14 October 2013

Video game Addiction or Poor Time Management?

By Amanda Williamson - Counselling in Exeter

I've been doing a bit of pondering since reading a few weeks ago about the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 and the anticipated endemic of "sickies" as a result of it's release.

I grew up with 4 brothers and a sister, in the 70's and early 80's. Early childhood was about going to the park by ourselves, playing in the garden, waiting to watch the tiny bit of kid's television that was on during allocated slots, and playing with an assortment of plastic and wooden toys. I recall the excitement of one year, receiving both of my either/or Christmas gifts selections - a Bontempi Organ and a Girl's World styling head! (I think that every Christmas has been an anti-climax since then). Hour upon hour of teaching myself to play "Puff the Magic Dragon" on the organ, and how to plait plastic platinum blonde hair...

The first opportunity at video gaming was of course, Pong. I think I first saw it at my Grandparent's house - my uncle is only 4 years older than me so I suspect it was his, although my Nanna was always a bit of a technophile. Of course it's hard to look back in retrospect and fully appreciate just how much fun this rudimentary game was. To the younger readers; believe me it was fun (see the scintillating game of tennis to the right). 

Then one Christmas, when I was around 9 years old, we received a joint Christmas present of an Atari 2600 along with Space Invaders, Pacman, Defender and Asteroids. Wow! We were in gaming heaven (honestly!). Shame we had to take turns with 5 of us (little sis was too young at that stage). Space Invaders was the best, and we worked out a "cheat", by pressing "reset" at the same time as switching it on, which resulted in being able to shoot out non-stop bullets, rather than waiting until the previously fired shot had reached the top of the screen. We busted some records big time with that cheat!

By adolescence I had discovered things outside of the house to keep me occupied, and my gaming stopped. It didn't really pick up again until when I was about 20 and I got myself a vintage Tomy Tronic for a boost of childhood fun, followed by a Nintendo GameBoy when I was about 24. My partner at the time was anti-gaming, so it was a solitary pursuit. Then I had kids, and there wasn't time for such frivolities. I guess you could say that I am hardly a gaming addict then.

These days, I only really like playing games that are so ridiculous, that don't in any way attempt to simulate real life. We're talking MarioKart, Rayman's Raving Rabbids, Wii games, that kind of thing. By the way, this may have something to do with a phenomenon which is currently being researched, that is, the mechanics by which many of us find virtual humans unsettling to look at, known as Uncanny Valley. I can tell even the most HD digital imagery from analog, so I think I am sensitive that way.

But this is really about whether gaming can be problematic, or even addictive, although I have enjoyed a trip down memory lane...

Does video game addiction exist?

Is there such a thing a video game addiction? Is it problematic? Or is it just hysteria. It certainly seems to be a highly emotive topic with people taking quite strong views either way. Here is a interesting paper entitled Problems with the Concept of Video Game "Addiction"  (link broken as of Jan 2024) which seems like a quite balanced and rational sounding argument that there is a lack of scientific evidence to their being such a thing as video game addiction. The case studies involved, by self-professed gaming addicts, seem to involve more of an issues with poor time management and prioritising than of addiction per se.

There also this post on the site Fit Family Together which has a strong opinion on the effects of video games on children. (link now obselete as of Jan 2024). There are some particularly interesting and rational comments on the post, in contrast to the usual trolling that seems to take place on any post expressing opinion.

What do others think?

So I put it out into the social networking world - does anybody have anything to say about video game addiction, or their experience of it? I'm not interested in jumping to conclusions about how addictive and harmful gaming is (although I have been tempted on occasion) so I really wanted to get some level-headed responses from gamers.

Well, one of my brothers responded thus:

"I'd take up too much of your time - I wouldn't know where to begin!!

Does this mean that it is more of a time management issue or an addiction?!

Another of my brothers, Ross (pictured with me above), 40, busy running his own business and raising two young children, offered the following:

"Back in the early 90's as I was locked into the virtual world of Amiga gaming. I have found myself cured nowadays and although an owner of a PS3 and Wii I only ever spend about 20mins per week overall. Video game addiction back in the early 90's was mine and my other brothers' escape from the boredom at that time and as I was not educated very well it took me into a world where visuals and sound would move me in the safety of my own bedroom. It felt wonderful at the time and gave me the release and maybe stimulation one required as a bored teenager that craved input in the mad world around oneself at that time. It's kind of like a drug in a way and one that can sap the life out of you if you choose to stay embedded within that lifestyle- luckily for me it was a phase I was going through but still to this day I find myself invigorated occasionally to play video games and really get lost within the world although I'm older and wiser so now know when to say goodbye rather then spend the wee small hours trying to crack a level or score a winning goal."

