Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Psychology of Video Game Addiction

i-16481e6abd0861766c58ae06c535b7b5-evercrack.jpgI love video games. Hell, I was raised by Mario, Luigi, Sonic, and Yoshi and eagerly anticipated every new upgrade of the Nintendo console. My parents understood, they were of the Atari generation and saw video games as harmless fun on a rainy Florida afternoon, and perhaps even “good” for improving hand-eye coordination. I played outside like any normal kid, had friends, did schoolwork, grew up, and went to college. However, video games followed me through all of it. And while I don’t play much anymore, a new Final Fantasy game or a Wii demo at Best Buy is still capable of raising my blood pressure.

So, to an extent, I can understand the minority of gamers who become enthralled in the imaginary world inside a PS2 or computer. Video games provide not only an outlet for stress release, but also a completely controllable, escapable universe where the player is the center of the universe. The goals are clear and well-stated. Usually personal advancement is as simple as being tenacious (or buying a good strategy guide). Did you die? Well, just restart the game or restore to the last save point. Its experience without consequence, ultimately egotistical, easily achieved, and mimics the feelings of happiness and conquest of “real life.”

And when integrated into “real life,” video games are positive. Yet an increasing population of gamers are going overboard in time spent gaming, and their personal and professional lives are suffering. Perhaps the biggest offender, or easiest scapegoat with its 8 million players, is World or Warcraft (WoW). Are people *really* becoming addicted to WoW, and if so, how does video game addiction compare with more traditional forms of addiction (drug abuse, etc)?

So what is WoW, and why is it a particular target for video game addiction? WoW is an online universe which is constantly being updated with new characters, new monsters, and new quests. The highest level character attainable is currently Level 70, which takes a MAJOR time commitment to achieve. Add to this the huge online world filled with an infinite number of campaigns to beat and items to acquire, its not hard to imagine people spending a lot of time in this virtual world, even to the point of neglecting their real lives. In fact, a lucrative industry exists in China etc which builds up characters and then sells them for a profit, or generates money in the WoW world which it sells for real money in the real world. A top level character can net thousands of dollars, and represents hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Video game addiction of this variety has a name: massively multiplayer addiction (MMA). Its starting to become a serious issue among mental health professionals who see these patients, and several treatment facilities in Washington, Beijing, and the Netherlands have been set up to treat it. In an extreme case of MMA, a child died of neglect due to the inattentiveness of her WoW-playing parents. China has even set limits on how many hours a person can play WoW.

The specific of MMA is controversial and under-studied due to its perception as either 1) a harmless way to entertain oneself similar to TV, or 2) not a “real” addiction and therefore not worthy of psychological attention. However, behavioral addictions, like to gambling or sex, have been recognized as true compulsions which follow much the same story as a drug dependency. They exhibit drug-seeking behavior, elation at its receipt, withdrawl in its absence, and neglect of other interests which interfere. Ultimately, this kind of behavior, as with a chemical dependency, may require treatment in the form of behavioral modification and therapy.

It is hypothesized that obsessive gameplay activates the same brain pathways as more “traditional” types of addiction such as cocaine or nicotine would, specifically the release of dopamine in the reward pathways. It would be quite interesting to conduct an fMRI study on a WoW player during times of active gameplay (especially before/after and during times of reward in the game) and during a timepoint when the gamer has been deprived of the game for some time point. Activation in the reward regions of the brain (perhaps the nucleus accumbens?) as evidenced by blood flow might give some clues as to the neural effects of addictive game play. There also exists a substantial genetic component to susceptibility to addictive behavior–anecdotally you’ve probably heard of some people becoming addicted after one cigarette/drink, or the person who uses some drug recreationally without craving it. Genetics may dictate that some people may be more resistant to excess dopamine, however virtually no one is immune to addiction.

