Video games, also known as computer games, are available any time on your computer, smartphone, tablet or console, as well as in arcade halls. According to various estimates, there are over 600 million video game players around the world – gamers – who enjoy playing hundreds of millions of different games, propelling a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars. Some of the games are played alone against the computer, while others are played “online” with or against other players on the Internet, or other players in real life.
Video and computer games are part of the digital revolution and the changes that it has brought. The games themselves have many effects, some of which are even considered positive, including excitement, entertainment, information accumulation, social interaction, skill development, coping with tasks, multitasking, and cognitive improvement.
However, alongside the advantages, there are also significant disadvantages, which can even be harmful. The main danger is addiction, and in 2018 the World Health Organization classified addiction to playing video games as a disorder (gaming disorder).
A bit of history
In 1940 the first video game in the world was released by an engineer who designed a popular mathematical game (NIM) that is played against the computer. Over the next few decades, dozens of other video games were developed, mimicking board, sports and war games, as home and arcade consoles became more sophisticated. Toward the end of the 1980s, Nintendo launched the Game Boy, and by the end of the 2000s millions of people with smartphones and Facebook subscriptions began playing online and Augmented Reality (AR) video games, which have swept over the world. Examples of AR include games such as Pokemon Go, which is played on mobile phones and had over 45 million users a day at its peak. In addition, it is estimated that Fortnite, which is considered the most addictive computer game in the world, is played by some 150 million people worldwide. Fortnite is considered one of the catalysts behind the World Health Organization’s announcement of the addictive potential of video games.
What are the adverse health effects of video game addiction?
According to various estimates, about 6-15% of gamers exhibit reactions and conditions that are reminiscent of people with substance addictions. Similarly, there are reports that people with video game addiction tend to consume alcohol, cannabis and nicotine. Addiction to video games is associated with depression, anxiety, social phobias, anger, guilt, jealousy, aggressive behavior, auditory hallucinations and even seizures (“Nintendo epilepsy”), which can be induced by rapid changes in patterns onscreen. The rapid development and widespread availability of video games has given rise to the new designation, “gaming disorder,” which has health implications, especially for children and adolescents, and which impacts a person’s physical, psychological, social and occupational performance. The prevalence of gaming disorder varies worldwide, and is estimated to be between 0.2% and 8.5%. Playing video games has significant, proven effects on different systems in the body, some of which are thought to be beneficial. The adverse health effects, however, that result from addiction to video games are part of a phenomenon that is gaining momentum around the world. They include:
- Fatigue and sleep avoidance
- Migraines and headaches
- Carpal tunnel syndrome (caused by overuse of a computer mouse or controller)
- Poor personal hygiene
- Avoidance of eating
- Avoidance of exercise
- Avoidance of social and family events
Damage to the nervous system: The rapid challenges and focus on tasks that video games demand activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, which induces a stress response expressed by increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and dopamine. The frequent awakening of this danger response can lead to chronic stress. In children, this effect on the nervous system can manifest in difficulty with managing emotions, suppressing impulses, following instructions, performing tasks, dealing with anger, pain and frustration, and feeling and expressing compassion. Various studies indicate that video game addiction impairs the brain’s dopaminergic system, in a manner similar to impulse control disorders and other behavioral addictions. Physical and behavioral effects: The flicker of light from one’s computer screen, tablet, or smartphone can affect the biological clock, increasing alertness and hindering sleep. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt a person’s mood, and can lead to various cognitive and behavioral problems. Mental health effects: Higher levels of use of the Internet among older people are associated with decreased loneliness, improved social support and psychological well-being, and increased life satisfaction. However, in the case of children, teenagers and young adults, the concern is that the use of online platforms can lead to social isolation. In fact, depression and anxiety are the two most common disorders prevalent among people addicted to video games.
What causes video game addiction?
Game designers often use scientific insights and discoveries about the brain in order to increase the effectiveness of their games. Many video games seem to have elements that play a role in the development of certain signs of addiction, such as mood changes, relapse patterns, activation of the brain’s reward pathway, and domination over all aspects of life, similar to drugs and alcohol. In order to diagnose video game addiction, the pattern of behavior must be severe and cause a significant decline in personal, familial, social, academic, and occupational functioning over a long period, and must come at the expense of other activities. As with substance addiction, such as to drugs or alcohol, there are several criteria to consider: a continuous increase in the amount of time spent playing games, inability to stop, and feeling irritable and miserable when required to stop. In the case of children, this can lead to behavioral disorders. Warning signs for addiction to video games include:
- Playing for ever-increasing amounts of time.
- Thinking about playing games during other activities.
- Playing to avoid negative emotions, such as anxiety or depression.
- Attempts to hide or lie about the extent of involvement in playing games.