People talk about getting bullied at school for having acne, being overweight, etc. School is a really scary place for a lot of people. However, over the internet, those things do not lead to bullying. The internet is amazing because generally, people care about you for who you are. They don’t care about how much money your parents make, which car you drive, what shoes you wear, or what you look like. They only care about you for who you are. The connections we form online are authentic.
When you get bullied on Monday, what happens on Tuesday? You go to school and the bully is still going to be in your class — you have no control over that. On the contrary, if someone is mean to you in the online world, you can simply choose to ignore them or block them.
Why wouldn’t you want to spend time with those people online? You get to pick the friends that share your interests with you. That’s not about a game anymore — it’s about forming and being part of a real community. A community is one of the biggest reasons why people start playing video games.
How do you know whether gaming is just a normal part of your life? If it is simply a way of having fun, is it a problem? Is it actually an addiction?
It is a tricky question because gaming offers us a lot of positive things in life. Gaming serves as a form of recreation — it is a fun activity to do with your friends. It is a great way to de-stress and cope with problems. Moreover, it allows us to connect with other human beings and form meaningful relationships.
Is it a problem if I play World of Warcraft for a whole weekend after a week of finals? Do I have a problem if I game for 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday after studying very hard for the semester?
It is a great question and at the end of the day, the answer is relatively simple. If it causes a problem, it is a problem. If psychiatry, the simplest way to diagnose a problem is to ask whether it crosses a particular line. Does it actually get in the way of something that you want to do?
If you have a long day and go home and play video games, then that would be considered a healthy way to destress. But let's assume that you have a job that is extremely stressful and you go home to play games for hours to decompress from that job. If you continue doing that for weeks and months, then that becomes a problem.
If you do not change your life in any way and if gaming gets in the way of you changing your work situation or finding another job, then it is a problem. It is fine to use gaming as a coping mechanism in order to de-stress from your day, and as a result, ignore problems or let them fester, then gaming is a problem.
Is gaming getting in the way of what you want to do?
- Is your gaming getting in the way of your academic performance?
- Are you not doing as well in school as you should be because you're playing video games?
- Is it getting in the way of your professional success?
- Are you not getting promoted or are you not looking for a better job? Are you not switching fields?
- Are you not growing in a professional capacity because you spend so much time gaming?
- Is gaming interfering with your physical health?
- Are you gaining too much weight? Should you be losing weight?
- Is gaming getting in the way of your sleep?
- Are you not able to run a mile comfortably? If gaming is impairing you, if you're spending so much time gaming that you're not actually taking care of yourself physically, that's a problem.
- Does gaming create problems in your relationships?
- Are you not able to find a romantic partner like a girlfriend or something like that because you spend so much time gaming?
- Is gaming creating stress between let's say you and your parents? They think you spend too much time gaming, you think you spend just the right amount of time gaming.
- Is there some problem that's happening in your relationship because of your gaming?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then your gaming is a problem.
Gamers often find that gaming gets in the way of their creative pursuits. On average, gamers are really smart. Most gamers have had great ideas for video games, startups, or novels, but they never make a move in that direction. They never sit down and start to write the opening scene of their TV show because they spend so much time gaming.
The most dangerous and insidious part of a video game addiction is that it prevents gamers from becoming the person that they want to be in this world. The game might be fun and they enjoy playing it, but five years down the road, will you be happy with where you are? Or would you have rather spent some of that time doing something else? If the answer to that question is yes, then you have a problem.
Very few mental health therapists are trained to diagnose and treat video game addiction, despite it becoming a growing issue. As a result, when you see a therapist, they might diagnose you with depression rather than video game addiction.
The solution is to that is to first be clear to them about why you are seeing them. Explain to them how you feel video games are affecting your emotions and your life. While they may be aware of all the nuances in every kind of addiction, they can still help you with the general effects of addiction. By explaining how video games affect you, your therapist will get a better idea of what you are struggling with and how to help you.
You might run into some disagreement because they might think that you have depression. However, the goal is to state what is on your mind and you are going to have to push against the disagreement.
Finally, if they do not listen to you, then you need to find a different therapist.
Video game addiction is not the same as other addictions. Video games are not inherently evil but that does not mean they are not designed to be more addictive. The problems that they create are getting worse, but they do not create a biological addiction.
In the addiction world, there is this idea that abstinence is the only way to beat an addiction.
If you're an alcoholic and have been sober for 10 years, then you're never allowed to have a single drink. However, video game addiction is different because there are a lot of people who used to have really problematic gaming and they still enjoy playing games and are doing fine in life now.
One of the people that Dr. K works with is actually a really successful entrepreneur. He makes seven figures a year and still plays video games for 30 hours a week. He's okay with that and it seems fine to Dr. K as well. If you're doing everything that you want to do and you want to play video games for 30 hours a week, then that's fine.
