Video Game Addiction in Teens: A Pastoral Perspective for Parents

Note to reader: This is a research paper done for assessment. To download the full printable PDF version, click here.

Why this article 

The origin of this article was a research paper completed during my Bachelor of Ministry. Due to the prevalence of the topic, I was encouraged to adapt the paper into this  form to make it more accessible to parents. The intended readership of this article are parents concerned their children are displaying signs of video game addiction.[1] The first half of the article will explore three factors in understanding video gaming’s appeal for teens in today’s context. Namely these will be:

  • Factor 1: the social opportunities provided by gaming
  • Factor 2: the measurable reward system provided by gaming
  • Factor 3: video games as a healthy escape mechanism?

For each of these three perspectives, I will be evaluating both their opportunities and risks. Following from this, I will outline two key strategies for parents to help their teens manage their gaming addiction. These will be:

  • Strategy 1: engaging positively with the teen’s gaming
  • Strategy 2: setting rules and consequences with your teen

Part 1: Understanding the appeal of video games for teens in today’s context.  

It is beneficial to outline some objective reasons why gaming is particularly appealing for teens. While there are many credible studies about each of the following three subheadings below, this article will only outline each in brief.

(i) Social opportunities provided by gaming

We know that friendship and social networking are of particularly paramount significance for every teen. Despite the stereotype perception of the lone gamer isolated in his bedroom, gaming is actually a lot more social than many parents perceive. If, for example, ‘social’ denotes the real time interaction with other real people, regardless of whom and through what medium, then “video games are actually a very social form of entertainment; with teams and players cooperating to reach a common goal”[i] and “over 70% of gamers playing with a friend; by playing against each other or working cooperatively in a team”[ii] (e.g. DOTA series, Overwatch).

It is noticeable from my research paper’s survey how many teens reminisce that their most positive memories of gaming were ones shared with their friends. This friendship can extend off-line too at school, through the mere sharing of a common interest. Because the social and identity drive of a teen is so strong, it is logical to understand why some teens may be disproportionally attached to gaming, if a large part of their social connectivity depends on it. This is especially so if the teen normally struggles socially in day to day connection. But what if a teen’s social gaming takes her away from engaging with another vital social circle – her immediate family? This is a very important issue—and will be addressed later.

In terms of social connection, Catholic anthropology has much to contribute especially in light of our digital and virtual milieu. It posits we are body and soul beings, and that if Christ assumed a physical body to communicate God’s love for us and to reveal our own dignity, then we can never reduce human communication to the virtual, no matter how real or convenient it may be shorter term. For “electronically mediated relationships can never take the place of the direct human contact.”[iii] As we reflect on the social interactive dimension of gaming, let’s also consider how we can foster a family culture that eventually “moves from the virtual world of cyberspace to the real world of Christian community.”[iv]

 (ii) Measurable goals and reward system in games

Even though video games are screen based, the cognitive stimulation and interactivity of many games are much more akin to playing a board game—especially with other people— than other passive forms of media such as watching a movie or TV. “Contrary to conventional beliefs that playing video games is intellectually lazy and sedating, it turns out that playing these games promotes a wide range of cognitive skills.”[v] Numerous empirical studies on gamers have demonstrated marked increased cognitive abilities in a number of fields.[vi] While these abilities would vary depending on the genre, they might include lateral thinking (e.g. the puzzles in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), spatial awareness for first person shooters (e.g. Call of Duty), leadership for team based games (e.g. World of Warcraft) and crisis management for real-time strategy games (e.g. Age of Empires series, screenshot below).

