Can heavy gaming be considered an addiction?
Some children’s brains could be hard-wired to spend hours playing video games, according to a study which reignites the debate over whether the habit should be considered an addiction. Researchers found that children who spent an excessive amount of time playing the games had an enlarged area of the brain which is the main hub of the reward system.
This meant that they got more reward from playing even when losing, in a similar way that gamblers’ brains compel them to keep betting when the odds are against them.
The study, the first to examine the brain structure of teenage gamers, adds to an ongoing debate among experts over whether heavy gaming could be considered an addiction.
Dr Simone Kuhn of Ghent University in Belgium, who led the research, said: “Although our subjects were not addicted to video games in the strict diagnostic sense, the current result seems to suggest that video gaming is related to addiction.”
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a neuroscientist from Imperial College London, said the findings “further close the gap between this activity and other addictions, giving us a better understanding of possible long term treatment.”
It was not clear from the experiment whether gaming causes the increase brain size or whether the teenagers’ brains predisposed them to play a lot of video games.
But the researchers, writing in the Translational Psychiatry journal, said other studies suggested that it was a difference in the brain which led them to spend hours gaming and not the other way around.
Children with this brain feature “might experience video gaming as more rewarding in the first place”, meaning they would become more skilled and “lead to further reward resulting from playing”, they said.
The researchers studied 154 healthy 14-year-olds, who played video games for an average of 12 hours a week, and scanned their brains while they played two games.
Those that usually spent more time playing on their computer had more grey matter in a part of the brain which is rich in dopamine, a chemical which makes us feel pleasure and reward.
Scans showed that they were quicker to make decisions in a game that required them to gamble, and that their brain’s reward centre became activated when they were losing – a trait seen in problem gamblers.
Experts have agreed on a change to clinical guidelines which will see gambling classified as an addiction, but remain divided over whether excessive gaming or internet use should fall into the same category.
Dr Luke Clark, of the psychology department at the University of Cambridge, said: “There is an ongoing debate among clinicians about whether excessive video-game play should be recognised as a mental disorder, perhaps grouped within the addictions.
“Studies like this are very useful because the area of the brain it concerns is at the heart of the brain’s reward system and we know addictive substances target the dopamine system, so the fact that the structure is altered in people who are high-frequency gamers is very interesting.”