When video games become an addiction

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Story highlights

  • Nearly 1 in 10 young gamers addicted to video games, according to research
  • Internet Gaming Disorder hooks players through psychological rewards
  • Sufferers are at risk of depression and damaging relationships

(CNN)Can video games be addictive? One U.S. expert has no doubts.

Douglas Gentile, a psychologist at Iowa State University, has been studying the subject for decades.
    "The first study I began in 1999, to basically try to show video game addiction isn't a real thing, and it turns out I was wrong!" he told CNN.
    According to his research, roughly 8.5% percent of children who play video games in the United States are addicted. He found similar numbers across the world.
    "Even though different researchers across the world may define the problem somewhat differently, or ask different questions in different countries with differently aged kids, we find almost the same results across the world" Gentile says.
    "The estimates perhaps vary somewhat, but they all seem to come out somewhere between about 4 and 10 percent: that's the amount of gamers I would classify as addicted."

    Access is key

    Gentile sees the increased availability of technology and the spread of broadband internet as a key reason for this.
    "A risk factor for addiction is access," he says. "It's really hard to get addicted to drugs if you can't get them.
    "This is why we're seeing Internet Gaming Disorder becoming a bigger problem because now, not only has almost everyone got a computer, and almost everyone has a video game system in their home ... but now you've got a cell phone and you've got games on it and you can access games pretty much everywhere."
    The American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5, a manual that classifies mental disorders, lists Internet Gaming Disorder as "a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion in the main book as a formal disorder."

    Tackling the 'ABC'

    Gentile says games are so compelling because they satisfy an "ABC" of human needs.
    "The A Is Autonomy, we like to feel we're in control. B is Belonging, we like to feel connected to other people. And the C is Competence, we like to feel that we're good at what we do," he says.
    Games can fulfill all of these, or at least they do when the players are good and become part of an online community surrounding them.
    Mark Griffiths is a chartered psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. He believes that addiction boils down to being constantly rewarded while playing a game -- whether those rewards are the physical buzz of beating your high score, or the psychological reward of knowing that your strategic play helped you succeed.
    "Most of these rewards are -- at least to some extent -- unpredictable," he says. "Not knowing when the next reward will come keeps some players in the game. In short, they carry on gaming even though they may not have received an immediate reward. They simply hope that another reward is "just around the corner" and keep on playing."
    He also points out that in the last decade we have seen a shift from standalone console gaming to massive multiplayer online games that have no end, and can't be paused.
    "Many excessive gamers report that they hate logging off and leaving such games," he says. "They don't like it as they don't know what is going on in the game when they are not online."

    If gaming goes beyond fun

    But how can you tell what's a healthy enjoyment of gaming, and what is an addiction? There is no universal definition of addiction, but Gentile highlights a key characteristic: "It has to be something that's actually damaging your life," he says.
    "What we started finding in the early research is it did look like some kids were doing worse in school, harming their friendships, harming their family relationships. They couldn't stop thinking about gaming, it was the only thing they wanted to do."
    Griffin Mathieu, from Southern California, is only 16, but has already been through treatment for Internet Gaming Disorder. According to his mother, Noelle, he suffers from anxiety and depression.
    He was introduced to video games at the age of 10. Over time, his parents noticed his behavior begin to change. Noelle's main concern was his isolation.
    "He wanted to be playing more, so that takes away from family time, and takes away from socializing with his friends," she said.
    "It really started escalating more in middle school and then we noticed there was a real change in Griffin around 8th grade," she continued. Last summer his parents sent him on a program called Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, in Utah, where he spent time outdoors, away from his games.
    Griffin was in treatment for six weeks before returning home. Noelle says he still has challenges with his tech use, and his depression.
    Griffin says the problem goes beyond the games themselves: "I want other kids to realize that the problems they are facing aren't because of what's going on around them, but also due to the fact that they stay inside and won't speak to anyone about them. Sitting inside and staring at a screen won't make it disappear."