A few years ago when he was training, Dr. K got kind of curious about video game addiction. The more people that he talked to the more he realized that the psychiatric community doesn't actually know much about video game addiction. He realized that the reason for that is because most people who are at the forefront, the leaders of thought within the field of psychiatry and psychology, i.e the experts, they're people in their 50s and 60s.
Dr. K trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital and the chief of Psychiatry at MGH is a person named Jerry Rosenbaum. He is an awesome guy but he's older and we don't know if he has ever really played video games. So all of the people who are leading the field of psychiatry, such as the President of the American Psychiatric Association, are older and they haven't really had experience playing video games. That is why they really struggle to help people who struggle with video game addiction.
One of the first things that Dr. K realized when working with gamers is that addiction is not a great term. Part of the problem with the field of Psychiatry is that it tries to take things that we know like drug addiction and alcohol addiction and we try to apply it to new phenomena like video game addiction. We sort of all lump those things together but in his mind, there's a huge difference between someone who's an alcoholic and someone who's addicted to video games.
Human beings throughout history have valued things that are difficult. Compare the mayor of a city with the President of the United States — there is a clear difference of value.
We value people who accomplish hard things. There is something in our brain that gets a lot of gratification from completing a hard task.
This is what we want to do for our kids, we want to encourage them to feel proud of getting an A. We encourage them to value overcoming difficulty and succeeding.
There is a fascinating paper that says that the reason that video games are addictive is not because of the reward but because they create the denial of a reward. They're not easy, and if they're easy they're no fun.
Fortnite is a game where a hundred people fight against each other in the arena and there's only one winner. That means that statistically speaking, 99% of the time you are going to lose at Fortnite. It’s addicting because 1% of the time when you become the king of the hill, your brain does not differentiate between graduating from medical school and winning the game of Fortnite.
The highest prevalence of video game addiction in the world is in Iran and it’s 22.8%. In South Korea, it was declared a public health crisis.
More men than women are into gaming, but the research is mixed. 8.4% of the population under eighteen are addicted. That breaks down into 11-12% of boys and 6-7% of girls. Although other internet addictions like social media are weighted towards women. There are also breakdowns in terms of the kind of games people are addicted to — women are much more addicted to mobile games. The research is still developing but there is a gender gap.
Gaming can feel so paralyzing. People understand that their gaming habit is a problem, and they know that they should reduce the amount they game, however, they are still powerless to change their behavior.
For example, a five-year-old kid touches a hot stove and gets burned. What happens after? He gets this signal of pain and it travels up his arm and into his brain, where there are pain receptors that activate in his somatosensory cortex. He gets burned, He feels the pain and then that pain causes him to suffer. Since he is a five-year-old, he starts crying.
When he starts crying, parts of his brain, like the amygdala, light up. The amygdala is the part of the brain that governs fear and negative emotion. Since he is feeling that negative emotion, the amygdala makes connections to the other part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. All it takes is one try to learn to never touch a hot stove again. If we get burned once, we are never going to touch a hot stove again.
The learning circuitry of the brain (located in the hippocampus) is very closely related to the negative emotion circuitry in our amygdala. Pain is actually the best teacher. We have to be reinforced multiple times in order to learn something but learning through punishment is much easier.
For example, if a child stands up and says the wrong thing in class and everyone laughs at them, then it's going to be very hard for me to stand up and try to answer a question in class again because that experience was so painful.
We learn from pain and try to avoid it in the future. That’s what our body and brain were designed to do. If an animal does something that is painful, it's really hard to get that animal to do that again. We are designed to avoid pain because pain is damaging to us.
What does this have to do with gaming? What does this pain and learning circuitry have to do with gamers? How does this lead to gamers being paralyzed? This goes back to games suppressing negative emotions. An FMRI study looked at the activity of different parts of the brain in gamers. The studies showed that when your amygdala is active — when you are suffering or experiencing pain or fear — if you start to play a video game, then that calms down the amygdala.
If you’re having a bad day and start to play a game you start to feel better. It makes you feel less stressed out, and it’s a way to cope and have some fun. That’s what games are designed to do, to make you feel better. The damning thing about that is that if you are suppressing your amygdala, you are also suppressing your amygdala's capability to access the hippocampus and teach you something. The experience of negative emotion is the most important aspect of changing behavior.
For example, a person was cheated on by their fiancee and as a result, learned not to trust their partner. Or if someone gets bullied for wearing a shirt, then they will most likely not wear that shirt to school again.
Data from fMRI scans show that gaming suppresses negative emotions. People use videogames to “forget” about problems and as an outlet of escapism. When the negative emotion is suppressed by gaming, learning from mistakes and behaviors is hard. This causes a feeling of “being stuck in life”. This creates an increasingly harmful feedback loop because gamers know what to do but cannot bring themselves to do it. Ultimately, gamers come to the conclusion that they are lazy.
