A study of almost 6,000 video game players has found that gaming "addiction" is very rare and is not directly connected to poor physical and mental health.
The research, by psychologists at the universities of Cardiff and Oxford and published in the journal PeerJ, followed 5,777 American adults over six months. It recorded their gaming habits and asked them various questions to assess their mental and physical health and whether they met the criteria for "internet gaming disorder" (IGD), or video game addiction.
Of the 5,777 subjects, 2,316 had recently played internet video games at both the beginning and the end of the study. There are nine criteria for IGD, and the American Psychiatric Association says that if you meet five of them, you should be diagnosed with the disorder. The criteria are things like “I felt moody or anxious when unable to play” and “I felt that I should play less, but couldn’t”.
Of the 2,316 subjects, precisely none of them were diagnosable at both the beginning and the end; if the definition was relaxed to just meeting four criteria, then three subjects were.
Dr Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Cardiff and the lead author of the study, told BuzzFeed News that this implies that IGD probably isn't an addiction in the same way that, say, addiction to tobacco is. "It's a question of whether a diagnosis is stable," she said. "If you're a smoker now, what's your probability of being a smoker a year from now? Probably quite high. But if you have a cough, or you've scraped your knee, you probably won't have that in year's time."
Further, meeting criteria for IGD was not directly linked to poor mental or physical health. People who met more IGD criteria at the start of the study were not more likely to report worse health at the end. This wasn't what the researchers expected to find. "We actually thought they'd be correlated," said Weinstein.
IGD is not a recognised diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM 5), the American Psychiatric Association's official handbook. However, since 2013, it has been included as a possible future diagnosis, meaning that it may be added to future editions, pending more research.
Dr Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the University of Oxford and another of the authors of the study, said their findings should make people more cautious about making the diagnosis official. "We'd argue that we are a very long way from concluding that IGD should be recognised as an official diagnosis," she said.
Dr Pete Etchells, a psychologist at Bath Spa University who was not involved in the research, told BuzzFeed News: "It's a really good study." He agreed that its findings should make people wary about treating IGD as an addiction in the same mould as substance addiction or gambling addiction.
"If you met the diagnostic criteria at the start [of the study], you didn't at the end," he said. "So that suggests that IGD is susceptible to burnout; you get into a new game, and become obsessed with it and play it constantly, and if that's when you get tested for IGD then you might meet the threshold." But three months later, you've probably got tired of that game and have stopped playing it, so you wouldn't meet the criteria.
He said that rushing into formalising the diagnosis would risk "pathologising everyday behaviours". "If I come home from a stressful day, and I have a beer to unwind, you wouldn't say that I'm addicted to alcohol," he said. "But there's a worrying line that people are taking, which is that if people are playing video games for a couple of hours a day, then that's addiction, when it's not at all." He said the study suggests IGD doesn't have much of an impact on health.
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.