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When can gaming be considered an addiction?

Hannah Fuchs
August 23, 2018

The Gamescom in Germany is Europe's biggest trade fair for interactive games. DW talked with media scientist Jörg Müller-Lietzkow about gaming addiction, with the expert in the middle of a virtual car race.

Deutschland Köln Gamescom 2018
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Goldmann

Deutsche Welle: Professor Müller-Lietzkow, you are currently at Gamescom, the gaming industry trade fair in Cologne. You're currently in a car race simulation — how keen are you to talk to me about video game addiction right now?

Jörg Müller-Lietzkow: Very! Digital games are my passion, my field of research and something I am always interested in, from the political perspective as well. So I'd love to talk about this.

Great, let's do this. The World Health Organization announced "Gaming disorder" as a new mental health condition. What do you think — was that the right move?

Yes and no. Globally, we have an increasing number of people in Asia who find it difficult to get away from gaming. The situation can certainly be described as "critical." In Germany, on the other hand, the studies vary, and they are also kind of biased. In other words: Asia cannot really be compared with Germany — and yet the two are compared to each other.

So from a global perspective, the WHO's step is absolutely right. Because we have to think about how we can help. This is also important with regards to health insurance companies, in order for them to cover the necessary therapies.

Prof. Dr. Jörg Müller-Lietzkow
Müller-Lietzkow doesn't play video games at homeImage: Universität Paderborn/S. Ratmann

And what's your problem with the decision? 

It's how addiction is determined. If someone plays for a certain time, he is immediately considered addicted. I think that if someone is gaming, let's say, eight hours a day, and that's what he does for six weeks at a time during the summer holidays — that doesn't make him an addict right away. However, if this presents as pathological, one naturally reaches a critical area.

Well, if eight hours of gaming a day is not a sign of addiction for you, what is?

I would never tie it to hours. After all, there are also people who read books for hours and hours. For me, the consumption of a medium in itself is not yet an addiction criterion. I wouldn't say it's the time spent, but rather the effect gaming has on that person. 

For example, there are people who seek recognition in games that they don't experience in the real world. If you need this again and again because you often fail in our world, then one could assume a certain level of dependency exists. If the gamer also neglects other things — and not just friends or school, but even basic needs — I would already describe it as critical. These are the cases where outside help is needed.

Secondly, when we talk about such addictions, we have to see if it the cause is a dependence on a game world where the gamer enters into parasocial interaction and drifts off into this parallel world, or if it's the successes over the course of the game that address the reward center in the brain whereupon dopamine is released.

There are actually games that are demanding for a very long time and that can make it difficult to stop. But that doesn't mean that you are dependent on it, just that your brain is getting a very interesting offer.

That is the second point I find problematic in the WHO's move: the thought that games automatically make people ill instead of being helpful. 

I guess you have a different point of view on that...

Right. When we talk about the future of the digital society and see how much has actually been derived from the gaming industry over the years, then this is the wrong fundamental. We shouldn't think about it in black and white. Shades of gray also play an important role.

If you don't like computer games very much, it is often difficult for you to understand the technology transfer or the possibilities in other industries. There are technologies, game mechanics or multi-motivational logics [a term from psychology that describes that people are driven to act by different influences], which can be used for example in the context of digital education.

When computer gamers can't stop

Speaking of digital literacy, what do you think about the media competence of children, parents, students and teachers?

Let's call it digital competence. This is underdeveloped in many areas among parents and teachers. Digital competence is not an integral part of their training, even though many teachers have certainly heard of it.

And for children and young people, I no longer see digital competence as a problem, but the alternatives areas of competence. They live in a digital world and are then told to leave it. But if you never showed them how, they will be abandoned and lost.

That means we all have to learn something new?

In short: Parents, yes, there's a lot to do. Most of them have a smartphone, but are not digitally competent. Teachers, yes, because they have a mediating role and can be trained much better in the field of digital competence.

And for the children and young people it is more about making the alternatives so attractive that they are understood and accepted. You have to create understanding. Bans only increase attraction, as with all things that are forbidden. That's not gonna work. You have to achieve understanding on a cognitive level.

Do you have rules at home?

My daughter is now 16. I think she can learn a very healthy way of dealing with media. 

And what about you?

I actually don't play video games at home. The simple reason for this is that I work a lot and therefore have two principles: I don't work at home and I don't play video games at home.

My gaming console is in the office, which is a good thing because it's part of my daily work. But honestly, social contact with my family, especially with my wife and daughter, is worth much more to me than any computer or video game.

Dr. Jörg Müller-Lietzkow is a professor of Media Economics and Media Management at the University of Paderborn.