Hooked! The Addictive Power of Video Games

It was a dynamic air show any boy would love. Displays of cool military equipment. Periodic fly-bys of vintage aircraft and modern jets. The main event, a performance by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds flight team, commenced with F-16 fighters taxiing close to the crowd, engines roaring. Enthusiastic oohs and ahhs erupted from everyone — except for one boy, about 12, whose attention remained fixed on his hand-held Game Boy.

“Jason, put that down!” his mother ordered, exasperation rising in her voice. “Look at the jets!”

“Hold on, Mom,” he responded, never looking up. “Just let me finish this level.”

Interactive Isolation

Just let me finish this level. Does that phrase sound familiar? Do your children seem to spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in video games? Do they get jittery if they haven’t played for a while? Does real life take a back seat to screen life?

The scene at the air show is not made up. That boy displayed classic signs of video game addiction. Kurt and Olivia Bruner would recognize the symptoms. Their son Kyle became addicted to what his parents first thought was a harmless activity. As they relate in their book Playstation Nation: Protect Your Child from Video Game Addiction, it started small. They rented video games only as a treat or to keep the kids busy during vacation. Both vetted the games they let Kyle play, careful to avoid occult, violent or sexual content. But they never imagined how the games themselves could dominate a player’s life.

“Christian parents understand the issue of morality,” Kurt told Plugged In, “just as they don’t let their kids go to the raunchy movies. The problem is that most people aren’t aware of the addictive nature of these games, so they’re letting their kids become enslaved to something thinking that it’s harmless.”

That’s why, in a way, they blame themselves for Kyle’s addiction. “We noticed our once-active son being enticed away from normal, healthy childhood activities into a digital universe,” they write. “Board games remained on the shelf. Outdoor activities decreased. Even relationships with friends and family were affected, dominated by game chatter or conflict over why he couldn’t play ‘just one more level.’”

A Different Kind of High

Seeing their son sink ever deeper into his need for video games, the Bruners uncovered numerous studies showing that, for some people, games have the same effect on the brain as habit-forming drugs.

Researchers at London’s Hammersmith Hospital found that playing video games floods the player’s brain with dopamine, a mood-regulating hormone that induces pleasurable feelings. The scientists likened this hit of dopamine to that observed following intravenous injections of amphetamine or methylphenidate, a drug used to treat ADHD. In fact, children awaiting major surgery who were allowed to play video games before the procedure required less anesthesia to put them under and less pain medicine afterward. So it’s reasonable to ask, “Can a person overdose on electronic games?”

South Korea boasts thousands of Internet cafes. One proprietor said, “I’ve seen people who play games for months, just briefly going home for a change of clothing, taking care of all their eating and sleeping here.” That lifestyle isn’t just unhealthy; it is potentially dangerous. A 28-year-old Korean man died at one of those cybercafés after nearly 50 straight hours of playing online computer games.

Fortunately, this new form of addiction is being recognized as a legitimate threat. Europe’s first detox clinic for video gamers opened in Holland in 2005. Hyke van der Heijden, 28, a graduate of the Amsterdam program, started playing video games 20 years ago. By the time he was in college he was gaming about 14 hours a day and using drugs to play longer. “For me, one joint would never be enough, or five minutes of gaming would never be enough,” he said. “I would just keep going until I crashed out.”

The Significant Seven: What Makes Games Addictive

Studying the research and looking at the way video games had come to dominate young Kyle’s life, the Bruners identified seven different hooks1 programmed into games that keep players riveted to the virtual action. Not all seven exist in every game, but the more that are present, the greater the chance of players becoming hooked. They are:

  1. Beating the Game. To conquer a game, one must spend untold hours navigating increasingly difficult levels. “Sports are made for winner, loser, game over, you move on,” Kurt explained. “Board games are made for winner, loser, pack it up, it’s done. Video games are designed to feed a never-ending and growing appetite for more and more and more.” That can require searching every nook and cranny of screen space for hidden bonuses, leading to the second addictive quality …
  2. Exploration. Some titles, like the classic “Myst,” are entirely about traversing and studying imaginary worlds. That’s a powerful draw made stronger by the inclusion of secret levels, which have been built into video games since the earliest edition of “Super Mario Bros.”
  3. Mastery. Programmers build feedback into the game (hand controllers vibrate, for example, when your player is “shot”) so that players get visual and physical responses to what they’re doing onscreen. Psychologically, this fuels the learning process, making the player even more eager to master elements of the game.
  4. The High Score. Of course, beating the high score has been an incentive since the earliest pinball machines. But video games are different in that the higher you go, the more difficult the game becomes. Players spend countless hours trying to get a new high score, even if the one they’re besting is their own.
  5. Story-Driven Role-Playing. Everyone wants to know how the story ends, whether it’s a children’s fairy tale or a plot-driven video game. Some games let teens control an onscreen figure, but role-playing games go much deeper by allowing the player to create and become the character in a story. Being so personally invested makes it that much harder to quit. This is why more and more games are constructed around a foundational story.
  6. Competition. Boys in particular love to lock horns in spirited contests. With multiplayer options, teens take on both the game and other gamers for bragging rights. Some committed fans go so far as to schedule activities and sleep patterns to accommodate a network of online partners or opponents.
  7. Relationships. Fantasy role-playing games let teens create personas much different from who they are in real life. For example, an overweight, athletically challenged boy can become a muscle-bound superhero in an online world, thus making friends with people who would not normally associate with him. Pressure to keep up with online peers also produces powerful incentives to keep improving.

Pushing Teens’ Buttons

The psychologically addictive elements of video gaming become even more troublesome when you consider that they affect young people precisely at the time when their developing brains are being hardwired for life.

“I observed in Kyle behaviors and agitations that reminded me of pornography, even though morally there was no problem with what he was playing,” Kurt said. “But spiritually there was a profound issue of enslavement to something that will never bring satisfaction. These are the childhood and teenage years, when your children are acquiring tastes for what they’ll enjoy in life. So there’s a dampening of the ability to enjoy music, to enjoy art, to enjoy reading, to enjoy all these other things because their games take precedence over everything.”

There are also physical effects of prolonged gaming. Repetitive-motion injuries. Headaches. Nausea. Or worse. The Korean gamer likely died of a heart attack brought on by game-induced hypertension as well as dehydration and exhaustion. While fatalities are rare, physical trauma isn’t. TV host Jane Pauley once featured a college student who spoke of routinely playing 30 hours at a time. For the show he was hooked up to medical equipment as he began playing a video game, and within 30 minutes his blood pressure maxed out at 190/144 — significant hypertension — and his pulse rate exceeded 120 beats per minute.

Should Video Game-Loving Families Go Cold Turkey? Not Necessarily

In moderation, some titles can provide a fun diversion for people wired to handle them well. Researchers also point out positive effects that can come from gaming (problem-solving skills, coordination, real-life applications, etc.), particularly if families use multiplayer games to bond with adolescents. The Bruners are quick to stress that not everyone who plays video games will have a hard time putting them down, though they do believe as many as one in three gamers will eventually get hooked. In those homes, “game over” may be the wisest strategy.

“One thing is clear,” the Bruners write, aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, “the pattern of addiction associated with electronic games is real, and a threat to the well-being of your child. Other families will make choices very different from our own because every child and family dynamic is unique. But choices must be made.” Or your family’s Grand Canyon vacation may be punctuated by the blips and beeps of a tuned-out teen striving to finish just one more level.

Lovense Max