Clocking up a few hours on games consoles is how plenty of men unwind, but when does it become an addiction? With people spending an increasing amount of time plugged into a digital world, gaming can become an obsession that's capable of disrupting day-to-day life.
It's easy to assume that if someone spends hours on end on the Xbox or PlayStation, it could be an indication that they're addicted to gaming. But the signs of gaming addiction are often more to do with how someone reacts when they have to stop gaming, deceptive behaviour and whether other important aspects of their life are being side-lined because of gaming.
Signs of gaming addiction
Dr Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University's international gaming research unit, has extensively researched addictive behaviour. In his view, gaming addiction occurs when someone's behaviour meets the following six criteria:
1. Salience: Gaming becomes the most important activity in a person's life, and dominates their thinking, feelings and behaviour. Even if the person is not gaming, they will be thinking about the next time they can play.
2. Mood modification: This refers to the subjective experiences someone feels through gaming, eg a buzz, a high or a sense of escape.
3. Tolerance: The amount of game-playing has to be increased, for the person to get that mood-modifying 'buzz' or 'high'.
4. Withdrawal symptoms: These can be unpleasant emotions or physical effects, that are experienced by the person when game-play is stopped or reduced eg the shakes, moodiness and irritability.
5. Conflict: This can take place in the form of conflict between the gamer and the people around them, conflicts with their job, school life, social life or other interests, and conflict within themselves.
6. Relapse: The tendency for old game-playing patterns to return after a period of abstinence or control.
Living with a gaming addict
Melanie, a 29 year-old PR & Events Manager was living with her partner when he developed a gaming addiction. Having given up a full-time job to study two evenings a week at university, his routine had changed significantly and the financial responsibility of covering their living costs had fallen to Melanie.
"He'd have whole days free, and would spend the entire day playing games up until 4 or 5am, so it was a completely disruptive pattern," says Melanie. "In the end, I barely saw him because I was working from around 8am-6pm and would then come home. It just became impossible to even have a conversation with him."
The gaming addiction left Melanie's then-boyfriend experiencing weird sleep patterns, low energy and weight loss, and it had a negative impact on her too.
"I really struggled to sleep because, as low as the volume on the game was, I could still hear it as the bedroom backed onto the living room," says Melanie. "It's also the awareness that you're lying in bed and it's slightly strange that your boyfriend doesn't want to come to bed with you. It was massively crippling on my self-confidence and I felt completely worthless all the time. I just couldn't understand what it was about this game that was so much more attractive than spending time with or talking to me.
"I think through gaming, that's where he would find his masculinity again playing army games etc. It was a way of finding a sense of power in life that he might not necessarily have been able to assert in reality. There was a huge sense of achievement attached to it as well, which he wasn't getting out of his own life."
How to tackle gaming addiction
"I think prevention is probably easier than cure," says Dr Graham, a leading expert in the treatment of technology and gaming addiction at Capio Nightingale Hospital in London.
"If you are with someone and you're concerned that the amount of game-play is increasing in such a way that's it's out of control for them, acting sooner rather than later is the best strategy. What that entails is getting some off-screen time which, to begin with might be very difficult and you might need to arrange a whole series of activities to occupy that person. Essentially what you need to do is get the rest of their life into some sort of balance with the gaming."
"I think one of the great tragedies for gamers is that their friends can stop knocking at the door, because after months or years of gaming, the gamer might be perceived as being quite rejecting of their peer group. For those that are chronically gaming, they do lose their confidence. But it is recoverable."
Dr Graham's tips for life/gaming balance
Get more social build up a peer group and do things together. Try to spend time with people that you don't know exclusively online. Get more active exercise, look after your body and eat healthily. And, dare to think a bit about what impact gaming is having on your life.
Broaching the subject
If you're living with someone that you think might have a gaming addiction, Dr Graham's tips for bringing up the subject with them might help. He says you should be careful if you know they will over-react or get violent, so without arguing try to talk about how it's affecting their life and yours. Try doing something together, away from home that's active eg camping or sport. Getting away can really help.
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