Assessing If Your Gaming Is A Problem
If you're a gamer and have come to this site, presumably it's because you're concerned about your gaming - or perhaps wondering if you should be concerned. The short answer to that is that only you can know if your gaming is a problem for you. The longer answer is what the rest of this page is for.
To start with the short answer: If you ever feel that you are gaming more than you would like, that you are missing out on other areas of your life because of your gaming, that your gaming is negatively affecting your mood, or that you don't have as much control over your gaming as you would like, then it may be that you're at the point of wanting to do something about your gaming. If that's the case, I'd suggest going straight to the pages on 'How To Change Your Gaming' or 'Where To Get Help', depending on where you're at.
If you're not sure that you do want to change your gaming but are concerned that it might become a problem, read on.
At least in the Western world, there is currently no official diagnosis for video gaming addiction, problematic computer gaming or anything similar. However, "Internet Gaming Disorder" was added to the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) recently under Section III. Without going into too much detail, Section III disorders are disorders that have not been sufficiently researched and analysed to reach a consensus about their validity or diagnostic criteria, but which have been sufficiently recognised in academic literature to warrant further study and consideration for inclusion in later editions. In short, it means that it's becoming recognised as a serious disorder, but there's no agreement yet as to how to diagnose or treat it.
However, the APA does suggest some possible criteria for diagnosing Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), which are roughly as follow:
"A behavioural pattern encompassing persistent and recurrent use of the internet to engage in online games, leading to significant impairment or distress over a period of 12 months as indicated by endorsing five (or more) of nine criteria. More specifically, the nine proposed criteria for IGD include:
- preoccupation with internet games;
- withdrawal symptoms when internet gaming is taken away;
- tolerance, resulting in the need to spend increasing amounts of time engaged in internet games;
- unsuccessful attempts to control participation in internet games;
- loss of interest in previous hobbies and entertainment as a result of, and with the exception of, internet games;
- continued excessive use of internet games despite knowledge of psychosocial problems;
- deceiving family members, therapists, or others regarding the amount of internet gaming;
- use of internet games to escape or relieve negative moods; and
- jeopardising or losing a significant relationship, job, or education or career opportunity because of participation in internet games."
So if you meet at least five of the above criteria and (this is important) have done so for at least 12 months and (this is also important) have been significantly impaired or distressed because of your gaming, then at least from the APA perspective you would likely meet criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder. The reason I emphasise the time period of 12 months and the impairment or distress is that it is possible for some people to experience these symptoms for a shorter time and reduce or manage their gaming without any trouble, or for them to experience many of these symptoms but not be distressed by them. Again, it comes down to the question: Do you feel that your gaming is causing significant problems for you?
Addiction, Problematic Gaming or Just High Engagement?
Some researchers have argued that pathological computer gaming does not exist, and that addiction is not the appropriate terminology to refer to the problem. They point to the differences between video gaming and other compulsive behavioural addictions such as pathological gambling, and suggest that the two cannot be compared due to the differences – that in gambling there is the potential, however small, for significant material reward, and that something of value is being risked in the process.
Others point to the benefits of video game playing, and research which demonstrates that a high level of engagement in video gaming can create intellectual and social benefits for gamers, even those investing large amounts of time into the hobby. On the other side of things, a number of researchers point to the studies that show that gamers’ brains respond to stimuli and pictures of those games in a similar way to those with substance dependencies and gambling addictions, or to the evidence of increased tolerance, salience and negative consequences amongst video gaming addicts. As more research is becoming available, it is becoming clearer that there is a spectrum of video gaming behaviours that range from healthy and beneficial through problematic but not dependent, through to full-blown addiction. A large systematic review of all available research to date conducted in 2011 supported this perspective. What then is the difference?
The research suggests that if you are a highly engaged gamer that you may spend large periods of time gaming, and may choose gaming over other hobbies or social engagements. You may find gaming rewarding; whether because of the challenge and satisfaction of overcoming new obstacles, the social interaction and inter-dependency that takes place within online gaming, the opportunity to experience complex storytelling, or the sheer visceral thrill of engaging in a compelling fantasy world. However, at this level your gaming does not significantly impact your life in negative ways. You are able to maintain regular patterns of eating and sleeping, can maintain intimate personal relationships with friends, children and partners, and are able to work productively at your job or other hobbies. You might seem obsessed with gaming to outsiders, but your hobby is essentially no different from those who are passionate about music, doing-up cars, sports or anything else. Most significantly, if you are at this stage then you likely enjoy your hobby and the time you spend playing – you rarely regret it, and often experience a state of “flow” while playing, often losing track of time and becoming fully absorbed in the activity.
