excessive video gaming

By: Nimisha Jain

Video Games and Addiction

Video game addiction or internet gaming disorders are a source of worry among parents or other caregivers whose children spend hours in front of a computer screen. However, if you are concerned about your child’s gaming habits, it is a good idea to consider other explanations before jumping to conclusions. People play video games for a variety of reasons – for competition, to relax, or as a way to spend time with their friends. Surveys show that young adults tend to play video games for several hours a week. 

There is still some debate as to what constitutes gaming disorders. Currently, video game addictions are listed under the Emerging Measures and Models category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013), which means that the APA requires more evidence before video game addiction is officially added as a diagnosis. At the same time, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10, World Health Organization, 2018) lists gaming disorders under addictive illnesses. Evidently, this is not an easy subject to detangle, further confusing parents about whether they should be worried about their children’s gaming habits.

To better understand a gaming disorder, other origins of video game addictions have been hypothesized in addition to the biomedical model of addiction. The biomedical model breaks down video game addiction just as it would a substance addiction disorder (considering the impact on dopaminergic neural circuits, etc.). However, there are other models proposing that individuals use the online world as an escape from negative feelings due to stressful or adverse situations in real life. Therefore, problematic gaming habits (playing excessively, skipping meals, or skiving off classes/work) may be a coping mechanism for people with poor self-regulation (Kardefelt-Winther, 353). Emotional regulation refers to a set of psychological processes recognizing, sorting, and modulating feelings with flexibility, in response to environmental and relational stimuli. 

Some studies show that video games are used for emotional regulation – Villani et al. suggest that some video game features such as interactivity, experimenting with identity, and the ability to deal safely with failure (96) may play a role in emotional regulation. For example, the control or manipulation features allow the player to correct any mistakes or manage multiple resources at the same time. The ability to take on different identities during role-playing games enable the player to move through different emotional experiences or tailor their video game persona based on their (actual or desired) personality traits. Similarly, other research indicates that problematic gaming is related to a lack of emotional clarity and no/poor control over emotional responses. 

Video Games and Escapism

excessive video gaming

Let’s talk about escapism for a minute. In its essence, escapism is a coping mechanism – it refers to the involvement in an activity (in this case, gaming) in an effort to distract oneself from stress or real-life problems. Now by itself, escapism is not a bad thing. It is simply a temporary reprieve from having to deal with the more difficult aspects of life. As mentioned earlier, it could simply be a way of bonding with friends and family by playing together, or just to relax. 

However, when combined with other persistent factors such as psychological distress, poor psychosocial states (e.g. bad reaction to a breakup), and a lack of coping resources (emotional support from friends/family), escapism becomes a strong predictor of problematic gaming behaviours. This is because the motivation behind these game playing patterns are to suppress negative emotions as opposed to enhancing positive ones. 

If a child or adolescent is playing video games to ‘dissociate’ from real-life events, rather than a video game addiction, this may point toward a lack of adaptive strategies or resources to help them cope with any adverse life event they might be experiencing.

Knowing This, How do We Move Forward with Problematic Video Game Use? 

Keeping this information in mind, try talking to your child or teen about their motivations behind playing video games. As a caregiver, it is important to take note of any peculiar behaviours your child might exhibit; however, it is how you approach the situation that ultimately matters. 

Instead of labelling your child as someone with an addiction, or yelling at them for not performing as well at school and spending too much time playing video games, try having an open and honest conversation with them. If their gaming habits are unusual behaviours that have persisted for some time, they may be going through something they haven’t been able to cope with or talk about with a stable friend or adult. 

It is crucial to know whether they want to play video games simply because they enjoy it or if it’s to avoid complicated feelings such as loneliness, depression, bullying, anxiety, among others. Even if they don’t open up to you, being present for them during a difficult time (increasing their coping resources) would be helpful. 

As with adults, children respond to kindness, empathy, and patience. Depending on how your conversation goes and if you can help your child resolve some of the feelings or events they are trying to escape, you are one step closer to returning to normal gaming behaviours. If this is out of your control or your child has not been able to open up, there is a world of online resources available. You can also approach your family doctor/pediatrician, who would be able to point you in the right direction. 

Works Cited

Kardefelt-Winther, Daniel. “A Conceptual and Methodological Critique of Internet Addiction Research: Towards a Model of Compensatory Internet Use.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 31, 2014, pp. 351–54.

Villani, Daniela, et al. “Videogames for Emotion Regulation: A Systematic Review.” Games for Health Journal, vol. 7, 2018, pp. 85–99.

Hussain, Umer, et al. “The Dual Nature of Escapism in Video Gaming: A Meta-Analytic Approach.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports, vol. 3, 2021, pp. 1-13.