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Pixels to problems: how game addictions work

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Graphic illustration by Inaaya Yousuf
In most video games, players strive to be the richest, most powerful or skillful entity — though at the cost of time.

From the peaceful villages of “Animal Crossing” to the ferocious battles fought in “Dark Souls,” video games offer a convenient escape from one’s daily routine. In most video games, players strive to be the richest, most powerful or skillful entity — though at the cost of time. In this digital age, where leveling up in video games leads to a sense of success and physical activity is traded for virtual simulations, a new type of phenomenon is on the rise: video game addiction. 

According to the National Institute Of Health, more than 90% of children older than 2 years old play video games, and nearly 75% of American households own a video game console. In the United States, playing video games is a hobby that is almost universally shared among youth and adults.

“It’s fun because there’s a culture behind video games,” said Mark Healy, the chair of the Department of Psychology at De Anza College. “It’s not just this addictive response in the brain — it’s your friends doing it which makes it more fun. A lot of the addiction is rooted in the desire to belong and to not feel left out.”

From a neurological standpoint, such addictions are caused by the desire for pleasurable experiences or hyperarousal — excessive stimulation. When one experiences hyperarousal while playing video games, the brain triggers a release of dopamine. As one continues to play these games, the brain begins to form an association between the behavior and dopamine, causing a greater desire to return to the activity. Dopamine is a self-reinforcing neurotransmitter, meaning it increases with repetition of the activity. Since dopamine sustains attention and interest, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to stop playing, often manifesting into an addiction. 

Although playing video games offers a fun release from stress through visually entertaining mediums, it may come at a cost. The human brain processes scenarios within video games as if they were real, and reacts accordingly.  This reaction is known as a “fight-or-flight response” and is triggered when one is exposed to intense stimulation or violent imagery. Thus, excessive video game usage can cause the brain to be revved up in a constant state of hyperarousal. 

Although each individual’s video game experience is different, the activity offers common difficulties across the board, including paying attention, controlling impulses, having difficulty following directions or tolerating frustration. According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, excessive screen time is linked to insomnia, depression, loss of social skills and bodily pain such as eye strain and back problems. The same study shows that individuals can also begin to experience loss of creativity, compassion or interest in studies. Moreover, many popular video games, such as “Overwatch” and “Call of Duty” are characterized by their graphic imagery and violent nature. Overexposure to violent video games may cause players to become desensitized to such material.

“What happens is that you get these images in your head and you might obsess over these graphic images and it’s uncomfortable,” Healy said. “You might ruminate, or have repeated visions in your head, of the scenes. This is not a positive contribution to your cognitive ability or personality overall.”

Symptoms of video game addiction can be observed through behaviors such as excessive spending on video games, reduced time spent on other hobbies or responsibilities and repetitive, strong urges to play.

“Video games can be a distraction from the outside world — a sugar coated escape from reality,” junior Annie Li said. “A lot of times video games are a coping mechanism.”

Nevertheless, when regulated, enjoying digitized entertainment may come with various benefits. Video games offer a platform to network with players from all over the world and connect with people with whom one may not usually engage. Internet friendships are a testament to the community-building aspect of multiplayer video games.
“Video game communities are usually quite supportive,” Li said. “It’s a good way to find someone who shares an interest with you. This can sometimes be difficult in real life.”

These social aspects of video game culture are not without their drawbacks. Due to player bases originating from vastly different demographics and circumstances, there are lots of in-game interactions that, if ill-intentioned, can lead to conflict.

“Video games can be really edgy, aggressive and even racist or violent,” Healy said. “But then 10 minutes later, the situation can take a complete opposite shift. There are certain parts of video games that encourage harmful thinking, and harbor negative influences, just like any online platform.”

Popular games like “Roblox,” “Fortnite,” “Call of Duty”and “Valorant” employ game devices to maximize the amount of time spent on the game. One example is reinforcement, such as progressing past levels. These levels gradually increase in difficulty and skill level necessary. This keeps players hooked by providing them with a sense of success when they overcome obstacles within the game without being so difficult that it discourages them from playing at all.

“The intermittent release of rewards is very carefully orchestrated,” School psychologist Dr. Brittany Stevens said. “Almost every game has an increase in difficulty, but it’s very carefully structured so you can experience success without thinking it’s impossible or losing interest. Everyone is being lured into staying onto these addictive games.” 

Typically, leveling up is rewarded through currency, unlocked items, new skills and more. This provides players with a sense of accomplishment — a feeling they keep chasing so they can achieve more and continue accruing their wealth in games. Also, virtual goods allow players to expand their prosperity in games while increasing profits for the game through in-app purchases. This can foster a much more rewarding experience for the player and incentivize them to return to the game. 

“The rarity system motivates people to play the game more or spend more money on it,” Li said. “You can receive validation for yourself or give yourself a reason to keep going.”

Despite the drawbacks of video games, playing them — to an extent — has been attributed to benefits including spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and problem solving, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. Playing certain video games like “Minecraft”and other strategic games allows players to think innovatively. Authors of the study claimed that adolescents who played strategic video games experienced an increase in school grades as a result of more conditioning related to problem solving. The same study also stated that one of the main benefits of playing video games in moderation is that it can help relieve stress and provide other emotional benefits. Playing certain video games like “Angry Birds” reinforces the concept of not giving up when facing challenges such as puzzles and engaging repetition.

There are a plethora of ways to mitigate video game addiction. One such approach is to occupy oneself with an equally stimulating hobby. By being more occupied with a routine of higher priority, one can effectively cut the amount of time spent on a game and possibly discover a new passion. Strategies for mitigation vary from person to person. Students like junior Joshua Tan have found successful ways to balance video games and free time.
“I use an online calendar to regulate my playing hours,” Tan said. “I don’t play at all on weekdays, and I set aside one hour to play on weekends.”
With the exponential growth of video games within this decade, the pleasure derived from gaming has led to the rising prevalence of video game addictions. While there are benefits to regulated gaming such as community-building and cognitive enhancements, there also exist consequences. The key to reaping the benefits of gaming resides in finding and actively implementing strategies to control addiction, while also having fun and conditioning oneself to appropriate surroundings. In the end, while video games offer a dynamic escape, the responsibility lies within the individual to navigate this digital world.

“If you think you have an addiction, be reflective and honest with yourself,” Stevens said.  “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a relief or an enjoyable experience to me, and is it still serving me?’ Also, be honest about whether or not you can stop.”

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About the Contributors
Apurva Krishnamurthy, News Editor
(she/her) Apurva is a senior and the news editor for the Epic. Aside from journalism, she enjoys discovering new music, watching horror and thriller movies, and reading.
Robert Yu, Staffer
(he/him) Robert is a junior and a first-year staffer in the LHS Epic. He enjoys folding origami, binging anime, listening to indie music, and hitching rides on his friend's old car. He's very excited to bring you stories this year and hopes to hone his writing, photography, and design skills.

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