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Video Games: Hobby or Habit?

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I love video games, but I also hate how much time I can spend on them. It is a love-hate relationship. If you play video games, you might normally turn up your nose at articles about video game addiction. Similarly, if you aren’t a “gamer,” you probably just ignore articles like this one. Let’s be honest though: You probably know someone (or are someone) who has been negatively affected by an unhealthy habit of playing video games.

Are video games bad? No! Are all video game players addicted? Certainly not! However, it’s important to be aware of the impact video games can have on you and the people you know. In this article, we’ll discuss the very real issue of video game addiction: how it happens, why it happens, what issues result from over-playing, how to progress toward a solution and how a Christian can sustain a healthier approach to video games for life.

What is video game addiction?

Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines “addiction” as a “compulsive physiological need for and use of a habit-forming substance.” A “compulsion” is “an irresistible persistent impulse to perform an act.” When looking at these two definitions, it is easy to see how the habitual overuse of video games could be considered an addiction. The American Psychiatric Association even lists “Internet gaming disorder” as an area for further study in the 2013 “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” fifth edition.

Is video game addiction really a problem?

Recently, there has been a lot of research into this topic. Gaming addiction occurs when a person becomes generally obsessed with games or cannot stop playing an individual game, much like a person becomes addicted to taking drugs. However, unlike drugs, gaming addiction does not have a direct chemical effect on the body. Still, the act of playing video games regularly influences our individual mental state, making gaming addiction just as dangerous but harder to recognize (Clark and Scott, 2009).

49% of American adults play video games

26% of adults believe playing most video games is a waste of time

Half of American adult men play video games

48% of American adult women play video games

Source: Duggan, Maeve. “Gaming and Gamers.” Pew Research Center. December 2015.

Internet use and gaming have grown dramatically in the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the International Telecommunications Union, there has been more than a 444 percent increase in Internet users just in the decade (“World Internet Usage Statistics News and World Population Stats”). Although there are no credible statistics on the current number of video game players, the billions of dollars in revenue that the industry takes in every year reflect their popularity (gamesindustry.biz/articles/2016-10-24-welcome-to-the-new-era-games-as-media).

Rehab centers and help groups are being started across the country. Even more startling are the addiction “horror stories” which are appearing in greater number on the news. The loss of jobs, families and friends shows up as consequences of playing video games too much. There are even stories about the death or hospitalization of gamers because of overuse. For instance, in March of 2010, police “arrested a South Korean couple whose toddler starved to death while they were raising a virtual child online” (Game Over). The parents had lost their jobs due to their gaming habits and removed themselves from real world responsibilities. These types of stories may seem outlandish to the casual gamer, but they are true.

What causes video game addiction?

With today’s technology, games are becoming increasingly pleasant to our sight and other senses. They are now considered an escape for most people; they can relieve stress and keep your mind off life’s daily problems. Essentially, they’re a diversion from everything unpleasant, stressful and awkward. Like a drug, it can be easier and more pleasing to play a game than deal with problems in real life. Because this pleasurable escape stops when play time is over, the person continues to return to playing the video games to seek peace.

Dr. Kimberly Young, a researcher in Internet addiction, writes that the causes of gaming addiction are a combination of social issues (including self, peers and family), game quality, personal escape, low self-esteem, want of power, trouble communicating and peer pressure (Young, 2009).

Video game qualities leading to addiction

In addition to the personal and mental environments that lead to addiction, games have qualities themselves that designers add to make them addictive. These qualities can be seen prominently in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). One of the most popular genres of video games, MMORPGs allow millions of people to play together at the same time. Gamers create an “avatar,” or a fake version of themselves, to assume a role in a virtual world.

Here are just a few of the qualities that make an addicting game:

  1. “Endlessness”—This describes video game worlds and servers which exist regardless of whether the gamer is interacting with them. These games are continually upgraded and are endless in the sense that they cannot be beat.
  2. “Personification and personalization”—Players can customize their avatars to represent themselves or who they want to be using any name and a number of human-like characteristics. This becomes the new self-image. Reality becomes skewed when, through the created avatars, players change and affect the virtual world. Gamers can even personalize their overall experience, adding modifications to make the game look, feel and act exactly the way they want. Each player can create a simulation of the perfect fantasy world to vicariously live in.
  3. “Power”—Video games typically provide scores and statistics that compare one player with others. Achieving and succeeding in video games give the same high that a real-life success would. It is natural to want to achieve that feeling again and again, keeping players in a constant search for power and “celebrity status” (Young, 2009). Gamers must continue playing to rise in standing and to keep their high status. Companies that make video games often host gaming events, which are run like sports competitions. From these, the best players gain recognition.
  4. “Social attributes”—In many online and multiplayer video games, there are also social communities. A player’s real-life friends might have influenced initial play of the game or continued play, but the game can provide supplemental friends too. For instance, a player can create groups, guilds and even families within a game. This creates a sense of responsibility because the person must keep playing the video game to grow and keep these friendships. In other words, a gamer will not “see” those friends or have that social community if he stops playing.
  5. “Reward system”—Beyond a game’s psychological rewards, within the actual game there are other rewards, such as virtual money, experience, items, achievements, upgrades and recognition. Since the brain is constantly looking for short-and long-term rewards, and since game rewards are constant and reliable, players are naturally attracted to them (Clark and Scott, 2009). When someone sees a reward coming from a certain action, they are more likely to keep doing it (Kundanis, 2003).

Games have qualities themselves that designers add to make them addictive.

