Is Gaming Addiction Real?

By Paul Fuhr 10/31/17

Some researchers believe that online gaming “might be a displacement activity for people in an unhappy situation, rather than an addiction.”

Man's head silhouetted against a colorful computer screen.
Just a crutch?

Internet gaming addiction may not be an actual psychiatric condition, a recent study suggests. According to a New Scientist article, researchers at Cardiff University believe that people use online gaming to compensate for other problems in their life.

“We didn’t see a large number of people with clinical problems,” observed Netta Weinstein, Cardiff’s lead on the research project. “The study’s results suggest that it’s not clear how many resources should go to gaming addiction, compared to other addictions like drugs.”

In fact, the brand-new study confirms the American Psychiatric Association’s 2014 decision to not recognize gaming addiction as an official disorder. Online gaming didn’t meet the majority of diagnostic criteria, ranging from withdrawal symptoms to lying about the amount of time spent gaming.

A group of 2,316 people over the age of 18 were asked to participate in the study, the New Scientist story reported. Each participant answered a questionnaire about their health, lifestyle and physical activity. Only nine participants (0.004% overall) met enough criteria to classify online gaming as a disorder.

Additionally, six months later, no participants met the criteria or “felt ongoing distress over their gaming habits.” The research team believed that those who exhibited gaming addiction symptoms demonstrated lower-than-average “needs fulfillment,” which means that other areas of their life were lacking. If nothing else, researchers believe that online gaming “might be a displacement activity for people in an unhappy situation, rather than an addiction.”

Not everyone agrees with these assessments, though. Cyber-psychology researcher Daria Kuss says that gaming addiction is a very real, immediate problem. Questionnaires are a flawed means of obtaining research data, Kuss contended. “If someone uses gaming to meet basic psychological needs, this could become a problem if they are not able to satisfy these needs in real life,” she said. “But to confirm this, we need clinical samples of people who are being treated for addiction in centers.”

A comprehensive analysis of online gaming further revealed that “individuals who are male, impulsive and have limited social skills have higher risk for internet gaming disorder.” Data collected by Connecticut-based Dr. Paul Weigle showed that individuals addicted to online gaming experienced changes in their brain that were consistent with substance abuse. Online gaming disorder can lead to depression, anxiety and poor grades, the data showed.

“A substantial minority of youth suffer impairment from [internet gaming disorder], with significant implications for clinical practice,” Dr. Weigle said. “A wealth of research details characteristics of this disorder but remains largely unknown to most practitioners.” 

No matter the conclusion, online gaming addiction requires some form of treatment. And part of those treatment methods involve having people take a long, hard look at their lives outside of gaming. “Addicted players need to examine the emotional motives that prompt them to play a game excessively and look for alternate ways to satisfy those needs,” a clinical psychologist told the New Scientist.

Internet disorder treatment programs are also on the rise worldwide—especially in East Asia, a recent academic review reported. The same review, however, claimed that treatment methods for online gaming are imperfect at best. After examining 30 previous treatment studies between 2007 and 2016, cognitive-behavioral therapy yielded the best results in treating internet gaming.

That said, the report shied away from stating it was the best treatment method. Researchers worldwide still need to better “understand the core psychopathology” of online gaming addiction before they can build the best model for treatment. Until then, internet gaming disorder remains as difficult to treat as it is to classify, suggesting that addiction may be no more real than the environments in the online games.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.