Help! I Think I’m Addicted to Video Games

Dear GoodTherapy,

I work. I eat and drink. I play video games. I sleep. Then I repeat.

Every. Single. Day.

Three of these things are necessities, but the fourth—gaming—is not. But it sure feels like it is. And I routinely compromise the other important aspects of my life so I can immerse myself in gaming. What I mean by that is I sometimes skip work, sometimes skip meals, and often stay up all night playing. It’s mostly one game in particular. I don’t know if video game addiction is a thing, but I will say it feels like an addiction. I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. I know my obsession with gaming isn’t healthy, and yet I feel powerless over it.

Is gaming addiction real or am I just weak? If it is real, what will it take to overcome it? —Game Over

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Dear GO,

Thank you for writing. It is interesting you say “I don’t want to stop” but are clearly concerned enough to write to me.

I could write a book (and many have) about what, exactly, constitutes an “addiction.” It wasn’t all that long ago that we, as a society, deemed cigarettes as addictive.

Addictionologists (and I would consider myself knowledgeable about this) distinguish addiction to substances from repetitive or compulsive behaviors as substance versus “process” addictions, respectively. In the end, I think we’ll discover it’s all process—and we’re just in our infancy as far as addiction awareness, I believe. For now, let’s call video games a process addiction. The World Health Organization recently deemed it thus, while American psychiatry remains reluctant to do so. You can read more about that if you like.

One of the clues you offer, regarding whether this is an addiction, is keen ambivalence about not wanting to stop, as if the compulsion (you imply) is internally divisive. You perhaps ought to stop but don’t want to, but you should, but why should you? This circular ambivalence is tormenting, which can be soothed by … gaming.

In recovery lingo, we might say you have come powerless over video games, meaning you have lost the ability to choose. It has become so problematic or confusing that you wrote to a therapist for clarity. I am glad you did, as it shows there is a wise and intuitive part of you that senses the destructive nature of the disorienting demand to keep going.

This tyrannical impulse may be the most distinguishing hallmark of addictive entrapment: when “I want to” becomes “I must.” Usually, the “must” involves coping with or soothing anxiety, restlessness, depression, or other troublesome feeling states. You might try going without it for a week to see what happens. Your brain may soon be yelling for dopamine “hits” and the adrenaline provided by the game and its numbing dissociation or “escape.” I am not immune to this, by the way, and have had to take self-imposed time-outs from social media or other online outlets. Not even the “experts” are bulletproof.

This tyrannical impulse may be the most distinguishing hallmark of addictive entrapment: when “I want to” becomes “I must.” Usually, the “must” involves coping with or soothing anxiety, restlessness, depression, or other troublesome feeling states.

This is one reason I am impressed you wrote in. You have made yourself vulnerable in seeking help, which may be the most courageous thing any of us can do. To paraphrase Carl Jung, it is only when our ego feels backed into a corner, and surrenders or waves the white flag, that authentically individuating change or development can begin. Because here we are forced into relying on forces greater than ourselves, requiring emotional risk.

In recognizing our limitations, our existential mortality, we discover the value of the present, and the opportunities before us, that we will waste if we don’t take some of those risks. Facing this issue is probably the greatest gift you could give yourself.

So what now? You could seek out a psychologist or therapist/counselor familiar with addiction. As always, the key factor is your comfort level and emotional safety with the provider. With addiction, I think a balance between empathic understanding and appropriate challenge to the addictive behaviors is important. You don’t have to choose between “tough love” and sugary support.

I have found that treating addiction is a delicate balance—sometimes frank, sometimes tender, but as authentic as possible. This means eschewing “formulas,” trying to speak the person’s own language, and stimulating or inspiring the person’s desire to grow, even when such growth involves facing terrifying unknowns. I cannot do this for the people I work with in therapy, but I can do it with them.

I find some people need time to get ready to stop their addictive behaviors, while others are ready from minute one. Some may need a psychiatric evaluation, others may not. Some may need extra support, such as recovery meetings. Others don’t take to recovery groups, so more frequent therapy sessions may be indicated (or supplemental support, such as dialectical behavior therapy groups).

Some want to taper off their addictive cycles, while others want to jump in, cold turkey. It all depends, and it becomes a collaborative project. I’m wary of clinicians who have an approach or theory that is overly programmatic or inflexible. In my own case, I have much expertise in treating addiction, but I can’t say with certainty what it’s like to be in anyone’s shoes.

I hope this is helpful, and congratulations again for having the courage to put your question out there. I know you can make change if you want. If you have the sensitivity to sense something is amiss, I would bet you have the internal resources to pursue a more expansive way of living. The danger with addiction is the numbing factor can make us lose track of the time and opportunities passing us by.

I also want to say this is my final Dear GoodTherapy column, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be able to answer your questions, and I am so grateful for the questions and feedback. Even those who disagreed or took issue with my responses gave me food for thought. Thank you for allowing me to participate in this enriching dialogue. I was continually impressed by the courageously candid nature of the questions and comments.

Warmest regards,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Heath11

    Heath11

    September 26th, 2018 at 11:14 AM

    This is me and the game is Final Fantasy. I am hopeless unless I get this addiction under control.

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