While gaming certainly has effects in people's brains, those effects tend to be a little bit more subtle than what happens with biological addictions like alcohol. Alcohol directly stimulates certain receptors in your brain that give you feelings of euphoria and disinhibition and slows you down a little bit. On the other hand, gaming affects your brain in slower ways. It's not an actual chemical or physical substance that's entering your bloodstream and directly activating parts of your brain. Games affect our brains in smaller ways and they tend to affect different parts of our brain at the same time.
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure in the brain. There's this part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens and when dopamine activity happens there, we feel pleasure — it is the pleasure center of our brain.
Stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines tend to directly increase dopamine in our brain which makes us feel good and euphoric. Video games usually start out that way. A video game is fun because there's something going on with the way that you're interacting with the game. There's some degree of engagement that causes this dopamine release to happen in your brain, that's what makes a game feel fun.
¶ Dopamine Tolerance
If you drink caffeine every morning, the first cup of caffeine that you ever have in your life is gonna make you completely wired, what happens over time is your body develops a tolerance to that caffeine. Then if you don't have caffeine you feel really crappy and even if you do have caffeine it doesn't actually hype you up, it just makes you feel normal. Video games release a constant stream of dopamine and in response, the brain down-regulates the response of that dopamine. If you talked to people who play video games a lot they actually don't have fun while they're playing a game but it becomes something like caffeine where if they don't play the game they just don't feel normal.
The other thing that's really dangerous is that it makes people anhedonic, which means it makes people have difficulty finding pleasure from other activities. If you are unable to enjoy books, it might be because your dopamine circuits have been so down-regulated because the intensity and consistency of dopamine release you get from a game is so high that it down-regulates your entire mesolimbic circuit which means things that you would normally find enjoyable gamers have more trouble finding enjoyable.
There are three discrete stages that a gamer goes through when they play a game.
The first phase tends to be when the game is actively fun. You actually enjoy yourself for long periods of time. It is a lot of fun and you want to keep playing it. Overtime (months or years), as you continue to game regularly, your brain starts to adapt to that steady degree of dopamine release. Our brain has a very normal mechanism called homeostasis where it tries to maintain a balanced state.
One of the ways that homeostasis manifests is a biological principle we call tolerance. For someone who drinks for the first time, they get drunk really quickly, but if you start to drink on a regular basis your body develops a tolerance to the alcohol. It takes more and more alcohol to make you feel like you're drunk because your body starts to make itself less sensitive to the effects of alcohol.
Gaming is actually no different, in the first phase of gaming our body really hasn't acclimatized to that dopamine release so it starts to feel really really fun.
For Example: "I don’t feel capable of doing the sorts of things addicts do to sustain their dependency but at the same ti I am counting the days until the release of that one game and it’s the only thing I have on my calendar. It's gonna be great."
In the second phase, we start to develop tolerance to that constant stream of dopamine, so the game starts to be less fun. When you play the game, you don't have as much fun as when you used to in the first phase. It doesn't really give us a high but it can still remove a low. When they first start gaming, people feel like they're having fun. Then in the second phase, even though you don't feel the high, if you're feeling bad, you can game to make those negative feelings go away.
If you're feeling stressed out, if you're feeling frustrated, if you're feeling pissed off then there's a chance that when you play the game those feelings will go into the background. So in the first phase, it's giving you a positive emotion, in the second phase it's getting rid of negative emotion.
For example, "I have hundreds of hours played in a game and I have no idea why I’m still going. I need to stop before I hit 1000 and my brain melts. There aren’t any good games out right now so I just keep coming back to this one until there’s something else to play."
If people continue to game they enter this third phase, which is also true of biological addictions, where it doesn't even take away the negative emotions. People feel like they are trapped in their gaming. It's not even fun for them anymore but they somehow don't know how to stop doing it. They don't even have fun with it but they just can't do anything else. It's not like they actually enjoy their gaming, it's just that they can't stop.
If you've reached that point where if you play a game for 12 hours a day and you stop and think, you're not even having fun during those 12 hours that's really when you've started to develop a biological addiction.
For Example: "My brain is so fried at the end of the day that I walk around for an hour and can’t even be bothered to go to bed. I knew I took it too far and now the world doesn’t matter. I can’t talk to people as if I care because I don’t. In the wreckage of what has washed over me, everything is junk."
What does that actually mean? What's going on in your brain? It starts off when you're playing a game Dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens and as the brain gets used to that dopamine release it starts to decrease its sensitivity to receive that dopamine signal.
It's kind of like turning the volume down on a radio where the strength of the signal of the radio is the same, no matter whether the volume is up or the volume is down but you can change the way that that signal is manifested by adjusting the volume. So your brain is actually turning down the volume on your dopamine circuitry because it's getting so much dopamine all the time.
Over time this leads to this state called dopamine exhaustion where your body is so chronically used to having that high level of dopamine from the game that the volume is turned way down. That causes huge problems for gamers because other things that they would normally find fun, start to become less fun because their dopamine tolerance is so high and they've hit this point of dopamine exhaustion.
