In the early days of video games, most games were available only on arcade machines, which were not accessible 24-hours a day. These days, games are one of the most popular features of social network sites and can be played almost continuously on handheld game devices, personal computers, or smartphones. Video games have become much more elaborate, with rich alternate worlds, multiple characters, and complicated storylines.
Young adults often turn to games to be challenged, enhance their arousal, diminish their sense of defeat and helplessness, and feel connected with others who live with social isolation. They use games to distract and anesthetize emotional pain. Game creators are incentivized to develop and program games to keep you playing. Humans are incentivized to avoid pain. The nature of these games is that they give immediate rewards and reinforcements and in time, change the neurochemistry of the brain.
Similar to the behavioral conditioning experiments performed by BF Skinner with rats and pigeons, the gamer is being trained to push buttons for their digital reward, which becomes digital heroin for the mind. As said eloquently by one young gamer, “I was the rat in the Skinner box. The lever I pushed was attached to a computer and screen and my reward was digital images that provided me with amazing rushes of dopamine.”
With chronic gaming, the brain has adapted to high levels of dopamine by developing a tolerance. As a consequence, the brain on its own produces less dopamine and/or reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit, which decreases the enjoyment of the behavior requiring one to play longer and more frequently to have any good feelings. It’s only a matter of time before the gamer begins to neglect major aspects of his life such as social relationships, school, work, self-care, and hygiene. Once they become pathological gamers, they become more depressed, anxious, socially phobic and less productive.
Jason came to the Claudia Black Young Adult Center at The Meadows for treatment for his depression. He was in his second year of college, had failing grades, was dropping classes, was isolating in his dorm room, had lost weight and was not attending to basic hygiene. Jason’s family intervened, taking these signs of depression seriously as his biological father had committed suicide when Jason was just seven. What the family didn’t recognize was that Jason had a gaming addiction.
At the Claudia Black Center, it is protocol when we work with a male who is depressed and isolating to assess the possibility of some type of screen addiction. We find it is most likely to be gaming or porn and often times both. (Should this be a female, their screen addiction is more likely to be related to social media.) Nearly all gamers who come to us do not identify gaming as their primary problem. Part of our role is to help them explore this part of their life through motivational interviewing techniques. And we also address their depression, looking at any developmental trauma and grief issues.
With Jason we worked on the trauma of losing his father to suicide and the unresolved grief that spread throughout his family, evaluating his depression and exploring his gaming behavior. Like most of our clients, he came to recognize that gaming was a primary issue for him. At the Claudia Black Center, we were able to help detox him, work to identify unhealthy core beliefs, do the needed grief and trauma work regarding his fathers’ suicide, and facilitate an after-care plan with the focus predominantly on his gaming addiction.
Compared to other addictive disorders, video game addiction may not seem very serious; however, when it is addictive, it leads to all of the same potential consequences of other addictions, impacting every aspect of one’s life and even becoming life-threatening. We are increasingly hearing stories of gamers dying, due to dehydration, not eating, even cardiac arrest. While video games have their place in a healthy, well-rounded life, when gaming begins to take precedence over school, work, relationships, or basic self-care the individual needs professional help.
Additional Resources and Assessment Tools:
Online Gamers Anonymous www.olganon.org
Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous www.cgaa.info
Claudia Black, Ph. D.Senior Fellow, Clinical Architect of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center Program