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A young boy playing on a Playstation games console.

New study reveals the truth about gaming addiction

I'm a major video game player. I have been since I was a little kid, and I can attribute some of my favourite storytelling experiences to the many video games I've enjoyed over the years. But every gamer out there knows that there's a very fine line between a hobby and obsession to the exclusion of all other activities. After all, games are designed to be enticing by their very nature, to squeeze the maximum amount of attention out of you. Even when it comes to something as simple and formulaic as Tetris, where all you're doing is moving shapes around, it's easy to lose all track of time as you keep saying "OK, just one more level" and the session turns into the equivalent of a bender.

Some people have even claimed that video games are every bit as addictive as cigarettes, drugs and alcohol and that people require rehab in order to cure themselves. Video games are often subject to moral panics, since they're a relatively new medium anyway, and in the past we've heard many accounts of (typically young) people who have lost their jobs, ruined their relationships, and becomes estranged from society as a result of playing games for hours and hours each day. There are even websites and online treatment programmes out there which provide therapy for those poor souls who just can't seem to put down the controller.

Despite this, new research seems to suggest that maybe video game addiction isn't a real phenomenon after all, according to a study that followed thousands of online gamers over six months. Currently, video game addiction is taken at least somewhat seriously by the medical community at large. The American Psychiatric Association has considered it for inclusion in their record of mental illnesses and addictions, but has stated that further research is required before hands. Has this new evidence proven it to be a myth all along?

The way in which addictions are diagnosed currently means that a potential new entry must fulfil certain diagnostic criteria before it can count as one. These five criteria include the sufferer lying about how much time they spend gaming, whether they are willing to jeopardise their careers or their education because of their obsession with gaming, whether games are used to relieve anxiety, as well as a sense of distress or guilt over the time that they spend in their virtual worlds, and withdrawal, anxiety, stress or physical responses to a person losing their stimulant. So how did video games measure up when gamers were applied to these criteria?

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Two men on a couch playing on a games console

Netta Weinstein and her colleagues at Cardiff University, Wales, employed US census data in order to identify 2,316 adult individuals who regularly played online games and then asked them to participate in their study. The participants filled in a questionnaire which detailed their personal health, lifestyle, diet and how much exercise they took. Initially, a mere nine individuals fulfilled the five criteria for addiction, and claimed they experienced feeling of stress, anxiety and guilt as a direct result of how much they were gaming. Six months later however, these same individuals did not feel the same way when polled again, and therefore didn't meet the requirements for addiction. Another three matched four criteria, yet none of them felt ongoing distress over their gaming habits.

This seems to suggest that, rather than behaviour that is damaging in its own right, and which causes problems for people who suffer from it, video games are seen as a form of escape for those who suffer from existing issues in their lives, such as anxiety, depression, morbidity and unemployment. Many of the participants who believed that they played video games excessively were found to have low self-esteem and had lower needs fulfilment in other areas of their lives. Playing online games allowed these people to experience a sense of achievement that was otherwise lacking in their lives.

Commenting on her findings, Dr Weinstein stated: "We didn’t see a large number of people with clinical problems. The study’s results suggest that it’s not clear how many resources should go to gaming addiction, compared to other addictions like drugs ... This is initial evidence that having more needs fulfilment in life can make people feel better about their gaming."

However, not everyone has been so quick as to dismiss the study's claims entirely. Daria Kuss, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, and a member of the International Gaming Research Unit and the Cyberpsychology Group, believes that further research with a larger body of participants is needed before we can write off gaming addiction entirely: "If someone uses gaming to meet basic psychological needs, this could become a problem if they are not able to satisfy these needs in real life. But to confirm this, we need clinical samples of people who are being treated for addiction in centres."

People who have claimed to have suffered from gaming addictions in the past have included celebrities such as Mila Kunis and Felicia Day; both of whom spent countless hours playing World of Warcraft when it was at the height of its popularity. The newest Nintendo console, the Nintendo switch, now includes override controls to ensure that concerned parents can limit their child's video gaming time to prevent it becoming too dangerous, but other companies have not been keen to follow through. In fact, the prevalence of mobile games and pay-to-play titles seems to suggest that developers are intentionally making their games more addictive. It doesn't matter whether or not gaming addiction is real; personal responsibility is still important, and when things stop being fun, that means it's time to switch off.