Gamers often say that the game actually isn't as fun as it used to be but if they try to do other things they don't find those other things as fun as well. Going out with friends for dinner is kind of fun or if they used to play pickup football or watched more movies or something like that, then even other activities outside of gaming become less fun.
You might find a gamer saying, "I walk this path every day. I run back to it every time someone tries to pull me away. There is nothing without it so even though it no longer fills my days I have to continue. I don’t see the point outside it even though I’ve lost the point inside it. I try to survive until the day that it can make me feel once again. Game Developer Gods, please bless me with something new."
This is dangerous because when you try to stop gaming, you need to do something else instead. You might get out of the house but it would not be fun at all. At that point, the gamer concludes that they just do not like that activity at all: "I don't like going to an art museum because it isn't as fun as the game, I don't like going for a hike or I don't like hanging out with these other people because it's just not as fun.
However, gamers need to realize that the reason they do not find anything fun is that there has been a change in their neurochemistry that is going to make it so that any activity that they do that they would normally find enjoyable is going to be dulled because of the way that games have exhausted their dopamine circuitry.
You have to give yourself time away from gaming to allow your brain to achieve homeostasis at that low dopamine level. That can take somewhere between three weeks to two months, but you should start to get some change within one week, but by three weeks you should have a decent chance, and by two months you should have it be completely back to normal.
During that period of time, you just have to recognize that anything else that you do maybe less fun because of the way that your dopamine neurocircuitry has been changed. So when you're thinking about gaming, first ask yourself, did you go through these phases:
then chances are you've got this dopamine circuitry exhaustion problem. Understand that when you try to go out into the real world and find alternatives to gaming, you are not going to find other things as fun because of your dopamine exhaustion.
If you give yourself a couple of weeks or a couple of months, you will start to enjoy activities in a different way that has nothing to do with your preferences or your likes or your dislikes and has everything to do with what your brain is actually capable of in terms of feeling enjoyment.
The triumph circuit isn't quite like the dopamine circuit or some of the emotional circuits referenced in neurology, because while those circuits are very easily mapped onto the brain, the triumph circuit is not.
There's a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens that secretes dopamine and gives you a sense of pleasure. There's a part of your brain called the amygdala that anytime you feel fear or negative emotion is active. The triumph circuit is a little bit different. It's something that doesn't localize to one part of the brain, it's just a general pattern of psychology and cognition that is important to human beings.
The triumph circuit is the part of our brain that makes us feel good when we overcome a challenge.
Games are addictive because there is a challenge followed by achievement. If you're playing a game like Dark Souls and you've died six times on a boss and then you beat that boss afterward you feel amazing. Where does that rush come from? Why do human beings relish something that is a challenge followed by success? Where does that feeling of triumph come from? Let's look at evolutionary biology to understand where the triumph circuit comes from.
Millions of years ago when human beings were hunter-gatherers, there would be a range that they would hunt and forage in. Conservative people knew where the predators were, and where the berry bushes were, so it was a relatively safe place to be. Some human beings had the desire to go beyond that safe place and to venture into dangerous parts of the jungle. There's a greater chance that they would find food because it hasn't been picked clean, but they exposed themselves to more predators. When they ventured into the dangerous territory everyone was scared but when they came back with more food they were awarded because they went into the dangerous territory and succeeded in bringing something back.
In evolutionary biology, there's a strong story about venturing into the unknown, finding something, overcoming some kind of challenge, and then bringing it back to society. That has shaped social psychology — we as human beings value people who overcome odds.
Why is it that society cares that someone survived cancer? Why is that a thing? Why do we value that? It's because cancer survivors speak to that triumph circuit. There's something about the danger of cancer and the capability that cancer is absolutely going to destroy you that when you survive it, it becomes something that is universally esteemed.
If you face any kind of challenges such as traveling through a war zone and making it out alive, then you're going to feel a great sense of exhilaration and a sense of triumph.
Human beings have a very fundamental circuit in their brain that correlates the amount of challenge they face with the amount of triumph that they feel. Video games have done a very good job of striking that balance.
For example, easy games have barely any engagement required from your mind. If god mode was on, the game would not nearly be as fun as if it was played normally because the mental engagement that is usually required during normal play is gone. If the game is too hard, then players start to get angry or frustrated and put the game down.
There is something about games that game designers work really hard to strike: this balance of making it challenging enough to feel like you accomplished something when you overcome that challenge but not so much that you never succeed. That accesses the triumph circuit of our brain.
Games have found a way to deliver to us all the psychological rewards that we often seek to gain from the real world, but in a way that is subservient to us (since they are commercial products that seek to maximize their sales numbers).
What we want from games is often very similar to what we want in life. We want excitement, adventures, friendships, victories, and status. Games have found a way to serve that to us for a very low price. They have to save states, retries, explicit dialogue options, guaranteed outcomes, and fantastical storylines. All games provide these things, but the difference is how successful that illusion is in your mind.
