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Is Video Game Addiction Really an Addiction?

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Updated January 08, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Ask the parent who watches their child retreat into the world of video games for hours every day, who neglects their friends and family, and who loses interest in anything but their game console, and they will say that yes, video game addiction is as real as addiction to alcohol or cocaine. But do they really know what they are evaluating? Surely the alcoholic who drinks himself to death, or the drug addict who overdoses, are more sick than a kid who spends too long in front of a computer screen?

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Video game addiction was not included in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), although video game playing has become much more widespread since its publication in 1994. Since then, the video game addiction concept has been controversial, with the American Medical Association first supporting, then withdrawing support from a proposal for it to be included in the next edition, the DSM-V, in 2012. Video game addiction has also been proposed for the DSM-V as a sub-type of internet addiction, along with sexual preoccupations and e-mail/text messaging.

Asian countries, such as South Korea, are recognizing video game addiction as an urgent public health matter, with several deaths having occurred in internet cafes, apparently as a result of blood clots occurring during prolonged sitting at computers. In the United States, estimates of video game addiction and related problems are more difficult, with computers being accessed at home rather than in shared public places. However, case studies show similar patterns of behavior across cultures, and it is argued that they are the same phenomenon.

When free from the constraints of school, many kids simply want to be entertained as easily as possible. And many parent want this for their kids too, as the shift to single parent families and two-income families leaves many parents with little time to focus on interaction with their kids. Giving their child the latest video game serves two purposes: It alleviates parental guilt about not spending enough time with the child, and it keeps the child happily occupied. This kind of lifestyle can quickly settle into a pattern which makes lengthy periods in front of computer games rewarding for everyone concerned.

Yet there is currently no clear or consistent message to parents about whether computer game addiction is a real risk. Video games may also have positive effects, and game developers are making efforts to incorporate health benefits, such as exercise, into games. So how are parents supposed to know how to respond?

Background

Video games themselves are a relatively recent phenomenon, and widespread video game ownership and play has only occurred in the past few years. Video games certainly did not exist in their current, highly sophisticated form 15 years ago when the DSM-IV was published. So although there is no recognition of video game addiction in the DSM-IV, that is no indication that it does not exist now.

The idea of video game addiction has rapidly grown out of an industry geared specifically at getting kids to buy as many games as possible. Halfway between toys and TV, video games are targeted at naïve youngsters who are unable to set their own limits on play, or to make well-thought out decisions about how to spend their time -- with some game manufacturers even boasting in their advertising about the "addictive" experience of their games. Proper recognition of the risk of video game over-use or addiction provides a rationale for setting standards of guidance for parents and gamers regarding appropriate limits to gaming.

Video game addiction is being increasingly recognized by researchers and other professionals. The American Medical Association (AMA) took a lead role in compiling research supporting the idea of video game addiction in 2007, concluding that the "AMA strongly encourages the consideration and inclusion of 'internet/video game addiction' as a formal diagnostic disorder in the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV."

However, both the AMA and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) backed off from this decisive position later in 2007, saying more research was needed before video game addiction could be recognized as an addiction. A release by the American Psychiatric Association around the same time stated:

"Since the current edition, DSM-IV-TR, does not list “video game addiction,” the APA does not consider “video game addiction” to be a mental disorder at this time. If the science warrants it, this proposed disorder will be considered for inclusion in DSM-V, which is due to be published in 2012. Revising DSM requires a years-long, rigorous process – one that is transparent and open to suggestions from our colleagues in the medical and mental health communities and the public. All changes to DSM will be based on the latest and best science."

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