Game Theory: Are Video Games Addictive?

Top online video games learn from Las Vegas how to keep players hooked.

ByABC News
December 6, 2012, 5:20 PM

Dec. 6, 2012 — -- If you've ever played Angry Birds, or Words With Friends, or Farmville you might have some sympathy for DiAnn Edwards of Red Lion, Pa.

She plays Farmville on her laptop up to eight hours a day. The 51-year-old spends up to $200 a month on her Farmville habit.

She can't help it. She's hooked.

"It just gets addicting," she said. "I'm 51 and what am I doing sitting here playing a Farmville game? I don't get it, but it actually drives me crazy."

Dr. Timothy Fong, who runs a UCLA clinic for behavioral addiction, said he sees patients just like her every day.

"The stereotype of the 'videogame addict' is a teenage kid in his underwear. That's not what's happening out there," Fong said. "The average age of our patients is about 40. We've seen housewives, doctors, lawyers."

Fong is convinced that video games can be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol.

"It's the same exact clinical symptoms: preoccupation, loss of control, inability to stop," Fong said. "They keep playing the game despite harmful consequences so, in my mind, absolutely I believe it is the same disease as alcohol or drug addiction."

The American Psychiatric Association has so far declined to recognize video game addiction as a diagnosis worthy of being included the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The American Psychological Association, however, did recently list "video game psychologist" as a "hot career" because the gaming industry is hiring psychologists as consultants.

Ariella Lehrer is a trained psychologist who designs games specifically for middle-aged women. Her company focuses on romance and mystery, including games based on the novels of Jane Austen and the popular TV detective show "Murder She Wrote."

But Lehrer said the psychology behind the games is pure Las Vegas. With flashy graphics and intermittent rewards, games are calibrated to hook you within 20 minutes.

"We learned this with rats in a food pedestal," Lehrer said. "If you only occasionally give a reward then you keep going. That's what Las Vegas does. The rewards don't come every time."

Some of the most popular games follow a six second rule. Every six seconds, a visual sparkle pops up to entice you to keep playing.

"The potency if you will of these video games is much more intense, more rewarding, more engaging then video games were 30 years ago," Fong said.

Correction: The American Psychiatric Association, not the American Psychological Association, as reported in an earlier edition of this article, has so far declined to recognize video game addiction as a diagnosis.