Good games tap into the Triumph Circuit to make themselves feel more real, more rewarding.
A bad game will throw up reward screens and you'll shrug your shoulders because it failed to stimulate the Triumph Circuit.
The triumph circuit was originally designed to help human beings achieve something in life. We respect people like doctors and lawyers because the path that they've walked tends to be viewed as difficult. Studying for seven years to become a neurosurgeon is something that we respect because it's hard to do.
That's a good thing from an evolutionary perspective because when we face a challenge and we overcome it, then that usually yields good rewards. It correlates with actual improvement in our personal life. Society compensates doctors and neurosurgeons at a high rate because what they do is very difficult. So we fundamentally respect people who can overcome challenges.
Video games artificially hijack that triumph circuit. They give gamers the feeling of achieving something or being triumphant by activating that circuitry in their brain. The problem is that that achievement doesn't actually come with a real-world reward. For most people, the triumph circuit causes them to strive to achieve something and improve their lives but when that same part of your brain gets activated by the game, then suddenly you get the same neurological benefit but without any of the real-world consequences. That's what makes it so incredibly dangerous.
Achieving something in the game can result in a similar degree of achievement (from a neurological perspective) to achieving something in the real world. Look at yourself and at why you play the game and what do you like about playing this game and how does the game make you feel — recognize that a part of that is a feeling of triumph. Once you understand that that feeling of triumph is there, then you will start to be a little bit better at navigating some of the challenges that you face in the real world.
Gamers feel like they've really done something worthwhile when they defeat the raid boss, but the really dangerous thing about that is that the raid boss was designed to be defeated. Games are designed to be beaten. Game designers make it hard and make it feel like an achievement, but all games are designed to be beaten by most people, otherwise, they wouldn't sell.
The artificial hijacking of the triumph circuitry can be really dangerous because that's the same circuitry that causes us to actually work really hard in life. If we activate it without working hard then it becomes really hard to activate it when we do actually work hard. The reason for that is: why would your brain want to work hard and for it when you can just take a shortcut through a game.
Understand that when you play the game, it's actually tampering with your brain in a way that is especially challenging to deal with. The reason that you can't stop gaming is not that you're lazy or because you don't have the willpower. Its because the triumph circuit in your brain is driving your gaming. You really have to understand that piece of yourself if you want to have any chance of getting control of your gaming.
Everyone wants to trade their bad habits like video games or watching Netflix for more productive hobbies like journaling or working out. A common approach to this problem is abstinence from their bad habits, but this does not always result in building productive hobbies. Instead, people replace their bad habits with other bad ones. The problem is not the habit itself, but rather the emotions and root desire for the bad habit to exist.
The unproductive habits are a coping mechanism to deal with your negative emotions. The solution is to know the negative emotion that you are trying to suppress and introduce something that allows you to deal with your negative emotions. Meditation can be used to aid in dealing with your negative emotions.
For example, patients who engage in self-harm behaviors i.e use cutting as a coping mechanism, do not do it to hurt themselves, but because it is a meditative practice that uses pain to focus the mind and relieves emotional tension. They can learn tools such as meditation to help them deal with their emotional tension and remove their negative coping mechanisms.
People that play video games have a hatred of boredom. Gaming creates a steady supply of dopamine with random bursts. The brain builds a tolerance or numbness to this steady supply of dopamine and requires the person to generate even more, in order for them to feel like they are having fun. If this requirement is not met, they feel extremely bored. This is dopamine exhaustion.
If a gamer chooses to take up dopamine abstinence, they will have a hard time succeeding and will feel bored all the time because of the dopamine tolerance that they have built up. In addition, when incorporating more productive activities during the abstinence, people inappropriately attribute their feelings of boredom with productive activities, rather than the influence of their tolerance. However, if they are able to survive through boredom for a couple of weeks, their tolerance will reduce and the intrinsic motivation from enjoying an activity or starting a new hobby will come back.
You should not be overstimulating your brain. If you are, this is probably because it serves as a coping mechanism.
For example, listening to music or watching podcasts constantly is not something that people should be doing.
Although it may seem good to fill your brain with information, the brain actually needs a break from information to process and understand things. Do not underestimate what your mind can do and discover, because giving your brain some breathing space facilitates new ideas and creativity.
No one understands why people start liking games less later in life. Dr. Kanojia thinks that engaging the mind with different activities can create motivation away from video games.
As people do other things, they start being less willing to play video games. Also, as people grow in age, so does their frontal lobe until they are 30. They tend to find other things that have a greater delayed gratification more appealing.
A mental block forms in your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the reptilian parts of your brain, and this block stops you from changing your behavior. This is because gaming inhibits the learning circuitry by inhibiting emotions. When you inhibit feelings of pain, you no longer learn from reinforcement.
