Video game playing, addiction, and the role of context

Over the past few years I have spent time researching the excessive playing of online games like Everquest and World of Warcraft (WoW). If you have read one of my earlier blogs, you will see that I view addictive behaviour as any behaviour that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g. improving your highest score, beating your friend’s high score, getting your name on the “hall of fame”, mastering the game) or extrinsic (e.g. peer admiration).

In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for gamers to play endlessly. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people, this may lead to addiction where online gaming compromises everything else in their lives. However, playing excessively doesn’t necessarily make someone an addict. Last year, I published two case study accounts of two males who claimed that they were gaming for up to 80 hours a week. They were behaviourally identical in terms of their game playing, but very different in terms of their psychological motivation to play.

The first case was an unemployed single 21-year old male. His favourite online game was World of Warcraft and that since leaving university he had spent an average of 10 to 14 hours a day playing WoW. He claimed that WoW had a positive influence in his life and that most of his social life was online and that it increased his self-esteem. He also argued that he had no other commitments and that he had the time and the flexibility to play WoW for long stretches. Gaming provided a daily routine when there was little else going on. There were no negative detrimental effects in his life. When he got a job and a girlfriend, his playing all but stopped.

The second case was 38-year old male, a financial accountant, married and had two children. He told me that over the previous 18 months, his online playing of Everquest had gone from about 3-4 hours of playing every evening to playing up to 14 hours a day. He claimed that his relationship was breaking down, that he was spending little time with his children, and that he constantly rang in sick to work so that he could spend the day playing online games. He had tried to quit playing on a number of occasions but could not go more than a few days before he experienced “an irresistible urge” to play again – even when his wife threatened to leave him. Giving up online gaming was worse than giving up smoking and that he was “extremely moody, anxious, depressed and irritable” if he was unable to play online. Things got even worse. He was fired from his job for being unreliable and unproductive (although his employers were totally unaware of his gaming behaviour). As a result of losing his job, his wife also left him. This led to him “playing all day, every day”. It was a vicious circle in that his excessive online gaming was causing all his problems yet the only way he felt he could alleviate his mood state and forget about all of life’s stresses was to play online games even more.

I argued that only the second man appeared to be genuinely addicted to online gaming but that the first man wasn’t. I based this on the context and consequences of his excessive play. Online gaming addiction should be characterized by the extent to which excessive gaming impacts negatively on other areas of the gamers’ lives rather than the amount of time spent playing. For me, an activity cannot be described as an addiction if there are few (or no) negative consequences in the player’s life even if the gamer is playing 14 hours a day. The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from it.

Despite the potentially negative side of online gaming, there is lots of evidence suggesting that gaming can have very positive effects in peoples’ lives. The immersive and dissociative experience of gaming can also be very therapeutic and help people deal with every day stresses and strains. Our research shows that many gamers love the fact that playing games leads to time loss. This is more positive than drug use, drinking alcohol or other activities like gambling. Simulated environments online also allow people to explore their personalities (e.g. gender swapping) and test out boundaries, something that would be difficult to do offline.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 2, 2011, in Addiction, Case Studies, Popular Culture, Psychology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. How many followers can be of your blog at blogspot?

  2. Hi my family member! I wish to say that this post is awesome, nice written and come with almost all important infos. I’d like to look more posts like this .

  3. Ola! Drmarkgriffiths,
    In addition to your post I was wondering, There is no question or doubt about the fact that TV, interactive video games, and the Internet are excellent sources of education and entertainment for children. However, too much of a good thing can be bad too. In this case, it can have some unhealthy side effects. That’s why it’s so important to monitor and limit the amount of time your child spends playing video games, watching TV, or browsing the Internet.

  4. Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

  5. Thought I may contribute this “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies… It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.” – Albert Einstein

  6. i am doing research and also some articles about video game addiction and this article surely adds more to my knowledge.

    on another note, is there any article that you might have about video game addiction seen as a form of brainwashing in individuals?

    thanks you so much!

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  10. gracias por todas sus publicaciones me están ayudando para la discusión de mis datos y por lo tanto para mi tesis.. muy buenas publicaciones y estudios. si tiene artículos sobre violencia y juegos online, porcentajes en cuanto al nivel de practica en los juegos online. y algo de nivel de conocimiento en los adolescentes sobre los juegos online.. le agradeceria mucho si me los envia : Gracias

  11. I found your name on a video game addiction article, and I’m glad to come here, your views are very unbiased and I would like to know more about online gaming addiction.
    Thanks for the article.

  12. “The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from it.” That is absolutely true.

    Video game is also a way for creators to express their inner genius creativity and to make the player discover those creations (music composition and architecture, atmosphere). Which is in my opinion more important than simply losing time, exploring personalities or testing boundaries. Everything outside the character is in my opinion what matters in a game to a large amount of players that doesn’t seek a reward in the first place, which should be accounted for in later researches.

    As such I feel that the need for some players to play a game is similar to the need to explore our environment (new continents, space), and that it should be encouraged in the case of some particularly interesting virtual worlds. I think the main problem however is how some creators deliberately play on the fact that some players can be addicted to some mechanics (rewards and social interaction) to get the player’s money and creating a vicious cycle like in the second case.

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