As much as people enjoy playing video games, there is a negative stigma attached to them. According to some critics, they are a waste of time, they can lead to obesity, they cause violent behavior. Perhaps the most frequent attack made against video games is that they are addictive. Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health.
So, are video games addictive? It depends on how you interpret the word “addiction”. Physical addiction is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a substance so that the substance no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as a tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). Video games are not physically addictive.
However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People can compulsively do an activity in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction. For some people, playing video games is one such activity they may engage in compulsively when they are stressed.
Yet many players do spend a great deal of time playing video games without suffering from either of these two types of addictions. They play games to avoid or put off less pleasurable activities or chores, or they just can’t resist the lure of playing “just one more turn”.
This phenomenon is called “flow”. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When players experience flow, time stops, nothing else matters and when they finally come out of it, they have no concept of how long they have been playing.
Video games are indeed designed to be sufficiently engaging to create a state of flow for players, and players can become so engaged in video games that they ignore their other responsibilities. But players can become engaged in an activity, even to the extent that it may be harmful to other aspects of their lives, without games being addictive in a psychological or physiological sense. In such cases, players may say that they are “addicted” to games, whereas “obsessed” is a more accurate term.
When someone is so obsessed with video games (or anything else for that matter), that their relationships with family or friends, obligations at home or work, opportunities for growth or self-fulfillment, or health begins to suffer, that’s when it’s time to put down that controller or push back that keyboard and spend your time doing other things. There is nothing inherently wrong with playing video games, but too much of anything can be bad for for you.
Someone recently asked me, “Do you ever feel guilty for making stupid games that just suck time and offer no real benefit to anyone?” Obviously, I was asked this question online, where the rules of civility are rarely applied. However, I tried to be civil in response. I explained that, no, I don’t feel guilty about making video games. They are a form of entertainment, just as are movies, television, novels, music, and theme parks.
The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote about the importance of play and society in his landmark 1938 book Homo Ludens (“Man, the Player”). He suggested that play may be the primary formative element of human culture and that:
”Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”
In other words, to be fully human, we need to play.
Studies have shown that playing video games in moderation can be physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial for players. Here are some of the specific ways that players can benefit from playing games:
- Creative Problem Solving. Many games require players to come up with creative solutions to overcome obstacles, and such creative problem solving is a valuable skill to develop for overcoming obstacles in real life, leading to improved confidence and satisfaction, which in turn can help to boost player’s mental health.
- Improved Cognitive Abilities. Games often require players’ brains to work at their highest level, exercising such cognitive abilities as memorization and pattern recognition.
- Improved Decision Making. Many video games require players to make split-second decisions. This doesn’t just involve making the right decision, but in learning how to collect the relevant decision needed to make a decision.
- Improved Vision. While playing games, the player is forced to look for details on the screen and distinguish between different shades of the same color, abilities that are useful in the real world. Some studies have shown that when players with lazy eye are forced to play a game with their good eye covered, the lazy eye condition was corrected to the point where it was no longer a problem.
- Overcoming Dyslexia. While playing games, the player is force to concentrate for long periods of time, and this intense concentration may change the way the player brain works. Because the player often is required to read instructions, mission details, and character dialog that pops up on the screen, some researchers believe that the combination of intense concentration and reading may help players to overcome dyslexia.
- Increased Physical Activity. Many video games like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit have a physical component where players jump, dance, or even do exercise. These games can make physical activity fun, encouraging players to build their muscles, improve improve posture, and focus on weight loss. Some may even be motivated to take up physical activity in the real world.
- Weight Control. Contrary to the stereotype of gamers being overweight due to the lack of physical activity, games require players to focus on what’s on the screen, leaving little thought to eating snacks. It’s when people are bored and stressed that they tend to stuff their faces with snacks, not while immersed in a game.
- Pain Relief. While playing the video games, players are releasing endorphins, the painkiller hormone. This boosts the body’s natural ability to get rid of the pain that that player’s feel.
- Fighting Off The Aging Process. Studies have shown that playing 3-D platform or logic puzzle games can result in cell growth in the hippocampus, a part of the thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system. This may put players at a lower risk for developing the likes of Alzheimer’s and dementia in later life.
- Improved Social Skills. Chat features in online games, while often abused, do provide players with an opportunity to practice their social skills while under pressure as players are required to communicate clearly and concisely with their teammates to reach a co-op objective.
- Forging Friendships. Playing online video games with others allow players to connect with people from around the world who share similar interests. Often this can lead to friendships take take place outside of the game world, as players discuss their interests on message boards or even in the real world, at gaming conventions.
- Minimizing Stress. Not only do games allow players to unwind and keep their minds off of real-life problems, some of the other benefits gained from playing video games may help players not to get into stressful situations in the first place.
Of course, one must also be careful not to exaggerate the benefits of playing games, and as with anything else, doing so in excess can negate their benefits and even be harmful. However, when played in moderation as part of a well-balanced life, games can make that life a little more enjoyable.