Gaming fanatics show hallmarks of drug addiction
12:11 16 November 2005
NewScientist.com news service
Excessive computer gaming has the hallmarks of addiction, suggests new experiments on "drug memory". The researchers argue it should be classified as such, enabling "addicts" to start seeking help.
"We have the patients and we have the parents and family members calling us for help," says Sabine Grüsser of the Charité University Medicine Berlin, in Germany.
Learning is recognised as an important underlying mechanism of addiction. In becoming addicted, people start to associate cues that are normally neutral with the object of their craving. To a crack addict, for instance, a building in which they have used the drug is more than just a place they have been - it becomes a trigger for craving and can, on its own, reignite a need to use the drug again after months of abstinence.
Grüsser and her colleague Ralf Thalemann wanted to see if computer game cues could also trigger similar "drug memories" in excessive computer gamers.
Desperate to indulge
They compared 15 men in their 20s who admitted that gaming had chased other activities - such as work and socialising - out of their lives, and 15 game-playing but otherwise healthy controls.
They showed them a variety of visual cues and asked the volunteers to rate how they felt about the images. All had normal reactions to neutral images, such as chairs, and even to alcohol-related images, despite the fact that all the participants drank alcohol.
But excessive computer game players showed classic signs of craving when they were presented with freeze-frames from some of their favourite games - they desperately wanted to play, expected to feel better once they did, and fully intended to indulge again as soon as possible.
In another test, the researchers monitored the response of a large muscle in the eye, to see how much the volunteers could be startled while looking at a game-related image. Scientists theorise that the most pleasing stimuli prompts the smallest of startle reflexes. They found that excessive game players could not be easily startled, unlike the controls.
Grüsser says that addictions stem from relying too heavily on one coping strategy, which eventually becomes the only activity that can activate the dopamine system and bring a person relief. "It's the same mechanism in all addicts," she says.
Maressa Hecht Orzack, who founded a computer addiction service at McLean Hospital in Boston, US, agrees that the condition has a lot in common with other addictions. What makes it tougher is that gamers cannot simply abstain from using computers - they are now an integral part of our lives. In that sense, it has to be approached in the same way as an eating disorder, she suggests.
And while not everyone agrees that computer games have the addictive potential of drugs, or even gambling, groups such as Online Gamers Anonymous and EverQuest Widows are overflowing with stories of people so wrapped up in slaying monsters that for days they neglect to eat, wash or sleep.
The research was presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, in Washington DC, US.