Gaming addiction: symptoms, causes and treatments

Explaining the signs and symptoms of gaming addiction, potential causes and treatment methods.

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Page clinically reviewed by Dee Johnson (Mbacp, MNCS), Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford in March 2024.

What is gaming addiction?

Gaming addiction is a serious behavioural addiction, referring to a pattern of frequent and persistent overwhelming urges to game, despite the negative consequences this causes. A person with gaming addiction will typically prioritise gaming over personal, social, occupational, educational and basic healthcare needs, or other interests and responsibilities. Gaming includes both online gaming as well as gaming via individual devices.

Signs and symptoms of gaming addiction

The two primary signs that set gaming addiction apart from avid gaming habits include:

Obsessive thoughts about gaming - a person is so preoccupied by the idea of gaming that they will crave their next gaming session and focus constantly on previous gaming activity

Uses gaming to alter low mood - a compulsion to play video games to escape from an uncomfortable situation, or to mask underlying symptoms of stress, depression or anxiety

Whether your gaming addiction is exclusive to single-player or multiplayer games, there are emotional and social symptoms of gaming addiction to look out for. These may include:

  • Gaming becomes to dominant activity in daily life, which includes constantly thinking about previous games or anticipating playing the next game
  • Using gaming as a form of escapism and to relieve negative emotions, including shame, depression, anxiety, trauma, low self-esteem, loneliness and loss
  • Having an overwhelming desire to spend increasing amounts of time gaming, and isolating to ensure uninterrupted play
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is removed or stopped, such as anger, irritability, fear, agitation, anxiety or depression
  • Dishonesty about the amount of time spent gaming
  • Loss of interest in real-life relationships and social activities, hobbies and other forms of entertainment
  • Risk of losing employment, educational or career opportunities, or relationships due to gaming
  • Sleep deprivation, dehydration and malnutrition as a result of gaming for hours
  • Physical health issues due to lack of exercise and movement
  • Continued excessive gaming, despite the negative consequences
  • Being unable to reduce playing and having failed attempts to stop gaming

What causes gaming addiction?

Advancement in gaming technology in recent years has led to increasing realism and a heightened sense of immersion into video game worlds. These updates attract gamers as they can experience and explore new dimensions.

Because of these advances, research suggests two common causes for gaming addiction. These are:

  1. Brain chemical changes
  2. Emotional influences

Brain chemical changes

As with other compulsive behaviour that can lead to an addiction, the levels of the ‘happy’ chemical, dopamine, which is released when you play a video game, may be one factor.

Dopamine is released when you take part in any pleasurable activity, like when you eat, watch a film, or play sports. It's linked to the reward system in your brain and is also involved in regulating problem solving and memory, which all play a part in your urges to play video games.

Researchers believe that abnormally high levels of dopamine could make some people more predisposed than others to developing an addiction, as your brain begins to associate gaming with a pleasurable dopamine release, making it difficult to stop a cycle of compulsive behaviour without professional treatment and support.

Emotional influences              

It's common for gaming addiction to co-occur alongside substance addictions or mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and trauma. Because of this, it's believed that your emotions might play a significant role in the development of gaming addiction.

If you're regularly experiencing negative emotions, or are simply going through a period of unhappiness, then turning to computer games in order to ‘escape’ these symptoms can occur.

The achievement systems that are offered in many games can help you feel a sense of increased self-esteem and wellbeing that you may find hard to achieve in other aspects of your life. However, these feelings may be short-lived as soon as you stop gaming, meaning that you need more and more game time to avoid negative thoughts and escape your problems.

Living with a son addicted to online gaming

Peter McCartney (not real name) shares his experience as the parent of an online gaming addict to raise awareness of the addiction and encourage parents to “trust their instincts if they have suspicions”.

Peter says: "He would be constantly irritable and withdrawn, and became increasingly distracted from even basic matters of personal hygiene and care for his surroundings. Additionally, the absorbing fantasy world of gaming steadily drew an already quite solitary child away from normal sociability."

Read more about Peter's story and how his son is addicted to gaming.

When to get gaming addiction help

While it's entirely possible to enjoy playing video games in moderation, or even play a game that you particularly enjoy for an extended period after you have purchased it, the distinction between being an avid gamer and having a gaming addiction can be determined through several key distinctions:

  • Preoccupation with gaming, where it occupies the majority of your thoughts
  • You play video games to alter your mood
  • You have developed a tolerance to gaming and feel the need to play more frequently
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop playing for longer than you would like

If you, or a loved one, is experiencing any of these symptoms, help for gaming addiction is available as part of our addiction treatment programmes.

Gaming addiction treatment

Treatment for gaming addiction at Priory is similar to the approach that we use for treating people with other addictions, such as compulsive alcohol or drug use. We offer residential, day care and outpatient addiction programmes.

As part of an addiction programme, we use different therapy types to help you overcome gaming addiction. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - a talking therapy that's used to treat many types of addiction, as it looks to proactively address the underlying reasons for why you might be stuck in a pattern of excessively playing video games.
  • Family therapy – family therapy for gaming addiction can be particularly useful for addressing any issues in the home, which may be causing you to turn to video games as a way to avoid confrontation.
  • Group therapy - group therapy sessions can be particularly useful when attempting to overcome your gaming addiction. They allow you to accept that your addiction isn't unique to you, and realise that others have gone through precisely the same process.

If your gaming addiction is particularly severe, you might need  inpatient treatment and a 12-step rehabilitation programme. This is an environment where there's no or limited access to gaming technology, with an additional focus on learning behaviours to cope with underlying mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress, which may be contributing to your addictive gaming behaviour.

It's important to know that nobody has to suffer with gaming addiction on their own; help is available. Enquire about support today and we can provide all the information you need to know about our treatment plans and how you can tackle gaming addiction.

Private medical insurance

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers. All of the services we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Addiction treatment
  • Eating disorder treatment

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in their fields of treatment. Whatever your requirements, we're committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

Registered and approved provider

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers.

Addiction treatment near me

We have addiction treatment centres located throughout the country, ensuring that you can access the support you need in a location that's convenient for you. To find your nearest addiction treatment centre, please use the search form below.

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