game addiction (and essentialism and evolution)

June 22, 2007

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.