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Press to play: Is gaming really more addictive than heroin?
by Mark Griffiths on 07/15/14 01:52:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last week I appeared in loads of news stories following a double page spread in The Sun newspaper under the headline "Gaming as addictive as heroin". Before the story went to press, I was asked by The Sun’s gaming editor – Lee Price – if I would provide a set of questions to help readers determine if they had a possible gaming addiction. (I’ve reproduced the ten questions at the end of this blog). I’ve written a number of articles for The Sun over the years and have always been happy to contribute to education concerning gaming issues. In fact, my previous article with The Sun was one published last year under the headline Video games make us better people”. The gaming editor shared some of the text he was planning to publish and I was asked if I would like to add anything to his main article. The text I submitted for inclusion in the article read:

“Gaming addiction has become a real issue for the psychologists and medics over the last decade. The good news is that playing excessively doesn't necessarily mean someone is addicted - the difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addiction takes away from it".

This quote I provided did not appear anywhere on the double-page spread (probably because it didn’t fit the main thrust of the article). The headline "Gaming as addictive as heroin" (almost certainly provided by someone other than the Gaming Editor) was arguably more sensationalist that the article itself. Any regular readers of my blog will know that I believe gaming addictions exist but that the number of gamers that are genuinely addicted comprises a small minority. The Sun's story began by claiming that: "Britain is in the grip of a gaming addiction which poses as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse". The article also alleged that a London-based clinic claimed it was receiving 5,000 calls a year from parents seeking help for their child's gaming addiction (I myself get around 2-3 calls or emails a month). It also featured a number of case studies claiming they were addicted to social networking games (like Candy Crush) and online multiplayer games (like League of Legends). There were also a number of references to alleged gaming-related deaths including the recent story that a coroner had linked three male suicides to playing the game Call of Duty.

On the day The Sun article was published, I was contacted by a journalist from Eurogamer for my comments on the piece. The resulting article was basically my interview with the journalist (which then formed the basis of countless stories that appeared in the online gaming press including the Tech TimesThe FixDigital SpyPolygonKotaku, etc.). I was asked if I thought gaming was as addictive as heroin. I responded by saying:

"It depends how you define addiction in the first place. I've spent my whole career trying to say if you're going to call something an addiction it has to be similar right across the board. The criteria I use for video game addiction would be exactly the same as in heroin addiction in the sense that this is an activity that becomes the most important thing in your life, it compromises everything else in your life including your relationship, work and hobbies. It's something you use as a way of modifying your mood. It's something that builds up tolerance over time, so you need more and more. It's something where you get withdrawal symptoms if you're unable to engage in it. And it's something that if you do manage to give up for a short time when you do the activity again you relapse. The good news from my perspective is on those particular criteria, the number of genuine video game addicts is few and far between. If we're talking about genuine video game addiction, it doesn't matter what the activity is if we're using the same criteria. It's a bit like that trick question my physics teacher used to give us, which was, if you've got a ton of feathers and a ton of lead, which weighs heavier? Most kids put down a ton of feathers, but the whole point is it's a ton. It's quite clear that some, whether it's kids or young adults, have some problems around the fact they seem to be unable to control the amount of time they spend gaming, and maybe it's impacting other areas of their life. But just because there are some addictive-like components there it doesn't mean they're genuinely addicted”.

I also told the journalist that to be genuinely addicted to a behaviour (like gaming) that I would expect to see conflict in every area of the person’s life – their relationships, their work and/or education, their other social activities. The Sun also claimed that: "Britain is in the grip of a gaming addiction". I was asked by Eurogamer whether I thought this to be the case and I said that in my view this was "incorrect". I then went on to say:

