Video Game Addiction: “All your base are belong to us”

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Reader’s Question

Is there something wrong with someone who plays games on a computer all the time, with time out for work and meals only?

Psychologist’s Reply

Anyone who plays video games knows how addictive games can be. Let me first say that gaming is not just for teenagers, but adult gamers are rapidly growing in number as well. The gaming industry and gaming culture permeate just about every aspect of our lives now. If you recognize the significance of the title of this article, then it’s likely you’re part of that revolution too.

Back to the question: is this a problem? Every gamer has to evaluate this for themselves. However, let me suggest a few things to take into consideration when doing so.

The Emotional Drop
If the time you spend online or on the computer lifts you up and gets you going, excited or really happy — and then as soon as you put down the controller you feel the shift to feeling angry or sad, this could be a problem. Significant shifts in mood when you stop playing or, even worse sometimes, when you get interrupted and have to put the game on pause, can also be a negative indication. I often call this the “who the hell is calling me now? I’ve almost beat this level and this better be the leader of the free world calling or else!” syndrome. I’ve often heard of my friends and clients who get frustrated during a game and become very angry — or throw the controller across the room, smashing the new 55-inch HDTV. Often with these events there is a moderate to intense feeling of dysphoria that comes about.
The Wandering Mind
Many gamers can put down their games and move on to others things with ease. However, some find that difficult. If you find your thought slowly drifting back to the game during work or school when you’re supposed to be focused on what’s currently in front of you, this could be another indication of a problem. With the portability of many gaming system now, it’s easier to bring your games with you. I’ve seen plenty of couples out to eat and one of them is focused on their game while their partner stares off into space bored. This Wandering Mind problem only seems to distract us from what’s going on around us in the physical world.
The Digital Social Circle
Many games, like MMOs, provide a huge network of others gamers to interact with. This can be a positive thing as long as it does not replace or take away from your social relationships with people in your physical space around you. If the amount of time you play and the friends you meet online begin to take the place of or take away from these relationships it could be a problem. Look at the amount of time you spend playing with your friends online versus hanging out in person too.
Loss of Balance
Most gamers player several hours a week. I don’t want to put a number of hours on this because there really is no cut off. Instead, it’s important to look at the balance in your life. Ask yourself “What else do I do? What else do I have going on today?” Some gamers are unable to balance the amount of time they play with other important things in life: work, school, relationships, chores, etc. If you find that other things take too much of a back seat to gaming, there could be a problem. This lack of balance may even impact your wallet. How much did you spend on games, online gaming subscriptions, add-ons, or even those Green Gems you need to make your village impervious to attack from others?

So how do these games manage to wrap us up and swallow us whole? Games are made to be hard and challenging, while allowing for the player to have success and accomplishments along the way. Finding that right balance is at the core of many games. If it’s too easy for most people, we lose interest. If it’s too hard, we become frustrated and stop. This is the same design awareness that casinos use in building slot machines and other gambling games. Get the right balance of the win/loss ratio, and our brains are hooked. The reward systems in our brains go crazy for this type of reinforcement. That slim chance of getting the gold coin when you kill a monster becomes addicting. Other elements are in play as well: getting the high score, beating the next boss or winning the game, the escape of role playing, the excitement of discovery when playing a game in open world role playing games, and a sense of community with other gamers all keeps us playing longer and more than we should.

However, over the last five years or so, new research is uncovering benefits of gaming. Yes, I said benefits. Researcher Isabela Granic and her co-authors are showing us that gaming can impact help us develop skills in multiple areas like cognitive development, motivation, emotion and social development. New studies suggest that spatial skills can be learned in a relatively short time, and that games can improve attentional skills and teach new ways of problem solving. In addition, games can teach persistence despite obstacles and failures. Games can also provide emotions of success and accomplishment, and distract from immediate negative emotions of anxiety and depression. And social games can provides opportunities for learning social skills and increase cooperative efforts with other players.

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