Understanding Addiction

Can You Be Addicted To Video Games?

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Whether on your phone, tablet or TV, video games are a powerful draw for adults and kids alike — so powerful, in fact, that gaming can turn into an addiction. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared video game addiction, or “gaming disorder,” a new mental health condition in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

“Gaming has the same addictive properties as drugs, alcohol and gambling. All three trigger a flood of dopamine, which reinforces the behavior,” says Chris Nixon, LMSW, CAADC, an addiction medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health System. “So gaming can pose a serious threat, particularly for people with addictive tendencies.”  

Game On

Do you think a gaming disorder is affecting you or someone you love? Read on for Nixon’s answers to frequently asked questions about this mystifying condition:

Q: What is “gaming disorder?”

A: Gaming addiction has been around as long as gaming technology, but the WHO only recently recognized video games as potentially addictive technology. According to the WHO definition, people who have gaming disorder consistently prioritize gaming over other activities and interests, despite negative consequences. To be diagnosed with a gaming disorder, you must experience significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning for at least one year.

Q: How can video games be addictive?  

A: Video games offer instant gratification, fast pace and unpredictability — all three are inherent to creating an addiction. In fact, game designers create games with the same unpredictable reinforcement schedule as slot machines. Knowing you might score (or kill the bad guy) but not knowing when that could happen keeps you in the game. Interactive games like Fortnite intensify the potential for addiction with an intermittent reinforcement schedule that keeps you coming back for more.

Q: How can you tell if someone you love has a gaming disorder?

A: Since so much of our time today revolves around screens, it can be difficult to identify a gaming addiction, particularly among adolescents and teenagers. Like any addiction, people who are consumed with gaming may exhibit certain behaviors that signal they may have a problem:

  • Spending excessive time gaming
  • Becoming defensive when confronted about gaming activities
  • Increased irritability
  • Preferring to spend time gaming instead of with friends and family
  • Losing interest in previously important activities or hobbies
  • Attempting to hide gaming activities
  • Difficulty sleeping

Q: What should you do if you think you or someone you love has a problem?

A: Get help from a health care professional who has a background in addiction, including those who specialize in substance abuse and gambling addictions. Treatment options range from limited outpatient therapy to intensive residential and inpatient programs.

The key is to connect with a trained professional who can tailor a treatment plan to your unique needs.

Play it Safe

Though the idea of a video game addiction may sound scary, true “gaming disorder” affects only a small portion of people who participate in gaming activities. Even so, it’s always a good idea to monitor how much time you’re spending on video games and other screen-related pursuits.

A few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is gaming interfering with my life?
  • Is it preventing me from participating in activities I used to enjoy?
  • Is it sabotaging my ability to sleep?

If you answer yes to any of these questions (for yourself or a loved one), consider developing a more appropriate relationship with video games. A few tips:

  • Establish boundaries. Set — and enforce — limits on screen time, both gaming related and otherwise.
  • Start talking. Open a dialogue with your family members about appropriate Internet use and gaming.
  • Know your tendencies. If you can stop playing a video game without feeling frustrated or irritable, you are unlikely to develop a gaming disorder. If, on the other hand, you are noticeably irritable after shutting down your gaming activities, you may want to take an extended break.

“The earlier people seek help for a gaming disorder, the greater the potential for a successful outcome,” says Nixon.

Related Topic: Need a Digital Detox? 5 Tips to Unplug

To find a doctor or addiction specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).


Chris Nixon is a licensed social worker and a certified alcohol and drug counselor and serves as the Administrative Director of Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, an addiction treatment center in West Bloomfield offering residential and outpatient treatment to people in southeast Michigan.