Problematic Or Pathological Gaming
By contrast, if your gaming is starting to cause problems in your life then you might be at the level of 'problematic' gaming. You might start to neglect your diet, exercise or sleep, and may deliberately or accidentally miss important social, educational or professional commitments. You may start to play at times more than you intended to – losing track of time becomes less pleasurable as it sometimes leads to inadvertently neglecting other things that are important to you. For example if you find yourself staying up an extra hour late in order to finish an event with your in-game guild, or begin to neglect your partner so that you can play one more match of LoL/DotA/Starcraft then your gaming might be starting to become a problem for you. You may begin to find it difficult to concentrate on other things, may find yourself thinking obsessively or even dreaming about the games you play, and may find yourself developing tolerance - that is, needing to play for longer in order to get the sense of satisfaction and pleasure that was previously obtainable by playing for short periods.
Gaming becomes an addiction rather than simply problematic use once two crucial criteria are met – the appearance of withdrawal symptoms, and a decrease in control. A number of studies have shown that a small percentage of gamers develop withdrawal symptoms when away from the games they play. So if you start to experience a depressed mood, irritability or anger,and an inability to focus on other activities when not gaming then it may be moving towards becoming an addiction. You may then begin to experience the second condition, that your ability to control your gaming decreases. Research has demonstrated that up to 30% of online MMORPG players kept playing even though they were no longer enjoying it. If you ever find yourself playing compulsively even though you are no longer enjoying it, this is a significant sign that it may have bcecome addictive. At this stage, gaming shares all the features of other behavioural addictions, and you may find it difficult to control your gaming without help from family, friends, a professional or support groups.
Overlap Between Positions
It’s important to be aware that these positions represent stages along a continuum, and that you might be between two or more of these positions. You may also find that you move back and forth between positions as time goes by. If you have a high level of engagement with gaming and also have character traits that predispose you to addiction, you may find that it is easy for your gaming to get out of hand.
Alternative Ways To Assess Gaming
Another way to look at your gaming is to look at what needs it is meeting for you, and whether or not you are happy with that arrangement. I discuss the various needs that gaming meets for many people on the 'Why Do People Get Addicted To Games' page of this website, so I suggest reading that first if you have not already.
As noted there, gaming can often meet our needs for purpose and goals, for achievement and potency, for belonging and community, for freedom and escape, and for a sense of identity. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but an important question to consider for each of these areas is this: Is gaming the only way in which I can meet this need?
You might find when you ask this question that it is true for some needs but not others. For example, you might have an active social life outside of gaming, and experience a sense of achievement and potency through your work. At the same time you might find that games provide you your only means of experiencing a sense of escape and freedom from the stresses in your life. If this is the case, then a follow-up question to ask yourself is: Am I okay with that? Maybe it is not a concern for you that games might be your only means of escape or relaxation. Maybe you are happy for your only social circle to be online. Only you can answer that question.
For many of us, if we are only meeting some of our needs through gaming, we will eventually find that it is not enough for us - that we want to experience those things with people in our lives outside of gaming, or through work or hobbies outside of gaming. If this is the case for you, then again it may be that gaming is starting to become a problem for you. Unfortunately, it tends to be the case that the more we meet particular needs through gaming, the less we meet them in other ways in the rest of our life, and so it can start to feel difficult or impossible to give up gaming.
No matter how you choose to approach the issue of assessing your gaming, it will always come down to the question of whether or not you see it as a problem for you. As shown above, this is not necessarily a yes/no question - you may feel that your gaming is a problem in some ways and not others. For example, maybe you don't like the way your gaming leaves less time for socialising with friends outside of the game, or the way it leads to you staying up later than you intended. Whatever the case, this will determine what, if anything, you choose to do about it. It may be that you want to reduce your gaming, or stop altogether. It might be that you are happy to continue gaming the way you are now. Or it might be that you want to change the ways in which you are gaming - the types of games, or when you play. If you do want to change the way you are gaming, then head over to 'How To Change Your Gaming' for some ideas on how to go about it.