Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably heard the names of some popular video games like Fortnite, Minecraft and Call of Duty. Video games are a part of American popular culture and the people who play them say they are relaxing and mentally stimulating. For most people, gaming is a fun hobby that can help relieve some stress, but for others, gaming can turn into problematic behavior.
In 2018, Americans spent over 43 billion dollars  on video games. A little less than half  of all adults in the United States play video games and three out of four  American homes have at least one gamer. Families and friends often play video games together. More than half of parents  who play video games report doing so with their kids at least once a week.
Gaming can be enriching for both adults and kids, which may be why there is little consensus among mental health professionals on what behaviors constitute video game addiction. The World Health Organization recognizes that gaming can cause negative consequences and identifies this phenomenon as “gaming disorder.” 
Mental health professionals are challenged when dealing with people addicted to games because the psychiatric profession in the United States doesn’t have an official diagnosis for gaming addiction . Identifying as a gamer doesn’t mean a person is addicted, though. Most people who play video games don’t do so compulsively, but if the need for gaming overtakes family, social, educational or occupational functioning, gaming addiction is a concern .
Who is at Risk for Gaming Addiction?
Visions of teenage boys downing energy drinks as the sun comes up are often associated with video game addiction, but the truth is that all kinds of people are gamers. About forty percent of women  report playing video games. Older Americans are in on gaming, too, with about a quarter of people over 65  hitting buttons and scoring points on their phones, tablets, computers or game consoles.
Living up to their reputation, millennial men are the most active video game players, with almost three quarters  reporting that they play video games often or sometimes. While frequent gaming is associated with lower levels of education , video games are no more or less likely to be played based on a person’s employment status .
Male or female, young, old or in between, everyone is at risk for gaming addiction. Only a small percentage of people who play video games will develop an addiction, but every person should be mindful of how much time they spend gaming and if they are choosing gaming over friends, family or other commitments. Other changes that might indicate gaming addiction include changes to physical health like sore muscles from sitting in one spot for hours, changes in psychological health like isolating from others to play games, and changes in hygiene from skipping showers or dental care.
People who abuse substances or who have other behavioral addictions may be at a higher risk for video game addiction.
What Makes Gaming Addictive?
Addiction to gaming, like all other addictions, is a condition that impacts the brain’s reward system. The reward system is fired when we do something pleasurable like eat, exercise or have sex, and pleasure-inducing chemicals are then released. Gaming mimics other addictions when this pathway is triggered and a person repeatedly engages in gaming to pursue this pleasurable high. The desire to feel the instant gratification of gaming leads to addiction-like behaviors to satisfy cravings that might include problems with relationships, school, work or hygiene.
Gaming is unique from other addictions in several ways. First, gaming has an interesting effect on the executive functions in the area of the brain associated with inhibition , making it common for people to experience lack of inhibition while gaming. This factor, coupled with the perceived anonymity of gaming, leads people to behave and communicate more boldly than they would normally, a behavior that can again fire the reward system with potent feelings of power and control.
Additionally, the type of content found in many video games that immerse users in another dimension is both completely engaging and dissociative, taking the person outside of their existing environment and its problems. Time seems to go by slowly, but suddenly hours have passed. Because games can be accessed at any time, day or night, there is an open window to pursuing and achieving the intoxication felt by people who are addicted to gaming.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Gaming Addiction?
If playing video games causes significant impairment to several aspects of a person’s life, addiction could be a reality. Signs and symptoms of gaming addiction include:
- Thinking about gaming when performing other activities
- Withdrawal symptoms like irritability, depression or anxiety when not gaming
- The need to spend more time gaming to feel satisfied
- Attempting to quit gaming without success
- Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Lying about whereabouts or time spent gaming
- Using gaming as a coping mechanism to escape negative emotions
- Loss of relationship or employment due to gaming
- Continuing to play video games despite negative consequences
The Long Term Effects of Gaming Addiction
Gaming addiction is a modern problem. Since researchers have only been studying the phenomenon for a short time, we may not be aware of all of the negative ways gaming can affect mental and physical health. The prolonged and recurring use of video games is associated with social anxiety and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in adolescents . Problematic gaming, or gaming despite negative consequences, is associated with aggression, narcissistic traits and lack of self-control .
Like cigarettes, video games are designed to get you hooked and keep you that way. People with problematic gaining may be sleep deprived and malnourished. When gaming, people often lose track of time, breaking commitments with friends or family and forgetting about obligations at school or work. Breakups, divorce, unemployment, dropping out of school and social withdrawal are all real possibilities when gaming takes priority in a person’s life.
This article was written by Dr. Sarah Toler, a medical writer at Addictions.com.
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