Joystick junkies: A brief overview of online gaming addiction

Over the last 15 years, research into various online addictions have greatly increased. Prior to the 2013 publication of the American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there had been some debate as to whether ‘internet addiction’ should be introduced into the text as a separate disorder. Alongside this, there has also been debate as to whether those researching in the online addiction field should be researching generalized internet use and/or the potentially addictive activities that can be engaged on the internet (e.g., gambling, video gaming, sex, shopping, etc.).

It should also be noted that given the lack of consensus as to whether video game addiction exists and/or whether the term ‘addiction’ is the most appropriate to use, some researchers have instead used terminology such as ‘excessive’ or ‘problematic’ to denote the harmful use of video games. Terminology for what appears to be for the same disorder and/or its consequences include problem video game playing, problematic online game use, video game addiction, online gaming addiction, internet gaming addiction, and compulsive Internet use.

Following these debates, the Substance Use Disorder Work Group (SUDWG) recommended that the DSM-5 include a sub-type of problematic internet use (i.e., internet gaming disorder [IGD]) in Section 3 (‘Emerging Measures and Models’) as an area that needed future research before being included in future editions of the DSM. According to Dr. Nancy Petry and Dr. Charles O’Brien, IGD will not be included as a separate mental disorder until the (i) defining features of IGD have been identified, (ii) reliability and validity of specific IGD criteria have been obtained cross-culturally, (iii) prevalence rates have been determined in representative epidemiological samples across the world, and (iv) etiology and associated biological features have been evaluated.

Although there is now a rapidly growing literature on pathological video gaming, one of the key reasons that IGD was not included in the main text of the DSM-5 was that the SUDWG concluded that no standard diagnostic criteria were used to assess gaming addiction across these many studies. In 2013, some of my colleagues and I published a paper in Clinical Psychology Review examining all instruments assessing problematic, pathological and/or addictive gaming. We reported that 18 different screening instruments had been developed, and that these had been used in 63 quantitative studies comprising 58,415 participants. The prevalence rates for problematic gaming were highly variable depending on age (e.g., children, adolescents, young adults, older adults) and sample (e.g., college students, internet users, gamers, etc.). Most studies’ prevalence rates of problematic gaming ranged between 1% and 10% but higher figures have been reported (particularly amongst self-selected samples of video gamers). In our review, we also identified both strengths and weaknesses of these instruments.

The main strengths of the instrumentation included the: (i) the brevity and ease of scoring, (ii) excellent psychometric properties such as convergent validity and internal consistency, and (iii) robust data that will aid the development of standardized norms for adolescent populations. However, the main weaknesses identified in the instrumentation included: (i) core addiction indicators being inconsistent across studies, (iii) a general lack of any temporal dimension, (iii) inconsistent cut-off scores relating to clinical status, (iv) poor and/or inadequate inter-rater reliability and predictive validity, and (v) inconsistent and/or dimensionality.

It has also been noted by many researchers (including me) that the criteria for IGD assessment tools are theoretically based on a variety of different potentially problematic activities including substance use disorders, pathological gambling, and/or other behavioural addiction criteria. There are also issues surrounding the settings in which diagnostic screens are used as those used in clinical practice settings may require a different emphasis that those used in epidemiological, experimental, and neurobiological research settings.

Video gaming that is problematic, pathological and/or addictive lacks a widely accepted definition. Some researchers in the field consider video games as the starting point for examining the characteristics of this specific disorder, while others consider the internet as the main platform that unites different addictive internet activities, including online games. My colleagues and I have begun to make an effort to integrate both approaches, i.e., classifying online gaming addiction as a sub-type of video game addiction but acknowledging that some situational and structural characteristics of the internet may facilitate addictive tendencies (e.g., accessibility, anonymity, affordability, disinhibition, etc.).

Throughout my career I have argued that although all addictions have particular and idiosyncratic characteristics, they share more commonalities than differences (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse), and likely reflects a common etiology of addictive behaviour. When I started research internet addiction in the mid-1990s, I came to the view that there is a fundamental difference between addiction to the internet, and addictions on the internet. However many online games (such as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) differ from traditional stand-alone video games as there are social and/or role-playing dimension that allow interaction with other gamers.

Irrespective of approach or model, the components and dimensions that comprise online gaming addiction outlined above are very similar to the IGD criteria in Section 3 of the DSM-5. For instance, my six addiction components directly map onto the nine proposed criteria for IGD (of which five or more need to be endorsed and resulting in clinically significant impairment). More specifically: (1) preoccupation with internet games [salience]; (2) withdrawal symptoms when internet gaming is taken away [withdrawal]; (3) the need to spend increasing amounts of time engaged in internet gaming [tolerance], (4) unsuccessful attempts to control participation in internet gaming [relapse/loss of control]; (5) loss of interest in hobbies and entertainment as a result of, and with the exception of, internet gaming [conflict]; (6) continued excessive use of internet games despite knowledge of psychosocial problems [conflict]; (7) deception of family members, therapists, or others regarding the amount of internet gaming [conflict]; (8) use of the internet gaming to escape or relieve a negative mood [mood modification];  and (9) loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of participation in internet games [conflict].

The fact that IGD was included in Section 3 of the DSM-5 appears to have been well received by researchers and clinicians in the gaming addiction field (and by those individuals that have sought treatment for such disorders and had their experiences psychiatrically validated and feel less stigmatized). However, for IGD to be included in the section on ‘Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders’ along with ‘Gambling Disorder’, the gaming addiction field must unite and start using the same assessment measures so that comparisons can be made across different demographic groups and different cultures.

For epidemiological purposes, my research colleagues and I have asserted that the most appropriate measures in assessing problematic online use (including internet gaming) should meet six requirements. Such an instrument should have: (i) brevity (to make surveys as short as possible and help overcome question fatigue); (ii) comprehensiveness (to examine all core aspects of problematic gaming as possible); (iii) reliability and validity across age groups (e.g., adolescents vs. adults); (iv) reliability and validity across data collection methods (e.g., online, face-to-face interview, paper-and-pencil); (v) cross-cultural reliability and validity; and (vi) clinical validation. We aso reached the conclusion that an ideal assessment instrument should serve as the basis for defining adequate cut-off scores in terms of both specificity and sensitivity.

The good news is that research in the gaming addiction field does appear to be reaching an emerging consensus. There have also been over 20 studies using neuroimaging techniques (such as functional magnetic resonance imaging) indicating that generalized internet addiction and online gaming addiction share neurobiological similarities with more traditional addictions. However, it is critical that a unified approach to assessment of IGD is urgently needed as this is the only way that there will be a strong empirical and scientific basis for IGD to be included in the next DSM.

Note: A version of this article was first published on

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

Further reading

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Text Revision (Fifth Edition). Washington, D.C.: Author.

Demetrovics, Z., Urbán, R., Nagygyörgy, K., Farkas, J., Griffiths, M. D., Pápay, O., . . . Oláh, A. (2012). The development of the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire (POGQ). PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36417.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M. D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10(4), 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, under review.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Kim, M. G., & Kim, J. (2010). Cross-validation of reliability, convergent and discriminant validity for the problematic online game use scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(3), 389-398.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., Griffiths, M. D., & Gradisar, M. (2011). Assessing clinical trials of Internet addiction treatment: A systematic review and CONSORT evaluation. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1110-1116.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). Cognitive-behavioral approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68, 1185-1195.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H., Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Koronczai, B., Urban, R., Kokonyei, G., Paksi, B., Papp, K., Kun, B., . . . Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Confirmation of the three-factor model of problematic internet use on off-line adolescent and adult samples. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14, 657–664.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet and gaming addiction: A systematic literature review of neuroimaging studies. Brain Sciences, 2, 347-374.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2013).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, in press.

Pápay, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic online gaming. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment. New York: Elsevier.

Petry, N.M., & O’Brien, C.P. (2013). Internet gaming disorder and the DSM-5. Addiction, 108, 1186–1187.

Porter, G., Starcevic, V., Berle, D., & Fenech, P. (2010). Recognizing problem video game use. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 120-128.

Young, K. S. (1998). Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 1, 237-244.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and 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”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 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 2000 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 October 16, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Computer games, Cyberpsychology, Games, Gender differences, I.T., Internet addiction, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gaming, Psychiatry, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. While I can easily see legitimate concern about a pathological level of video gaming, I wonder if some of the concern is the same (perhaps unjustified) kind that was expressed to my parents: “you need to get him to stop reading books and get him out playing fisticuffs with the other kids”.

    –dave (:-)) c-b

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