Subscriber OnlyYour Wellness

When gaming can turn from fun, educational stress relief into an addiction

Researchers are still attempting to understand the controlling and addictive nature of gaming, which can bring with it a host of negative behaviours and consequences

Logging off, pausing, and saving a game should be a simple process of recognising when it’s time to put the controller down and re-emerge from the intricate worlds offered by gaming. But as technology advances, gaming has become more immersive.

So much so, that the urge to stay connected for higher rewards is a significant pull.

Gaming addiction is not necessarily a new phenomenon, with the birth of the gaming industry having happened more than 50 years ago, and the multi-billion-dollar industry continuing to boom. However, research and studies are still attempting to understand the controlling and addictive nature of gaming. While the World Health Organisation added “gaming disorder” to the 2018 version of the International Classification of Diseases, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5) did not. Nevertheless, gaming addiction is recognised as a problem.

“Gaming, depending on the amount of time spent playing, the types of games played, age appropriateness, and social abilities, can be both positive and negative,” says Donal Kiernan, an accredited addiction counsellor and psychotherapist with more than 35 years of practical counselling experience across a range of addictive conditions.


“Some of the positive aspects are improved hand and eye co-ordination, improved problem-solving skills, decision making and memory, attention, and reasoning. Gaming can act as a form of stress reduction and relief and can also enhance creativity. However, all the above are through moderate use only.”

We have been blindsided by the advances in technology. Most technology interaction is fine, until the virtual world clashes with real world demands

—  Donal Kiernan, addiction counsellor

Kiernan highlights that the negative effects of gaming can include addiction, impaired function at home, work, or play; a preoccupation impairing the ability to study and focus; isolation, paranoia, reduced physical activity, and detachment from reality. Additionally, an increase in aggression and desensitisation through playing continuously violent games has been noted, although this is an issue that needs more study and research, confirms Kiernan.

Gaming can be considered an addiction when the time spent gaming becomes excessive or compulsive to the extent of behavioural changes interfering with a person’s everyday life.

Kiernan, the only designated addiction counsellor in a third-level university in Ireland, advises that early signs of gaming addiction can be noted by a preoccupation with a game, thinking and strategising about the game even when it is not actually accessible; neglecting everyday responsibilities which adversely affects home, work, school, sports, and friendships; a loss of concentration and focus, and being distracted by thoughts of gaming; a loss of control meaning being unable to quit or stop when a person says they will do so.

Further behavioural changes can occur, such as stress, irritability or anger when interrupted whilst playing, abusive language when challenged in an attempt to close down conversations, lying to oneself and to others about the amount of time invested, the obsession, compulsion, and secrecy of one’s emotional investment in playing; and withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, depression, craving and needing to play more.

“Gaming addiction sits firmly, in my view, in the field of cyberpsychology, and is currently drawing more and more awareness in everyday life,” says Kiernan. “Technology is neither positive or negative, good, or bad, but it can be used for better or worse by people. We have been blindsided by the advances in technology. Most technology interaction is fine, until the virtual world clashes with real-world demands. Gaming offers a distraction from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we often try to avoid dealing with. It allows us to create an imaginary world of escapism from our true self.”

In this manner, Kieran suggests that through gaming, role-playing, and imagination, there is the possibility of creating an “illusion that all our human needs from breathing, to acceptance, safety and security, love and belonging, family, intimacy, self-esteem and confidence, and self-actualisation are being met”.

In reality, however, the truth is far from this imaginary world that feels so real. “The addicted gamer is withdrawing, isolating, often eating alone, door locked, and being non-responsive to human engagement or contact,” says Kiernan. “They are totally absorbed by their console. They are immersed in the moment-to-moment experience of the atmosphere delivered by the game.

“In effect, their awareness has been hijacked. Where your awareness goes, your energy goes. Often, they cannot escape the obsession to play, and by feeding the compulsion to act, they unconsciously reinforce the obsession. Remember that gaming is a fully immersive experience in artificially created problem-solving situations.”

Your role is that of parent, not your child’s friend. I call this active love, doing what is right by your child, regardless of how difficult for you that might be

—  Donal Kiernan

There is a difference between someone addicted to gaming and an another being somewhat enthusiastic about gaming. The perceived percentage of those with a gaming addiction is considered to be small. It is worth mentioning that it can be difficult to recognise an addiction and not to label someone who is dedicated to their preferred pastime.

“Addicted gamers are not in charge of the game. Their addiction runs the show,” says Kiernan. “Periods of isolation become longer, moods become more irritable and aggressive, whilst pushing bewildered family and friends further away. Relationships break down, personal hygiene suffers, and physical health deteriorates due to lack of physical movement.”

There is limited understanding and research on the kinds of games that may affect the way a person plays and what may become addictive. However, game designers are employed to hold a gamer’s attention.

“Gaming is a world of stimuli, rewards, and stimulation,” says Kiernan, “of constant reinforcement through flashing lights, triggering sounds, rewards and failures. What game designers do is try to mimic the five senses by matching multiple senses simultaneously to create more immersive and memorable experiences. They link vision to colour, and different colours affect your mood. They link hearing to space and sounds, often at a subconscious level – mood music being an example. They can use sound to create an immersive audio experience. They can stimulate taste, whilst providing only a trigger for the thought of food. Effectively your neurobiological brain pathways are hijacked through the repetition of repeated actions that constantly trigger your dopamine or reward system.”

When considering the depths of gaming behaviours, Kiernan advises that a person look at the motivation for participating in particular gaming worlds or activities. “For some it is leisurely and casual,” he says. “They are in charge, and choose their time investment. For others, however, the choice is not theirs. For parents, I ask you not to facilitate small children’s access to gaming consoles that have the power to distort underdeveloped minds.

“Put time limits on any playing of technological games. Know what they are accessing and when you say ‘No’, mean it. Your role is that of parent, not your child’s friend. I call this active love, doing what is right by your child, regardless of how difficult for you that might be.”

Treatment for compulsive gaming includes talking therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which looks at addressing the underlying reasons for excessive gaming and associated behaviours. Family therapy is also suggested as a way to address any issues that may potentially occur at home. Self-help and group therapy sessions can be helpful, as such meetings allow a person to recognise that gaming addiction is not unique to one individual, and others understand through personal experience.

There is help and hope when looking to recover from a dependency on video games and what may seem as a way to escape the roots of depression or other issues.


Addiction series

  1. Introduction
  2. Gaming
Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family