Dear Alice,

What is "gaming addiction"? Is it a real thing? I can play some games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, for a whole day, and I've sunk 150+ hours into RPGs. How many hours in front of a screen are too many?

Dear Reader,

Your princess is in another castle! Gaming addiction, video game addiction (VGA), internet gaming disorder (IGD), online gaming addiction (OGA), gaming disorder — all of these terms refer to a pattern of behavior in which a person loses control over the amount they play games. Although many researchers have been studying the relationship between video gaming and health outcomes, gaming disorder was only recently added to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2018. Characteristics of this addiction include prioritizing gaming over socializing and other hobbies or interests and feeling like you don't have control over how much you play. However, gaming disorder is more of a spectrum rather than a definitive category. Determining whether or not someone’s gaming habit is cause for concern really depends more on what drives them to play as many hours as they do — or, what they give up in order to play. In other words, gaming itself may not be directly harmful to your health, but a compulsive need to keep playing could cause issues if other areas of your life (e.g., relationships, work performance, sleeping and eating habits, stress and conflict coping, etc.) are neglected or start to deteriorate.

Overall, research on potentially problematic gaming has produced mixed results. Current estimates indicate that problematic gaming behavior affects up to eight percent of the U.S. population ages 8 to 18, but the number of those who meet the eligibility for a gaming disorder is probably much smaller in the greater population. There is still more research to be done, but some preliminary data do suggest that compulsive gaming has neurological effects. For example, one study found that those with video game addictions report more symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), worse emotional health, and worse mental health compared to those without an addiction. Other research suggests that video game addiction and gaming disorder may be associated with other negative outcomes such as increased stressful life experiences, increased anti-social behaviors (e.g., lying or manipulative behavior), and other impulse control disorders such as gambling addictions, pornography addictions, or substance use disorders. However, the direction of these relationships is unknown. It’s possible that anyone with a gaming disorder or video game addiction turns to video games because they’re already experiencing these symptoms, or perhaps video game addictions contribute to exacerbating these symptoms. Further research is needed to better understand the relationships between these behaviors.

What's more, there’s a chance that some game genres (such as massive multi-player online role-playing games or first-person shooter games) are more likely to be associated with problematic gaming than others — but, there isn’t a consensus yet as to which genres are most harmful. Some studies have demonstrated that violent video games such as first-person shooting lead to changes in brain structure. Specifically, scientists have found that individuals with a gaming addiction had differences in their brain structures associated with increased aggression, hostility, and anti-social behaviors. It's also difficult to know if a genre itself is more addictive or if people who are attracted to the genre are more likely to be predisposed to addictive behavior. It’s also good to keep in mind that some games incorporate multiple genres, which can further complicate the issue. But it’s not all bad news: there’s evidence that gaming can have some positive aspects. Playing video games is associated with improved cognitive functions such as making decisions on-the-fly, resourcefulness, and an increase in creative problem-solving.

Only a small number of people meet the clinical criteria for a gaming disorder; however, it may be helpful to think about how gaming is impacting your life on a daily basis. When considering your personal playing habits, taking stock of your current level of gaming can help you determine if it’s cause for concern. How do you feel about having dedicated so many hours to gaming? Does your level of gaming cause other problems in your life? For example, have you noticed that your grades have been slipping recently or that gaming has hindered your ability to meet expectations at work? What about while you're doing other activities — do you still think about gaming?  Do you tend to schedule your life around gaming, or lie to friends or family about your gaming habits? Do you often feel irritable if you can’t fit in as much gaming as you want to — or do you find that sometimes you even forget to eat or sleep? Gaming disorder is only diagnosed if gaming behaviors have impacted your mental, emotional, social, or physical health for at least twelve months. However, talking through these questions with a mental health professional may help you decide if the time you spend on your gaming is seriously affecting your day-to-day functioning and how you can address it.

In the meantime, if you’re worried that you’re spending too much time in front of a screen, you could try keeping track of the duration of your gaming sessions. Knowing how much time you spend can help you set realistic goals for curbing your gaming and develop a plan to achieve those goals. Using a journal or recording the amount of time spent playing may help you get a better idea of whether or not you think the amount of hours you spend gaming is a problem. You might also consider setting limits on when you log on — such as only after dinner or certain evenings of the week — and turning off the console at a set bedtime (you can set reminders or alarms to help yourself). Pausing or taking five to ten-minute breaks every so often to walk or stretch can also be helpful. Or, what about trying other types of games? How about gaming for physical activity? Are there activities aside from gaming that you find fun? You could try reaching out to your friends and family for support if you feel that your gaming habits might be interfering with other parts of your life. 

Good luck raiding, Reader, but don't forget to stop and smell (or gather) the flowers — in real life, too!

Alice!

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