Signs and Symptoms of Video Game Addiction

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Video games have evolved at an amazing rate and offer us new ways to escape from reality. But what about video game addiction? Maybe we like our fantasy games that allow us to become a completely different person, fighting battles with mystical creatures and using magic. It’s thrilling to imagine ourselves as our character; we’re the hero in this story. 

Or, maybe we like our games to be more grounded in reality, such as first-person shooters with military characters. There are games set in a post-apocalyptic world that looks a lot like where we live, and there are games designed to look like the present day. Maybe we like that the game feels plausible, it feels real, right down to how the characters interact with each other. It can be comforting when things feel familiar.

But sometimes these games might feel too familiar, especially with mental illness and drug use.

For many struggling with substance abuse and addiction, that imagery can be triggering. No matter how far into your recovery journey, seeing someone use a particular drug, or even something resembling that drug, can subject you to a whole world of thoughts and craving you wish you didn’t have. You might be frustrated that the game seems to be glorifying drug use, especially if using that drug affords a character certain power-ups, special abilities, or health benefits. 

What started as a way to escape reality has come all too close to it, and it hurts. 

Drug Use in Video Games

When you think of who plays video games, who do you think of? Kids and teens, right? While they undoubtedly make up a large portion of gamers, the average age of an American gamer is actually 35 years old. Because of this, some games cater to their adult players by offering more adult themes in their games, such as violence and drug use. 

study of 100 best selling games for each console found that 61% of games featured real substances, such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Fictional drugs accounted for around 38% of substance use in games, and less than 1% feature a combination of real and fictional drugs. 

Real or fictional, the drugs are rarely just plot devices; more often than not, the player can actually use the drug. Around 40% of these in-game drugs caused disorienting negative effects to the player, such as vivid hallucinations or blurred vision. The remaining 60% offer the character ability or health power-ups, such as gaining new abilities or improving current ones, or boosting speed and attacks.

Can Drug Use in Video Games Influence Drug Use in Real Life?

As the content of games became more violent, many worried this would make gamers more prone to violence in real life. A similar question extends to drug use in games: what is the link between drug use in video games and drug use in real life?

  • Alcohol and tobacco: A 2016 study found teens in the UK who play video games with references to alcohol and tobacco are twice as likely to have used these substances. 
  • Marijuana: A 2012 study found a small but significant link between marijuana use and problematic gaming. 

These statistics might sound alarming at first, but it’s important to understand that neither of these studies found a causal link between gaming and drug use. That is, gaming doesn’t cause drug use, and drug use doesn’t cause gaming. Not enough research has been conducted to determine if problematic gaming predisposes people to drug use.

Video Game Addiction as a Behavioral Health Issue

The terminology of addiction is so commonplace we often use it to describe things other than substances. We say that those chocolate chip cookies are so addicting because we can’t stop eating them. We pick up a new hobby, a new toy, a new app, and we say we’re addicted to it because we can’t stop doing it. Some people describe themselves as having addictive personalities because when they start something, they can’t stop. 

But this leads some people to think: can I actually be addicted to doing something? Something that seems so fundamentally different than drugs or alcohol, the things usually associated with addiction?

Experts are actually split on this, but most agree that behaviors can be addicting. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s own definition of addiction includes behaviors:

“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Behavioral addictions involve compulsively engaging in certain behaviors despite negative consequences or neglected responsibilities, difficulty cutting back even if you want to stop, and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal such as sadness or irritability. Common examples include gambling addiction, shopping addiction, and internet addiction.

This definition of addiction is clearly complex but perhaps the most important takeaway is this: just because we do something a lot, doesn’t mean we’re necessarily addicted to it. Just because we drink alcohol, doesn’t mean we struggle with alcohol abuse.

It’s clear there are lots of other factors that go into addiction, such as genetics, our environment, and the possibility of continuing this behavior despite consequences.

man drinking beer and playing video games

Did you know?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition, the manual psychologists and therapists use to diagnose mental disorders, recognizes behavioral addictions in their chapter on addictive disorders. Currently, only gambling disorder is included as a formal diagnosis, but “internet gaming disorder” is described as a condition needing further study.

Despite this, the World Health Organization formally recognizes a gaming disorder, and even included it in the most recent revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

Is Video Game Addiction Real?

Even if a video game addiction or internet gaming disorder isn’t recognized as a formal diagnosis, a compulsive desire to play video games can still cause distress and dysfunction. Using technology, especially playing video games, actually activates the same reward system in our brains as using drugs. In fact, this link is supported by studies on neurobiology.  

It might be hard to determine when gaming has shifted from entertainment to something more concerning. Some warning signs of video game addiction might include:

  • Neglecting school, work, or family responsibilities because you feel preoccupied with gaming
  • Spending most of your time gaming, thinking about when you’ll game next, or recovering from any effects of gaming (e.g., staying up late, headaches from increased screen time, making up for neglected responsibilities)
  • Difficulty setting limits or regulating how much time is spent gaming
  • Using video games as means to escape stressful situations
  • Signs of withdrawal when not playing video games, such as decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, or irritability

Video Game Addiction Treatment in Los Angeles

These warning signs can just as easily apply to drug or alcohol use. If you or a loved one are exhibiting any of these warning signs, you may benefit from taking a hard look at the impact of your behavior. Even if video game addiction has yet to be designated as a formal diagnosis, addictions frequently co-occur with other mental health struggles. 

The relationships between drug use, addictions, and video games are clearly complex. What might start out as a form of entertainment and connection might shift into something we can no longer control. Launch Centers is here to help with your addiction; contact us today to see how we can support you.

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