Video games: are they addictive?

Every now and then, we hear news that someone around the globe has ruined his or her life by playing video games. It appears to be a big problem, to the point that the American Medical Association had considered adding it to the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The idea was then put on hold because more research was needed.

But are video games addictive? Are some people more likely to be unable to stop playing? And when should playing video games be considered an addiction? Let’s try to answer those questions.

Wikipedia defines an addiction as “a persistent behavioral pattern marked by physical and/or psychological dependency and tolerance that causes significant disruption and negatively impacts the quality of life of an organism.” It is true that some people are unable to stop playing and can go through actual withdrawal symptoms when forced off their game of choice. The following video shows how a teenager reacted when his World of Warcraft character was deleted by his family.

That is undoubtedly an extreme response, and very few gamers are that obsessed. I have personally never World of Warcraft because I don’t like its premise: while it has intermediate goals (quests and such), the game itself is never over. It simply cannot beaten. I do love open-world games — more on that later — but no ultimate goal makes a game somewhat boring to me. Yet that’s exactly why millions of people pay a monthly fee to play World of Warcraft, even though I’ve been told that the role-playing aspect of it, which is the only thing that might attract me to that kind of game, is limited to usings one’s own skills to “level up.” In other words, there is little acting involved.

All kinds of video games, however, have to be pleasant enough to convince players to go back to them. It is a conditio sine qua non of any product: even cookies have to be tasty in order for the company that makes them to stay in business. The difference is that games are much more complex matter, because while consumers will keep buying the same cookies for decades, gamers will have no problem ditching a successful franchise if the latest game isn’t nice enough. And you don’t play the same game over and over, with some rare exception.

As much as the media likes to feed like vultures on the few extreme cases of “video game addiction,” the truth is that most gamers have a perfectly fine life. Playing video games is for most people simply a hobby, even though — just like with any other hobby — it can take different degrees of involvement. Some people will keep an unusual coin when they come across it, while others will spend much of their free time actively seeking rare coins, and possibly spending huge amounts on money to get hold of them. Similarly, the casual gamer will pick up his or her controller when bored; the hardcore gamer will use most of his free time to play. The problem arises when a person will give up his or her work time to do that.

Between those extremes, however, there is the huge majority of people who play games, that is those who might want to have some time to do so, but are not too bothered if they can’t manage to.

Video games are not addictive by themselves. They are captivating in one way or another, and that’s simply because they have to sell. Just like with anything else that’s enjoyable, it takes common sense to know when to stop. After all, as I said, it’s a hobby. Quite an enjoyable hobby indeed!