I also received the following message from Ben, who has a girlfriend, a responsible job and no kids:

"I don't think my addiction causes me true issues in life or relationships. Both me and the missus are gamers, geeks. We actually met through WoW. So sometimes that's a positive. But I do think that giving so much of your time and energy to something which is supposedly "fun" can make the game a job. I used to do "proper raiding" - pushing for content clearing, dungeons and such, but trying to get there before others. We weren't like the professional gamers, but did raid 4 days a week, 3 to 4 hours a time. With a group of between 25 and 10 people, each with roles and responsibilities, it was a job... but rewarding. However the rewards are fleeting. There is always something "else" to get to. new content, new things. The game (WoW) can't ever be "beaten" as new expansions or patches add new challenges. And that's a definite feed for the drug like aspects. I know I've let past relationships falter because of the game (I "had" to attend X, Y and Z dates every week). I know I've not met "real life" friends for that impromptu drink or catch up, because of something I "had" to get prepared for in the game.
But that was definitely in the past. The game has changed for me, and I take it much more as something interactive to do with a group of people who I do think of as "true friends". I've met most if not all of our guild, in real life. I've travelled around to see them in Europe and the UK. And that's a definite positive. I'd rather sit and play a game for an few hours and chat with people whilst doing it, than sit vegged in front of the TV on the sofa. A game might just be a game, but it can stimulate your mind in ways that TV pap doesn't.
I have chosen to "escape to games" before. It's easy, you are in control of something, where in "real life" you might feel you've lost control. Your character doesn't have to show fear, your avatar can be things you wouldn't be, or couldn't be (and I don't mean engaging in "horrible acts" or strange sexual forays - though I do know both are done). It's in moments like those, looking back, that I think it's definitely an addiction. Like turning to booze or drugs (and I've done both of those before). But it has for me been much less destructive than other drugs. I've gained much more than I have lost."
Here are some words from Brian, a married, working man with three kids:
"Looking back on it, gaming was probably problematic for me for around 10 years, between the ages of 15 and 25. I started gaming when I was age 11. By 15 gaming turned into a social impairment - friends would come around and we would just game rather than interact - gaming became more primary than socialising. At the time I regarded it as a cure for boredom; instant fun. I would play for 2 hours a day after school, and 4 or 5 hours a day at the weekend.
By age 25 I realised that gaming was a hindrance to my development as a person. I felt a bit stuck with it. I had done a Myers-Briggs personality test and it highlighted that addiction might be an issue issue for me. Sometimes I managed to give gaming up for a week, but then would return back to my old habits.

For me, the short term benefits of gaming are:
  • that it gives me a buzz
  • it activates a lot of my brain - I get a chemical hit
  • there is some amazing storytelling in gaming, particularly in recent developments
  • it's fantasy
  • I enjoy problem solving - gaming can be like a puzzle
However, there are drawbacks, and for me, I would say that the main short term drawbacks are that gaming is a distraction from responsibilities, and a distraction from my goals. In the long term, gaming is a distraction from personal development and from long term life goals.

Nowadays I have my gaming where I want it, I can pick it up and enjoy the escape, but I am still able to focus on my responsibilities and goals"

Louis is a 14 year old boy who shares his foray into gaming and how it has taught him some things about himself, and how it has affected his attitude to certain aspects of life such as competitiveness:

"For a large part of my early childhood, gaming was not a thing.  We first got a console when I was about 8 or 9 years old. For me and my brother, gaming was mainly a co-operative thing to us, and I think part of the reason that we enjoyed it was because of the fact that we were both pretty much just as good at it as one another. Due to lack of the practice, it was one of the few things I couldn’t do better than my little brother.

But that didn’t last long, as we soon realised that it was more fun to destroy one another in games, rather than do boring co-operative work. I believe that the reason for this is that spending so much time with one another we had a lot of frustration, but with physical Lego structures or drawings, there was no way to bring suffering without actually doing damage to something, but this was no such problem with video games.

To us, video games were a way that we could play together without making a mess or breaking anything, and also a way to do things to one another that we could never do in real life. (i.e. killing). For a while it was also a fun challenge, and we had plenty of fun with that , but then came the problem that when we lost it wasn’t good. Losing meant that we had to try again, and this was frustrating and time consuming, mainly because we were obsessed with doing it well. Video games brought out our competitive sides, against one another and the AI, and we got angry at the game a lot. This was the peak of the addiction, and it wasn’t always fun.

I think this stopped because of a certain game: Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts, that was very free-reign and not taken seriously. It involved creativity mixed with practicality, and a universal enemy for the two of us, but the thing that made it so special to us is the fact that winning wasn’t really much of a thing in this game: it was getting there. And losing was usually actually funnier. It was through playing this game that we learnt to not take games seriously, as that way you feel no true anger at it, and no need to win, so the desire to play wasn’t nearly so great.

