The Problem With Pathological Gaming Studies

Is gaming addiction a real psychological affliction that should be recognized by the American Psychiatric Association? According to some studies as many as ten percent of all gamers could be considered gaming addicts. A new study from Texas A&M's Christopher J. Ferguson explains how those studies are doing it wrong.

Christopher J. Ferguson isn't a champion of gaming, but he is a champion of making sure other researchers are doing their job effectively. Much like he and his team recently did with studies on video game violence and depression, his recently-published article "A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental
health, academic and social problems" seeks to set the record somewhat straighter on gaming addiction through the use of meta-analysis.

What is meta-analysis? It's where a group of researchers gather up all of the research on a particular subject and analyze the results to see whether or not the existing research is getting the job done, and in the case of video game addiction it clearly is not.

While children that play video games might have brains like gamblers, that doesn't mean their gaming habits should be measured the same as a gambling addiction. This is one of the glaring issues Ferguson and friends uncovered during their analysis of thirty-three published studies and doctoral dissertations covering the subject.

Lacking any real baseline to go off of, many researchers attempt to apply the same questions used in analyzing gambling addition to measure video game addiction.

Questions such as "I argue with my family about my video game habits" or "I think about video games even while I'm not playing them" or "I use video games to relax" may not represent pathological behavior for gamers, may evidence little or no association with negative outcomes, and indeed may be normative, while their original wording is still indicative of a problematic obsession in gamblers.

"Aw mom, I don't want to stop playing Xbox yet" is very different from "Sorry honey, I lost our wedding rings in a game of Texas Hold-Em."

The approach that seems to work better for measuring potential gaming addiction is the Interference method, in which researchers measure how much gaming interferes with normal daily tasks, such as doing homework, going to work, or spending time with the family. The problem with this method is that it's removed from any established diagnostic framework, indicating an overall lack of consistency.

Ferguson and friends also analyzed a third type of study that measured pathological gaming purely in terms of hours played. These studies might be useful in providing some insight into how much time gaming takes away from other activities, the lack of specific interference data means they aren't very helpful overall.

By combining all of the studies, Ferguson's meta-analysis came up with an average prevalence of pathological gaming of some six percent. After thorough analysis, this report suggests that the Interference method's figure of 3.1 percent.

The report concludes with several suggestions that could help pathological gaming studies be more accurate in the future, including a strong focus on Interference and more longitudinal studies, while cautioning other researchers from making potentially dangerous statements until we nail down how to nail gaming addiction down.

...we caution researchers from making expansive statements regarding problematic gaming and its ‘potential harm' until further data is collected. This is not to say we fail to acknowledge the potential harm of problematic gaming; rather the current research rigor is not capable of supporting conclusive statements.

Journal of Psychiatric Research Volume 45, Number 12 [Elsevier]