Why are video games addictive?

At the beginning of 2018 it was announced that gaming addiction is to be listed as a mental health condition for the first time by the World Health Organization, but what constitutes gaming addiction? And should it in fact be considered a mental disorder? Psychologist Amy Orben isn’t convinced as she explains below…

If you regularly play video or electronic games, you are not alone. Whether it is beating your friends at the latest video game, or spending time exploring a new mobile game, playing electronic games is widespread. In Europe, games are played by more than two thirds of adolescents.

This common activity, however, is often villainised in the media and public conversation as being addictive. Using the word ‘addiction’ to describe the need to use technologies such as games or social media has become a norm in conversation. But scientifically, the word ‘addiction’ is strictly defined, and denotes a very severe disorder. There is therefore still a big debate between academics whether the drive to game is really a severe addictive disorder in its own right.

More than 30 academics, including academics from the University of Oxford, agreed in a paper in 2017 that ‘gaming disorder’ should not become recognised as an official addiction, as is currently proposed. Much of their argument is based on the lack of good quality psychological research about this potential disorder. Officially recognising gaming addiction as a disorder would have huge consequences, and should be backed up by sound and robust scientific research.

Furthermore, the overuse of electronic games is not as widespread as normally thought. Studies looking at the diverse range of people in the population have found that possible addiction rates are less than 0.5% in a population. Therefore it is not yet possible to say whether video game addiction is really ‘a thing’.

We regularly argue that the word ‘addiction’ is currently too strong to use when talking about the drive to game. Many people can use electronic games and the vast majority will not experience any severe negative consequences. At the moment, scientists should not cause unnecessary concern by labelling something as addictive, which hasn’t been shown to be extremely bad for you.

To learn more about issues to do with adolescent mental health, motivation and technology check out the Oxford Undergraduate Course in Experimental Psychology. Once you graduate, you can also enrol in a specialised Master’s in Social Science of the Internet at Oxford.

Further questions: What preconditions need to be satisfied to call something an addiction? What consequences does officially classifying something as an addiction have? How could you test whether video games are actually addictive?

What are scientists saying?

What percentage of people that play video games are addicted?

Predatory monetization schemes in video games (e.g. ‘loot boxes’) and internet gaming disorder

Gaming-addicted teens identify more with their cyber-self than their own self: Neural evidence

Lost in virtual gaming worlds: Grit and its prognostic value for online game addiction

Your task

Conduct a small study of your friends and classmates to find out how much time they spend on average playing video games. To do this, you may want to:

  1. Think about what questions interest you and design an appropriate questionnaire of 5-10 questions. Some possible examples are:
    1. How much time per day do you spend playing games?
    2. What games do you play?
    3. Do you play games alone, or with family or friends?
    4. How does playing games make you feel?
  2. Ask at least 5 friends, classmates or family members to complete your questionnaire and return their answers to you.
  3. Analyse the results of your survey. Some interesting questions to consider in your analysis might be:
    1. What patterns can you find in your data? Try using a chart or graph to illustrate these patterns.
    2. Were you surprised by any of the answers people gave?
    3. Did younger people give different answers than older people?
    4. Does the data you collected support the statement that video games are addictive? Why or why not?

Amy Orben, former College Lecturer, The Queen’s College

Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research and Associate Professor, Oxford Internet Institute