game addiction (and essentialism and evolution)

Is game addiction a mental disorder? (article)

In the interest of being very clear about what’s been empirically tested and what has not, the following is speculation on my part, albeit speculation I had a lot of fun with.

Here are some immediate answers people might give:

1. No, of course not. People don’t get addicted to video/computer games.

2. No, of course not. That’s stupid.

3. No, of course not. Mental illness can cause game addiction, though.

4. Yes. My son/friend/husband/cousin/I was terribly addicted.

To clear up a misunderstanding:

Let’s talk about #1: “It’s not a real mental disorder because people don’t get addicted to video/computer games.”

Well, they do; people will get addicted to damn near anything. It’s kind of amazing, actually. Does that mean it’s a Real Mental Disorder, though?

The ancient roots of video gaming

#2: “It’s not a mental disorder, that’s stupid.”

Social-cultural-cognitive psychologists (not that there are that many of us, and I’m not even one anymore, but I still) love that crap (regardless of its truth or falsity) because it reflects something very interesting about the way we think. We consider some things deeper and more real than others, more grounded in the natural world. It’s interesting to explore how we make these determinations and what they mean to us. Of course, some things really are more grounded in nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying how we reach conclusions about that (the same way that our senses tell us about things that exist in the real world, but how our senses function is still an important field of study).

Psychologists call this process essentialism. Essentialism has a lot of different effects; one is to help children bootstrap their learning about the natural world (this is a complicated argument I may write more about later), and another is to attribute peoples’ surface characteristics – appearance, behavior, etc. – to their inner nature to the degree that a category they belong to is essentialized. For example, a category like “mentally ill” is essentialized pretty highly.

But a category like “video gamer” or “computer gamer” is not. That’s what I think’s (partly) going on above in #2 – video gaming badly mismatches the heavily essentialized category of mental illness. It sounds absurd.


Video and computer games are incredibly popular and they are incredibly popular for reasons. Some of those reasons involve careful, well-tested calibration to peoples’ reward systems: You want to keep coming back for more. That’s most of the addictive part, I imagine. I’m willing to bet that it’s grounded in other very old parts of the psyche, like the ones that get rewards from foraging and from hunting.

That might make it look more essentialized, although you may want to keep in mind that doesn’t necessarily make it more real.

What’s causing the addiction?

3. “Mental illness causes game addiction, not vice versa.”

In this view, game addiction is a symptom, or maybe better stated, the content of an addiction or of an obsession. People get addicted/obsessed because they have the same kinds of (essentialized, incidentally) mental illnesses we’ve always had.

To continue the bit about about reward systems and hunting and foraging, people might be getting addicted because the same mental illnesses we’ve always had are disrupting/dysregulating the same mental systems we’ve always had – what changes is that culture is symbiotic with those systems, and culture changes (in some ways), and so the content of addictions and obsessions will be different (in some ways), in different times and places.

Does any of this matter?

4. “My son/friend/husband/cousin/I was terribly addicted.”

I am really sorry to hear that, and I hope that you/they are getting help. Don’t get stressed out over anything I’ve said; ignore it unless it manages to be useful in some way.

Is game addiction a real mental illness?

I don’t know. What do you want to call a real mental illness?
I’m not being facetious. This is a tricky problem. It’s absolutely true that mental illness exists and that it’s damaging to sufferers and those around them. It may not be true that mental illness is discretely bounded from mental health. It may not be true that individual mental illnesses are separable from each other – it may all just be a bunch of spectrums. Our current symptom-based criteria for mental illnesses may not describe all the people affected by an illness, or may describe people who are actually affected by a different illness. Some of our mental illnesses may disappear; nobody sees hysterical fugue anymore (and was it a real mental illness? or an expression of an illness that’s always existed?). Others may show up (maybe videogaming addiction is one, although my money’s not on that).

I wouldn’t worry about that too much, though. Our current categories usually work pretty well, with tweaks here and there. It’s just something to keep in mind when weird stuff happens.

Oh, but just so I don’t leave off being all pomo, yes, I think video game addiction is pathological and needs treatment, and given the popularity of videogames, I’m sure someone will do the research to give us actual answers eventually.


3 Responses to game addiction (and essentialism and evolution)

  1. Meredith says:

    Well, it’s kinda like porn addiction in my mind. I have an ex-boyfriend who’s seeing a therapist for a porn addiction. Is it a mental illness? I don’t know, but I’d lean toward yes. Is it an expression that there’s something vital in that person’s life or self that’s missing, I think? Yes, at least in the guy’s case I know. Video games and porn are both escapes. My ex-boyfriend was escaping from his gender identity issues and his generally shitty life. I’m not sure if that can be applied to other people or not, though.

  2. lavonne jones says:

    my mental ilness is termed bipolar mixed state border line phsycosis and i’ll be honest i don’t understand my illness as well as i want.but i do love video games, when i play my video game i’m in another world even though i still have massive amounts of information processing in my brain about other events the majority of my thinking is on the next move i’m going to make or what move the opposite player is going to make.and i really only enjoy online gaming cause i’m pretty much always alone and i kinda get scared and down when i’m alone so i find my game to be an outlit.i also used to like porn and i fight myself knowing its not healthy for my relationship with my wife so i don’t look at it anymore,i won’t say the desire does not arise but i do pretty good fighting that desire off.but one problem i’m having a very hard time with as of lately is dealing with people,if i feel as though i’ve been wronged i become so aggressive in a mental way, i start analyzing and reliving that event over and over and it cause headache and it drains me horribly. after such a episode i usaully sit and not do anything for the longest.and it’s like no one understands they all think medication is the supreme answer to the problem,but meds cause me to gain massive amounts of weight and that becomes just as depressing.this disability in my mind is so complex and at the age of 36 i’m still having so many problems dealing in this world.

  3. resonance says:

    Hi Lavonne,

    that sounds very difficult, especially having to go over upsetting things that happen again and again.

    Are you in therapy, or getting any other treatment in addition to medication? Or in a support group (online or in real life)? Those can often help for problems in dealing with life (although for bipolar disorder you usually need medication treatment too).

    It sounds like your current meds could be doing better, too. Have you been on these ones for a long time? Have you been on others before?

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