If you crave playing video games and feel restless or depressed when you can’t play, you may have a gaming addiction.

Gaming is a mainstream pastime enjoyed by millions of people around the world.

Its use has skyrocketed within a relatively short period of time. Within a few decades, we’ve gone from arcade games to online games so realistic and captivating that users feel like they’re in another world.

While most gamers play recreationally in their spare time, a minority have difficulty controlling their playing habits. Their obsession can become so severe that it interferes with school, work, relationships, and even self-care.

If you feel restless and irritable when you’re not gaming, and it’s interfering with your life goals, responsibilities, and relationships, you might have a gaming addiction.

Gaming addiction is marked by significantly reduced control over one’s electronic or Internet gaming habits. The persistent, addictive behavior patterns lead to high levels of impairment in daily life, affecting your relationships, school, work, and even self-care.

Pathological gaming is estimated to affect anywhere from 1.7% to over 10% of the general population, and it primarily affects males.

Researchers are still investigating the exact cause of video game addiction and are determining if it should be labeled as a psychiatric disorder. While still controversial, many researchers consider pathological gaming a behavioral addiction, similar to gambling addiction.

Some evidence shows that the dopamine levels released in the brain’s ventral striatum during a competitive video game are comparable to that provoked by psycho-stimulant drugs.

But whether or not it’s a true psychiatric disorder, the condition is still being recognized. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added “gaming disorders” to its list of mental health conditions.

“Internet gaming disorder” was also added to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 lists the condition as a potential new diagnosis that requires further research.

Research shows that people addicted to gaming have the following symptoms:

  • a feeling of well-being or euphoria while playing
  • an inability to stop playing
  • strong craving to play
  • feeling empty, depressed, and irritable when unable to play

Other signs of gaming addiction include the following:

  • skipping previously enjoyed activities
  • poor performance in school, work, and other duties
  • a need to spend more time playing to reach a previous level of enjoyment
  • using video games to relieve negative moods or avoid stress or conflict
  • lying about or downplaying how much time they’ve played
  • a decline in personal hygiene due to excessive time spent gaming

Gaming addiction withdrawal symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:

  • intense cravings
  • boredom
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • restlessness

Gaming addiction can lead to numerous problems, including cognitive, psychological, physical, and social difficulties.

Research shows that various aspects of gaming addiction may be linked to cognitive problems, including poorer:

  • episodic memory
  • working memory
  • problem-solving skills
  • basic reading skills
  • written expression skills
  • attention
  • processing speed
  • visual-spatial organization

One study of 385 adolescents found that people with gaming addiction displayed higher levels of:

  • depression
  • aggression
  • shyness
  • problematic cell phone use

Video game addiction is also linked to the following physical symptoms:

Gaming addiction can affect anyone, but it’s more common among males, with research showing a male-to-female ratio of 2.5:1. Some evidence suggests Internet gaming addiction peaks during adolescence, but findings are mixed.

In a study that surveyed 866 students (ages 12 to 17), factors that most strongly determined whether a person would develop gaming addiction included:

  • low self-control
  • social exclusion
  • impulsivity
  • poor self-esteem
  • poor self-mastery
  • less control of one’s external environment
  • poor parent-child attachment quality

Another 1-month study of 123 university students in the U.K. found that having an underlying psychiatric illness (i.e., anxiety, depression) as well as the following personality traits put people at risk for gaming addiction:

  • neuroticism
  • sensation-seeking behavior
  • aggression
  • impulsivity

Another study found that people with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms are at greater risk for gaming addiction than those with less severe symptoms.

Other research shows that gamers who play multiplayer online role-playing games are also at greater risk of developing a gaming addiction.

The primary treatment for gaming addiction is psychotherapy, which can help you identify and change harmful thoughts and behaviors.

Psychotherapy that may help gaming addiction includes:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): In CBT, a therapist helps you examine your thoughts and emotions to better understand how they affect your behaviors. You learn to replace your negative thought patterns with healthier ones.
  • Family or marriage therapy: Family/marriage therapy educates loved ones about gaming disorder and helps create a more stable home environment.
  • Group therapy: Group therapy allows a group of people with gaming addiction to meet together and discuss their problems under the supervision of a trained leader.

If you have an underlying mental disorder, such as anxiety or ADHD, your psychiatrist could recommend medication.

Gaming addiction involves a severely reduced sense of control over one’s gaming habits.

If you feel restless or depressed when you’re not playing, and it’s interfering with your life goals, you may have a gaming addiction. You’re not alone, as up to 10% of the population lives with some measure of unhealthy gaming habits.

If gaming is affecting your family, school, work, or your ability to take care of yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to discuss your treatment options. Joining a support group may be particularly helpful as it can allow you to meet others experiencing the same thing and help you feel less alone.