The reason that its hard for you to stop gaming is not because you have low willpower, or because you are lazy. It is because there are parts of your brain that involve changing your behavior which get shut off when you play a video game. The way that that happens is mediated by the experience of negative emotions, and when you quiet those negative emotions you inhibit your learning circuitry. Gaming is actually really paralyzing because it prevents you from learning. Gamers know that they need to stop but there’s this ogre inside them that will not let you stop playing video games.
There are some concrete things that you can do to get control of your gaming.
The first of those is to understand that you can't overcome addiction without a competing interest. For most people with substance abuse issues, the substance that they use serves a very important purpose in their life. It helps them manage stress, decompress, and manage their negative emotions. It is really hard to just get them to quit.
It's not enough to tell someone, “Hey, if you keep on drinking, you're gonna get liver cancer and you'll die early.” In order to really get them to stop drinking, (this is less true of alcohol but the truest of marijuana) you have to help them develop a competing interest.
For example, imagine someone who smokes marijuana. They feel like marijuana helps them deal with their anxiety and it makes them feel like they're themselves for the first time. They don't feel like they are in their own head and it makes them feel really good. It is hard to give up something that provides you so much value in life. In order to help that person give that up what we have to work on is finding a competing interest.
When Dr. K was studying public health, he heard a really interesting story about a real estate development project in New York. There was a real estate developer that wanted to come in and sort of buy up a bunch of property and then turn it into a high-rise. The people who lived in that community didn't want that real estate developer to come in and buy that property so they went to the town council meetings and protested.
Despite all of their protests the real estate development started moving forward. Finally, one person came up with the idea that instead of saying no to real estate development, they should start to say that they actually want a park instead. Instead of opposing the real estate development, they created some competition.
They said that they wanted to devote that area of New York City to build a park. As a result, something magical happened — the park seemed to get traction and even other people in the community started to ask for a park. They were able to get a lot more support for it and ended up blocking the real estate development and had a park built instead. While this story might seem completely unrelated, it actually speaks to this basic human psychology, that in order to block something you have to replace it — you can't just stop it.
Getting a job, moving out of the house, and moving forward in life are very good goals but they are not competing interests. Getting a job and being financially independent are things that you want, but you do not actually care about them. They don't drive you to do things, and they don't affect your behavior — they're just desires. Desires and motivators are actually different things.
A competing interest is something that you actually care about.
If you tell a guy who's smoking “If you smoke then you're gonna get heart disease, you're gonna die of a heart attack, you're gonna die of a stroke, you're gonna get lung cancer, you're gonna be wheeling around an oxygen tank, you're not gonna be able to breathe, you're not gonna be able to climb stairs", then even though all of those things are absolutely true and he doesn't want any of those things to happen, none of that information actually changes his behavior. He doesn't actually stop smoking, irrespective of how much he wants to avoid lung cancer.
What gets that person to change is actually something that they care about, a real competing interest. What you should ask that person is, “Do you ever want to see your daughter get married, do you want to ever meet your grandkids, do you want to see your grandkids go to college?” Those are things that that person cares about and those are things that are competing interests.
A competing interest helps you fight against gaming addiction because then you have something that actually gets lost if you choose to continue gaming. You have a real cost to gaming whereas right now you don't really have a cost to gaming. Sure, you don't move forward in life but tomorrow is not going to be any different. You are not going to be out on the street if you play video games all day today and neither will you die of hunger tomorrow if you play video games all day. You are not going to die alone if you play video games all day. You will die alone if you play video games for the rest of your life but just for tomorrow, there's actually no cost to playing video games all day.
In order for you to stop gaming, there has to be a cost today. There has to be something that you lose today by gaming today. Developing an understanding of that requires you to develop a competing interest and once you develop a competing interest, you actually have skin in the game. You've gone all-in and you're putting chips on the table. You're actually betting something — you have something to lose. The interesting thing is that once you have something to lose then that changes your behavior automatically.
If someone were to tell you, “If you play video games tomorrow, then I'm gonna shoot you in the face", then you're not going to do it because it actually has a cost. If someone tells you, “Here's $1,000. If you play World of Warcraft tomorrow I'm not going to give it to you. But if you don't play World of Warcraft tomorrow I will give it to you", then that person is not going to play World of Warcraft because there's a tangible cost — there is a competing interest. There is something that they actually gain by not gaming.
The subtle problem that gamers face is that they think they have a competing interest but what they really have are desires, like wanting to be rich. If you actually want to get control over your gaming, then the first thing you need to do is develop a competing interest.
Gamers feel powerless. They feel like they can't get control over their lives. They feel like they have things that they want to do in life but they're just not able to do them. But the deeper thing that affects a lot of gamers is that they do not just feel powerless but they also feel directionless. You feel like you're not moving anywhere in life. It's not just about not being able to move, it's about not even knowing where you want to go.
