Author: Kelly Stewart (Psychology Intern under Colby’s Supervision)
Computer games…. They’re all harmless fun, right? Who couldn’t love Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong or the Super Mario Brothers..? What’s wrong with spending some idle hours zoning out and reaching for the games console?
For many of us, computer gaming is a small and discreet part of our lives. Something that we go to when we’re tired, it’s raining outside, or we’re looking for some easy entertainment!
For some reading this article (particularly those for whom having a computer at home was not part of their life growing up) computer gaming may seem like an unfathomable phenomenon! Where’s the attraction in sitting playing ‘shoot ‘em ups’? Who wants to collect the points and move on to the next level? Why would you want to create a virtual city?
If that’s you, you may wonder how gamers can spend so much time in the virtual world? But for some, particularly young people who have grown up with access to these games, gaming is a real attraction! Millions of players log on around the globe daily and computer games are becoming increasingly life like and sophisticated with endless opportunities for play.
Most parents can recognise the attraction in letting the children or young people in their lives play computer games. It can buy some quiet time to allow you to get on with other activities, making the dinner, doing the laundry, or just getting five minutes to put your feet up. You may consider gaming to be the lesser of two evils; if they’re at home gaming at least they’re not out on the streets getting into mischief… right??
But what can you do if you are concerned that this seemingly harmless pastime has turned into a more serious problem? Or how do you even know what’s the difference between what’s probably an acceptable level of use, and what may be generally considered excessive?
Read on to find some answers to questions such as… why do some young people end up finding it hard to keep their gaming as an occasional pastime? What are some of the signs that might suggest that your child’s gaming has become excessive? And what can you do about it?
Trends in Computer Gaming
The world of computer gaming has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. The advent of widespread gaming in the 1980’s introduced us to simple games such as ‘Pac Man’ and ‘Tetris’, whereby the object of the game was to complete a particular task. Today, games have increased exponentially in their sophistication and complexity! For example, the catchingly titled ‘Massively Multi Player Online Role Playing Games’ (MMORPG), such as ‘World of Warcraft’ now have unending possibilities for continued ongoing use and play.
Studies have shown that 70% of players of MMORPG’s report having played for more than 10hrs straight, with players reporting 23hrs per week on average (Yee, 2002).
Understanding the Cycle of Addiction
So why is it that some people find themselves addicted to computer gaming? There are two main reasons: the biological and the psychological.
In biological terms, when we do well at a game (e.g. reach the next level or collect all the tokens) we experience an activation of the reward pathways in the brain. Studies have shown that the rewards of game play can activate the brain’s production of dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps control our reward and pleasure centres. So, when we do well at a game, it can make us feel good and we want to do it again!
Psychologically, game playing can be quite seductive as it lets us forget ourselves temporarily and even become someone else. Imagine how attractive that can be when we are not feeling good about ourselves! Who sometimes doesn’t want to be someone else for the day? Most people could acknowledge that there are times when they wish they could be someone else… just for a while… perhaps that man who has more money (oooh, no financial worries!), or that woman who has an exciting social life full of admirers! Gaming can allow the player to step into a fantasy world where those things feel real temporarily.
The Potential Consequences of Excessive Gaming
So what could be so bad about playing a few games anyway? Well, research has shown that there can be a variety of consequences associated with excessive gaming use. Academic performance and social life can suffer. Problems can develop at home and in relationships within the family. Health risks can accumulate too, for example, repetitive strain injuries (RSI), obesity and sleep problems. Depression and anxiety can also be linked to excessive gaming use.
Potential Signs and Symptoms of Problematic Gaming
But how do you know when the gaming has gone from an acceptable level to one that could be considered a problem?
If your child shows some of these symptoms, there may be a problem:
- Lies about their use of the computer game (‘No mum, I haven’t been on the computer today!’)
- Refuses to acknowledge or doesn’t see a problem with continued frequent usage (‘What are you talking about, everyone at school plays the same amount as I do!’)
- Has trouble getting up for school or other commitments (‘I don’t want to go to school today, I’m too tired/ not well/ I couldn’t sleep last night’)
- Is socially isolated from their peers
- Shows signs of RSI
- If there is evidence of a decline in performance at school (‘Everyone flunked that test at school’)
If you suspect that there may be a problem, the best thing to do is to address it. Speak to your child, open up about your concerns, and reassure them that you do not intend to make them stop playing altogether. Computers are part of modern life, so young people need to learn how to use them in a controlled way.
Setting some boundaries on computer or gaming use is the most helpful thing that you can do for your child. But be warned, if you are inconsistent in applying these rules, give in at times (like when you are tired or had enough), or only one of two caregivers is setting the boundaries, you may have problems in getting the child to listen. Consistency is the key!
PC Moderators can be a help. These devices can be installed on your child’s computer and will limit their usage to a predetermined level. Look at for products such as ‘Net Nanny’, ‘Kids Watch’ and ‘PC Time Cop’. The main advantages of using these tools are that you don’t have to endure the daily arguments over setting boundaries. Which any caregiver will agree can be very welcome relief!
You may also consider getting your child involved in other pursuits outside of gaming. Doing new things increases their chance to rub shoulders with others and will enhance their feelings of self worth. The sense of accomplishment that comes from trying new things is compelling. In doing so, your young person will begin to like themselves more. And feel less inclined to escape their reality in a virtual world.
Gaming can be a very fun activity and can even be a way of connecting with your young person. But if there use has begun to look problematic, help them by setting boundaries and encouraging them to engage in pursuits outside of the house. This might be hard to do. But in doing so, you may find that you have in the long run a more confident and happy young person!