More Than a Game—Mitigating the Harmful Effects of Video Games

Why Video Games Can Be Addictive

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Today, video games have reached a level of sophistication on par with blockbuster movies, leading some people to become addicted. Dr. Restak explains how to avoid this trap while still enjoying the neurological benefits of playing video games.

Video game controller
Intense video game playing can lead to addiction due to the absolute immersion in the activity, which isolates a person from the regular routine of daily activities and responsibilities. Photo By FOTOKITA / Shutterstock

Video Game Addiction

Although video games have been scientifically shown to lead to increased eye-hand coordination, enhanced manual dexterity, improved spatial visualization, and the ability to divide and rapidly switch attention, there’s also evidence that video games can be harmful, addictive, and habit forming. There are cases in Korea of players tracking down and attacking others for killing their avatars. 

As a result, blackout times have been mandated by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. The players have to choose from three six-hour blackout blocks. 

During these periods, the users are locked out. The ministry is also slowing down the speed of internet connections for late-night players, therefore, making the games less playable. 

These measures are the result of a 2005 case of a 28-year-old man who died after 50 straight hours of playing without stopping to eat or drink. There’s also a case of parents who allowed their baby to starve to death while raising a virtual child during 12-hour marathon sessions on Prius Online, which is the South Korean version of Second Life

There have been nine additional deaths attributed to online addiction. China and South Korea have opened internet boot camps complete with military-style training to get people away from these games. 

In the United Kingdom, the first technology-dependence clinic opened in London in mid-2010. Efforts are being made in the United States to add video game addiction to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM.

Why Video Games Are Harmful

Video games are potentially harmful for two reasons. First, they lead to high-intensity immersion, in which you become so absorbed that you isolate yourself from everybody else.

The second danger is situated immersion—the illusion of literally existing within the game. Intensity, vividness, and the quality of graphics determines tendency for immersion.

The richness and quality of one’s personal life offsets the likelihood of immersion. There’s evidence that unemployed and socially isolated people are more likely to overuse

For these people, video games function as a form of escapism. As one video gamer said, “I could either work in a fast-food chain or be a starship captain.” 

For teens, video games provide an easy route to prestige and social advancement among one’s peers. Success playing World of Warcraft brings quicker recognition than a high grade in a semester course. 

In fact, some students turn to video games as an escape from academic difficulties. However, adult video game addicts now exceed teens in some countries such as South Korea. 

Limiting Addiction Risk

There are a couple of ways you can limit the risk of immersion. First of all, play no more than two or three hours per week, and limit sessions to no more than an hour. 

“I have a way of powering down after a session by applying what I call the Henry James test … the 19th- and 20th-century author who was a bit wordy and sometimes a bit difficult to see where he was going. There wasn’t a lot of action—you can use him or other wordy authors that cause you to focus and pay attention to what’s going on,” Dr. Restak said. “There’s not a lot of emphasis on fast action.”

Dr. Restak also recommends that you avoid games which feature gratuitous violence, especially if they’re based on events like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech. Douglas Gentile, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, has found evidence from MRIs that violent video games may lead to desensitization. 

The rostral anterior cingulate cortex is important for emotional responses, and this is less active for frequent players during a violent game compared to players who don’t usually play violent video games. This research suggests that habitual players of violent video games become desensitized to violence in the games and perhaps even in real life.

A study of over 1,500 children drawn from the United States and Japan found that children who play violent games tend to be more aggressive in real life. Dr. Restak spent several months studying the profiles of and reading and watching interviews with game designers. 

“Many of them, sad to say, came across to me—as a neuropsychiatrist—as a bit antisocial, a bit addicted, and very much taken up by reveling in violence,” Dr. Restak said. 

The challenge is to reap the benefits of video games while avoiding the potential downsides. You can accomplish this by spending your time on games devoted to solving real-world problems such as Fate of the World, which is focused on global warming solutions, or Evoke, which deals with water safety and food security.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.