A new study has recently questioned the idea that pathological gaming – loosely defined as gaming at the expense of building and maintaining social relationships and other facets of daily life – is a discrete mental disorder caused by the distinctly addictive nature of video games themselves, and suggested a different model whereby excessive gaming is treated more as a symptom of other, less than ideal, life circumstances.
“One of the questions we’ve been asking is whether games are really the problem, or if other factors such as family environment or social environment led to problems and overdoing games was merely a symptom of those problems. Should we be thinking of pathological gaming as its own diagnosis or more of a red flag that the person is experiencing other mental health issues?” said co-author Professor Christopher J. Ferguson of Stetson University.
The study enrolled 477 boys and 491 girls who were surveyed once per year for four years to gauge the quality of their relationships with parents, available social support, academic stress, levels of self-control, and gaming behaviours.
Rather than gaming leading to more gaming, overindulgence in video games was found to be largely a function of a lack of self-control, which itself was caused by academic stress resulting from overprotective parental behaviours and poor communication.
“Our study was conducted with Korean youth. In South Korea, there is particular pressure socially to succeed academically. Our evidence suggests that pathological gaming doesn’t originate so much from exposure to games, but through a combination of academic pressure and parental pressure,” explained Ferguson.
In other words, study participants used excessive gaming to avoid facing their real-life problems, rather than becoming addicted through habitual exposure to video games over time.
A key – and fairly obvious – limitation of the study is its country-specific setting which makes it unclear whether the results would generalise across cultural and geographical divides. For instance, according to Ferguson, excessive gaming in the U.S. seems to be more closely related to, but not causative of, ADHD, rather than academic issues.
With that in mind, Ferguson calls for caution and further research. “This is a tricky topic because we have a historical pattern of people (particularly older adults) reflexively blaming technology and media for perceived social problems. Our data suggests we have to be cautious in blaming technology for behavior problems – often the picture is much more complicated than that.”