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Pathological Gaming

Published: March 8, 2011

On January 17th, CNN reported on a study done that linked excessive use of video games to depression, anxiety, and poor grades in school.

This study addresses a question which I have often struggled with throughout my youth as a gamer: how much is too much? There is currently a debate in the medical community as to whether pathological or “addictive” gaming should be included in the American Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. If they asked me, which of course they aren’t, I would have told them that pathological gaming should have been listed years ago.

Why is gaming not included in the manual? I have a crackpot theory. Lets begin with a disorder that is similar to an addiction to videogames, specifically pathological gambling. Definitions of a pathological gambler include: being preoccupied with the thought of gambling, lying about time spent gambling or money lost, gambling to escape problems or bad feelings, and significant harm to ones professional or social life because of gambling. All of these symptoms could easily be re-written with the word “gaming” replacing “gambling.” I think that perhaps pathological gamers are overlooked because of the early onset of a gaming addiction. Consider this: A successful businessman becomes addicted to gambling. It ends up costing him his BMW, his job, his wife, etc. There are significant consequences as a result of his addiction. Now consider this: 15 year olds can’t gamble. An addiction to gambling can’t realistically start at a young age, but a 15 year old who is a pathological gamer could end up in the same scenario as our pathological gambler, jobless, car-less, and alone. The difference here is that he would have been on that path since youth and did not have a dramatic fall from grace as our gambler did; his life was never given the chance to develop that far. Without any dramatic and visual effects, pathological gaming has gone unnoticed when compared to other non-substance addictions. As a disclaimer, I have no proof of this. I have done no studies, and in fact have no statistics to back up my claim. This is pure conjecture, merely a thought that emerged as I read the study, hence the label “crackpot theory.”

Ok, so what are the hard numbers when it comes to pathological gaming? The number that keeps popping up in the medical community is 31 or more hours per week spent gaming. This number can be misleading though. Addictions are usually defined as having significant effects on one’s life or happiness. For some people, mainly those with intensive jobs or family responsibilities, this could mean a lot less than 31 hours per week might constitute and addiction.

Of course I am not against gaming, but just like drinking, eating, and exercising, it must be done responsibly and in moderation.

Now back to the study: The media has a bad habit that I would really like to see put down. The simple fact of the matter is that correlation DOES NOT prove causation. It is a common flaw in logic that upsets me to say, seems far too common in the media and our society. The CNN report on this particular video game study seemed to imply that gaming caused depression, when the study only says that there is a correlation between depression and pathological gaming. Perhaps pathological gamers are more depressed, but you cannot conclude that gaming makes them depressed. Likewise this study doesn’t prove that depression led them to excessive gaming. All it shows is a correlation between pathological gaming and depression. For all we know this could be a random statistical anomaly, or a flaw in the experimental procedure.

Confusing causation with correlation can, in fact become a dangerous proposition. I would like to use the recent example of Dr. Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine controversy. Despite the fact that Dr. Wakefield was proven a fraud, his original study never actually proved causation between the MMR vaccine and autism. It simply suggested a correlation. This correlation could have been any number of things, including the age at which vaccinations are given, environmental effects, random statistical error, or (as it turned out to be) lawyers paying off the author of the study in order to discredit vaccine companies to bring an unjustified lawsuit against them. My point is, the news media (with the help of the charlatan Dr. Wakefield) reported this correlation as causation. The result was children all over England, and subsequently America, missing out on crucial vaccinations when the data to justify such a drastic action didn’t exist.

I’m beginning to get a tad long winded at this point, so let’s summarize. Don’t make your kids stop playing videogames for fear that it will make them depressed. For that matter don’t stop playing videogames yourself. The key is moderation and a balanced recreational life. If you or your children spend Saturday morning on the Xbox, make sure you take the afternoon to go for a bike ride. It is as simple as that. Lastly, as I have said before and will repeat until the day I die, remain skeptical about everything you read or hear. We all have iPhones, Blackberrys, and Androids…if something doesn’t seem right (or even if it does) you can fact check on Wikipedia within a matter of minutes. That’s all for now.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Have a rant yourself? Send us an email at DougDeSallesMD@gmail.com or post your reply directly on this blog.

Chris Sprott is a contributor to Sacramento Men’s Health. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Dr. Doug DeSalles or The Sacramento Doctors Clinic for Men.