Back view of young gamer at home in the dark

Study questions whether gaming addiction is sickness or symptom

Image credit: Dan Grytsku |

Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute have called into question whether gaming addiction is a key cause for concern, or simply another symptom of more fundamental emotional problems.

The Oxford Internet Institute carried out a study on over 1,000 adolescents and their caregivers and found that those engaged in dysfunctional gaming are likely to have “underlying frustrations and wider psychosocial functioning issues outside of games”.

“If you’re playing games in a potentially unhealthy way, is this a cause for your problems or is this just another symptom? Are you blaming your runny nose for the fact you got sick?,” Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the research, told the Press Association. “What we found was, if you feel like you don’t have good relationships and you don’t have a sense of choice in your life and you don’t feel confident.”

“That, over and above anything that happens in the gaming world, is going to predict whether or not you have emotional problems, whether or not you have peer problems, whether or not you get into fights or you feel hyperactivity, so what we found was a whole lot of nothing basically. Online games, if you play them out of a sense of compulsion, that’s probably more likely to be a symptom of what’s going on, rather than a cause.”

The study participants, who were all adolescents, completed questionnaires about their gaming behaviour, including providing details of how long they spent playing video games, with whom they played and if they used the internet to play games and their caregivers rated their child’s emotional and social health. While most adolescents played at least one internet-based game daily, less than half of daily online gamers reported symptoms of obsessive gaming. Daily players were highly engaged, devoting an average of three hours a day to games.

Prof Przybylski warned that gaming companies need to share more data about gaming habits in order to fully understand the situation: “Gaming companies need to be brought on board,” he said. “I can’t collect really great data and know what these kids are doing in online spaces because that data is privately held, so I have to take kids’ word for it.”

The World Health Organisation describes “gaming disorder” as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests” and causes distress.

Dr Netta Weinstein, co-author and senior lecturer the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology, said: “We urge healthcare professionals to look more closely at the underlying factors such as psychological satisfactions and everyday frustrations to understand why a minority of players feel like they must engage in gaming in an obsessive way.”

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