Sam Holstein

Playing Video Games Is Killing You

In early high school, most of my time was spent playing video games. Most of my memories from that time involve my ass on the futon and my eyes glued to some triple-A title (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2Call of Duty: Black OpsSkyrim, or Far Cry 3). In the month Skyrim came out, I logged 160 hours of gameplay. Yes, you did that math right — 40 hours a week.

That much gaming was terrible for me. At fifteen, I couldn’t run half a mile, couldn’t carry a backpack long distances, because most of my time was spent sitting. I was lonely because girls can’t really make friends online. Why can’t girls? There aren’t a lot of girl gamers, and all the boys online would say was “hey, can you send me your tits” or “will you be my COD girlfriend.” My attention span was terrible. Anytime I wasn’t gaming, I was daydreaming about what I’d play when I could play next. Even if I had the attention span to study, I didn’t have the will.

Of course, I had no idea video games were to blame. I frequently defended video games to concerned parents. “They’re a great way to relax,” I said. “They’re just games. People who think video games are bad for you are full of shit.”

If you regularly play video games, that’s probably what you’re thinking now.

The disappointing truth: Video games are bad for you.

A major part of the reason video games are bad for you is simply that video games are digital, and time spent on digital devices has been shown to cause a variety of things you don’t want:

But video games are also bad for you on their own. Video games have their own damning set of statistics:

And to answer the age-old question ‘can video games be addictive,’ we have MedicalNewsToday:

Researchers have discovered that video gaming can be addictive — a phenomenon known as “Internet gaming disorder.”

In gaming addicts, there are functional and structural alterations in the neural reward system — a group of structures associated with feeling pleasure, learning, and motivation. Exposing video game addicts to game-related cues that cause cravings, and monitoring their brain responses, highlighted these changes — changes that are also seen in other addictive disorders.

Researchers aren’t completely sure, but at this point, it looks like video games truly can be addicting.

If nothing you just read convinced you, try an at-home test: Live without video games for thirty days. Unplug your console and put it in the closet out of sight. After thirty days, ask yourself if life got better or worse. Answer honestly.

What makes video games so unhealthy?

The mechanism that made video games destructive for me is the same mechanism which makes them so enjoyable: the dopamine feedback loop. Video games bombard your brain with enough stimulus that it creates an immersive effect; anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a video game knows what I’m talking about. What happens in your brain is this stimulation releases dopamine. The real problem arises when the video game is over — your brain is jonesing for the dopamine-releasing immersive ness, but real life isn’t nearly as stimulating as an artificial world specifically designed to capture your attention. Your brain is left jonesing for that sweet, sweet dopamine, manifesting as feelings like agitation and anxiety. And when you feel bad, you want to do something that makes you feel good — like play video games.

At the extreme end of this spectrum is Daniel Petric. At 16, Petric shot both of his parents for restricting his access to the video game Halo 3. He was not even a gamer until he came down with a severe case of strep throat which left him stuck in bed. He managed to get a copy of Halo 3 against his parents wishes that he would play for up to 18 hours at a time. His parents found out and confiscated the game, locking it in their gun cabinet. Incensed, Petric broke into the gun cabinet and stole the game back, grabbed a gun, and shot both his parents in the head.

People who are not familiar with video games sometimes make the argument that violence in video games causes violence like this. They YouTube a few clips of Halo 3, see the alien blue blood and go faint.

Based on my personal experience, I’m not sure this is the whole story. Some studies have linked violence in video games to violence in real life in children, but I don’t think this effect persists into adulthood. I certainly never became more violent as a result of video games. I know someone who did, but they started playing video games at a much earlier age and did not have any social interaction outside the video game, so it’s clear that what caused their violent attitude was not just video games, but that they used video game interactions as a guide on how to socialize in real life. When I was a gamer, if someone tried to make the argument ‘video games cause violence’ to me, I quickly dismissed them as someone who didn’t understand tech, a dismissal I feel continues to be true.

I’m not saying video games didn’t occasionally incite me to rage. I’ve screamed at my TV before. I once wanted to chuck my phone over Tetris. The problem wasn’t that video games were teaching me violence, but that they were frustrating me. When I wasn’t able to achieve something in a video game due to something that wasn’t my fault (lag, controller error), I was immediately overtaken by a frustration so powerful it felt like rage. When I was a gamer, sometimes I would encounter a level I couldn’t complete on the first, second, tenth, or thirtieth try. Sometimes I would get stuck in front of the TV, trying over and over and over without stopping until I managed to complete it. Part of me would want to stop, but I couldn’t. It was a compulsion.

What I think causes this feeling is an interruption in the dopamine feedback loop. Lag, controller error and parents who take your games from you halts the dopamine feedback loop mid-loop, like taking a drug out of the hand of an addict in the middle of using. It’s not just that gamers are immature and emotional, or that video games cause violence — it’s that the interruption in the dopamine reward cycle is that powerful.

”Hey, video games aren’t all bad!”

My readers will be quick to point out that gaming doesn’t affect everyone in this way. It’s true. Studies show the truly negative effects of screen time, sitting and gaming — distemper, reduced working memory, heart disease — only set in after 2+ hours of gaming a day. Video games have even been shown to have positive effects, like increased visuospatial processing skills (when playing games with no HUD) and an increased capacity for sustained and selective attention. You can make the argument that in doses limited to 2 hours a day or less, video games are good for you.

But, most people who consider themselves gamers play far more than two hours a day. They may be experiencing some improvements in certain types of memory and spatial reasoning, but most people would say that doesn’t make up for the loss of up to a decade of their life expectancy, heart disease, cancer, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

If there are any gamers reading this article, I’m pretty sure I know what they’re thinking right now.

“Gaming is fun, and it’s what I want to do with my life. Just because you want to do other things like write books and hike mountains and shit, doesn’t mean Iwant to. It’s not like I’m murdering my parents. Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Look, I’m not telling you to do anything, I’m just laying out the facts. Whether you should be a gamer depends on your values. Are you comfortable with the idea that you’re spending most of your life on an activity that has no economic value, adds little to the world, reduces the quality of your relationships, and erodes your body and mind in the process?

If you are, then great. Game all you want.

Endnote: There is always someone at the end of articles like this who says “But video games are my job! I’m a professional game tester/programmer/professional gamer. You can’t tell me to give up my livelihood.”

One, people who interact with games in a professional setting don’t sink into the mindless sedation of it the way casual gamers do. I would bet the risk profile of gaming professionally is closer to the risk profile of high computer use than it is that of casual gaming.

Two, know that in your profession, you are playing with fire. I’m not saying you have to give up your line of work. I am saying if your job is to handle fire, you should be educated on the risks of fire.

In fact, I want more people in the gaming industry who understand these risks — maybe they’ll start making video games that aren’t so risky to play.