Video Games: Misusing the Word ‘Addiction’

Video Games: Misusing the Word ‘Addiction’

Discussions on the existence (or non-existence) of game addiction always cause a stir. The media does have a tendency to use the term “addiction” before giving its definition a good read-over in their Oxfords.

As once pointed out by industry veteran Ernest W. Adams, addictions usually pertain to vices with notable, often severe withdrawal symptoms: Heroin addiction, for instance, or alcoholism. Games, says Adams, can be psychologically compelling, but that doesn’t necessary mean it’s an addiction. It’s almost certainly not a physical addiction.

“Nobody stops feeling human if they stop playing Tetris,” Adams wrote in a 2002 Gamasutra article. “Nobody becomes physically unwell if they don’t play Solitaire for a while. Clearly games don’t involve physical addiction to a substance.”

Therefore, Adams argues, the tendency for games writers to positively describe games as “addictive” is an open invitation for bad press from the mainstream. He’s not the only one. Earlier in the month, WoSblog wondered why games are described as “addictive” by games writers if gamers themselves don’t want to see the term used by the mainstream press:

“Isn’t it odd how the games industry and media (if we’re still counting those as two separate things) constantly throw around phrases like ‘incredibly addictive’ as terms of praise, yet as soon as anyone suggests games might actually be addictive they throw up their hands in horror, indignantly shriek ‘HOW DARE YOU?’ and rush out angry press releases about how it’s an outrageous load of rubbish and people should stop victimising them?”

So what’s with the double standard?

Arguably, until we delve deeply into the subject, most of us have no idea about the weight behind the word “addiction.” That includes gamers, games writers, the press, and the nervous parents who read the papers. When we describe a game as addictive, we mean it as a positive trait. A game that keeps you engaged is worth the money you pay for it. But in that case, “engaging” is probably the word of choice, or “compelling.” Not “addictive.”

It’s a bit like slinging around the word “retarded” when we’re frustrated by a task at hand. Even if we initially don’t mean any harm by it, words are loaded weapons. They can hurt, they can change people’s lives, they can kill.

This all may be a touch hyperbolic as far as gaming “addiction” is concerned, but given all the misconceptions that already exist about gaming as a pastime, we’d do well to separate it from, say, injecting heroin. “My kid is addicted to Nintendo!” is never as serious as, “My kid is addicted to crack cocaine.”

There are people out there who have serious problems managing their time on virtual words, of that there’s no doubt. But again, the very existence of game addiction is questionable, as it has yet to be recognized by worldwide organizations dedicated to physical and mental health. Until there is a real verdict, we should steer away from using the term “addiction” with such finality.

We’re all guilty of using words without stopping to think about what they really mean. But if all the press about gaming addiction/non-addiction is a good incentive to stop and think about the words we choose when describing the games we love.

Picture Source: 360GamerCast

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Hi Nadia,

    Thanks for keeping the subject alive. I’ve responded to this post on my own blog, since I don’t agree with you on the subject, at all. Haha… 😉

    Feel free to comment!

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