Research into this type of compulsion is new, and the implications are broad. The gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar one, and the perception of the products is crucial to whether parents are willing to dish out the dough for expensive and on-going games. A quick search of PubMed lead to disappointing results, the few hits were published in less that impactive journals which relied on self-report techniques. However, those who might argue that video games are all roses have their heads in the sand; any pleasurable activity can become addictive if repeatedly abused to the point that a person’s self worth becomes dependent on that activity. The ensuing studies into the mind of the addicted gamer will be both interesting and necessary, as games, and gamers, aren’t going anywhere.

More Info
Criteria for obsessive gaming.
A game addiction blog run by a gamer/game researcher.


  1. #1 Mike
    February 19, 2007

    If you apply that criteria for obsessive gaming to other topics, I suspect many people would find they’re obsessed about something.

    To use my own outside of work recreational habit as an example:

    Do you need to row with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve the desired excitement? Yes.
    Are you preoccupied with rowing (thinking about it when offwater, anticipating your next outing)? Yes
    Have you lied to friends and family members to conceal extent of your rowing? (Well, I’ve exaggerated my success)
    Do you feel restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop rowing? Yes. And fatter.
    Have you made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop rowing? No
    Do you use rowing as a way of escaping from problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression? Yes. And to avoid getting fat.
    Have you jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, or even risked your marriage because of your rowing habit? Yes (getting out of bed at 5:30 tends to do that, as does leaving the party early because you’re rowing the next morning)
    Have you jeopardized a job, educational, or career opportunity because of your rowing habit? I fell asleep in a meeting once because I’d been up at 5:30 to go rowing. So yes.

    Am I an obsessive rower?

  2. #2 Redleg
    February 19, 2007

    I have to agree with Mike and Shelley. I think the “obsession” part is related to the individual and their ability to moderate their own behavior. Some people have the mental mechanisms to deal the desire to escape, some do not (stage 1 or 2 alcoholics). I think societal factors drive obsessions, particularly gaming. In a plastic society where looks are the currency of social interaction a game makes a great escape. I’ve gamed for 27 years, starting with boardgaming, then miniatures and computer gaming. At times my PC gaming habit seemed obsessive to my significant other, but over time I moved on and she began to see them more appropriately as phases. While escapism was a part of it, my gaming has always been in the realm of military history, and the most thrilling part was the competition against live opponents. I honestly feel like these games developed the core part of my competitive nature growing up, and I eventually learned to view games as a mechanism to train the human brain. Of course, as Mike mentioned, who hasn’t dozed at work from an all night gaming session of Civilization? 😉

  3. #3 Boosterz
    February 19, 2007

    There’s an easy cure for being hooked on World of Warcraft. Get a lifetime ban like I did. lol

    Let’s see if I’m addicted to online games…

    EverQuest: played it to death(it was the one that started it all)

    Dark Age of Camelot: played it some, good concept, crappy implementation.

    Anarchy Online: played it to death(had 5 accounts). heckler grinding sucks

    City of Heroes: played it, wanted to love it, but it get’s boring FAST.

    City of Villains: was part of the beta test group. Same as COH, wanted to love it, but it just gets boring too fast.

    World of Warcraft: loved it, played it to death. Had a 60 warlock, 58 hunter and a ton of lower characters when Blizzard hit me with the ban stick.

    I don’t think I’m addicted do you? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play Eve Online….


  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    February 19, 2007

    Mike: The difference between an addiction, and your rowing habit is that an addiction has a persistent destructive effect on your life, rather than just occasionally forgetting or letting someone down or stretching the truth. I think Redleg hit the nail on the head: its about the individual’s ability to control and manage the behavior. You are correct in that certain behaviors can become addictive (and some people might argue that certain OCDers might exercise excessively, as per your example). Exercise addiction is usually rarer, I’d wager, due to the amount of effort required to become addicted to it, as opposed to WoW.

    Also, as I mentioned, not criticizing gamers. I like it too. The point is that a growing trend is emerging that resembles other types of behavior addiction, and shouldn’t be ignored or minimized.

  5. #5 Boosterz
    February 19, 2007

    It’s almost scary to think what I might have accomplished had all the hours I’ve spent playing MMORPGs been applied to something constructive 😉

    The most addicting aspect for me at least is the “self improvement” part that is the heart of all RPGs. Everyone wants to better themselves(get healthier, improve their knowledge/skills, etc). In the virtual world you can get an artificial sense of this AND at a much improved pace. This leaves you always wanting JUST one more level, or JUST one more quest. Spending all your time doing this is destructive, but while you are doing it, it FEELS constructive. Does that kind of make sense?

  6. #6 Shelley Batts
    February 19, 2007

    It absolutely makes sense. Its feels good to accomplish those tasks and level up and have an awesome character. :) There’s a sense of accomplishment (however illusory).

  7. #7 Kagehi
    February 19, 2007

    Simple solution to that sense of accomplishment. Be a loner and have 190 or out 200 quests stacked up as “You need a team for this!”. lol

    But yeah. That is definitely part of it, and why games like Uru, despite their much more briliant design and art, never took off. Though.. Uru is now reopened, after Cyan virtually killed it, so apparently you can log in again and wander around in there with other players + additional puzzles… Got to decide if its worth it to cancel my EQ subscription, but keep EQ2, so I can afford Uru, and if that will even work over dialup.. lol Haven’t player EQ in a long time as it is. Too bloody hard to advance in it, not a lot a quests, finding the stuff you need to craft is 500 times more of a pain in the ass, etc. I don’t understand the people fixated on the old system…

  8. #8 World of Warcraft Cheats
    February 20, 2007

    addiction just seems to be part of MMOs. ever since ultima online, i have been addicted to one of these games. it has been different games through the years, and no its vanguard.

  9. #9 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 20, 2007

    I’ll admit I’ve gotten hooked on a few before (eq, eq2, WOW to a minor extent) and I’m currently playing a new one (Vanguard). But being married I have a built in timer. Plus I don’t get the full on tug that some people (Boosterz I’m looking at you) get. I tend to be able to stop playing when I need or want to. I’ve had people I knew solely from online be so hooked that no matter what time of the day they always seemed to be on. I think the majority of these were Teens who didn’t have to hold up a job but I knew a few 30 -40 year olds who were completely obsessed.

    But there were a few weekends back in EQ where I got sucked in for the whole weekend for sure. It never really affected the job but my social life on those weekends took a hit for sure.

    That doesn’t happen any longer.

  10. #10 Cameron
    February 20, 2007

    For years I’ve been closely involved with some of the most hardcore RPG gaming clans around. I was one of the top 5 fastest to 60 in World of Warcraft (all servers) and have been first to cap in many other games. I’ve sold characters for >$10,000, and have friends inside many game companies.

    Of all my oldest gaming friends, I know no one (including myself) that hasn’t become jaded with the experience. With time, your brain learns that there is no *real* reward, and you stop enjoying it. Because of the self-recovery rates that I’ve seen, I really don’t see gaming addiction becoming an increasingly serious problem.

  11. #11 Jacob
    February 20, 2007

    I think the implications for possible addiction based learning tools are fantastic =). I bet a similar addiction would be those exhibited by researchers who manage to make it to a leading edge of research and start to publish. Maybe simulation of “the leading edge of research” would push students who don’t know where they stand in the seas of information to push further. Perhaps it would have long term desensitizing effects… strange to think of.

  12. #12 MarkP
    February 20, 2007

    I’m from the original coin-operated video game generation. I remember the first time I saw Space Invaders, and was one of those freak kids that could play more than a dozen of those “classic” games (Robotron, Pacman, etc.) for over an hour on one play. I once played a single game of Defender for over 10 hours, and believer me, Centipede elbow is worse than tennis elbow. Years later came many sleepless Civ II days. And even now, there is a certain high profile pseudoscience site with a video game on it, and I’m attempting to get the high score for no reason other than irritating the owner.

