basically an addiction is when you find yourself unable to control the amount of a substance you take in. Drugs and alcohol are the simplest concepts of addiction because you are literally taking in a substance that causes a physical effect on your body. If this occurs over and over again, the body soon finds itself needing to have more of that substance in order to function. Withdrawing from the addiction causes symptoms to emerge that can be both physically and mentally daunting on the user. We've all heard the horror stories that addiction can bring, and drugs and alcohol are certainly the biggest monsters in the addiction realm. However, surprisingly enough, video games can also fit into the addiction category. In fact, an addiction can occur with a number of various hobbies and recreational activities so long as they trigger a person's behavior. These are linked under the category of behavioral addiction.

Putting it to the test

One student experiment conducted earlier this month showed that video game addiction -- along with other behavioral addictions -- has the potential to cause physical and mental harm, much like drugs and alcohol. In the study, psychiatrist Michael Brody selected a gamer, college student Kyle Chevalier, to play the popular soccer (or football if you're not American) title FIFA 16. The goals of the experiment were to detect that "the person needs the substances and as much of it as he can get to keep him going" as well as showing "that if the person is cut off from his behavior, he will become irritable and depressed." These showings, if confirmed, would prove that Kyle has a behavioral addiction.

Starting at 10:30 PM, Kyle starts his game knowing that he has to wake up at 7 AM to get to his internship. As the night progresses, Kyle starts to assure himself that he'll only play a few more games before going to bed. It's already starting to sound like a familiar situation to both myself (and other gamers) who have been in the same scenario. A couple hours go by, and the more Kyle plays his game the more stressed, and less talkative, he gets. His focus on the game practically removes him from the reality of time as 1 AM starts to rear its ugly head. Kyle goes through a number of emotions -- anger, depression, and joy -- all in rapid succession and all for various reasons, which stem from the game. As the night went on later and later, Kyle would feel the need for just one more match. Winning pumps his adrenaline and makes him want to go again. Losing not only makes him angry, but also makes him want to redeem his loss, thus making him way to go again. Finally, at around 12:45 AM, Kyle stops playing, but only because the game kicked him out of the match. Had this not occurred, Kyle might have kept on going for even longer. Upon being kicked, Kyle reacted violently by "throwing controllers and cursing at whoever signed him out." All he could say in his defense? "Definitely going to need to take a nap after work tomorrow."

What did we learn from this study? We first learned that Kyle's love for a video game caused his behavioral addiction to trigger in the early stages of the night. Second, once this addiction was triggered, Kyle made every excuse possible in order to try and keep playing, even though he was tired and he knew he had to go to work in the morning. At the end of the study, Kyle tells himself that it was "not a good idea" to play that late, but judging by his behavior, it's difficult to believe that this will be the last time he goes through a long night of playing video games. Kyle showed that he needed the substance (FIFA 16) and nothing stopped him from playing until it was out of his control. Then, upon having his substance removed, he become quite irritable and hostile over nothing more than a simulation.

Behavioral addiction, as it pertains to video games, is bad enough with a console and a controller, but the latest technologies have now brought video games to phones, televisions, tablets, and various other devices. Anywhere a gamer can go, they can bring their games with them. Games such as Candy Crush Saga or Temple Run (or even my very own Hearthstone) can be played over and over again. And the worst part? These games, and others, carry with them microtransactions and downloadable content (DLC) that can be purchased with a couple clicks of the button. For a sensible casual gamer, this might not be such a big deal, but for the hardcore gamer with a behavioral addiction who simply has to complete everything a game has to offer, this is a financial nightmare waiting to happen.

FIFA 2016

Kyle showed that he needed the substance (FIFA 16) and nothing stopped him from playing until it was out of his control."

Rehab to the rescue

So what can be done to solve this behavioral addiction to video games? Believe it or not, much like drugs and alcohol, video games now have their own rehab center. Located in Fall City, Washington, the reSTART Rehabilitation Center is the very first of its kind, but most certainly not the last. Founded in 2009 and continuing to grow yearly, not only does this retreat help teach gamers how to control their addiction, but it also caters to people who have behavioral addictions to phones, virtual reality programs, and the Internet itself. Much like how Kyle couldn't stop playing his game, some people can't stop looking at their phones or going on their computer.

These technology addicts share similar paths and reSTART helps guide them towards a lifestyle that, while not taking technology out completely, can be controlled and taken in moderation. They offer outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, climbing, water and winter recreation, and fitness programs to promote healthier living while also keeping things fun and exciting. More importantly, there are counselors and motivational coaches available to talk to about the addiction and ways to get better. While not ever gamer or technophile might need a rehab center to control their addiction, at least it's there, and it's a program that has the potential to spread to other states across the country.

So, do I need to visit this rehab center? I don't think so. While I may overdo it with video games sometimes, I still know when I need to stop and focus on my job, even if that realization occurs at the 11th hour and I have to scramble to come up with something. At least I can still go out with my friends and family, and take part in social activities beyond video games. At least I know that when my body is telling me to go to sleep, I can quit the game and turn the computer or console off for a while. And yet there still comes a time when I feel an itch that I simply have to scratch. I feel my legs fidgeting again. My eyes scan Steam library. Didn't Dying Light just come out with a new expansion?

Maybe just one quick game won't hurt.

FIFA 2016 image courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment. All other images copyright 2015 Metaleater Media.