Since the 1980s, developmental psychologists have identified something called the ‘zone of proximal development’ in which learning a new task is rendered pleasurable because it balances optimal levels of challenge with sufficient rewards for success.[vii] The most popular video games are able to strike this ‘sweet spot’ balance with increasingly challenging puzzles, dungeons, monsters and missions, providing a reward feedback loop should these challenges be accomplished. This motivational feedback looping in games are particularly appealing to developing children and teens who otherwise may not consider themselves intelligent (rightly or wrongly). This is because video games can help players achieve what C.S. Dweck calls incremental intelligence, rather than merely relying on their pre-existing entity intelligence.[viii] According to Dweck, entity intelligence is a measure of intelligence that is fairly set (such as a person’s IQ and temperament), whereas incremental intelligence is malleable and generally attainable through perseverance and effort (e.g. a soccer player through training). This is the reason why many teen truants who appear academically or socially inept can still top rankings among millions of worldwide players. For such teens, the gaming community at least recognises his incremental intelligence (however misdirected) in a way perhaps his immediate school/family community doesn’t.

As a thought experiment: if a teen could develop skills such as problem solving, leadership, teamwork and commitment through gaming, is it more or less beneficial than, say, a kitchenhand job at KFC? What would be some of the values working in a KFC kitchen that would not be attainable through gaming?

(iii) Games as healthy escape mechanism (note: not escapism)?

We all utilise escape mechanisms, whether we are children, teens or adults. For example, reading, watching a movie and listening to music are all types of escape mechanism that allows us to temporarily take our focus and energy off the more stressful realities of life.

What perhaps determines the ‘ethics’ of a healthy escape mechanism is what kind of escape it is for the teen. Author J.R.R Tolkien once identified two ways of defining escape.[ix] One type of escape is the escape from reality (say, a teen who escapes into gaming to avoid his responsibilities). The other type of escape is the escape from oppression (say, a hostage who breaks free from a terrorist, and returns to her family). The latter, as you’ll agree is good escapism! A line from Tolkien’s essay on fairy-tales sheds further light on this. He asks: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”[x] In the case of some teenagers, this prison could be anything from a dysfunctional family to the despair of student life deprived of adventure or wonder. And looking at the gargantuan fan base for MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) like Skyrim, I reflect on the following: if the human soul is indeed made for God, then it will always crave that which is transcendental– that which is beautiful, noble and true. Some genres of games package such transcendentals masterfully in their virtual gameplay. Could ‘escaping’ into the magical worlds and sweeping storyline of Skyrim satisfy these transcendental yearnings in a way that is more real than, say, an experience of church? This same question can be posited of any person who is mysteriously drawn to musical theatre, a symphony, a timeless work of fiction etc. Note that while fictional and virtual worlds are clearly not ‘real’, the emotions and desires we feel when we’re immersed in them certainly are.

All this is not at all justifying the over-dependence upon video games even as a ‘positive’ escape mechanism. Even these are a means to an end—that is, to re-enrich and “reintroduce basic human qualities and reignite the divine spark of a sedated society.”[xi] I merely posit this paragraph to shed light on why certain games can appear so addictive for some teens; they act as precious compensatory mechanisms for psychological and even spiritual yearnings not met by the teen’s immediate circle of influence. A beautiful quote from Fr Blake Britton summarises this well:

“In the end, what millennials and post-millennials want is the real world, not the artificial world. Our wanderings in the lands of Minecraft and the mountains of Skyrim are a crying out for reality, not a rejection of it. We long to witness the breath-taking beauty of creation, soar into the heights of authentic heroism and experience the life-giving dynamism of true freedom. “We want reality!” This is the rallying cry of our generation. Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that it no longer exists. So, we seek in the virtual world what we wish existed in the real world.”[xii]

A brief note on game design psychology: Individual temperaments aside, game designers conduct significant studies in psychology to ensure their games are maximally addictive; after all, retaining interest is how game designers make money.[xiii] Designers can employ some of the following to make their games incredibly addictive (i) duty-bound appointment games which compel interaction within certain real-world time intervals (e.g. Tap Fish, FarmVille) (ii) games that ensure you only ever lose by the smallest margins (e.g. Fortnite) to increase the desire to have another go and (iii) games with quasi-gambling play built in that lures punters with rare items.

