16 February 2022
Alexandre Haslin
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Video games: from recreation to addiction

On a console, computer or smartphone; paying, free or both; alone or multiplayer online: since their creation, and with the advent of new technology, video games have considerably developed and diversified. While video games remain a simple form of entertainment for most people, others lose control and develop an addiction with important consequences to their physical and mental health.


Definition and diagnosis

An addiction to video games is a form of internet addiction. However, despite many scientific studies on the subject, there is no official definition for it yet. We refer to it rather as a problematic use of internet or PUI (which includes namely video games and social media), or «gaming disorder», a term recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, the WHO added gaming disorder to its International Classification of Diseases in 2018. For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the WHO states that «the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months. »

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has established main diagnostic criteria for gaming disorder:

  • Preoccupation with internet gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible
  • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming
  • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Continuing to game excessively despite problems
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming
  • The use of gaming to relieve or escape negative moods
  • Risk of losing or loss of job, relationships or education due to gaming

In Québec, it is estimated that 3 % of adolescents have a problematic use of internet while 18.4% are at risk of developing it. «In each of these scenarios, it is estimated that half is related to video games and the other half to social media», explains Mrs. Magali Dufour, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM).

Though many adolescents are affected by gaming disorder, they are certainly not the only ones. Adults of any age are also included, especially young adults. Mrs. Dufour elaborates: « The 18 to 25 range are also at risk, since they are at a transitional period in their lives: higher education, first job…We are more vulnerable during transition periods. We can thus adopt avoidance strategies and video games can become a refuge. »

Games designed to encourage compulsive use

The video game world has been profoundly transformed since the appearance of the first console. Not only have the games themselves greatly evolved, the use of smart phones and growing number of free downloadable games have helped evolve our access to them as well. Game consoles are still very popular, but it is now possible to access a huge database of free games available always and anywhere.

Among the most popular: multiplayer online games, games that take place in persistent worlds, that is, a world that continues to develop and evolve even if the player is offline.

«When they are not online, certain players can become obsessed with what is happening in the game. »

Mr. Miguel Therriault, Professional Services Coordinator at the adolescent treatment center Le Grand Chemin, explains: « When Philippe, 14 years old, tells his mom that he can’t stop playing to have supper because he and his team will get killed, it’s true. Pausing does not exist in online multiplayer games. » Therefore, «when they are not online, certain players can become obsessed with what is happening in the game. »

«Video game companies don’t only hire programmers and graphic designers to create games », he adds. «They also hire behavioural psychologists. They want to make sure that the game structure will have a dopaminergic effect (meaning it will promote dopamine production, one of the molecules responsible for us feeling pleasure) same as in games of money and chance. »

Furthermore, many games are equipped with powerful algorithms designed to personalize a player’s experience based on their playing habits, to incite them to continue playing or to start up again or even get them to make in game purchases (for unlocking a level or improving a character’s skills). For example, this can be done by notifications for personalized messages, at times that are convenient for the player or by limited-time promotional offers.

Certain gaming platforms take it even further by banning players for a few hours if they pause the game, explains Mrs. Magali Dufour. «It’s like getting punished for not finishing your drink. »

Real physical and psychological consequences

Consequences due to problematic internet use, including gaming disorders, are very real and can be both physical and psychological.


Physical consequences

Problematic internet use, which is usually accompanied by a lack of physical activity, can be harmful to one’s health. In addition, many hours of sitting in front of a screen can cause numerous symptoms such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (pressure of the nerve at the wrist which causes numbness of the hand and even pain), dry eyes, head or back aches and poor hygiene, nutrition and sleep.



Problematic internet use isolates the gamer. « There is a cycle of addiction resembling that of gambling or substance abuse. » explains Mr. Miguel Therriault. « A gap will be stretched between life’s challenges, difficulties experienced offline and the feeling of not being able to cope with them. The person will invest more time online as they feel less able to face life offline. » This vicious cycle also affects a gamer’s social relationships: the more they reject friends to game, the less likely they are to get invited to do things with them, the more likely they are to become isolated and the more likely they are to seek refuge in gaming.


Developmental problems

Especially for adolescents, gaming disorder can have consequences on their development that can be harmful to their adult life. Mr. Therriault talks about debt of time. «If a teen spends months or even years online, there are a lot of firsts that are not experienced, skills necessary for adult life that have not been developed. » First loves, first jobs, developing social relationships, discovering sports, art… So many of these missed opportunities can contribute to turning an adolescent into a young adult that is ill-equipped to handle life in society.


Psychological distress

An addiction to gaming also has serious psychological impacts on the player: obsessively wanting to game, mood swings, cravings, anxiety, depression, feeling irritable when it is not possible to play, etc.


Financial problems

The resemblance between gaming and gambling can also cause financial problems for players. Mr. Miguel Therriault explains; « With games of money and chance, we can gamble our house away in one night.  With video games, we cannot end up in such a situation. However, spending 3000$ 4000$ 5000$ on skins or objects in a game is very possible. We regularly see that, especially with adolescents who are less aware of conscious spending. »

There are resources

Many resources can help people who are worried about their use of internet. Such is the case with the Pause ton écran platform. Created for children, young adults and parents, this website provides numerous tips and tools to regain control over screens: video games, social media and more broadly, the internet.

Treatment centers such as Le Grand Chemin can also help adolescents on an in-patient basis, following an assessment. The available therapy provides teens with the tools needed to regain control of their gaming: developing social skills, working on their anxiety and depression, but also « rebuilding their life’s schedule», as explained by Mr. Therriault.  «Remember that they have spent a large percentage of their time doing a specific activity over which they had great control in a closed environment. We must proceed gradually so they can learn how to fill up their week. » He adds that it is generally not recommended to aim for a complete stop of gaming, as it can foster depression, at-risk behaviours and dropping out of therapy.

Not every situation requires therapy in a residential treatment center. The addiction rehabilitation centers of the Québec CISSS and CIUSSS can provide counseling while allowing the youth to continue growing within the family unit.

To get help or find local available resources, contact our team at 1-800-461-0140 or chat with us on the bottom right of the screen.

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