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What is gaming disorder?

Q&A with Melissa Nobile, Psychologist

21.04.2021 - Mental health, Q&A

Although video games have been around for quite some time, it’s only been a decade or two since they’ve been using neuroscience and the developments in the understanding of the human brain, to create games that really tap into all the pleasure centres and the reward systems of the brain to have consumers spend more and more time playing. Only a small group of these people playing will develop some form of addictive pattern. I don’t have exact numbers in mind, but I can tell you, from a clinical perspective, in settings that treat addictive patterns in youth, it’s one of the top three problematics that we see, together with cannabis and alcohol dependence.

And since April, there’s also been an increase in these addictions being seen. First, probably because there’s been, in general, an increase in people gaming during the pandemic, without necessarily being addicted. And simply because it was a fun way of entertainment while being isolated. It’s a great strategy for coping with boredom, or stress, or loneliness. Games are also a way to socialise and connect, maybe escape family conflicts at times. So again, only for a subset of people, it’s going to turn into an addiction.

Addictions are complex processes. Usually, the common way we describe it is ‘engaging in a compulsive behaviour despite its harmful consequences’. And these compulsions can reach the point where it takes over the life of someone physically and, usually, mentally as well.

And, in gaming, compared to other addictions, the physical component is less present. Although there’s extremes; people who go days and days without sleeping, usually that physical component is not as visible as in other forms of addiction. So what you would see is, the gaming itself, really taking over the life of someone. They’ll have obsessions about it, neglecting certain aspects of their life to gaming, and this element of loss of control over the fact that they’re neglecting the rest of their life usually.

So the problem is not really the gaming, it’s what they’re neglecting for the gaming. And I can tell you from clinical experience, what I’ve seen, the complaints that families usually raise are going to be ‘okay, my child or my teen no longer want to join us for dinner’. And ‘because they’re playing when we raise the issue, it starts a huge conflict in the household.’ It’s families where there’s a lot of tension around the kid or the teen wanting to play these games and not being able to stop.

With children, I know that when the parents try to remove the device, the child can sometimes get so frustrated that there’ll be a little bit of violence. I’ve seen, just recently, a teenager that couldn’t attend the online classes because he was so tempted to be gaming at the same time as the classes were going on, now that the format is online. So he was just really dropping out of school.

It’s going to be just all these signs that show that it’s no longer a child or teen wanting or asking to play, but it’s a child or teen needing to play. And that’s where all the difference is going to be.

Melissa Nobile, Psychologist, The Kusnacht Practice