What Is the Science Behind Online Gaming Addiction?

While the concept of online gaming addiction is not a new one, the release of the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has introduced the idea of an “Internet Gaming Disorder” as something to be potentially reviewed and considered for inclusion in future revisions of the DSM according to the American Psychiatric Association. While the concept of gaming addiction being a classifiable mental disorder is still up for debate, there is some validity to the claims that video games can be addictive, and may even be designed to be so to some degree.

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Understanding the Science of Video Game Addiction

Video games may unintentionally be designed to be addictive based on the principle of operant conditioning. Originally defined by psychologist B.F. Skinner, Operant Conditioning is the concept of rewarding a subject for certain behaviors that a researcher may want to increase and punishing a subject for behaviors that they would like to decrease. This was first tested by B.F. Skinner using a device called a “Skinner Box,” in which Skinner would systematically train rats to perform behaviors, such as pushing a button. While there were several outcomes that came of this discovery, some of which can take years to fully teach and understand, the basic premise as it applies to video game addiction is the concept of positive reinforcement. Put simply, a subject is rewarded each time that they perform a specific task. This model has been used in schools, jobs, and numerous areas to have positive effects on students and employees. Positive reinforcement has also been employed in areas such as video games and casinos to keep players coming back for more.

Addicting by Design

To understand the addictive nature of video games, you can take a look at most casinos, slot machines in particular. As discussed in the Scientific American, casinos have mastered the art and science of manipulating the brain’s reward system to encourage players to keep placing more and bigger bets. Slot machines are designed with these principles of operant conditioning to gradually reward players to keep placing bets. While it would be a poor business model to pay out a jackpot each time a player places a bet, slot machines often reward players by paying small sums every 2-5 bets. That rush of adrenaline after winning $5, even after placing $15 in bets, encourages players to keep pushing on, even if they are ultimately losing. This same model is employed in many video games, rewarding players with power-ups, increased levels, and minor accomplishments and rewards periodically to entice players to keep playing. Modern video games even have numerous “achievements” or “trophies,” which are rewards that can be unlocked after fulfilling specific tasks, ranging from easy to difficult.

Defining Addiction

If you’re worried that your spouse or child may be addicted to video games, there is a strict set of criteria to determine if someone is actually addicted to gaming. As discussed in Psychology Today, many of the diagnostic criteria for gaming addiction involve not only a preoccupation with gaming, but physical and emotional withdrawals when they are not playing games, including irritability, anger, and frustration over the inability to play games. Like substance addictions, this person would also have built up a tolerance to gaming, requiring longer sessions to get their fix, and may have had personal, social, and work relationships hindered due to this preoccupation.

While online gaming addiction is still not classified as an official mental illness, if you have concerns about yourself or someone you know, consult a mental health practitioner for guidance and assistance. Like other addictions, treatment can be successful and lead to a healthy and happy lifestyle once under control.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris