Research: Online Game Elements Can Fuel Problematic Gaming

New research from the University of Missouri suggests that massively multiplayer online games can serve as a source for what is commonly referred to as "problematic video gaming." While gaming addiction is not a recognized addiction by the global mental health professional community, that hasn't stopped researchers and some mental health professionals from trying to identify and treat it.

The new research claims that escapism, social interaction, and rewards in online games feed problematic or pathological gaming. Problematic gaming is usually associated with unhealthy behavior – according to researchers – including long hours of binge gaming that impacts work or school, lying to loved ones, and generally missing out on social interactions in the real world or missing important real-life obligations.

"The biggest risk factor for pathological video game use seems to be playing games to escape from daily life," said Joe Hilgard, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. "Individuals who play games to get away from their lives or to pretend to be other people seem to be those most at-risk for becoming part of a vicious cycle. These gamers avoid their problems by playing games, which in turn interferes with their lives because they’re so busy playing games."

Hilgard said that those individuals who use video games to socialize because they impose a social obligation for players.

"For example, in games like World of Warcraft, most players join teams or guilds. If some teammates want to play for four hours on a Saturday night, the other players feel obligated to play or else they may be cut from the team. Those play obligations can mess with individuals’ real-life obligations."

Researchers go on to compare the "symptoms" of problematic gaming to other addictions such as alcohol or drug abuse.

"Gamers who are really into getting to the next level or collecting all of the in-game items seem to have unhealthier video-game use," Hilgard said. "When people talk about games being ‘so addictive,’ usually they’re referring to games like Farmville or Diablo that give players rewards, such as better equipment or stronger characters, as they play. People who are especially motivated by these rewards can find it hard to stop playing."

Hilgard says that understanding individuals’ motives for playing video games can help inform researchers, game developers and consumers about why certain games attract certain kinds of individuals.

"Researchers have suspected that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are the most addictive genre of video games," Hilgard said. "Our study provides some evidence that supports that claim. The games provide opportunities for players to advance levels, to join teams and to play with others. In addition, the games provide enormous fantasy worlds that gamers can disappear into for hours at a time and forget about their problems. MMORPGs may be triple threats for encouraging pathological game use because they present all three risk factors to gamers."

The Frontiers in Psychology published the article, “Individual differences in motives, preferences, and pathology in video games: the gaming attitudes, motives, and experiences scales (GAMES),” earlier this month. The article is available here.

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