Part 2: Strategies to address gaming addiction

This booklet will not explore arguably the most effective resolution to gaming disorder: the teen’s engagement to alternative activities such as sports, youth groups, clubs, creative and artistic pursuits, and other social opportunities.[xiv] This omission was actually done consciously, as most of the easily-accessible literature around gaming addiction already focuses on the priority for this to happen. Here instead are two complimentary strategies that can be implemented almost immediately by parents:

1. Positive engagement with the teen’s gaming

Ideally, parents and children should always feel free to speak about the child’s experience of gaming without referring to the child’s gaming addiction. Yet for constructive dialogue about gaming to even take place between parents and teens, the ‘cycle of conflict’ around gaming needs to be addressed first. “If your relationship with your child [around gaming] is full of fights, tension, conflicts and negativity, we need to break that cycle… the longer it goes on, the deeper you get entrenched in this pattern.”[xv] A key first step actually lies with the wider family, rather than the teen. The previous section of this paper explored how gaming disorder is often only the presenting issue, and that there are actually deeper factors at work in any addiction that needs to be acknowledged by the family, and only then, addressed. Hence there needs first be a shift of focus away from the teen’s gaming, and onto creating a safe family space to engage with the issue.

Using the three factors explored earlier in Part 1, parents could first ask questions of themselves like:

  • How can we better respect the independent social needs of our teen outside of family circles? How can we foster our teen to flourish through healthy social networks?
  • How can we better celebrate his achievements, and inspire—not coerce—excellence in him starting from the little things?
  • How can we create a respectful, safer, non-intrusive home environment that he needn’t feel compelled to escape from?

Questions like these also disarm alarmist notions that gaming itself is the only issue. In parallel, Steve Dupon suggests parents be nourished with the latest literature and research around specific games, gaming culture, so as to understand how gaming ‘hooks’ like immersion, avatar attachment and invariable reward schemes work on the brain.[xvi] This also helps objectify the teen’s addictive behaviour, not least through realising anyone of any age could be susceptible to such hooks!

Finally, give your teen the privilege of teaching you about his games. Become curious about your teen’s experience of games. Ask why he likes them, what he’s learned about himself from them, how they meet his needs. These are all steps towards healthy dialogue. Only once a more neutralised relationship with games has occurred—it may take some time and patience—can the following happen:

2: Setting rules and consequences WITH your teen

Mutually agreed house rules should never be undervalued in addressing gaming disorder: when implemented well, they create structure and space for other important things to emerge like communication, family time, schoolwork and part time work to take place.

In his bestselling ‘The 5 Love Languages for Teenagers’, Gary Chapman outlines the effectiveness of setting both the rules and consequences in dialogue with teens. In the case of gaming, these rules (e.g. no gaming allowed after 10pm) should be thoughtfully and clearly established when the teen is not actually in the middle of gaming! Chapman suggests a special family forum, where everyone is present and the teen’s own input is valued.[xvii] It is essential for parents to be open to learning from their teens about what their perceived gaming needs may be, especially in light of a digital and social subculture far different from their own.[xviii]

Teens thrive when they feel genuinely heard, given adequate responsibility and given a chance to uphold them, because they become treated as emerging adults. Flying against the postmodern youth axiom that personal freedom is the key to fulfilment, it is rather responsibility that is more the measure of personal fulfilment: “we do not gain a sense of self-worth from being independent. Our worth comes from being responsible.”[xix] How can we empower our teens to choose to be responsible about their gaming?

Some rules that have been effectively upheld in families include: allocating no-screen-times for the entire family (e.g. during meal times, family evenings), only allowing screens in certain rooms in the house (e.g. living room and kitchen, but not the bedroom or dining room), switching off wifi access across the whole house at certain hours (and keeping the WiFi hub in your bedroom).[xx]

Important! Even mutually established rules are rendered ineffective if there are no consequences of breach.[xxi] Teens must suffer consequences for their actions, for breaching a rule without consequences is a gross distortion of real adult life.

