games so that people can enjoy them, and I've noticed that throwing
around a dirty word like “addiction” is a lot like throwing rocks at
people. Heavy rocks. I try to be very careful with how I use that word
in relation to games, because it's a very, very complicated subject.
Yes, South Korean and American gamers have died from exhaustion. Yes,
this makes bored journalists and unpopular politicians very happy.
China has already thrown a fair bit of legislation at video games,
whether or not games are the problem. On the other hand, such
legislation might fail to address the real problem. In this article I
explain addiction simply. Then, I talk about research that attempts to
connect addiction to gaming, and some clear problems in that research.
One caveat: this article is not going to make anyone into a trained
A PC Bang (Internet Cafe) in Seoul.
Part 1: Psychology lite, with neuroscience sprinkles.
gaming can be considered an addiction, it would most likely fit the
mold of a behavioral addiction. First, we're going to talk about the
common-sense psychology side of addiction: behavioral addiction. Then
we'll talk about the neuroscience side of addiction: brain chemistry
and dopamine. What you should get from the following section is a very
basic sense of what addiction is. After this section we'll explore how
addiction might or might not relate to games.
Theoretical Behavioral Addiction
Mark Griffiths is one of a growing body of psychologists forwarding the
concept that “excessive behaviors of all types,” for instance
addictions to shopping, gambling, or sex, are addictive in very similar
ways. These addictions don't have to involve drugs, yet even drug
addiction shares features with these other addictions. The actual
features cited by Griffiths hearken back to the theoretical models of
Iain Brown, and may even represent a psychology-based foundation for
is vulnerable to becoming addicted, according to Brown, but to
different extents. Some people have had an excessively rough life, and
still others have had too easy a life, or are just bored. Specifically
culture, economics, social circumstances, personality, and low
tolerances for stress are some of the factors that might make one
person more susceptible to addiction. You might call particularly
vulnerable people “addictive personalities,” simply because they are
more at risk.
these certain personalities are susceptible, behavioral addiction
requires a behavior. A normal personality usually has a number of
activities that they regularly use to feel excited, relaxed, or what
have you. Yet people are drawn to some things over others. A huge
gambling win is more attractive than cleaning a toilet. For most
people. When the soon-to-be addict finds that special activity, they
can have what Brown calls an “aha” moment. As this especially alluring
behavior becomes more prominent in a person's life, other things
disappear completely from that person's repertoire of activities. At
its most extreme, such a behavioral addiction dominates a person's
life. They need the activity, and they'll sacrifice nearly anything –
long term plans, the company of people, even work in order to have it.
Dopamine and Brain Chemistry
in the forbidden caverns of hard science, addiction is usually
attributed to genetic factors and dopamine. The National Institute of
Health states that genetic factors are significant in addiction. Some
brains are just more susceptible to the neurotransmitter dopamine, a
type of chemical in the brain. The research of neuroscientists Depue
and Collins reflects this in stating that individual differences in
dopamine processing can predetermine individuals as more or less likely
to develop addictions. They also assert that motivation is based on two
major factors, “the availability of reward, and the effort required to
Enter such a nefarious behavior. So much dopamine is released while engaging in some behaviors that neurons, our basic brain cells, get accustomed to having that dopamine around. These neurons stimulate the nucleus accumbens,
part of the brain. As the brain gets used to this stimulation, it
requires more and more dopamine for the same effect. When the dopamine
producing behavior is finally stopped, the brain isn't used to the
lowered dopamine levels. At this point, craving and addiction enter the
of the perspective you like best – psychology, neuroscience, or any of
the many humanities-based theories out there, there seems to be good
backing for the idea that addiction has a lot to do with your
personality. If a person has an addictive personality, then the actual
activity isn't the problem. These people are going to get addicted to
whatever they try, be it games, running, eating peanuts, or even work.
If a person thinks that they have a problem, then they need to take
responsibility, seek treatment, and modify their behavior. Following is
research that has actually suggested that some gamers may be addicted.
researchers Sabine Grüsser and Ralf Thalemann have suggested that some
gamers exhibit signs traditionally associated with addiction:
susceptibility to triggers and diminished startle reflex. Grüsser
additionally reflects our earlier conversation on addiction by saying
that as one activity comes to be used exclusively in order to deal with
adversity, it becomes the only behavior that can activate the brain's
dopamine system, and that such chemical monopolization is common to all
Is this great news for journalists, unpopular politicians, or groups such as Online Gamers Anonymous and EverQuest Widows? First off, keep in mind that much of the research in this field is above all preliminary in nature. Moreover, so far research
has simply suggested that at most, people are becoming addicted to
games, not that games themselves are actually responsible for addicting
people. The difference is subtle, yet significant. It also helps to
keep in mind that certain works in psychology and the humanities are
not entirely definitive.
is not to discount addicted gamers. Some people do play to a point
where gaming negatively affects their lives, and we need to be
sensitive to that. The most populous country in the world, China,
wouldn't have passed a law regulating massively multiplayer online
(MMO) gameplay without at least some reason. Who knows? Dazzling new
research might, hypothetically, prove that games addict in ways that
television and gambling may never hope to rival. But for now we don't
know exactly what's happening. Research into games is new.