Feeling directionless is one of the worst feelings that a gamer can possibly have and one of the problems with gaming is that it gives you a false sense of direction. Games give you a sense of progress. You go to this world and then you do multiple levels. You level your character up and go to the later stages of the game. There's a sense of progress and as human beings, we are wired to want to progress in some way.
The problem is that while games scratch that itch of wanting to progress temporarily, when you go to sleep at night you feel like you haven't really done anything. That can be one of the most terrifying feelings in the world and that's why gamers play to the point of exhaustion before they go to bed.
Understand the difference between doing something with meaning and doing something because of a desire.
If you ask a gamer where they want to be ten years from now, then most of the answers that they will come up with will actually desire. They're not actually true interests or things that they value.
For example, if you ask someone where do you want to be in ten years, then they'll say, "I'd like to be a millionaire, have my own house, be married, travel internationally and go-to video game tournaments." They will say all these things that are just desires.
Desires don't drive your behavior — they don't motivate you because if they did then you'd be moving towards those goals.
By definition that random stuff is ephemeral and out in the ether. It would be nice if you had that — that's really what that thought is. Stuff that motivates you and actually gets you out of your chair and gets you moving in a direction is a competing interest and those competing interests depend on values.
Values are what make you feel fulfilled when you move in their prescribed direction.
What makes you feel fulfilled? What is it that actually makes you feel that you really did something good today? What is that thing that really makes you feel like you are awesome?
A lot of gamers value performance in the game and while that may not be what you want to value, we should still be honest with ourselves about what we care about. A lot of gamers are very competitive and want to be in the top 100 of the ranking and compete to be the best in the game. That is what they actually care about and value. That is why they practice so hard, day after day. One can see how their value is to be the best person in the game. It drives behavior on its own.
You might think that you are doomed because if you value playing video games then how can you move forward in life? Does that not just mean that you are going to play a bunch of video games? Yes, that is kind of true, but the good news is that gamers actually have a lot of values that they are not even aware of, and this is where introspection comes into play.
As a gamer, you can sit down and do a series of exercises to figure out and clarify what your values are. When you start to recognize your values, and when you start to say “this is actually something that I care about and want to do — this is something that's really important to me”, then motivation will follow that clarification of values. The motivation comes automatically.
For example, let's say that someone walks in with a gun and then starts shooting at people. That's awful and that's been happening in a lot of schools which is absolutely crazy. But the students in schools that get shot up value their lives, which is why they try to preserve them. It's something that's really important to them.
It sounds kind of silly and stupid but if you think about it, what motivates that person is just a value for life, and that is a really powerful motivator. It's one of the most powerful motivators you can have. The neat thing is that if you can figure out the values that you have (apart from the preservation of life which most biological beings have), then you can also find a motivation that will make you move forward in life.
How do you figure out what your values are?
Exercise: Grab a piece of paper and write 500 words about a time where you felt fulfilled. Sit down and do the exercise. This is really important because while gamers tend to think a lot, they actually aren't good at reflecting or criticizing their own thought process.
When playing a game, a gamer comes up with an idea of what's going to work. Then they go into the game and get told by on the game whether the idea works or not. Let's say you have a strategy to take down a boss and when you go in with that strategy, the reason you would know whether the strategy does or does not work is that the game would actually tell you. You don't have to reflect on your thought process or your strategy myself, because the game will provide you with the feedback.
Since gamers spend so much time coming up with strategies, but have an external source of feedback they don't develop the capacity to reflect and objectively look at their strategies. Even though they think that they can do that, they are not actually very good at it.
Get some external source of feedback by putting writing down 500 words on what makes you feel fulfilled. When you do that, then you'll have the ability to reflect and critique your own thought process since it will be on a piece of paper that is external to your mind. Try to figure out what it is that you really care about what you have written. Why did you feel fulfilled? Then you will start to get clarification on what your values are. Once you start clarifying what your values are, the neat thing is that the motivation will come on its own.
Motivation is not willpower.
When you really need to go to the bathroom, you are motivated to find a bathroom, which has nothing to do with willpower. It's not like you need to force yourself to use the bathroom — in fact, you need the willpower to restrain yourself from going to the bathroom. But the motivation to find a bathroom is automatic and is going to drive your behavior.
When you find your values and clarify what they are, you will be amazed. The motivation is going to come on its own and then your life will start to change.
Don't fall into the trap that most gamers fall into, which is thinking that, "I don't need to do this exercise. I can just think through it in my head."
You can't do that. You actually need to externalize it on a piece of paper because of the way that games shape your brain. Games are the ones that give you external sources of feedback on your thought process. You really have to actually sit down and write it out on a piece of paper. You'll be surprised at what actually comes out. The first five sentences are things you can think of in your head, but the rest of the stuff is going to be something that you have not thought about.
The way that you really get control of your gaming is through developing a competing interest. The way that you really figure out what a competing interest is by clarifying your values. You have to understand that your values are very different from your desires.
