Why are video games so addicting and how can I leverage it for my benefit?

World of Warcraft. Grand Theft Auto. Super Smash Bros. Minecraft. Fortnight. These are just a few of the many games that my clients play on a daily basis. I have to admit that gaming is not really my thing. Why? Because I am terrible at it. After dying on the first level multiple times, it really puts a damper on my self-esteem and they are no longer fun. So why are other people so into gaming that they would rather play than engage in the “real” world? If you have a child or know of people who are self-identified as gamers, they can baffle us as to why people are so entrenched in games and sometimes frustrate us because we believe gaming is nothing but a waste of time. Personally, I am not opposed to gaming and believe that there are some wonderful things about them as long as they are serving the primary purpose of entertainment and not much more.I want to address the psychology behind why gaming can be so addicting for people and how we can use that to our benefit for those we love. 

There are major psychological benefits for people who love playing electronic games that may not reflect the real world. Here are a few reasons for their strong appeal: 

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1.    They are created to be very stimulating.

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As technology continues to improve, video games are becoming more and more sensorially entertaining. Things are always shifting and blowing up that it catches our attention, keeping us engaged. There is neurological stimulation that occurs that keeps our mind distracted and anticipating the next thing. Our brains get a nice hit of a brain chemical called dopamine that makes us feel great and craving for more. Some people say that we are in the ADHD generation because our attention span gets shorter and shorter. That is why YouTube videos are often five minutes or less because we will get bored if it is any longer. There is this unspoken “need” to be entertained or “not bored” and video games can fill some of that need.

2.    They create a sense of mastery.

There is generally a high correlation between effort and achievement. The more time spent playing a game, the better you get at it. The player can see incremental growth of their video game character which feels pretty good. There is a sense of accomplishment and even a psychological sense of control that people generally need. Often times this is simply not true in the real world. Spending tons of time studying or having good intentions to make new friends do you not always translate into success which can be very discouraging. Gaming can fill that void with in-game rewards that reflect their efforts and the makers of these games do a great job of creating these built-in reward indicators to make the players feel good about “leveling up.”

3.    They create a sense of desired identity.

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People may not always like their identity and reputation in the real world. So why not create an identity online that I will love and be proud of? That is the power of certain video games. People can create their alter ego avatar and live out their desired identity in their online gaming world. I have spoken to many young adults who enjoy online gaming and the kind of character they choose or create usually says a lot about who they want to be. For example, I was talking to a female client who enjoyed playing this online multi-player co-op game called Overwatch. Her character of choice was called Mercy who has the role of healing team members with an uncanny ability to hide. Upon further discussion, she admitted that this reflected her desire to be helpful to her friends but her fear of rejection leads her to spend more time hidden away from the outside world. In the game, however, she gets to show up as this powerful healer who is acknowledged and appreciated by her friends. There is also a strong social component to online gaming where people can feel accepted or even admired by hundreds of people all over the world for their gaming prowess. For people who have difficulties engaging the real world whether it is due to social anxiety or lack of accomplishments in school or work, the online gaming community can be really desirable in fulfilling those psychological and social needs.

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So, what can we do as concerned parents or friends of people who are so deeply rooted in the gaming world that it creates challenges in the real world? I believe a great starting point is using the gamers’ interests in their game as an opportunity to get to know them on a deeper level. This is a great way to build rapport and lower their defenses. Most gamers that I have met have no problem opening up and sharing about their love for their game! Find out the purpose of the game, learn more about their avatar or in-game character, and what they enjoy about playing the game. Now that you know some of the potential psychological benefits that a gamer gets from playing their game, you can begin understanding the person that you love and possibly what they lack in the real world. Being able to articulate back to the individual that he or she gets a certain level of fulfillment from their gaming achievements or glorified identities may help them gain clarity on what it is they want in the real world too. The real challenge is to find ways to help the gamer feel a sense of mastery and desired identity in other places besides gaming. This may include encouraging the gamer to explore safe social opportunities (e.g., church youth groups, boy/girl scouts) or engage in learning another skill (e.g., archery, coding, cooking). 

We want to support people who love gaming to be successful in the real world. This conversation may be easier within a therapy or counseling context to help the gamer create an identity beyond their gaming persona. For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.

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