“Dopamine addicts”. A phrase that is usually thrown around in association with younger children who show signs of addiction to their video games. Namely, players of games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, who are often very young, tend to get their parents thinking about what the proper way to control their children’s video game usage might be.
This article is going to be coming from personal experience as someone who has dealt with video game addiction all of his life and is aimed at giving anyone who is personally dealing with or might know someone who is dealing with a video game addiction the necessary tools to attack the problem at its source in an effect way, build up a strict sense of commitment to avoiding relapsing, and play video games in a healthy manner to boot.
Let’s start with the biggest and most damaging misconception regarding video game dependencies: the cause.
If you rarely play video games, or you’re someone with a child who plays video games, you might take the narrative that’s been driven home in public discourse that the causes of video game addiction are found in the ‘dopamine boosters’ in the game; Flashy announcements of leveling up, point accumulation, and celebratory audio designed to make the player feel good. This is actually incorrect. And its so incorrect that making the assumption that these qualities in a game are the issue misses the mark by such a large distance that it makes the core issue, the addiction, worse.
The reason games have dopamine boosters is to draw people in. Its to make the game feel more rewarding and overall much more fun, generally. But the reason people stay long time players of a game isn’t because of those mechanics. The reason players become addicts isn’t because of those mechanics, either.
The reason players most often become addicted to a game is usually down to at least two of these three aspects:
- Mastery of game depth
- A sense of community
- A lack of value placed in the reality of their surroundings
In most cases, a video game addiction is caused by all three of these, but is sometimes caused by only one or two. In any case, its not that the game made a nice noise and flashed ‘level up’ on the screen, like uneducated or misinformed pundits would have you believe.
I’ll start by saying this, for adults who are dealing with video game addiction (and have been for a long time), it isn’t your fault that you are caught in this situation. But it is your fault if you stay there. You have the personal responsibility to get yourself to a better place by shutting games out of your life cold-turkey developing a better life around the time you save by quitting. Here’s a community that will help you out: https://www.reddit.com/r/StopGaming/
The rest of this article will be aimed at the parents of children or children themselves who feel like they might be in the early stages of developing an addiction, as I feel that’s the most crucial population to aid in this issue.
Lets talk about the big 3 causes and what each of them mean, and then go over why ignoring these three issues as the main causes of addiction harms the addict more than it helps.
Master of Game Depth.
With a game like Fortnite, there’s a deep layer of mechanics and game knowledge to master. Acquiring better reflexes for duels while practicing building mechanics and slowly piecing together map knowledge is a process that never ends. Given the competitive nature of the game, a player is always going to have another aspect of it to practice, as there will always be the threat of someone else being / becoming better than him or her.
A lot of parents who grew up in a different era don’t, and probably can’t understand this, but the games that most children are playing these days are genuinely complicated pieces of art. Pieces of art that require time and dedication to become proficient in and an infinite amount of time and dedication to afterwards become a master in. And the reward isn’t point accumulation or flashy titles, the reward is a competitive edge where the fun is the competition.
The issue here isn’t that dedication towards a game or the desire for competition is a bad thing, the issue is that the player is getting diminished returns in terms of time spent vs. how much they improve. The best way to visualize this is to imagine someone who’s never been to a gym before suddenly busting ass and hitting the weights effectively every other day. The amount of noobie gains are going to be massive. But that rate of muscle expansion is going to decay to a point where they have to put in twice the work just to get a quarter of the gains.
This principle applies to a player mastering a game as well. A child who plays a game for one week at a rate of 1 hour a day will see an incredible jump in skill and overall game knowledge, but after a month of this will need to play 3 hours a day to see the same jump. And after that, it becomes a full time job. Again, is it a bad thing that the player wants competition? No.
Is it bad that the player wants to improve and is dedicating time towards attaining that goal? No.
The root problem is in the player’s inability to get this kind of competitive drive anywhere else. If you’re a parent of a child who might be developing a video game addiction, ask yourself these questions.
Is my child playing a sport that he or she enjoys?
Is my child learning to play an instrument?
Is my child healthy, both physically and mentally, healthy?
Are there consistent structures around my child’s life that help him or her stay consistent with their commitments to these practices?
I’d be surprised if more than 10% of parents could accurately answer all four of these questions with a yes. Note, I didn’t say honestly there. Most parents think they can answer yes to at least two or three of these questions, but the reality of a child’s addiction to video games likely points to a void in their life in three of these questions, at least.
