Is "Pathological Gaming" A Disease Or Symptom?

By Lindsey Weedston 08/14/19

For a new study, researchers wanted to find out if pathological gaming was a "red flag" for deeper mental issues.

gamers playing in an internet cafe
Photo via Flickr/Rob Fahey

A study recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence could suggest that what has come to be known as “pathological gaming” may simply be a symptom of a larger problem with social pressures and stress.

The study, conducted in Seoul, South Korea, surveyed 477 boys and 491 girls about their gaming behaviors along with their communications with parents, social support systems, academic stress, and self control.

Something Deeper?

The researchers wanted to find out if gaming was really the problem, or if something deeper was to blame, according to PsyPost.

“One of the questions we’ve been asking is whether games are really the problem, or if other factors such as family environment or social environment led to problems and overdoing games was merely a symptom of those problems,” said Stetson University professor of psychology and study author, Christopher J. Ferguson. “Should we be thinking of pathological gaming as its own diagnosis or more of a red flag that the person is experiencing other mental health issues?”

The results showed that a lack of self control was better correlated with pathological gaming than the actual number of hours spent playing games. At the same time, academic stress was a predictor for lower levels of self-control, and overprotective parents mixed with lower levels of parental communication tended to predict academic stress.

Getting Classified

The World Health Organization named gaming disorder as a mental illness in its 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in mid-2018. Symptoms include “impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

This kind of compulsive gaming is a particular problem in South Korea, which is described by Ferguson as a culture with a “particular pressure socially to succeed academically.” If this pressure results in pathological gaming, it would make sense that South Korea would therefore have a larger problem than others with gaming disorder.

Ferguson readily admits that the results of the study are limited on a global scale by the fact that it was only conducted in Seoul. However, this is not the first bit of research that the professor has done on the subject of video games. He also co-authored a book titled Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, released in March 2017.

"For instance, within U.S. samples I’ve worked with, evidence suggests pathological gaming results from other mental disorders such as ADHD, but does not cause them in return,” Ferguson said. “Our data suggests we have to be cautious in blaming technology for behavior problems—often the picture is much more complicated than that.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: