What are they and why do they effect teens?
Most teenagers can and do play video games without developing an addiction. However, for some teens there is no question that their computer use is unhealthy and excessive by anyone’s standards. For them video games take priority over all other activities, and development in other areas (school, relationships, clubs, sports) are sacrificed just so that more time can be spent in front of the computer or tv screen. It really does not matter if this is called an “addiction” or not. Teens who continue to play excessively despite experiencing significant negative consequences in other areas of their lives are likely “hooked” on video games.
Many people have been arguing that teens don’t play video games excessively because video games themselves are unnaturally addictive; Rather that teens probably self-medicate with video games to excess because they have serious emotional problems. Blaming video game addiction on video games themselves, they say, is dangerous – because the real issues and the real problems are allowed to pass through and fester into more dangerous developmental/ emotional problems.
However, more recently, parents and researchers are speaking up: There are numerous studies showing that, for some teens, games have the same effect on their brain as habit-forming drugs; that playing video games floods the player’s brain with dopamine, a mood-regulating hormone that induces pleasurable feelings. Scientists liken this hit of dopamine to that observed following intravenous injections of amphetamine or methylphenidate, a drug used to treat ADHD.
What makes some games SO addictive?
There are several different “hooks” programmed into games that keep players riveted to the virtual action. Not all of them exist in every single game, but the more that are present, the greater the chance of teenaged video game players becoming hooked.
- Beating the Game. For this hook, the desire to beat the game increases as a player “levels up,” or finds the next hidden clue. To conquer a game, one must spend untold hours navigating increasingly difficult levels. Video games are designed to feed a never-ending and growing appetite for more and more and more… requiring searching every nook and cranny of screen space for hidden bonuses, leading to the second addictive quality etc …
- Exploration. Some games are entirely about traversing and studying imaginary worlds. That’s a powerful draw made stronger by the inclusion of secret levels, which have been built into video games since the earliest edition of “Super Mario Bros.”
- Mastery. Video game programmers build feedback into the game (i.e. hand controllers vibrate when your player is “shot”) so that players get visual and physical responses to what they’re doing onscreen. Psychologically, this fuels the learning process, making the player even more eager to ‘master’ elements of the game.
- The High Score. This is probably the most easily recognizable hook. Of course, beating the high score has been an incentive since the earliest pinball machines and video games I played at the candy store in the 80’s. But video games now are different in that the higher you go, the more difficult the game becomes. Players spend countless hours trying to get a new high score, even if the one they’re besting is their own.
- Story-Driven & Role-Playing. Everyone wants to know how the story ends, whether it’s a children’s fairy tale or a plot-driven video game. Some games let teens control an onscreen figure, but role-playing games go much deeper by allowing the player to create and become the character in a story. An emotional attachment to the character and the story makes it much harder to stop playing, that is why more and more games are constructed around a foundational story.
- Discovery. These games hook teens because they involve exploring imaginary worlds. This adventure/thrill of discovery (even of places that don’t really exist) can be extremely compelling.
- Competition. Boys and girls love the thrill of competition. With multiplayer options, teens can take on both the game and other gamers for “bragging rights”. It seems some committed fans go so far as to schedule activities and sleep patterns to accommodate a network of online partners or opponents.
- Relationships. Online role-playing games allow teens to build relationships with other players. This online community of peers becomes the place where players are most accepted, which draws them back. The fantasy of role-playing games let teens create personas that are much different from who they are in real life. For example, an overweight, athletically challenged boy can become a muscle-bound superhero in an online world, thus making friends with people who would not normally associate with him. Pressure to keep up with online peers also produces powerful incentives to keep improving.
Popular video games that teens are HOOKING into:
Then there are the MMORPG’s (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games) such as World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Everquest. These are popular because they feature persistent game environments, forms of progression, social interactions within the game, membership in a group, and character customization.
Getting unhooked- go cold turkey?
The psychologically addictive elements of video gaming become even more troublesome when you consider that they affect young people precisely at the time when their developing brains are being hardwired for life. Video games present a source of stimulation: because games provide intense visual & auditory action, they can be very compelling for thrill or excitement seekers (especially those with AD/HD). They also provide negative reinforcement: when game playing provides rapid relief of emotional teen pain or angst, it can become habit-forming.
During teenage years, children are acquiring tastes for what they’ll enjoy in life. So there’s a dampening of the ability to enjoy music, to enjoy art, to enjoy reading, to enjoy all these other things when their video games take precedence over everything.
In moderation, it has been shown that some video games can provide a fun diversion for teens wired to handle them well, particularly if families use multiplayer games to bond with adolescents. It is Important to stress that not every teen who plays video games will have a hard time putting them down, but studies show that as many as one in three gamers will eventually get hooked! Perhaps in those homes, “game over” may be the wisest strategy.