Part 2: Trouble in paradise.
are problems with some of the most influential articles studying both
games, and their relation to addiction. The most notable problems have
to do with conceptual confusion, reliance on self tests, sampling
techniques, and differences between games. Problems with all of these
slow the advancement of gaming knowledge.
Conceptual confusion is when an author takes two or more important keywords,
and then mixes them up. Usually this just happens when one researcher
talks about another researcher's work a little bit carelessly. In
Internet addiction research, which originally served as a foundation
for computer-related and gaming-related addiction research, major
works have been accused of conceptual confusion. This is important,
because this research continues to be used by new studies, even studies
involving games. This means that new researchers entering the field
must critically analyze any addiction criteria they plan on using.
Additionally, these foundational authors could gain a great deal of
credibility by revisiting and defending their methods.
Size matters. While Dr. Kimberly Young's criteria for Internet addiction has recently grown in size, her criteria for 'obsessive online gaming'
still consists of eight questions. According to Young the test taker
“may be addicted to online gaming” if they answer yes to just one of
the eight questions. Psychologist John Charlton has asserted that
attempting to diagnose addicts using checklists is likely to
drastically overestimate the amount of people who are actually addicted.
studies, especially the more humanities-based studies of gaming in
general, suffer from major problems when it comes to something called
sampling. A researcher can have the greatest survey of all time, but it
won't matter if the right people don't fill it out. The goal here is to
make sure that the 50 people who take that survey perfectly represent
the 5000 people that you want to talk about. Gaming research so far has
distributed most surveys through online forums, college classrooms, and
websites. The problem is that the people who visit online forums, or go
to college, or visit gaming websites, probably don't represent the
whole gamer population. Some people get their games at Blockbuster.
Some MMO players aren't very likely to take boring academic surveys
when “rolling on epic drops” is also an option for their evening. Very
little of the gaming research out there represents all gamers.
Differences Between Games
last distinction that is sometimes overlooked by psychologists and
other practitioners: the differences between games. We have to be
careful not to interchangeably use some studies of single player,
online, or especially MMO games. There are differences between these
games. For example, if one study examines single player and online FPS
game players, and finds that they enjoy greater visual acuity, then we
should not assume that MMORPG players will necessarily also enjoy such
benefits. It's possible, even probable that players in different types
of games will reap these ocular benefits, but it is not guaranteed.
Part 3: Are games addictive?
revisit part one: so far research has simply suggested that at most,
people are becoming addicted to games, not that games themselves are
actually responsible for addicting people. Some people do seem to be
addicted, yet games may not be the real culprit. Nevertheless, research
that directly examines whether certain games are addictive should not
be shunned, it should be welcomed. There are two reasons for this,
neither of which is completely obvious. First, it is entirely possible
that games are in no way addictive. If research can prove this, then it
would inspire a huge amount of confidence in parents, legislators, and
gamers. The second, less obvious, advantage to studying links between
addiction and games is understanding. If games can be linked to
addiction, then knowing how and why could possibly show us what a
“healthier” game would look like.
To keep this article in perspective, we're talking about games. Recreation. Stuff that people do for fun.
Even if it were possible to remove the proverbial nicotine, or
addictive ingredient, would we want to? If it takes the fun out of
games, then the answer is probably no. We still have responsible
players who count on us for quality entertainment. But who knows?
Perhaps laborious, calculated efforts to create that “healthier” game
will help one developer to produce the most exciting game ever. In any
case, there are people who do seem to have serious problems with
gaming, but there are also people who watch too much TV, or spend too
much time reading. Do these other media forms face criticism, or a
looming threat of legislation? Not really.
is complicated. To revisit the introduction's caveat: this article
isn't intended to transform you into a trained clinician. Instead, it's
meant to shed some light on the very basics of addiction. It also shows
why some of the research deserves to be viewed with a critical eye.
Some people do have problems with games; that's getting harder to
discount. What we can do, as game creators, is understand that a
problem exists, and try to understand research advances as they occur.
Brown, I., A Theoretical Model of Behavioral Addictions – Applied to Offending. In Hodge, J. E., McMurran, M. & Hollin, C. R. Eds. (1997). Addicted to Crime? John Wiley & Sons Ltd., New York , NY . (p. 13).
Charlton, J.P. (2002). A factor-analytic investigation of computer ‘addiction' and engagement. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 329-344.
Depue, R. & Collins, P. (1999). Neurobiology of the structure of personality: Dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 22, p. 491-569.
Griffiths, M. (2005). A ‘components' model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, vol. 10, p. 191-197
Kimberly Young's website. Links to her surveys come from her website:
National Institute of Health website
Press release discussing Sabine Grüsser and Ralf Thalemann's research, presented at the 2005 Annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.