Video games have been accused of being corrupting influences that lead to violence and other bad behavior. A recent study now appears to show that gaming can lead to pathological gaming-a state that seems to be on par with other serious and harmful addictions.
The study in question was conducted in Singapore using 3,034 students from grade 3 to grade 8. The study found that 7.9-9.9% of those in the study could be classified as pathological gamers. Interestingly, 16% of those classified as pathological ceased to fit this classification over the two years while only 1% of the participants shifted from non-pathological to pathological. While the study was limited to one country, the results are supposed to be consistent with what would be found in other countries.
The study revealed that risk factors for becoming a pathological gamer include the time spent gaming, the person’s social competence and the person’s impulse control. Not surprisingly, people who spent more time gaming while possessing less social competence and impulse control were more likely to become pathological.
This is a matter of concern because there seems to be a link between being a pathological gamer and depression, anxiety, social phobias and reduced school performance.
Not surprisingly, certain spokespeople for the gaming industry rushed to condemn the study. After all, if a solid link were made between video games and psychological harms, then it would seem likely that costly lawsuits would soon follow. Of course, the mere fact that the folks in the gaming industry has a financial stake in the matter does not prove that their criticisms are mistaken.
In any case, the study does raise some interesting concerns and does provide a clear focus for discussing causation.
Even it is assumed that there is a correlation between playing video games and the harms the study purports to reveal, there are still legitimate questions about the causality involved.
First, there is the possibility that cause and effect are being reversed. To be specific, people might turn to playing video games excessively because they are depressed, doing poorly in school and having other problems. If so, the video games would not be the cause of the problem. Rather, the pathological gaming would be the effect. To use an analogy, a person who drinks excessively and is depressed and unemployed might be drinking because he is depressed and unemployed.
Naturally, it is worth considering that there might be a feedback mechanism in play: people turn to video games because of these problems and this approach makes the problems even worse. Alcohol presents a clear analogy here: people do turn to drink because of problems and then the drinking can make things worse.
Second, there is the possibility that there is a third factor that is causing the alleged cause and effects. To illustrate this, consider an example from my own life. When I was 15 my mother bought me a copy of the D&D Basic Set. Soon after, I became less social (aside from gaming), I was depressed, my grades dropped badly and I spent a lot of time playing D&D. While it might be tempting to explain these problems by blaming D&D (which was blamed for all sorts of things then), the real reason was that shortly after I started gaming my parents went through a rather rough divorce. After things settled down, I still played D&D (and video games) and my grades, socialization and so on recovered and then improved significantly. As such, my spending a lot of time on D&D did not cause my problems. Rather, the divorce caused me to spend more time on D&D and caused many of my problems.
As such, it is worth considering whether or not there are other factors that are causing the pathological gamers to be both pathological gamers and suffer from the various problems attributed to them.
Third, it is worth considering whether the problems are actually specifically caused by video games or whether it is some other factor, such as the excessive time spent on one activity. To use an analogy, consider blaming obesity on junk food. While this has some appeal, it is not actually the type of food that causes obesity but rather the quantity. A person could eat a diet of bacon wrapped Twinkies and not get fat, while someone else could eat health food in massive quantities and get very fat. If it is the excessive time spent that causes the trouble, then video games might be off the hook for the blame. Then again, there might be something about video games that makes them a special risk. Going back to the junk food analogy, it is tempting to blame junk food because it is high in calories and very appealing.
Based on my own experience, I am inclined to hold that excessive time spent on a single activity can lead to problems-be it video games, a sport work, or texting. However, it does seem reasonable to consider that video games are crafted to be addictive and that they might have more capacity to create problems than other hobby activities.