Many people play video games as a temporary retreat from work or study, or to occasionally escape in the experience of traveling virtually to places and situations unlikely or impossible in the real world.
According to recent studies by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and by psychology researchers at Iowa State University, putting in a lot of joystick time might not be all fun and games. These studies have connected video games with the potential for both attention disorders and addiction problems.
Iowa State University researchers Edward Swing and Douglas Gentile have been at the forefront of this new research topic. Their collaborative study, published in the journal Pediatrics in July, has found a modest link between playing video games and watching television, and attention problems in more than 1,300 children between the ages of eight and 11, based on assessments by teachers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children watch a combined maximum of two hours day of television and video games. This study found that children who watched more than this suggested amount were 1.5 to two times more likely to display attention difficulties.
“Most children are way above that,” Swing said. “In our sample, children’s total average time with television and video games is 4.26 hours per day, which is actually low compared to the national average.”
One possible reason for the link between video games and attention issues is the effects of video game play on the brain, Gentile said.
“If we train the brain to require constant stimulation and constant flickering lights, changes in sound and camera angle, or immediate feedback, such as video games can provide, then when the child lands in the classroom where the teacher doesn’t have a million-dollar-per-episode budget, it may be hard to get children to sustain their attention,” he said.
Based on the study’s findings, Gentile and Swing concluded that excessive video gaming may be a contributing factor to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. They caution that while the association between attention problems and video game exposure is significant, it’s relatively small.
In addition to co-authoring the study, Gentile also published a study in 2009 in the journal Psychological Science that found that 8.5 per cent of video game players aged eight to 18 showed pathological behaviours when playing, spending twice as much time playing and receiving poorer grades in school—even after controlling for sex, age, and weekly amount of video games played. This minority was classified as addicted by exhibiting at least six out of 11 destructive symptoms in family, social, school, or psychological functioning.
However, not all games are equal in their addictive potential. Online role-playing games, like World of Warcraft, seem to be especially alluring.
There are often in-game advantages given to teams consisting of several players. The social pressure and expectations of being available to go on “runs,” (coordinated group game missions) at specific times can promote unhealthy levels of play.
Cyber café Battlenet 24 in Montreal provides 24/7 access to all gamers. 21-year-old Sebastian Hendren, an occasional Battlenet gamer, said he could understand the addictive potential of such games.
“They make you want to play more,” he said. “You finish a game, and you just want to keep on going.”
Hendren said he knows individuals who would regularly meet to play for several hours in the evening on World of Warcraft game missions—he considered them to be addicted.
A survey conducted last year by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto confirmed that young people are spending increasingly more time playing video games, watching television, texting, and performing similar activities.
Of 9,000 students surveyed in Ontario from grades 7 to 12, nearly 10 per cent got at least seven hours of “screen time” every day, meaning video games and television. Over 10 per cent of the participants had reported a problem associated with video game use in the previous year.
Dr. Bruce Ballon, head of CAMH’s Adolescent Clinical and Educational Services, commented that seven hours a day in front of screens seemed a “bit out of control.”
Michael Hoechsmann, a professor at the departments of integrated studies in education at McGill and an expert on video game culture, said that he was “uncomfortable with the medicalization of video game playing behaviour which is implied in an addictions model.”
However, he added, “many games are compelling, time-intensive and structured in such a way that players can be drawn to spending more and more time trying to reach new levels of achievement within the game environment.”
He said that in many cases, “the same player who seemed ‘addicted’ to game playing will unplug and walk away, or become a casual player.”