    Yet I’ve never felt addicted, although certainly there were times that passing the arcade without stopping was a challenge. And I have noticed for years a certain satisfying feeling that seems to build a craving from the experience. I’ll let Shelley explain the brain chemisty, I am not worthy. But I’ve also seen chemical addictions at close range, so to me it seems almost trivializing to the term “addiction” to apply it to something as minor as the urge to play video games.

    I suspect the feeling we get winning the games is similar to what we normally get accomplishing something else in life. I think Colbert’s joke about quitting D&D in part because he got a girlfriend is appropo here. It’s one thing to enjoy a little diversion with a video game, just like an occasional drink. But when it becomes the focus of energies one should really be spending elsewhere, and becomes the priority of every day, there’s a problem. However, the problem is with that person’s life, not the video game. Best to fix the problem rather than the symptom.

  13. #13 Neils Clark
    February 21, 2007

    Youre right on a few counts, Shelly. The research leaves a lot to be desired, well-planned fMRI analysis would be awesome, and anyone who doesnt see that theres a problem definitely has their head in the sand.

    In my mind, though, the implications are more broad than most people realize. Not only are these worlds (WoW, Final Fantasy, etc) fully functional social spaces, but they go beyond television by allowing interaction. If our brains have difficulty differentiating television from real experience (like some neuroscientists and visual communications scholars suggest), then adding interaction might make this effect even more powerful. This makes it a lot more fun for the person slaying a 300 foot long dragon, I mean, it feels real. It also gives people a real-feeling area where they can interact and compete with real people. Pretty cool, but it can cause excessive play.

    We dont count these as addiction, but there are a few factors like this which are unique to media, but which arent really being considered. Gaming is not like certain chemicals which powerfully stimulate the reward pathways in our brain(heroin, cocaine, etc), but learning to use these games with increasing skill, or playing to excess for legit reasons (that we don’t have much cultural awareness of) may impact dopamine release.

    On one other note, Dr. Kim Young’s came out with those criteria almost 10 years ago, for use in her ‘Internet Addiction Disorder.’ She basically copied those criteria from gambling, and then copied them from the Internet to Games. Gambling shares similarities with the Internet and Games, but ideally we really need a criteria which treats the unique nature of a game with respect and understanding. I get into some of the different game addiction research on my blog. Thanks again for linkin’ it. =P

    This is a lot more complicated than people are giving it credit for.

  14. #14 jvarisco
    February 22, 2007

    Speaking from personal experience, I don’t think you can call WoW an addiction. I played for nearly a year and was in a top guild (killed Ragnaros 2.0 the week he came out, etc.). We raided five or six nights a week for several hours. I got a ton of gear, made friends, and so on. But then about a year ago I realized the time commitment was too much, so I stopped playing. I left my account active for a bit, but had little trouble resisting. I played a little this summer when I had time, but stopped again once school started. WoW is fun, but with a little self control it’s far from addictive.

  15. #15 Roy
    February 23, 2007

    WoW is fun, but with a little self control it’s far from addictive.

    Well sure, jvarisco. But when we talk about people who are addicted to gaming, we’re, by definition, talking about people who don’t have self control, when it comes to gaming. That you were able to control it doesn’t mean that everyone can.

    I don’t think that most people get addicted to gaming, or to most other things. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some people who do get addicted to gaming, though. Maybe these people would have gotten addicted to something else if it weren’t WoW? There are certainly some examples of people so dedicated to gaming that they experienced serious off-line consequences.

  16. #16 Video Gamer
    February 25, 2007

    Is it bad to be addicted?

  17. #17 Ginny
    April 23, 2007

    I know the pains of a video addicted loved one all too well, and I am trying to do something about it on a grand scale… but I need your help…

    I am a student and family member of a former video game addict. I have taken a great interest in this area and am working to find advanced treatment methods for video game addiction. Please help me in my efforts by taking my survey.

    This study is sponsored by The Center for Survey Research at an anonymous private university in Southern California. The results will be used to help understand how video game addiction affects the lives and family members of those who are inflicted with this illness. In addition, this vital information will help further the understanding and pattern of depression in video game addicts, determining weather it is a beneficial angle of treatment.

