The Ingredients of an Addictive Video Game

Psychologists are still working on piecing together the details of what exactly video game addiction is. One of the open questions is how similar gaming addiction is to other addictions like gambling and drugs.

The latest version of DSM, a handbook commonly used for diagnosing psychiatric disorders, lists “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a “Condition for Further Study.” In other words, mental health professionals know there’s something going on there, but they don’t know quite what it is yet.

One thing they do know, however, is that excessive video game playing is associated with worse mental health. For example, a recent study of emerging adults found that those who scored as “video game addicts” had more symptoms of anxiety, depression and ADHD. They also had worse impulse control, felt more socially isolated, and reported higher rates of excessive pornography use.

If excessive gaming is associated with all these mental health problems, then it might be worth asking: what exactly makes a video game addictive anyway?

That’s exactly what a pair of researchers from the UK did recently. Their study, published in Current Addiction Reports, found that some video games are more closely linked to “problematic video game play,” and that these games tend to have certain features.

In particular, addictive games tend to have goals that take an extended period of time to accomplish. For example, things like gaining experience points by playing and working toward a perfect score seem to make games more addictive.

A 2013 study found that games with a social aspect to them also tend to be more addictive. Of course, not all factors contributing to excessive gaming are associated with the game itself. The same study found that experiencing a decline in “general happiness” and having “perceptions of time being altered during play” both put people at higher risk for video game addiction.

One paradox in this study’s findings is that social features in games, which intuitively seem like they should promote mental health, apparently have the potential to harm mental health by contributing to gaming addiction. For the authors of the study, this finding has potential. It means that in the future, maybe it will be possible to “[use the] benefits of social features of video game play to guard against addictive-like tendencies among video game players.”

Image: Flickr/RebeccaPollard