Risk Factors for Video Game Addiction Revealed

cartoon of a man gaming

Video game addiction is an unofficial term used to describe unhealthy, compulsive participation in various forms of video games. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is considering making this condition a diagnosable mental disorder called Internet gaming disorder. In a study published in September 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia sought to identify some of the risk factors that increase an adult’s chances of developing a video game addiction. These researchers concluded that the highest risks appear in people who use video games to avoid dealing with problems facing them in everyday life.

Addiction Basics

Addiction is a term generally used to describe compulsive, involuntary use of a substance or participation in an activity. Historically speaking, the concept is most clearly defined for people who habitually drink excessive amounts of alcohol or use/abuse any one of a broad range of drugs or medications. Participation in these behaviors can produce addiction by triggering chemical changes in the brain that create physical dependence on a substance, and also foster the onset of dysfunctional, personally and socially damaging behaviors designed to assure an individual’s future access to drugs or alcohol.

Recently, doctors and other mental health professionals have come to understand that the brain changes associated with chemical addiction can also arise in people who don’t drink alcohol or take drugs. In acknowledgement of this fact, the American Psychiatric Association has started to broaden the definitions that doctors can use to diagnose addiction-related conditions in their patients. The first official sign of this change is the inclusion of a condition called gambling disorder in a category of illnesses known as “substance-related and addictive disorders,” which also includes addiction- or abuse-related problems associated with the use of a number of legal and illegal substances.

Video Game Addiction Basics

In our technology- and entertainment-oriented society, both children and adults commonly use video games. Most people participate in these games without experiencing substantial mental health problems or a diminished ability to maintain their involvement in vital aspects of daily life. However, a significant minority of video game players may develop an unhealthy relationship with gaming that manifests as compulsive gaming participation, an inability to maintain one or more aspects of a regular routine, and/or considerable amounts of gaming-related emotional/psychological impairment. As of 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has not decided whether these problems occur often enough or consistently enough, or produce enough harm to qualify as an official mental disorder that doctors can diagnose in their patients. However, the organization has specifically designated the issue (in the form of Internet gaming disorder) for further consideration, and may ultimately recognize gaming addiction as an illness in the years to come.

Current Findings

In the study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the University of Missouri researchers used surveys distributed through Internet gaming forums to identify the factors that support ongoing video game participation among college students and other gamers classified as adults. After reviewing the survey results, the researchers concluded that some of these factors (such as attachment to a developing story, the freedom to act autonomously and the cathartic use of violence) do not apparently contribute to the formation of an unhealthy, compulsive relationship to gaming. However, three specific factors—use of gaming to escape one’s real-world life, use of gaming to make social contact with others and the desire to accumulate awards within a game’s “world”—are associated with the potential onset of a video game addiction.


Previous research teams had tentatively theorized that the most addictive gaming behaviors would occur in people who participate in what’s known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, a class of games that typically feature both high levels of social interaction and the regular accumulation of in-game awards. The authors of the study published in Frontiers in Psychology partially confirm these theories and note that ongoing participation in a persistent fantasy world can play just as large a role as social interaction or award accumulation in increasing video game addiction risks. Interestingly, the amount of time devoted to playing a video game does not apparently directly affect the chances of developing a gaming addiction. In fact, depending on the motivations underlying video game participation, both casual gamers who devote relatively little time to gaming and committed players who devote relatively large amounts of time to gaming can face significant addiction-related issues.

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