Addictive Games: Questioned By Psychologists, Sought by Developers, and Watched by Lawmakers

gaming addiction

flickr photo shared by Martijn Schornagel under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Worried about video game addiction? Most psychologists seem to agree that gaming can be unhealthy under certain circumstances, but finding out whether your habits fit those circumstances can prove to be surprisingly difficult.

That’s partly because the American Psychiatric Association (APA) hasn’t yet formalized a diagnosis. Currently, we have Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), a “condition warranting more clinical research and experience” as listed in DSM 5. Christopher J. Ferguson, Department Chair of Psychology at Stetson University, recently took the time to explain the limits of IGD as it stands today for Huffington Post.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that, early on, many scholars made a critical error in assuming that the symptoms for substance abuse disorders could just be ported over and used for IGD. Remove “heroin” from the symptom and stick in “video games.” This seems to have removed the necessity of doing actual, careful epidemiological research on real people with real problems. And once this choice was made, the field seems to have gone further and further down the rabbit hole. Dr. Daniel Kardefelt-Winther of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet recently discussed the problems with this decision in a paper in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. The result is a set of diagnostic criteria that lack validity and clinical utility.

Consider, for example, the criteria involving using games to escape a negative mood. In a survey it might be put this way: “I use X in order to make myself feel better when I am depressed or anxious.” Sure, if X = heroin, this is a bad thing, right? However, we all use hobbies to improve our mood. So if X = golf, or crocheting or gardening, or, indeed, video games, it’s less clear this is a relevant symptom.


Ferguson goes on to explain that while it’s true that some people do game to excess, that alone may not demand a unique category of diagnosis. It remains to be seen whether the APA will see the need to include it in future updates to the DSM.

But what about games specifically designed to prey on our impulses? Ferguson doesn’t address those, but psychiatrist Tyler Black did during a talk at GDC this week. Polygon was there, and reported back on Black’s concerns.

Black has treated children for gaming addiction, so he obviously believe it’s a valid diagnosis–but more than that, he’s seen the way some game developers use psychological tricks to condition players to play more and spend more money in the process. We can look at GDC itself to see the proof: a 2014 session entitled “Social Whales: Understanding and Leveraging a New Kind of Player” promised that harnessing those whales (an industry name for big spenders) “has big implications for smarter user acquisition, monetization and retention strategies.” Or GDC Online 2012: “Maximizing Monetization in Core Games: Pricing, Promotions and Big Spenders” offered to “drill down into the psychology and economics at play in item pricing, promotions and the creation of big spenders, all crucial areas that many developers fail to maximize.” It’s a popular subject, particularly at developer-centric events.

The psychological tricks employed for monetization are great for developers and publishers if they work. They mean big money, loyal players, and continued success. For players, as Black explains, the benefits are significantly more questionable.

“Psychologically, the rarer the reward, the harder it is to stop the behavior,” he said, adding that it is a kind of conditioning, not unlike Ivan Pavlov’s experiments. “It doesn’t matter if you say this is good or bad,” said Black. “But the fact is, video games definitely shape behavior.” Game designers try to make the feedback “as exciting and rewarding as possible.”

He added that this can lead to “unhealthy behavior,” especially among children, whose brains are still developing. Kids are not good at making sound judgments or at resisting urges for instant gratification. “Children are fantastic at adapting and learning, but that also means they are easy to deceive and can make bad decisions,” he said.


So are Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, and all their free-to-play brethren creating addicts? As Ferguson pointed out earlier, that’s difficult to confirm from a psychological perspective. But as Tyler Black and his legal expert/brother Ryan Black discussed, the APA’s opinion is only one part of the equation. Legislators are also taking an interest, and if developers continue to blatantly manipulate players’ wallets, official diagnoses may take a back seat to harsh regulations. In Japan, potentially exploitive gatcha mechanics that randomize rewards may be about to face a second round of regulation.

Laws and regulations aside, what do you do if you’re worried about your own gaming habits and not the state of gaming addiction in general? In that case, you should talk to a professional. But in this, it’s good to be aware that opinions on gaming addiction vary widely, as do therapists’ depth of knowledge about games. When our experts say that you need to find a good fit when looking for a therapist, this is one of the sorts of things they’re referring to. It may take more than one consultation, but if you want to talk about your gaming habits, you might want to talk to someone who understands them.

[Huffington Post, Polygon, DSM]
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