"I've spent well over 25 years studying video game addiction. If we're going to use the word ‘addiction’ we have to use the same concepts, signs and symptoms we find in other more traditional addictions, like withdrawal and tolerance. By doing that the number of people who end up being addicted by my criteria are actually few and far between. The [ten questions] I did for The Sun is actually based on real criteria I use in my research. The number of people who would score seven out of 10 of those items I put in The Sun today, I'd find it very hard to believe there would be more than a handful of people out there that would score high on all those things. You'd probably get a lot of people who might endorse three or four of them, but that doesn't mean they're addicted. That might be somebody who has problems with it. Most kids can afford to play three hours a day without it impacting on their education, their physical education and their social networks. Yes, I believe video game addiction exists, and if it is a genuine addiction it may well be as addictive as other more traditional things in terms of signs, symptoms and components. But the good news is it is a very tiny minority who are genuinely addicted to video games…There is no evidence the country is in 'the grip of addiction'. Yes, we have various studies showing a small minority have problematic gaming. But problematic gaming doesn't necessarily mean gaming addiction. They're two very separate things. Yet the media seem to put them as the same…Every time I do a piece of research, if it's something that's negative, 90 per cent of the press cover it. If it's something positive, 10 per cent of the press cover it. Bad news stories sell".

Speaking to the press (and writing journalistic articles for the press) is something that I do on an almost daily basis and I will not stop doing it as I believe that we as academics have a public duty to disseminate our research findings outside of academia and to the general public. As I noted in a previous blog, I’ve had a few horror stories when what I’ve said is taken out of context but a few bad experiences are never going to be enough to put me off sharing my work with the mass media.

Finally - and as promised above - here are ten simple ‘yes/no’ questions about gaming that I had published in The Sun. If you answer ‘yes’ to seven or more of them, in my view, you may have a gaming addiction.

  • Do you think gaming has become the most important thing in your daily life?
  • Have you jeopardised your job or education because of your gaming activity?
  • Have you experienced relationship problems (with your partner, children or friends) because of your gaming?
  • Do you feel irritable, anxious or sad when you try to cut down or stop gaming?
  • Do you play games as a way of making your mood feel better?
  • Have you lost interests in other hobbies and leisure activities because of gaming?
  • When trying to cut down or stop your gaming, do you feel that you can’t?
  • Do you feel totally preoccupied with gaming (for example, even if you are not actually gaming you are thinking about it)?
  • Have you lied to anyone because the amount of time you spend gaming?
  • Have you spent an increasing amount of time gaming every day over the last six months?

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Video games make us better people. The Sun, February 1, p.8.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 1-4.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). The psychological study of video game players: Methodological challenges and practical advice. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 7, 555-562.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Video game structural characteristics: A new psychological taxonomy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 90-106.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of structural characteristics in problem video game playing: A review. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. Located at:

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Cognitive behavioural therapy for problematic video game players: Conceptual considerations and practice issues. Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitstion, 3, 261-273.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2011). Assessing clinical trials of Internet addiction treatment: A systematic review and CONSORT evaluation. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1110-1116.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Clinical interventions for technology-based problems: Excessive Internet and video game use. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26, 43-56.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2012). Cognitive-behavioural approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 68, 1185-1195.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C.Delfabbro, P.H.,Gradisar, M.S. &Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Psychometric assessment of pathological video-gaming:A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

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Jamie Madigan
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So given their gross misrepresentation and their decision to sensationalize rather than inform, would you help the people at The Sun again in the future?

Andreas Ahlborn
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From the article

"I’ve had a few horror stories when what I’ve said is taken out of context but a few bad experiences are never going to be enough to put me off sharing my work with the mass media."

John Paduch
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Someone didn't read before commenting ;)

Michael Joseph
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i wonder if gaming addiction is somewhat like netflix binging... in the past, unless there was a marathon of a favorite series, most people wouldn't be inclined to binge watch television. But that's changing with streaming services like netflix. gaming on the other hand has had the potential for binge playing nearly from the start.. especially for some categories of games that don't have a definitive ending and where the responsibility to end a session (a session often designed to be addictive) is solely on the audience.

as for the questions... i think 7 out of 10 is too high. You're probably somewhat addicted even if you answer 3 out of 10 in the affirmative. It's all too easy for people in denial to find plausible wiggle room in their own minds to answer "no" to most of those questions.

do you eat any combination of a candy bar, bag of chips, can of pop, fast food burger/burrito/hotdog/pizza, chocolate, pastries more than 3 times a week? Surprise surprise.. maybe you're addicted to junk food? Let's not even get started on caffiene. Addiction is rampant in liberal, consumption driven (addiction driven) economies. We do mental gymnastics to redefine addiction to not include the functional addicts.

