Online Computer Gaming: Advice for Parents
Some years ago in an issue of Education and Health, I provided some advice to parents and teachers on responsible playing of video games by children and adolescents (5). More recently, I have received a large increase in the number of e-mails from parents and teachers concerning online games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Lord of the Rings. The most typical emails I get are along the lines of 'Could my child become addicted to an online game?, 'Are online computer games more addictive than offline games?', 'Isn't online gaming pointless?'' and 'My child is addicted to online gaming, what can I do?" In this article I will attempt to answer these types of question.
Is it possible for an adolescent to become addicted to an online computer game?
Addiction basically boils down to constant reinforcement (i.e., rewards). An adolescent cannot become addicted to something unless they are constantly rewarded for the behavior they are engaged in. Online gaming is potentially addictive although the number of people who are truly addicted is small. In my research I have only come across a handful of people who I would genuinely call addicts. Such individuals may play over 80 hours a week on games like World of Warcraft and Everquest! However, playing excessively does not mean someone is addicted. If there are no negative detrimental effects as a result of excessive playing, I would not view that behavior as an addiction.
Online gaming addiction comes about by the partial reinforcement effect (PRE) (7). This is a critical psychological ingredient of gaming addiction whereby the reinforcement is intermittent (i.e., people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner). Knowledge about the PRE gives the game designer an edge in designing appealing games. Magnitude of reinforcement (e.g., high points score for doing something ingame) is also important. Large rewards lead to fast responding and greater resistance to extinction - in short to more "addiction"(7). Instant reinforcement is also satisfying.
Is online gaming more addictive than offline gaming?
Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people (what I would call 'the kitchen sink approach'). In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g., improving your highest score, beating your friend's high score, getting your name on the "hall of fame," mastering the machine) or extrinsic (e.g., peer admiration) (6). In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for teenagers to play endlessly against (and with) other real people. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people this will lead to addiction where online gaming is the single most important thing and that person's life and which the compromise and neglect everything else in their life. Currently there is little research indicating how the addiction establishes itself and what people are actually addicted to (7).