Resulting issues from video game addiction for Christians

The qualities and properties of the video game, such as those found in most MMORPGs, each play a part in persuading gamers to continue playing. They add to the need and want for the player to return again and again. This is called a “motivational monopoly,” meaning that when a person does something repeatedly for an increasing amount of time, it becomes his priority and greatest pleasure (Clark and Scott, 2009). We know that God is to be our number-one priority (Matthew 6:33; Psalm 16:8), and after Him we are to stress real-life relationships with those around us (Philippians 2:3; Romans 12:10). When we allow video games (or anything else for that matter) to disrupt these priorities, we risk much.

Video game addiction leads to an altered perspective of what is real and important because continuous playing in a fantasy world that we’ve invested in makes it harder to determine reality from fiction. If reality becomes the virtual world, then it persuades us to prefer to live in that world rather than the real one. It is a type of slumber, where we become unaware of the world around us. This goes against the encouragement in the Bible where God through the apostles Paul and Peter tells us that now is a “high time to awake out of sleep” (Romans 13:11) and to stay sober and vigilant (1 Peter 5:8).

One of the most obvious and common issues resulting from video game addiction is when gamers spend so much time and effort enabling their social lives in the game that they withdraw from relationships in the real world. This is a direct result of the strong social communities that video games offer. The more time we spend with our gaming friends, the less time we are spending with our real-life friends. God tells us not to forsake social life and fellowship with each other (Hebrews 10:25). How else can we help those in need, pray with those in troubling situations or develop the bonds that mimic the family relationship between God, Jesus and the Church?

How to spot video game addiction in yourself or others

Like any addiction, people who overuse video games usually don’t want to admit it. I never wanted to admit it myself, but there was a time when I might have classified myself in this category.

Here’s a mental checklist you can use as a guide:

  • Procrastinating on deadlines or activities to play video games?
  • Choosing to play video games over previous commitments?
  • Preferring to spend time with online friends rather than real-life friends?
  • Constantly thinking about the game while doing other things?
  • Unable to go multiple days in a row without playing?
  • Bringing the video game along on trips, outings or vacations?
  • Having a video game be the main topic of discussion among friends?

If the answer is “yes” to any or all of these, it’s time to recognize and admit that you may have a video game addiction. Non-substance addictions, like pornography, pleasure addictions, gambling and addiction to video games can be difficult to overcome without effort and help.

155 million Americans play games regularly (3+ hrs/wk)

4 of 5 households own a video game console

$13.13 billion non-digital video game sales (2015)

35 years old is the average age of gamers in America, who have been gaming, on average, 13 years.

Source: Big Fish Games - 2/8/16

Overcoming the addiction

When confronting an addiction, there are certain steps that a Christian should take:

  1. Become dependent on prayer: We are told to be praying always (Ephesians 6:18) and that everything should be brought to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6). Prayer should be our addiction (“a compulsive physiological need for and use of”) and our compulsion (an “irresistible and persistent impulse). There are many situations in life that only God can release us from, and that we can overcome only through Him (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we truly want to be delivered from a video game addiction, or any other type of addiction, we should be praying about it.
  2. Remove stumbling blocks: Have you seen the Christian movie Fireproof, where the main character is addicted to pornography? In the movie, he realizes that he must take drastic measures to remove the addiction from his life, so he smashes his computer with a baseball bat before throwing it in the trash. As extreme as this portrayal might seem, God tells us to do similarly in Matthew 5:30, Matthew 18:8 and Mark 9:43. Whatever is causing us to be addicted: the computer, the PlayStation or the Xbox, God says to cut it off from you! If we are wrestling with a video game addiction, it’s time to remove the key component that leads us into our struggle. Also, we should take a look at our environment, considering where, when and with whom you play video games. Change or eliminate those situations.
  3. Get a real-life accountability buddy: If we are still struggling to overcome an addiction, we should open up communication with a friend who can understand our struggle and become an accountability buddy. This person should check up on us to make sure we are staying strong and focused, be available to encourage us if we resort back to our old ways and freely discuss our addiction with us.
  4. Saturate with replacements: Finally, we must replace bad behavior with good (Romans 12:21). If we were addicted to video games and have since quit, there is going to be a void left in its place. We will suddenly have free time, energy and possibly more money. These things, if not channeled in the right direction, could lead us back into the chains of addiction. We should saturate our life with other positive things, like social gatherings, books, service projects, outreach, outdoor activities, Bible study, exercise and other hobbies (Philippians 4:8).

An addiction-free Christian lifestyle

If you or someone you know struggles with this type of addiction, there is hope.

If we understand the causes of video game addiction, we can not only stop it before it happens, but also help those who are already trapped in overcoming.

Video game addiction is often seen as inconsequential, even among Christians. We cannot view it as such. Instead, we need to recognize the issues that can arise because of it. A healthy Christian living a godly lifestyle is someone who is addiction-free. Be it drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, gambling, video games or any other vice, we are told to remove ourselves from these things (1 Peter 4:3).

Let’s recognize video game addiction for what it is, and help ourselves and others out of it.

Sources: Clark, Neils, Scott, P. Shavaun. Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, Inc., 2009.

  • Game Over. Cable News Network. 7 February, 2011
  • Kundanis, R. Children, Teens, Families, and Mass Media: The Millennial Generation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.
  • “World Internet Usage Statistics News and World Population Stats.” Miniwatts Marketing Group. 7 February, 2011
  • Young, Kimberly S. “Understanding Online Gaming Addiction and Treatment Issues for Adolescents.” American Journal of Family Therapy, 37, 5, 355-372, 2009.