Does internet gaming have the makings of a debilitating addiction like gambling? Most likely not, according to the biggest study to date seeking a link between internet gaming and addictive behavior. I doubt it’s exactly what the originators of the term “internet gaming disorder” hoped to find, but in a minute I’ll discuss why it’s probably what they should have expected.
First some background. A couple of years ago the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided to flesh out the controversial term “internet gaming disorder” by proposing a nine-symptom scale for diagnosis. The list of symptoms includes spending increasing amounts of time gaming, reduced interest in other activities, anxiety when the game isn’t accessible, social withdrawal, and losing opportunities as a result of gaming.
Each symptom on the list is weighted equally, and someone has to hit five of the nine to qualify for an addiction diagnosis. But they must also show an overriding factor: a “feeling of significant distress.” So someone might report spending hours a day playing games, being increasingly isolated from friends and family, and distracted from routine activities, but unless they also show signs of significant distress when trying to reduce their gaming time, an addiction diagnosis wouldn’t apply.
For the latest study, researchers surveyed just under 19,000 men and women from the United States, UK, Canada and Germany. About half of this sample had played internet video games recently, and of that group between 2-3% reported experiencing five or more symptoms on the APA’s nine-symptom checklist. But only between .5 and 1% of those also reported feelings of significant distress when trying to reduce their game time. When you whittle down the percentages, that’s a tiny number of people, much less than what’s typically found in similar research on gambling addiction (probably the best behavioral addiction comparison).
Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute, and one of the study’s authors, said in a press statement: “Contrary to what was predicted, the study did not find a clear link between potential addiction and negative effects on health; however, more research grounded in open and robust scientific practices is needed to learn if games are truly as addictive as many fear.”
He also added that while the study found a few possible indicators of addictive behavior, “Importantly, the great majority of gamers–nearly three in four–reported no symptoms at all that we would link with addictive gaming behavior.”
While the results are news in terms of failing to support assumptions about gaming addiction, they should have been expected for a few reasons. The first has to do with the definition of “internet gaming disorder” itself. The nine-symptom checklist feels solid—all of the items describe a pattern of troubling behavior—but they’re applicable to just about any behavior. Whatever might make gaming addictive in its own right, if it is addictive, doesn’t surface from the list. The scale seems both too obvious and too vague, and the answers to a survey based on the scale were predictably unenlightening.
Also, unlike gambling addiction, which brings with it the tangible drawbacks of losing money and potentially things like your house, the main thing gamers lose is time. And time loss is a matter of perspective; one person’s wasted time is another’s perfectly acceptable use of time. Unless someone is gaming so much that they stop working, most gamers aren’t going to feel anything close to what gamblers feel as they slide ever closer to the rope’s end. The terror of impending loss just isn’t there.