“Videogames abuse and/or dependence” has not been identified as a disorder in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V). But it is a growing problem, one that psychiatrists say merits further study. So post-doctorate fellow Dr. Ruth van Holst and her colleagues put adolescent male, self-reported problematic videogamers through a test, to determine if videogame addicts would react to neuropsychological tests in the same way as other addicts. The researchers learned that problematic videogamers aren’t like other addicts in two distinct ways:
1) They’re quicker than other addicts. 2) They’re more prone to errors.
In the study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health as “Attentional bias and disinhibition toward gaming cues are related to problem gaming in male adolescents,” Dr. van Holst and her colleagues in Amsterdam showed the subjects two pictures: a picture from a popular videogame, World of Warcraft, and a neutral picture of a Disney cartoon.
According to Dr. van Holst, “Pictures appeared for 500 milliseconds after which they disappeared, revealing a small rectangular probe behind one of the pictures for 200 milliseconds. Participants were instructed to press a left button when the probe appeared left, and to press the right button if the probe appeared right.”
Here’s the tricky part: The rectangular probe would appear randomly behind either the game or the neutral picture.
One way psychiatrists can determine if someone has an addiction is to measure their “cue reactivity” and “attentional bias.” In simpler terms, if an alcoholic watches someone drinking a beer and experiences increased heartrate, sweating, and cravings, that’s “cue reactivity.” And as an example of “attentional bias,” a gambling addict can pick up the sounds and sights of a casino much faster than a non-addict.
“The idea is that if people have strong attentional bias,” van Holst said, “it will take them longer to detect the rectangular probe underneath the neutral picture, because the gamers are looking at the game picture, versus the neutral picture, because their attention is already attracted to that location.”
“Typical” addicts will react slowly to pressing a button when viewing a picture of their addiction cue. But gamers, who react very, very quickly to images on screen, are not typical.
Dr. van Holst said, “We found that frequent gamers were quicker, so they had shorter reaction time than people who didn’t game as much. Of course it’s not very surprising.”
However, Dr. van Holst was surprised to learn that gamers may have reacted quicker during the test, they also made more mistakes than other addicts.
“An addict will slow down because they’re distracted by their addiction cues but will eventually find the probe and respond correctly. We didn’t see that in gamers. They were just as quick as healthy controls. They just pushed the wrong button,” she said.
Dr. van Holst wants other researchers who are studying the perils of videogame overuse and abuse to know, “If you’re measuring neuropsychological functions with reaction time, you should take this into account.”