When I first meet with clients or their families who are concerned about video gaming issues the most common question I am asked is how to know when playing video games goes from a hobby to a larger problem? The most common behavior that clients and their families cite as evidence for a problem is the amount of time spent playing video games. While knowing how much time a person is spending on gaming is a good baseline, it is far from enough information to separate a passionate gamer from someone who has a problem.
Similar to other problematic behaviors like drinking or gambling, video gaming problems go through a progression from take it or leave it to overuse to the emergence of consequences (arguments, poor work performance, financial loss, etc.) to abuse and dependence. The emergence of problematic gaming or consequences does not suggest that dependence is inevitable. Yet, failing to make changes to reduce these behaviors and related consequences serves to increase the risk that a more serious problem will develop.
To better understand where you or your loved one might be in terms of progression you can think about gaming behavior in terms of four general phases: Typical Gaming, Reward Focused Gaming, Problematic Gaming, & Reliance on Gaming. The behavioral markers for each phase build upon those of the previous phase as do the frequency and severity of the social, psychological, and academic or work related consequences.
Typical Gaming (Phase 1)
- "Take it or leave it" - Easily able to adjust gaming behavior to fit with other social, academic, and work responsibilities
- Gaming is only one of a few sources of relaxation, fun, connection with others
- Very few negative consequences and easily able to adjust behavior if problems arise
Reward Focused Gaming (Phase 2)
- Gaming becomes more about the escape from stress and amassing rewards in game than about having fun, facing the challenge, or playing with friends
- Playing more when stressed, overwhelmed, feeling left out, or struggling with a problem in life
- Gaming or related behaviors become a way to procrastinate on other responsibilities
- Mild consequences emerge (i.e. oversleeping for work, missing a deadline, minor arguments, etc.)
- Begin to reduce time spent with people outside the game
Problematic Gaming (Phase 3)
- Preoccupied with gaming: think about it often even when you are not playing
- Seek out gaming when feeling bad or think about gaming to calm down or feel better
- Angry outbursts while playing or when asked about gaming behavior
- Changing behaviors to accommodate gaming (change schedule, cancel plans, drop friends, reduce other hobbies)
- Less time spent with friends and family, difficulty functioning at work or school, excessive spending on gaming, and arguments about gaming behavior
- Common Response: "I could stop but I don't want to"
- Attempts to stop or cut back on own are typically short-lived or unsuccessful
Reliance on Gaming (Phase 4)
- Consistently play to escape from negative moods and stressors
- Extended time immersed in game or planning for gaming sessions
- Reduced sense of control over gaming behavior
- Multiple negative consequences related to gaming (loss of relationships, poor work performance, excessive spending, etc.)
- Social relationships are limited to in-game relationships or those who game frequently
- Deceiving family and friends about gaming behavior
- Enabling from others (looking the other way, making excuses, financial support, etc.)
Tracking the behavioral markers for each phase can be helpful to learn if you or a loved one has developed a problem or is showing signs of progression. Each situation is different but having at least a few signs of a problem is often enough to know that someone needs help. For those who cycle between phases one and two, basic changes such as setting limits, reengaging in healthy coping away from video games, and addressing stressors can be implemented on your own, with support from friends and family, or short-term treatment. For those who have progressed to phases three or four you may want to consider further assessment and treatment with a professional who specializes in problematic gaming and seeking support from organizations such as On-line Gamers Anonymous that is dedicated to helping people change problematic gaming behaviors. With any problematic behavior it is often beneficial to catch it early and implement strategies to prevent further progression.
Video gaming progression can be reversed through a range of interventions including structured moderation planning, developing alternative coping, addressing any underlying mental health concerns, seeking support from others who have struggled with gaming, and abstinence. If you are concerned about your gaming or the gaming of someone in your life, you are not alone.