    All your answers will be kept completely anonymous and confidential. The questionnaire take about 4 minutes. Your participation is voluntary. If you have questions at any time about the survey or the procedures, you may contact Ginny at

    I would like to thank you in advance for your participation. Video game addiction is a devastatingly real challenge for thousands, both for families and addicts themselves, and with your help we may one day begin to better treat this disorder effectively.

    This survey is safe and SPAM FREE

  18. #18 Anonymous!
    April 24, 2007

    Procrastination, escapism, and the illusion of procuctivity are I think what I like about Tetris. But why do I want to procrastinate and escape, and why can’t I just be actually productive instead of pretend productive? That’s what I’d like to know.

  19. #19 dNeb
    April 25, 2007

    I love RPG’s, basically all kinds except for the MMORPGs.

    One of the main reasons is because of time-commitment. There is no way I can promise other live people to be sitting at a computer every day at a given time. And knowing that has always kept me away from this type of game.

    The other reason is the lack of a main storyline. I enjoy beginnings and ends — like watching a movie or reading a book. It’s highly interactive and definitely qualifies as escapism. And like a movie or a book, I can put it on hold for an indefinite amount of time and pick it up where I left off. Once it’s over, I move on (or not) to a new game that offers different a different story, world, set of characters, etc.

    From my perspective, the problem is more of an obsession than an addiction — more like obsessive gameplaying. It’s foremost on your mind — the story, the quests, the unexplored areas of the gameworld. I would say it is not an addiction because, psychologically speaking, a person has the (mental) ability to either indulge in vast amounts of hours of gameplay, know when to quit for the day, or entirely reject involvement with the game. For instance, I love ice cream. However, I know that ice cream is loaded with calories and therefore too much of it will make me gain weight. I can either A. Choose to eat some more (ignoring the consequences), B. Eat some in a controlled fashion, knowing that later on I’ll have to compensate via exercise or lower-calorie foods, or C. Not touch it at all.

    It boils down to will power/discipline/mental strength.

    The game has no fault in this. People choose to play video games (and there certainly are some very artistically beautiful and engaging ones out there) for as long as they desire. It’s the gamer’s fault for not taking into account or facing the consequences of his actions.


    P.S. Are there any NES (8 bit) gamers still out there? I always love reminiscing about those gaming days!

  20. #20 MW
    May 1, 2007

    I have to say for me gaming is both an addiction and an obsession. While WoW and other MMORPG addictions may be pandemic, I think it’s important to point out that addiction is an issue for players of many other types of games as well, which are often ignored. I have only just recognised (after much cognitive dissonance) that I am a video game addict, and yet I have never seen (let alone played) an online role-playing game. In fact I have never played an online game of any kind. My addiction is based on combat flight simulators offline (which, of course are very popular online as well, but thankfully I don’t have a home internet connection – that would only make my addiction worse). I am beginning to rue the day I bought IL-2 Sturmovik and all its successors. Time and financial expenditure on software addons and hardware upgrades: massive. I’m a person who has skipped meals not just to play longer, but also to save money to buy gaming stuff! I’m late and tired every day at work because I play into the wee hours, (my work has measurably suffered for this). On my own time, I hardly step outside my apartment except to smoke between virtual “combat missions” (there’s another addiction with it’s own physical consequences). My weeknights and weekends are completely absorbed. I have recognised that there used to be social excitement in my life which has dried up (for reasons which I won’t go into now), so I use IL-2 and occasionally other flight sims to escape reality. I have tried to stop but can’t think of anything to do with my time alone – or even with others – that comes close. I have tried self-discipline techniques and alarm clocks and god knows what else and have come to the conclusion that I have finally lost control of my compulsive gaming. IL-2 Sturmovik has absorbed my life for so long now that I can’t really remember anything else.

    My apologies for using this site to vent – but this is the first time I’ve admitted to having a problem with gaming to anybody (albeit anonymously online), so I wanted to get it all out. Now I have to think about admitting it to somebody face-to-face. That’s going to be hard.