Game developer challenge: Go 1 full week without eating any junk food, or drinking any caffeinated, sugary, or alcoholic beverages. You can do it.

Javier Degirolmo
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If you can say yes to the second question I'd say that alone implies you have some serious problems.

Luis Guimaraes
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Let's see...

Is gaming used in torture to make people give up information?
Do sporting events make gaming tests before athletes can participate?

Chemical Addiction and Culture are different things. Games fall in the second category. You don't chemically need to play games, you just get bored and choose games as a way to spend your time, then you do it again tomorrow, and the day after, and by the next day you don't have to think much before choosing games again, it's just what you usually do everyday unless something else out of ordinary comes up. It's part of your Culture (way of life) then.

Is taking showers more addictive than heroin?
Is praying more addictive than heroin?
Is making pancakes more addictive than heroin?
Is listening to radio on the way to work every morning more addictive than heroin?
Is checking the mail box when you get home at night more addictive than heroin?
Is saying good night to your family before sleeping more addictive than heroin?

Michael Joseph
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everyone already acknowledges that chemical dependance is different than psychological dependance. if we can move past the "addiction" word itself if that is a source of contention for you, then psychological dependance on behaviors (which can trigger releases of chemicals in the brain) which make us feel a certain way can be destructive too.

Theresa Catalano
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It can, but comparing something that is "psychologically addictive" to something that is chemically addictive is kind of ridiculous. There's all sorts of things in our lives that can be just as addictive as video games: TV, the internet, cell phones, sports, etc. All of those things are potentially psychologically addictive.

You know they all have in common? You don't suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms from trying to quit.

Michael Parker
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I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft, and the fatal realisation was realising I was not actually having fun whilst playing! My guild constantly shouted at each other, who is doing what wrong. I used to get irritable whilst playing and after playing - it was a very stressful experience, and yet I couldn't seem to stop. I thought if I could just improve, we could just kill one more boss, things would get better...

After many years away, I am back playing with some friends and family in a much more relaxed friendly environment - and I can say for certain that I both enjoy myself a lot, and am not addicted any more.

I used to argue with my brother that he was addicted, and he firmly told me that he wasn't addicted, and he actually just really enjoyed playing. How do you tell the difference?

I would add the following to your list, Mark:

11. Do you find yourself getting angry whilst playing? Do you have frustrating play sessions where you don't really enjoy yourself?
12. Do you play with the hope that the game will become more fun in the future, even if it's not fun now?

Fabian Fischer
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World of Warcraft is a particularly interesting example. When it's used as an actual (strategic) game, and not just as a "have fun interacting with friends" thing, it is very dangerous, because it relies almost exclusively on extrinsic reward schedules. Since all gameplay is essentially a learning experience (form a mental model -> make inputs -> get feedback -> refine model etc.), a game that has nothing valuable to teach you, no actual depth of gameplay, nothing that's worth doing for it's own sake, is a potential addiction machine.

In his talk "Design Reboot", Jonathan Blow asks the question: What does World of Warcraft teach? His conclusions:
- "You are a schlub who has nothing better to do than sit around performing repetitive, mindless actions."
- "Skill and shrewdness do not count for much; what matters is how much time you sink in."
- "You don't need to do anything exceptional, because to feel good you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else."

Jennis Kartens
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Sorry but when have opinion making yellow press organs become an actual debatable topic? Quite honestly, I'd be ashamed if I'd have to admit even writing for these purely destructive, chevy organs that still call themselves "press" and workers there are referred to as "journalists"

There are only a few worse "newspapers" in the western world as The Sun.

This was just todays headline, hello islam chevy... why am I just not surprised.