There’s simply not replacement for competition, however amateur and however aggressive or not aggressive (Football vs. Chess, say), in a child’s life.
There’s simply not a replacement for participating, however poorly, in the creation of music in a child’s life.
There’s simply not a replacement for mental and physical health in a child’s life.
There’s simply not a replacement for a solid and consistent structure for all of these facets to organize themselves in a child’s life.
If you’re a parent, go back and read all of that again.
If you’re missing all of these, the best way to introduce them is to look for ways your child might enjoy one of these things and then to put into a weekly schedule that they have to stick to. Add more onto your child’s plate as they become accustomed to dealing with the previous addition to their schedule. As I said, if it seems like your child wouldn’t enjoy what you’re proposing, decipher why. If its because they genuinely don’t like that instrument or sport or workout routine, then don’t force it on them. But if its because they’d rather be playing video games, you might have to enroll them in whatever it is your proposing for their sake, even though it’ll piss em off.
Remember, they’re children, they don’t have a good ability to set a disciplined structure for themselves, you do. So use your abilities to set them on a better path, even if its uncomfortable for them.
A Sense of Community
The second big one. MMO’s, FPS’s, RPG’s, offline and online, it doesn’t matter. With the advent of the internet, every game has a community attached to it, and every child who wants to be surrounded by like-minded (hell, even completely different-minded) individuals will be able to do so by playing a game they find a community in.
Fortnite is still a great example, but any game of reasonable popularity can be used as a scapegoat here. COD, WOW, OSRS, RS3, The Soulsborne Series, literally any game that has a community behind it can provide a source of friendship for children and adults alike. And there’s objectively nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with a child recognizing these games as their best source of friendship and community.
Note the word recognizing. Children don’t lie to themselves about what makes them feel good. If they have good friendships that make them better people outside of video games, they’ll be honest about that. If they don’t, well, they’ll be honest about that too. This means that if a child only seems to have friends in video games, they probably do. And vice versa.
We’ve already been over the misconceptions, so I won’t bore you with that. Here’s the questions you should be asking.
Do I let my child hang out with his or her friends unsupervised?
Do I let my child go to their friend’s house on a whim? How about vice versa?
Have I put my child in situations where he/she can meet other children in a social environment that isn’t school? (Sports, parks, town festivals, etc.)
Does my child know that I can be his or her friend if they want?
I imagine people would be a little more aware of the answers to these questions than the previous ones. They’re mostly binary.
If you feel that you’re child is using video games as a method of socializing and isn’t using anything else to do so make sure that you do recognize that you need to put them into situations where they can look for a community of their own age elsewhere where they can be themselves without being hovered over and watch constantly.
A Lack of Value placed in the Reality of Their Surroundings
Let’s get one thing clear: children are very rarely going to be appreciative of what’s put in front of them. They might like it, they may hate it, but actively being appreciative of it is going to be a rare feeling a child exhibits. Honestly, its a rare feeling people exhibit in general.
This point isn’t about how much or how little the addict in question appreciates, but how important the environment around him or her seems. Here’s the questions;
Does my child think highly of me?
Does my child have a genuine sense of respect for me?
Have I earned a genuine sense of respect from my child?
Have I led my child by example?
Is the example I’m leading by a good one?
Does my child think highly of anyone at all in his or her life?
Is the environment I create around my child conducive to a consistent and steady life, with a solid foundation?
It’s likely some of these will be ‘yes’s’ at different times, and the ones that aren’t now will be later. That’s just life. But all the same, you have try your best to make these things a reality, otherwise a child will very much prefer the fake world of competition and community over the real one without those things.
And the reason I ask so many questions about how your child views you is because the way your child views you will directly effect how they view the environment you create for them. If you don’t earn their respect or trust, they won’t respect or trust their environment, and vice versa.
In short, keep your child competitive, keep them active with hobbies and music, and keep them structured around those things on a steady and consistent basis. Make sure to not act in anyway you wouldn’t want you child acting, and make sure you’re not treating them dishonorably, lest you lose their trust.
If you’re an adult who is struggling with video game addiction, its no one else’s responsibility to get you out of that cycle. It’s no one else’s fault anymore, it’s just you.
If you’re a parent who may or may not have a child developing a video game addiction, it isn’t the developer’s fault, it isn’t American culture’s fault, and it isn’t your child’s fault. It’s just you.