    (Perth, Western Australia).

  21. #21 ivan divan
    January 1, 2008

    very nice…
    thank you

  22. #22 BloodyOgre
    February 20, 2009

    Addiction can’t just blame it to games, there are several media that can be addictive, there’s TV, music and real drugs (which the society hasn’t eliminated successfully). There are several factors why some prefer living in the virtual world, they don’t feel secure nor enjoy the reality around them. It maybe the household, friends or even the society. Sad thing the game is played the other way around. I play WoW and grind wow gold
    and raid for endless hours but time to time, I make sure reality should strike my head that I have a real life to live. It was supposed to entertain you during your free time but it turned out it’s becoming a problem for some. Keep enjoying the game, but live a real life

  23. #23 shelly
    April 2, 2009

    Very nice and attractive attempt.
    Shelly Smith

    Substance Abuse Center

  24. #24 Shane
    July 1, 2009

    People sometimes are unable to define reality from not, that’s what you call addiction. Sad thing the game is played the other way around. I’d like to share the interesting article I’ve read : and it actually tackled some good effects of video games in real life specially in times of crisis.

  25. #25 chris dyrkacz
    August 24, 2009

    ive basically been playing warcarft 3 for 4 years now. and it has consumed my life and fucked up EVERYTHING. relationships, work, school, anything that requires sleep LOL. but yes, its true, it is not the game but the user who decides- i think one of the problems is also that most games are not educational, they are violent action games. if i could learn skills/ideas applicable in real life, im sure i would be motivated to do more constructive things in real life.

  26. #26 Didn't read all the other posts
    February 24, 2011

    So… I agree. But, “any pleasurable activity can become addictive if repeatedly abused to the point that a person’s self worth becomes dependent on that activity” changed to, “any activity can become addictive if repeatedly done to the point that a person’s self worth becomes dependent on that activity” would mean that any activity, even say… getting your PHD could be viewed as an addiction. The real question is, does your relationship with it lead to suffering and why?

    Most people would admit, atleast at somepoint in their life that many of the things they do are bandages to some deeper feeling or another.

    How to move in such a way where we don’t feed our demons?

    If addictions are all carried out to avoid experiences like helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression, how do we movie in such a way as to not move towards addiction when these feelings arise, assuming that they are unavoidable in the course of ones life.

    Just food for thought and discussion.

  27. #27 jesus fernandez
    May 20, 2011

    addictions are only for addicts, aa can not blame precisely in games, which is basically addicted to a game, understand how someone dependent compulsive if addicted to the games it would be on to something else, I play several hours day but I enjoy it I do not think that’s addiction or something, however, for minors who have not yet formed a scheme if it could adversely affect personality being “adept ” and concentrate too many hours of time in front of a screen, leaving aside their responsibilities and social life

  28. #28 someone
    May 23, 2011

    Why do you need to have two pictures of yourself up?

  29. #29 Shane
    November 28, 2011

    Ok seriously guys, I’m 12 and I’m about to explain the truth about addictions

    It starts in the brain and when having fun, a chemical in your body called dopamine releases and you feel well, the feeling when your having fun.

    The more you do the same activity, you start to create a resistance to the dopamine which causes the fun feeling to not be as intense.

    This causes you to want and do more of that activity, which eventually becomes a whole weekend playing video games or doing that activity.

    This then causes the brain to want to interfere with sports, projects, homework, work, etc. and you start to think that your life has no fun to it and that video games are a place where you have all the power and you shape the world.

    If your brain convinces you to this point of the process, your addicted.

    NOTE: addictions to video games effect your mentality and what you think about life, where addictions to drugs will harm your body and you will eventually die
    NOTE AGAIN: don’t think that addictions to drugs are really bad and that that makes it ok to be addicted to video games
    NOTE AGAIN AGAIN: video game addiction causes you to become an inextravert, irresponsible, and maybe even going crazy, suicidal (due to thinking life has no point), or even getting ADHD because you can’t focus since video games are the only thing on your mind.

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