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The Real Problem Behind Video Game Addiction

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

I'm often amazed at the amount of time children and grown adults spend on video games. I am equally dismayed at the number of people who do not see a problem with their obsession over video games. The amount of pushback only solidifies my opinion that we have a video game addiction problem in our culture.

This is coming from a father who got his 7-year-old son a Nintendo Switch this past Christmas. I am not saying we cannot have video games or that they are inherently evil. I am suggesting that we have an addiction problem that most people are unwilling to recognize.

I have had parents who tell me their children can play over 14 hours a day on video games. When they are not on a console, they are playing games on smartphones. It gets no better for grown adults. Mostly, it is men who do not see an issue with gaming or that they might even have an addiction problem, despite their spouse's criticism. Interestingly enough, I have plenty of married women who take issue with their husband's gaming addiction. It brings just as much if not more contention to the therapy session than infidelity.

I have heard of therapists prescribing gaming to grown men to help with their ADHD. Though this could be an exaggeration of what the therapist said, nothing surprises me anymore. The issue is not that we cannot see the solution; it is that we cannot see the problem or the problem beyond the problem.

I have had clients say that their partner is upset they do not take an interest in the things they like doing (gaming). Something tells me they would not have an issue if they were doing something more worthwhile with their time. I would generally tell a client if you love your spouse, then the charitable thing to do is take an interest in the things they love to do. At least pay attention when they talk about certain things. Is it the same with gaming?

Not when it has become an addiction that leads to other psychological issues. Research shows that people who are addicted to video games have poorer mental health and cognitive functioning, including poorer impulse control and ADHD symptoms, than people who do not have video game addiction. People who are addicted to video games also have increased emotional difficulties, including increased depression and anxiety, report feeling more socially isolated, and are more likely to have problems with internet pornography use (verywellmind).

Why is this?

The problem behind the problem.

When we have made a habit of enjoying or finding happiness in lower things, the passions tend to blind the intellect. When the mind becomes focused on some particular lower thing for happiness and sees it in a specific way, the intellect becomes focused on other things in the same way. It is no surprise then that internet pornography addiction, ADHD, poor impulse control, and video gaming are all highly correlated. When the intellect becomes focused on some particular thing from this point of view, of the happiness gained from it, the intellect begins looking at other things from the same perspective (Ripperger). One cannot see it or any other thing from a universal or outside perspective.

It is not that we cannot find pleasure or happiness in particular things. The problem is when we put too much emphasis on these things that fail to satisfy our very real and good longings for a challenge, competence, autonomy, adventure, mission, belonging. The video game industry knows this and do a pretty good job appealing to these longings.

We must use our reason, for it is our reason that knows both the universal good for the individual as well as the particular good in the concrete. If we want to satisfy these longings, we must find them in the real world, not some virtual fantasy world. Again it is not that we cannot find happiness in these things, in a virtual fantasy world. They problem is when we fail to live it in the real world and we expect the virtual world to satisfy these inherent longings and it becomes and addiction.

If one leads a life according to the appetites alone (this is essentially what addiction is, and for the purpose of this post, video games), the individual's real good will be compromised since the appetites only know the good toward which they are ordered and not the universal good and higher calling.

If the appetites are ordered by right reason, they can actually lead to the good of the individual, for the good which the appetites pursue are real goods (challenge, competence, autonomy, adventure, mission, belonging) and so reason should take those real goods into consideration in the universal good of the individual (Ripperger). I cannot speak highly enough to the importance of therapist appealing to these longings in a real concrete non virtual way.

In other words, the lower goods and levels of happiness need to be considered in light of the higher goods and levels of happiness. As C.S. Lewis put it, "If you put second things before first things you get neither first of second things, but if you put first things first, you get both second and first things." Perhaps our wives are asking us, men, to put first things first. For more on the four levels of happiness, and a deeper understanding of the nature of happiness read my post Our Search For True Happiness.

We know gaming is compelling psychologically but what are the "warning signs" that you have an addiction? How do we know we are overly involved in video games?

In their book "Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound," Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan, go into detail about the positive and negative aspects of habitual gaming; they list five warning signs for assessing risk to video game addiction. See how they speak to the deeper longing I have been speaking of.

1) Do you see a big "satisfaction gap?" -- When you think about how needs are satisfied in your "real life" versus games, do games come out way ahead? In our research, we consistently find that over-involvement in games goes hand-in-hand with feeling a lack of basic need satisfactions for competence, autonomy, and relatedness in other areas of life, such as school, work, social relationships, and non-gaming hobbies and activities. The data suggest that if our basic needs are too sparsely satisfied by life, there may be a susceptibility to over-involvement in video games. Why might this happen? Well when life isn't meeting our needs, the immediate and dense availability of satisfactions for competence, autonomy, and relatedness in games often become a stronger pull that draws us in too long and too often.

2) Are Games "Crowding Out?" -- Do you miss deadlines at work or school because of gaming? Do you often choose to game rather than spend time with friends or family? One gamer I know reflected wistfully that he had missed most of the first five years of his daughter's life because he spent so much time gaming. If you're having these kinds of feelings about relationships, or not meeting other responsibilities because of playing video games, it is a sure sign that you might have a problem with too much gaming.

3) Are you feeling personal pressure, guilt or shame around your gaming? -- It may sound like a funny thing to say that some gamers feel they "pressure" themselves into gaming, but it happens. There is a feeling that games are something you're compelled to do, even if you don't particularly enjoy or want to play at that moment. You may feel a sense of guilt or shame about firing up another game, but do so anyway. If this feels like a common experience for you, it is a sign that you are over-involved in gaming.

4) Are you playing four or more hours a day? -- A simple rule of thumb is how much time you spend on average every week playing video games. We find that up until about 25 hours, there is no direct association between time spent playing, and negative feelings or decreased well-being. Above that line, however, we see a relationship begin to emerge between 25+ weekly hours, and bad outcomes. So as one quick check: How much time on average are you spending gaming each week? If it equals a half-time job or more -- it really deserves a look.

I am going to add here that 25 hours a week, which averages out just over 3.5 hours a day, is far too excessive. No child or grown adult should be hacking away mindlessly at video games anywhere near this. I like to limit my son during the school year at least to only playing on the weekends and for a limited time. And if there is more constructive things to be doing like playing with his siblings outside those things take precedence.

5) Is gaming isolating important others? -- While you are running around virtual worlds, perhaps in the company of dozens of other online friends, slaying dragons and completing missions, it is sometimes hard to remember that you are leaving the molecular world -- and often the loved ones that are under your own roof -- alone and isolated from you. If you are immersed in a fantasy world, you aren't in this one. Be sure to check in with family and friends about this. Listen to them if they express concern or even some feelings of abandonment. If you feel you can't respond to their requests to have more of your time, it is sign you are too deeply involved with games.

Odell Terrell

Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.


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