From thence to now, we have enjoyed playing games a lot more, and haven’t craved them nearly quite so much. We are still addicted, but it’s not so bad, and we do it for fun , not because we feel like WE NEED VIDEO GAMES   I find that the games I play, I normally play for a few months obsessively, then get bored of and find a new one. These games normally involve you doing your own thing, and being able to be different to everything else (hello Minecraft, Skyrim, Team Fortress 2 and Don’t Starve).

The Big She (my mother) discourages me from gaming, although allows it for short periods of time. My Dud (sic) is usually working, so gaming isn’t exactly stopped at his house, but he does everything in his power to discourage me. “Isn’t it embarrassing to have spent 200 hours on that game in total?” No. “Don’t you find things like sport and such more fun?” No.
Gaming is something I can do badly and find fun, which is hard to find in other hobbies, and that’s a large part of why I do it.  Most people play video games for fun, and you don’t have to win in order to achieve that. It’s also a good way for me and my brother to do co-operative work against other people (hello again Team Fortress 2) but not have to try hard to succeed, because the whole community shares our whole “We lost….. Yay! that means we did bad! Fun fun fun really who cares lets just play that’s what we’re here for” attitude.

Of course, there are some downfalls (who cares about homework  we can do it tomorrow.) but fortunately I haven’t been as much of a victim to that (lies). But I don’t feel it’s affected me too badly. I have never pulled a sickie though, and as for the whole “Gaming warps your mind balruaghalurah!” thing, my mind feels exceptionally un-warped, so I don’t perceive that as a problem for myself."

It seems to be, from these accounts, that the benefits of gaming are escape, fun or even social interaction for some, and the drawbacks more about time management issues rather than turning into violent, misogynists (although misogyny and video games is another topic that there is plenty of info on out there  and let's face it, is not confined to video games). 

Whether gaming is problematic or not surely depends on the games being played, and whether there is room in one's life to do the other bits and bobs that lead to leading a responsible and fulfilling life.

Frontal Lobe Development

Apparently, the frontal lobe is not completely developed until up to the mid-twenties. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for long term strategy. It allows us to recognize future consequences of current actions, to choose between good and bad actions, to override and suppress unacceptable social responses".

So perhaps this explains why Brian changed his gaming behaviour, or at least noticed his gaming behaviour when he was 25. There is an interesting post here from Psychology Today on the development of the teenage brain which I think helps explain some of the issues with teenagers, frontals lobes and addiction (in the sense of addiction being a struggle to control behaviour, rather than a clinical addiction). 

I believe that any behaviour where somebody is attached to behaving in a way that impairs their relationships or long term goals, and struggles to stop, even thought they know it is having a negative impact, is an addiction. 

My view 

As a parent, I lay down boundaries on the amount of time spent on gaming. I do believe that it is a parent's job to ensure their child achieves balanced and healthy proportions of everything such as food, caffeine, exercise, school work and video games. Banning the "bad stuff" won't give them any insight into self-control. Explaining why there are curfews will educate them and help them to make informed choices when they are adults. 

If you are an avid gamer, to the point that others in your life may be criticising you for it, ask yourself, are you addicted? What are you trying to escape from? Could you do without it for a couple of weeks?

Amanda Williamson is a BACP Registered Counsellor working in central Exeter, Devon. She has worked with all manner of addictive behaviours, such as addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex as well as more hidden addictions such as feeling shame, guilt, or caring what other people think too much.

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John Marsden said...

An interesting blog Amanda. I was once quite obsessed with a computer game. I played it for hours and hours. A combination of repeated crashes to desk-top (CTD) and a realization that I was wasting a lot of time saw me reduce the time I spent on the game and then stop. I guess this is anecdotal evidence supports the view that gaming isn't an addiction. On the other hand, when I worked for the probation service I heard of a guy so addicted to gaming that when he stood up his hands assumed the position of someone holding a games console.

Unknown said...

This has made me rethink my own 'play time' as well as that of my kids. Not so much video games but something that is probably worse! I have a tendency to study Facebook religiously, why? Not sure. I don't feel reliant on it, but I think it comes down to worrying I'll miss something when all my friends will know all about it - that I'll feel 'out of the loop' and that I need to be involved. I guess that comes down to my own strength of character (which I thought was pretty good until I read your article!).
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Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thanks for your honest comment Jay. We get a dopamine hit when we receive Facebook notifications. Like any addictive behaviour, some are more prone than others. I have to keep an eye on my Smart phone usage. I don't have the FB app for example. It can all get a bit compulsive...

This probably isn't going to help but I missed a social gathering during a FB break (I deactivate from time to time) because I wasn't on FB...

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