Marathon gaming sessions that last through the night. That intense desire to finish a challenge and get your character to the next level. Thumb cramps that last for days on end. For many video game enthusiasts, these are fairly common experiences. For others, they are symptoms of obsession bordering on addiction.

What is it about video games that makes playing them so all-consuming? "For one thing, they're relatively safe and accessible forms of entertainment," says Dr. Nicholas David Bowman, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, who has studied the role of video games in society.

In addition to safety, games are fairly easy to learn — easier than baseball, for example, which requires a greater level of learned physical skills. "It's more fun to be good at Tony Hawk that it is to be bad at baseball," Bowman says. Video games are also an easy economic choice. "You can purchase a game for $50 and transport yourself to a narrative world for hundreds of hours. Or you can spend $50 going to Disney World and you get one day."

But perhaps even more important is the value that games provide to players: the role of challenge. "Video games are the modern version of chess," Bowman says. "One of the hallmarks of popular psychology is that people want to feel competent, they want to feel autonomous, and they want to feel related to other people around them. While games can't do all of those things, they're really good at competence and autonomy."

Bowman says this is one of the reasons why games like "World of Warcraft" are so addictive or infatuating. "What does 'Warcraft' do? It's a challenge, so it lets you feel like you're good at something. It's autonomous, in that you get to do whatever it is you want to do in the game. And it's a social community that allows you to exist with other social factors. A game like 'Warcraft' satisfies all the same hallmarks as enjoyment of leisure as Little League and baseball, except that it does it in a game."

When fun goes too far

But can fun turn into something more serious and damaging? Can a game that is addictive become an addiction?

"Video game addiction is a modern day psychological disorder which is becoming more and more frequently seen and diagnosed," says Dr. Soroya Bacchus, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles who specializes in addiction. "While the biology behind the compulsion is still being uncovered, science is beginning to understand why certain individuals become so consumed with 'gaming.' Just like with gambling, gaming elevated the dopamine levels in the brain, which translates into a physical manifestation of pleasure. This combined with the psychological component of 'escaping real life' is very similar to behaviors which substance abusers exhibit."

Bacchus is quick to point out, though, that using the term "addiction" might be confusing in this case. "For many people unfamiliar with addiction and the complications which surround it, 'heavy use,' 'unhealthy obsession' and 'addiction' may seem to be interchangeable terms," she says. "I have heard people refer to coffee drinkers as being 'coffee addicts' or those who watch television too much as being 'obsessed with TV.' While this makes sense on a visceral level, these categorical words take on a new meaning for those who truly suffer from compulsive or addictive behavior."

"There is big fight in the psychology industry right now as to whether or not we consider technology an addiction," Bowman says. "It goes back to trying to compare a process, like a computer process, with a chemical dependency, which is one of the hallmarks of dependency."

Bowman says the term addiction assumes that a person is doing something maladaptive. "There's always the argument that doing too much of anything is bad, in the sense that you can overdo it," he says. "With gaming, there's a problem called the displacement hypothesis where people who spend a lot of time in the virtual space, that's time they can't spend with other people. One of the concerns — the time elasticity argument — is that we only have so much time in a day. We've got to make a decision. The question becomes, when you're gaming, what are you losing out on? Maybe it's social skills, maybe it is diet and exercise, or maybe it is real-world interactions. Those are the things we worry about. But I think you would worry about the same thing with a gymnast or a football player at university."

If you're worried that you or someone you know is playing video games at unhealthy levels, there are a few things to look for, says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Dana Point, Calif. "Try and monitor the game use as much as possible," she suggests. "If homework, chores, or physical social interaction are being impacted and isolation is occurring, there is a potential problem."

On the other hand, if your child is playing video games for eight hours straight on a Saturday, maybe it's just because he's a kid and that's what he does. "I think we call games addictive because there's a social stigma associated with gamers," Bowman says. "Those stigmas are largely unfounded. Games are no more special than going to the gym. They're one more activity we engage in whenever we want to enjoy ourselves."

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MNN tease photo of gamers: Michael Kwan/Flickr
Why are video games addictive?
Sometimes video games are harmless fun. Sometimes they provide a clear benefit for players. But once in a while, they actually become a dangerous obsession.