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Biology 202
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

Video Game Addiction: Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?

Mary Schlimme

Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Street Fighter are familiar names to nearly all of us. They are all best selling games of major video game consoles. Over 9.8 billion dollars were spent on video games in the United States during 2001 alone, and video game consoles are present in 36 million homes in the United States (1). With the increasing amount of time that people are spending on video games, one is left to wonder if it is possible to become addicted to video games. Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?

Addiction has been defined as "A primary, chronic disease, characterized by impaired control over the use of a psychoactive substance and/or behavior. Clinically, the manifestations occur along biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual dimensions (2)." While there is currently no category for video game addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3), which is the manual utilized to diagnose psychological disorders, video game addicts are often described by clinicians in the field as displaying many symptoms characteristic of other addictions. These behaviors include failure to stop playing games, difficulties in work or school, telling lies to loved ones, decreased attention to personal hygiene, decreased attention to family and friends, and disturbances in the sleep cycle (4). Withdrawal symptoms can even include behaviors as severe as shaking (5).

All addictions can be dangerous and harmful to the addicted person and others around him; however, video game addiction can be particularly detrimental to children. Video games are becoming increasingly popular with children of young ages, which in turn may raise the likelihood that these children will develop addictions to video games. Furthermore, playing violent games may be associated with a tendency to behave more aggressively, although the data are inconclusive about the cause and effect nature of this relationship (6). In a study by Irwin and Gross, children who played a violent video game displayed a higher level of aggression than children who played a nonviolent game (6). Similarly, in a study by Calvert and Tan, college students who played a violent video game reported more aggressive thoughts after playing the game than college students who played a nonviolent game (6). Although several researchers advocate the position that video games cause violent behavior in children and adults, there are also many researchers who support the opposite belief, which is that video games purge one's desire to act violently and thus reduce the amount of violence in which a person will engage (5). Other detrimental effects of video games include taking time away from a child's studies or homework and decreased social skills (5). Finally, despite possible detrimental effects of excessive video game playing, there are benefits to playing video games in moderation. For instance, video games may improve spatial abilities, the ability to create and apply multiple strategies, and may help develop critical analyzing techniques (7). Due to the nature of video games, psychological, social, and neurological factors have all been associated with excessive video game playing.

The psychological cycle of substance addiction and other maladaptive behaviors can be applied to video games as well. A person playing a video game feels an emotional high, commonly known as an adrenaline rush, as a result of his gaming tactics (8). He then plays the game more and pushes his physical and psychological limits in order to experience the emotional high. Eventually, he will again reach a level that stimulates the production of adrenaline. The cycle may continue until it leads to an unhealthy level of interaction with video games, which some professionals may label video game addiction. Even famous psychological effects such as the sunk cost fallacy can influence the addictive cycle. This fallacy occurs when a person feels compelled to continue performing a certain behavior because he has previously invested time in the behavior and does not want to feel as though his investment was wasted (9). Similarly, Dr. Timothy Miller, a clinical psychologist, states that many video game players may feel that they have wasted their efforts if they do not reach the next goal in a game, which may lead to additional time spent playing the game that the person otherwise would have spent in a more constructive task (4).

According to Dr. Orzack, the Director of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital, social pressure or lack of social skills can also lead to video game addiction (4). Dr. Orzack suggests that many video game addicts have struggled with finding their place in society and as a result play video games in order to become part of a crowd. The players then may feel compelled to reach the next level of achievement in the game in order to flaunt their abilities in front of their peer group (4). While these social effects are important to consider when investigating the development of excessive video game playing, it is equally important to discuss the neurological effects as well.

Not only can excessive video game playing cause behavioral and social changes in a person, but it can also result in neurological changes as well. A recent study utilized positron emission tomography in order to show that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine increased while playing video games (10). Dopamine is believed to mediate several behaviors, one of which is the experience of pleasure. For example, dopamine levels increase in emaciated rats when the rats are presented with food, and similar effects are found when water deprived rats are presented with water. Despite the positive effects of dopamine, high levels of the neurotransmitter have also been associated with addictions to drugs and substances (11). Because increased levels of dopamine have been found in people who are playing video games and because these effects are similar to the increased levels of dopamine in drug addicts, some researchers have hypothesized that higher levels of dopamine can produce a dangerous cycle leading to addiction of video games (11). However, because this research is fairly novel, studies replicating the data are necessary. Furthermore, the possibility of involvement of other neurotransmitters during video game play should be explored since it is possible that multiple neurotransmitters may interact in addictive behaviors. Finally, because this area of research is fairly new, many interesting questions can be raised. For instance, does excessive playing of video games cause a fundamental and permanent change in the dopamine system? If so, what are the subsequent effects on the pleasure systems of these individuals? Do these people require more dopamine to be released as a result of a decreased sensitivity to dopamine that was caused by the excessive play, in a way similar to other addictions (10)? If future studies demonstrate these patterns, and if they are considered in unison with the psychological and social ramifications of excessive video game playing, it can be concluded that the video game addiction can and does exist. In that case, the answer to the initial question of "Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?" is most certainly yes.


1)Assorted Gaming Statistics, A good reference for game statistics

2)Definitions in Addiction Medicine,

3)Computer and Cyberspace Addiction,

4)When games stop being fun,

5)Video games: Cause for concern?,

6)Video games: Research, ratings, and recommendations, Contains many references for empirical studies

7)Video games addiction,

8)Are video games really so bad?,

9)Questions Answered,

10)Positron Emission Tomography ,

11)The Biochemistry of Human Addiction, Discusses the role of dopamine in addiction

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