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Video Game Addiction -- Why They're So Compelling and Five Warning Signs for Assessing Risk
By Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan,
Authors of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound

Games are powerfully motivating of deep engagement that can last for hours on end, day after day. The first step to really understanding how to manage gaming in your life (or that of a loved one) -- and to identify when there may be a problem -- is understanding what is really at the root of games strong motivational pull. It's not some mystical force, or a secret desire to blow things up, as many non-gamers might fear. The research we've been doing for the last eight years, has helped to identify the basic psychology of game motivation and engagement. This serves as a critical foundation to understand the incredible "pull" of games, as well as serving as a guide for when addiction may be emerging.

Simply put, hundreds of motivational studies have demonstrated that we all have basic psychological needs for competence (a feeling of mastery, growth, and efficacy), autonomy (that sense of personal volition and feeling there are many interesting opportunities from which to choose), and relatedness (a feeling that "I matter" to others, and they matter to me). Decades of research have shown these needs are always operating, whether we're playing games, at work, playing sports, or just being social. They are, in other words, fundamental or basic psychological needs.

Good games draw us in because they are designed to satisfy these needs really, really well. Specifically, they satisfy needs with immediacy, consistency, and density. Let's talk about each of these briefly . . .

  • Immediacy means that games are readily available. I bet all of us could be playing a video game -- either on our phones or computers -- within the next ten seconds if we wanted to. Sure beats the hour of driving just to get back and forth to the movies or out to the soccer field.
  • Consistency means that games give us clear paths to success and achievement, and treat us fairly. A game doesn't tell us we got passed over for promotion because of office politics, or benched during the baseball game unfairly. Games give us the rewards they promise, each and every time. And we can count on them in that way.
  • Density means that games give us a rich field of opportunities to pursue, activities to undertake, and challenges to conquer. While "real life" often seems sparse, games are there to offer us this density as well as instant feedback that makes us feel effective and even important.
There's nothing inherently wrong with games ability to satisfy us in these ways. In fact, it can make gaming a very rich and meaningful experience. But it is also true that we need to watch out for becoming over-involved with gaming. Since we now know why gaming is so compelling psychologically, we can look out for "warning signs" more effectively. Here are five tips:

1) Do you see a big "satisfaction gap?" -- When you think about how needs are satisfied in your "real life" versus games, do games come out way ahead? In our research, we consistently find that over-involvement in games goes hand-in-hand with feeling a lack of basic need satisfactions for competence, autonomy, and relatedness in other areas of life, such as school, work, social relationships, and non-gaming hobbies and activities. The data suggest that if our basic needs are too sparsely satisfied by life, there may be a susceptibility to over-involvement in video games. Why might this happen? Well when life isn't meeting our needs, the immediate and dense availability of satisfactions for competence, autonomy, and relatedness in games often become a stronger pull that draws us in too long and too often.

2) Are Games "Crowding Out?" -- Do you miss deadlines at work or school because of gaming? Do you often choose to game rather than spend time with friends or family? One gamer I know reflected wistfully that he had missed most of the first five years of his daughter's life because he spent so much time gaming. If you're having these kinds of feelings about relationships, or not meeting other responsibilities because of playing video games, it is a sure sign that you might have a problem with too much gaming.

3) Are you feeling personal pressure, guilt or shame around your gaming? -- It may sound like a funny thing to say that some gamers feel they "pressure" themselves into gaming, but it happens. There is a feeling that games are something you're compelled to do, even if you don't particularly enjoy or want to play at that moment. You may feel a sense of guilt or shame about firing up another game, but do so anyway. If this feels like a common experience for you, it is a sign that you are over-involved in gaming.

4) Are you playing four or more hours a day? -- A simple rule of thumb is how much time you spend on average every week playing video games. We find that up until about 25 hours, there is no direct association between time spent playing, and negative feelings or decreased well-being. Above that line, however, we see a relationship begin to emerge between 25+ weekly hours, and bad outcomes. So as one quick check: How much time on average are you spending gaming each week? If it equals a half-time job or more -- it really deserves a look.

5) Is gaming isolating important others? -- While you are running around virtual worlds, perhaps in the company of dozens of other online friends, slaying dragons and completing missions, it is sometimes hard to remember that you are leaving the molecular world -- and often the loved ones that are under your own roof -- alone and isolated from you. If you are immersed in a fantasy world, you aren't in this one. Be sure to check in with family and friends about this. Listen to them if they express concern or even some feelings of abandonment. If you feel you can't respond to their requests to have more of your time, it is sign you are too deeply involved with games.

© 2011 Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan, authors of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound

Author Bios
Scott Rigby PhD,
co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, is founder and president of Immersyve, Inc., a research and consulting group specializing in the psychology of virtual worlds and interactive technologies. In addition to publishing scholarly research on human motivation, Dr. Rigby has himself developed interactive applications for entertainment (Sony, Warner Brothers), education (The Smithsonian Institute), and health care.

Richard M. Ryan, PhD, co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, psychiatry, and education at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY. He is cofounder of the Self-Determination Theory and has published well over 300 scholarly articles in the areas of human motivation, personality development, and applied psychology.

For more information please visit and follow the authors on Facebook and Twitter