We hear a lot about the potential adverse effects of video games and the possibility of video gaming addiction. Is it real, however? How do video games affect users’ brains? Do they contribute to aggression and violent outbursts?
We explore the answers to some of these widely debated questions below.
How Video Games Affect the Brain
Before discussing whether or not video game addiction is real, the same way drug or alcohol addiction is, it’s helpful to understand how game playing affects our brains.
More than 150 million people in the United States play video games regularly, for at least three hours a week. Video gaming may impact the brain and create changes in some regions of it. Some of the ways video games can affect the functionality and structure of the brain include:
- Gaming affects attention. Studies consistently find that video game players have improvements in some types of attention, including selective and sustained attention.
- The areas of the brain that play a role in attention are more efficient in gamers.
- Research also finds gamers tend to need less mental activation to stay focused on challenging or demanding tasks.
- There’s evidence that playing video games can increase the size of the brain’s parts responsible for what is called visuospatial skills. Visuospatial skills are your ability to identify spatial and visual relationships between objects.
- Long-term gamers may have an enlarged right hippocampus.
- Some have wondered whether video games can help reduce age-related cognitive decline, which research does not currently support. Researchers have looked at whether or not games can improve working memory and other cognitive abilities and found no effect.
While some of the above effects of gaming on the brain are beneficial, it’s not all good news about excessive gaming and the potential impact on daily lives.
Video Game Addiction
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is what mental health practitioners use to diagnose conditions. Currently, video game addiction is not in the DSM-5. The guide does include sections on conditions for further study, one of which is online gaming addiction disorder, among other behavioral addictions.
To diagnose internet gaming disorder, someone would have to experience at least five of the following symptoms in the past year.
- Gaming preoccupation
- Escalation of gaming time
- Withdrawal symptoms when you can’t game
- Spending more time satisfying your need or urge to play
- Loss of control over gaming
- Loss of interest in other daily activities
- Gaming despite known adverse consequences
- Dishonesty about the amount of time spent gaming
- Using gaming to self-soothe or feel better
- Losing relationships or opportunities due to gaming
Other symptoms of video game addiction or impaired control include:
- Declines in academic achievement or work performance
- Declines in personal hygiene or grooming
- Irritability or anxiety with decreases in gaming time, even briefly
- Sleeplessness, loss of appetite, or agitation when unable to game
The World Health Organization does recognize addiction to video games and gaming activities without the specific internet addiction designation in the International Classification of Disease, also known as the ICD-11.
The concept of video gaming addiction and the concerns it can bring aren’t exclusive to the United States. Asian countries, including China and South Korea, have identified an addiction to gaming as an urgent public health matter. Countries working to combat gaming addiction say it’s a risk because of the connection to other mental health disorders.
In gaming addicts, there are structural and functional changes in the brain’s reward system.
- The reward system is responsible for pleasure, motivation, and learning.
- Researchers, when exposing video game addicts to cues related to games, have found they experience cravings.
- These effects are similar to other addictive disorders, including substance use disorders.
- Gaming addiction could be particularly impactful to the brain since it’s an addiction seen in children sometimes, and their brains are still developing.
There’s a lot of complexity that we need to fully understand going forward to understand more about the brain effects of gaming since there are positive and negative elements based on previous studies.
Why Can Video Games Be Addictive?
As is the case with other addictions, not everyone who plays video games will develop the signs of an addiction, but some might.
If you play video games, you can experience what’s called hyperarousal. With hyperarousal, there’s a release of high amounts of dopamine.
- Dopamine is a brain chemical naturally released when we experience something that makes us feel good, including achievement or success.
- Addiction to dopamine release leads many to a life of substance abuse and can do the same in gaming, at least as far as what researchers currently believe.
- We also see these effects in behavioral addictions like gambling disorders and gambling addiction.
When you have an addiction, the primary symptom is a lack of control, even though it’s causing negative consequences in your life. If you play video games frequently, you may find these negative consequences are happening already. For example, you might not dedicate as much time to work, school or your relationships could suffer because of the amount of time you spend gaming.
Dopamine can be potent. Dopamine helps us stay attentive and interested in activities, which is why you might find it hard to pull yourself away from games even if you want to.
The more we become interested in something, the more dopamine our brain might release. That becomes a cycle where we direct more attention to that stimulating task, potentially leading to addicted gamers.
Do Video Games Lead to Violence?
While there is some compelling evidence that video games addiction shares features of substance addictions, we did want to point out the misconception many people have about their links to violence in real life.
According to a systematic review from Massey University in New Zealand, which looked at 28 studies from previous years, video games don’t lead to aggression or violence, at least not in a statistically significant way. The report was relatively recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Researchers looked at studies dating back to 2018 and found nearly zero effects on the long-term effects of violent games on youth aggression.
Is There Gaming Addiction Treatment?
Video games are complicated and not inherently bad. There are undoubtedly healthy gamers. As with all stimuli that offer a dopamine release, there are also people with the personality types that can and will take advantage to an unhealthy level, and for that reason treatment for video game addiction at addiction treatment centers exists.
If you feel like your use of games is out of control, some treatment facilities treat video game addictions and offer options to help break compulsive cycles that can become detrimental to your lifestyle, relationships, and physical health.
Treatment programs for video game addiction often focus on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and similar evidence-based therapies. With CBT, you can learn to stop your obsessive thought patterns associated with addictive behaviors and build more productive cognitive skills. Group, individual, and family therapy may also be helpful approaches, depending on the specific situation.
We often find that when you struggle with problematic gaming or other addictive activities, you could have a co-occurring mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. If so, treating that condition can help alleviate the symptoms of gaming addiction, which you may have initially used to self-medicate.
While there are still gray areas relating to video gaming addiction, we see that it shares similarities to substance use disorders, and a craving for gaming can negatively affect your life. We encourage you to contact the Mental Health Center of San Diego team by calling (858) 258-9883 to learn more about process addiction and treatment for other mental health issues.