Stuff that you want such as, "I want to be President of the United States or I want to own 50% of Amazon or 50% of Google", is not actually going to cause you to change your behavior.
Understanding what your values are is going to evoke a motivation. That motivation is going to come automatically and your behavior will start to change on its own. But you have to clarify your values first.
IQ is a predictor of many things, but it does not define intelligence. It does predict success and other things in life, but not the entirety of success.
Researchers created IQ to figure out if they are testing for the same "intelligence" but it does not encapsulate the complexity of the mind. There are other factors that influence IQ, such as social and economic factors. There is this concept of EQ or Emotional Intelligence that exists as well that helps with success.
Games select and filter for higher fluid IQ's because games adequately, intellectually challenge us as kids when school was not enough. There are studies that children crave challenge and mastery, which games provide for them, and that creates a feedback loop.
To overcome gaming addiction, you need to acknowledge who you are as a gamer. Gamers are in fact smarter than the average person, and we value intelligence in society. However, being smart is not enough to be successful.
Gamers use their high IQ to justify their lack of success and it becomes an ego boost. Therefore it becomes a justification for avoiding work and trying to succeed in life.
Example: If you have an Ace in your hand, you have to play it to get an advantage. You cannot just smile to yourself and keep it in your hand and expect to win.
One of the biggest problems that parents run into is that they tell their child, “No gaming for a week. Read this book instead.” What nobody in that relationship understands is that they don't have the capacity to actually enjoy that book, not in the way that we do.
As a parent, you have to understand that when you give them some kind of alternative they are not going to have the capacity to enjoy it. What you have to do is pull them away from games in a pretty significant manner to get them to have a healthy dopamine functioning brain. The good news is that it's not required to get them to stop all gaming — it is enough to engage them in a way that they find enjoyable.
Some people go whitewater rafting for a vacation. Whitewater rafting is a high adrenaline activity — it's a little bit dangerous so you have to be careful, but Dr. K has never met a gamer who has gone whitewater rafting and didn't absolutely love it. It is really engaging, healthy, and it is something that you can do as a family.
Books can be fun but you just have to give your child time and space and let their brain get used to that again.
The dopamine circuit is just one of the circuits involved in gaming. There are other circuits, such as the sense of identity, and the triumph circuit (not a real circuit, but a psychological pattern of behavior). It's this basic capacity that human beings like — triumph. Triumph requires adversity so when you're thinking about how to help your kid do something you have to give them a task that is hard but engaging.
An hour limit is not recommended because each child is different and each family is different. There is a huge difference between a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 17-year-old, and a 20-year-old.
First of all, talk to your child. The first thing that you have to do is disarm them because when you talk to them about video games, the first thing that pops into their mind is that you will take their games away. Anything that they tell you is going to come from the mindset of "them + the game vs. you".
The first thing that you have to do is get on their team. Try to really explain to them, “I want to talk to you. I'm not saying we're going to make any changes. First, just help me understand.”
Then you should set reasonable expectations. You could say, “I know that you really love playing Fortnite because you feel amazing when you win a game, and it’s really awesome for you to win. I want you to feel that way too — I'm just wondering if, in addition to Fortnite, is there something else that could help you feel that way? I know that you really love Fortnite but I think that your grades are kind of unacceptable. I know you are capable of getting more than C's and so, if your grades don't improve, then we're gonna have to stop playing Fortnite.”
How much money do you think the top Fortnite streamer makes? How many millions? The answer is 12 million dollars a year. It depends, of course, but some people get really rich.
When you tell your kid, “Hey, I want you to grow up and be a doctor, an investment banker.”
They’ll ask, “Why do you want me to be an investment banker?”
“So you can make 500 grand a year.”
Then the 16-year-old kid would reply, “I can do that today (via gaming).”
There are a lot of kids who play basketball or football and they think that they will be in the NBA or the NFL. The sad truth is that only a tiny percentage of them ever make it to that level.
If you have a twelve-year-old son you should ask them,
A twelve-year-old cannot think that abstractly, but a 15-year-old or 16-year-old definitely can.
So with a 12-year-old you really have to set limits, but with a 15 or 16-year-old, the first step is to show them the numbers.
The most important thing that you can do as a parent is talk to your kids. Talk to them about why they play video games because the problem is that parents (and this is not an indictment) do not understand.
The vast majority of gamers are male, and they are more susceptible to suffering from alexithymia When raised, the only emotion that is socially acceptable for males to express is anger and this translates into gaming.
Gamers are toxic because anger is the main emotion that gamers allow themselves to feel and this causes a toxic community. However, there are other emotions that swim under the surface.
Normally negative emotions cause people to change in real life. When relating this to gamer rage, when people get “bent out of shape” over a game, they are most likely not happy in their lives.
Essentially, gaming suppressed negative emotions which are the most important facet of behavioral change ultimately leading to gamers feeling “stuck” and lazy.