But what if teens also had a say in deciding on their own consequences of irresponsible gaming (e.g. ‘I agree that gaming after 10pm means a right for my parents to confiscate my device for the next day’)? If they themselves are involved in coming up with the consequences of irresponsible gaming, then they are far less likely to complain if they are implemented. It also means the energy of the parent is no longer in stopping the teen from playing overtime, but calmly implementing the previously agreed consequence.

There are of course certain house rules around gaming that are non-negotiable from the perspective of parents. This is especially so around content. Parents are strongly advised to look into individual games before purchase, their ratings and their potential effect on teens. Things to look out for are gratuitous violence, the occult, sexual exploitation, gambling, and potential cyber safety risks.[xxii]

Concluding remarks

Addressing gaming disorder begins with a deeper appreciation of gaming’s appeal for some teen’s genuine needs, which is where this booklet first began. When understood as a disorder more than an addiction, it becomes clearer that gaming disorder is often informed by sociological, developmental and spiritual factors far deeper than the gaming itself, even though the objectively addictive features of the actual games cannot be bracketed out. Taking this into account, the two latter strategies chosen were included to allow parents to immediately put into practice measures to begin a cooperative conversation with their teens about gaming, a step which greatly empowers parents in their battle. There is much room for developing this booklet into the future, such as the exploration of the link between temperament and gaming genres, the social ramifications of the increasingly growing Esports[xxiii] culture, smartphone and internet usage, and when to seek professional help for a teen. For now, the bibliography of this paper is a fantastic hub to many of the articles I have found most helpful for this paper.

I’ve also written a shorter article on the hot-button issue of the link between aggressive behavior and violent video games


[1] The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases prefers the term gaming disorder to describe what many would consider to be gaming addiction. I agree with this language shift. Whereas addiction seems to imply the issue lies squarely with gaming, disorder encourages us to expand our exploration beyond the gaming itself, and consider the wider social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual dimensions of the teen.

[i] Steven Dupon, Parent’s Guide to Gaming (Victoria: YMCA Youth Services. 2012),26.

[ii] Dupon, Parent’s Guide to Gaming, 26.

[iii] John Paul II, “Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel,” Address of 36th World Communications Day (2002), 5.

[iv] John Paul II, “Internet: A New Forum,”3.

[v] Isabela Granic and Adam Lobel, Rutger C. M. E. Engels, “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” in America Psychologist (January 2014), 68.


[vii] Granic, “The Benefits of Playing Vide Games,” 71.

[viii] C. S. Dweck & D. C. Molden (2005). “Self-theories: Their impact on competence motivation and acquisition” in Handbook of competence and motivation (New York, NY: Guilford Press), 122-140.

[ix] Tolkien J.R.R., “On Fairy Stories,” Andrew Lang lecture (University of St Andrews, Scotland), 1939.

[x] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.”

[xi] Britton, Fr Jake, “Video Games and Culture” in Word on Fire Blog,

[xii] Britton, “Video Games and Culture.”

[xiii] Joshua Krook, “The business of addiction: how the video gaming industry is evolving to be like the casino industry,” in The Conversation, accessed 19 Oct 2019.

[xiv] Dupon, How to Deal with Video Game Addiction, 107.

[xv] Dupon, How to Deal with Video Game Addiction, 63.

[xvi] Dupon, How to Deal with Video Game Addiction, 65.

[xvii] Gary Chapman. The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010), 195.

[xviii] Megan Lovegrove and Louise Bedwell, Teenagers Explained (Surrey: Crimson Publishing Limited, 2012), 152.

[xix] Chapman, The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers, 192.

[xx] Baverstock & Hines, Whatever!, 202.

[xxi] Baverstock & Hines, Whatever!, 113.

[xxii] Dupon, Parent’s Guide to Gaming, 71.

[xxiii] Playing video games professionally in front of live audiences, like any competitive sport (In August 2019, Melbourne teen Anathan Pham won $4.6 million AU playing DOTA 2 at The International in Shanghai)

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